Monday, October 12, 2015

The Press as a Commercial Enterprise

The Founding Fathers regarded press as the fourth estate of society (Nicholas& McChesney, 2006). Many researchers and even the Supreme Court, in matters of Freedom of Press, has argued strongly for the “necessity of the press as the essential underpinning of our constitutional republic” (Nicholas & McChesney, 2009). However with the change of times there has been a profound change in the role and function of journalism. News, many argue, has changed from being a ‘reflection of reality’ to a commodity which is ‘manufactured’ to maximize profits and fit to the demands of the market to help gather special interests (McManus, 1999). Nicholas and McChesney further express their disappointment that despite tremendous discussions on the fall in standard of journalism, research has mostly taken place “on the symptoms rather than providing remedies.” Through this reflection note I aim to enlist both the symptoms indicated in the readings and discussing some possible solutions based on existing media structures around the world.
In a free market press system is the press truly free? If not, who influences the press? Herbert Gans has answered “news media is caught in a tug of war between powerful news sources and consumers.” Other researchers have pointed out other forms of influence such as political party, powerful sources, and influence of the environment. McManus argues strongly that the chief influencers are “the major investors and owners.” Many researchers have also blamed the new media for the steady demise of the traditional media systems. The same situation has been reflected in the PEW Reports 2015 where a steady rise in digital media can be observed along with a gradual decline in popularity of print, cable etc. Bagdikian writes that “in the reign of the new media cartel, the integrity of much of the country’s professional news has become more ambiguous than ever.”  However researchers like Pickard have been less critical of new media. According to him the internet is not “challenging legacy media , rather supplementing it by smaller niche audiences, or finding a place in the ecosystem as suppliers of niche content to bigger media outlets” (Pickard, 2014). Nevertheless he has critiqued the business models of newspapers trying to tap the digital environment. He states that each platform requires clear distinct strategies and effective revenue models (Pickard, 2009). Isaacton prescribes micropayments for online content ( Isaacton , 2009). Nicholas and McChesney emphasizes on the necessity of government intervention. According to them, the press is currently indirectly influenced by the government through subsidies, tax cuts etc.  Hence, as complete freedom from the state is not possible, only government can “through policies and subsidies” provide a stable institutional framework to journalism.
While all the researchers have been equivocal in spotting the ill effects of commercialization on journalism, the prescription for recovery has been few and diverse. To apply these solutions in a real world model we first try to find the most “free press” in the world.
Nonprofit organization, Reporters without Borders, have been ranking 180 countries according to the independence of their media systems for more than a decade. The rankings are based on the following categories Pluralism, Media independence, Environment and self censorship, Legislative framework, Transparency, Infrastructure and Abuses faced by the institutions.
According to The Press Freedom Index ( 2015), the current world leaders in press freedom are
1.      Finland 7.52
2.     Norway  7.75
3.     Denmark  8.24
4.     Nether land 9.22
While United States ranked 49 in the index, India ranked 136. Articles on the internet show people’s disappointment on the plummet of US rankings, terming it as “not living up to the First Amendment” (yahoo news, 2014). But an interesting question arises; can the media structure of Finland provide us with a clue as to attain a balanced, free media?
A case study of the Finnish media shows that the Scandinavian nation has a very high readership rate. Around 76% of people over 10 year age read the newspaper ( European Center of Journalism, 2013). Thus, can a big press market assure incentive for freedom of Press? Maybe not always, as proven by the fact that India is the country with the largest number of newspapers, yet it is ranked number 136. But the percentage of informed population and readership rate of news may influence people to demand unbiased content.
Finland also has a strong union to pitch for reporter’s rights. The ‘Union of Journalists’ has over 15,500 active members (, 2014). The Council for Mass Media, Finland helps self regulate media content, hence minimizing government influence. Thus can having a strong journalistic union encourage press freedom?
Also, according to Jyrkiainen, “the structure of Finnish newspaper industry is based on a few strong nationwide newspapers on a wide regional daily press, and on numerous local papers” (Jyrkiainen , 2009).  Thus, does a strong localized press structure make journalism free from bias?
Lastly, the “Finnish government has made transparency and information availability- essentially a good journalism- an institutional prerogative” (Merchant, 2013). The government is said to foster, promote and safeguard the press. This perhaps brings me back to Bagdikan when he says that large “communications cartels …(has been) made possible by the withdrawal of government intervention that once aspired to protect consumers and move towards the ideal diversity of content.” Thus, what should be the role of government in journalism?
Whether Finland can be considered as the perfect model of press freedom, or the above factors can influence the media environment in any other country, are questions that demand further research.  But in this age when the presence and the strength of the great watchdog of society, the fourth estate is under threat, it is essential for society to find an way to restore media to its former glory. “Going back is not an option, nor is desirable…. We have to move forward to a system that creates journalism far superior to that of the recent past.” (Nicholas and McChesney, 2009)

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