Last week I watched Blade Runner, the cult 80s sci-fi film that imagines a somewhat dystopian Los Angeles in 2019.
In keeping with films of its genre and generation it has an endearingly oh-so 20th century conception of what the 21stcentury might look like: cities in the sky, flying cars, humanoid robots – you name it.
But amidst all that futuristic splendour there are newspapers, actual ink-on-paper newspapers. Hollywood futurology circa-1981 managed to dream up every outlandish creation going, but it simply didn’t occur that news might one day arrive on something other than dead trees.
What’s unfortunate, according to George Brock, who heads City University’s journalism department, is that it didn’t occur to journalists either.
“The Internet will strut its hour upon the stage and then take its place in the ranks a lesser media”. So Brock teasingly quotes Simon Jenkins in 1997.
Jenkins, who used to edit The Times, now writes for the Guardian, a paper which has responded to plummeting print circulation by the unprecedented move of pursuing a ‘digital first’ strategy. Its problems are shared throughout the industry, forcing them to make editorial cut backs while searching for a business model that diversifies away from print revenue.
Brock neatly captures the malaise in a way that is comprehensible to the lay reader, though the narrative can be dry.
The book is at its best when it challenges the basic orthodoxy that the internet is killing journalism. The business model underpinning print media was coming apart well before new online entrants and social media emerged, Brock shows.
And in fact by opening up a treasure trove of data, information and source material, there has never been a more exciting time to be a journalist. On the consumer side new technology may actually rescue newspapers, rather than killing them off.
That said, the age of industrial-sized media outlets is an aberration in journalism’s history, reaching a climax in the inter-war period. What need is there today for a newspaper covering everything from opera to Big Brother when a customised twitter newsfeed allows to pick only the content they are interested in, from multiple sources.
Brock predicts a return to an anarchic, more pluralistic market characteristic of the 19th century world of pamphleteers and activists. Politico, Gawker and Guido Fawkes are successful examples of outlets that have, at times, bettered old media, but Brock warns that even insurgent online start-ups like BuzzFeed, which as I write lists ’22 Hilarious and Disturbing Missing Cat Posters’ on its homepage, “will gradually become tougher competition for established players”.
Out of Print is a good primer in what journalism is (he refreshingly doesn’t subscribe to the obtuse notion that tweeting is journalism) where it has come from and where it might go. Brock’s story isn’t dazzling – I wanted more anecdotes – but it’s overwhelmingly shrewd.