In the introduction to a new book, What’s Next in Journalism? new-media entrepreneurs tell their stories, journalist and academic Margaret Simons predicts that the most interesting future developments in news media will involve the proliferation of smaller, specialist enterprises.

Thanks to Scribe Publications for allowing publication of this extract.

Margaret Simons writes:

MegSimonsWe are living through a very exciting but also rather frightening transformation. For the first time in human history, most people in developed countries can publish their news and thoughts to the world within a few minutes of deciding to do so.

Publication disrupts power relationships, and over time can change our idea of what it means to be human, and what it means to be part of a society. Think about those who lived in the centuries following the last big technological innovation in disseminating news and views. Martin Luther’s ideas about the relationship between God and man took hold throughout Europe largely because he was able to publish them. Christopher Columbus was thought of as the discoverer of the Americas because he published the accounts of his voyage. The Vikings had been there before, and the native Americans long before that, but they had no printing press. The Enlightenment was enabled by scientists being able to access and read each other’s work. The French Revolution was brewed around the illicit printing presses in the ghettos of Paris, and the Boston Tea Party was planned in the living room of the editor of the local newspaper. The US constitution contained a guarantee of freedom of the press, because by the time it was written it was clear that publication was a radical extension of the ability of citizens to gather and work through their common concerns.

All of the changes detailed above came about because of the Gutenberg printing press. Another side effect of that innovation was the creation, over a century or two, of the newspaper, and the profession of journalism. Eventually the newspapers started by individual entrepreneurs grew into the big industrial-sized news-media organisations of our own time, employing dozens and sometimes hundreds of professional journalists.

Now we are living through a time of equivalent change, threat, and opportunity. It is impossible to know where this will take us, or how we will conceive of ourselves in a century’s time, but one thing is certain: the news media industry, and the profession of journalism, will change fundamentally.

One effect of the ability of everyone to publish their own material is that the mainstream news media, particularly newspapers, are in decline. This is not because of any reduced appetite for the core product. Contrary to what is often stated, there is no evidence at all that people in Australia have lost their hunger for news and information. Quite the contrary. There are more readers of newspaper content — whether it is delivered online or in hard copy — than ever before. Our main commercial television channels have spawned multichannels in the last few years, and many more news bulletins through the day. All these news services draw healthy audiences, and the viewer figures tell us many people watch multiple news programs in a single day. Add to that the constant swapping of news and views on Facebook and Twitter, through text messages and blogs, and we can see that news remains at the centre of our lives. The historian Mitchell Stephens has said that news is a basic human need. Every human society ever studied has had the means to disseminate news, so we can be fairly confident that we will continue to do so, particularly because the tools are better and more efficient than any human beings have had previously.1 But what about journalism?

The mainstream media’s decline is about business models, not appetite for news. The classified advert, which once brought easy revenue to broadsheet newspaper companies, has all but disappeared, replaced by more efficient online advertising sites, many of which are free to use. At the same time, we are fragmenting as an audience. Once the family gathered around one screen to watch the 6.00 p.m. news. Now, news is all pervasive, most homes have many screens, and there are fewer times or occasions when we gather together to share the same media content. Since the business model of mainstream media has depended on ‘mass’ — on gathering audiences in a single place and selling their attention to advertisers — this is a problem for the revenue that pays journalists’ salaries in the big industrial-news complexes.