Can democracy survive new media?

The social media revolution has changed the dynamic between politicians and the media, but the need for good journalism remains as strong as ever.

“There were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all” ­

— Thomas Carlyle, quoting Edmund Burke

This is my last Business Spectator column before moving on to other projects, so it’s not a bad time to consider how media markets and journalism have changed in the 20 years I’ve been a part of them.

Indeed, Australia is at point in its history in which the interplay between media and political economy could not be more important.

As explained yesterday, a 70-year period of good fortune is petering out and an uncertain future awaits -- a period in which Australia will either become truly competitive in global markets or see its world-beating prosperity decline.

What kind of media environment will foster the former?

To answer that question, it’s important to remember that the past two decades encompass a revolution in human communication, and that the revolution is far from over.

Way back in the summer of 1993, about the time I was tearing open a letter inviting me to join a graduate journalism school in Perth, a strange new word was appearing in the newspapers. In-ter-net.

A computer scientist drew me a schematic diagram of servers, routers and IP addresses and before long it became clear that this was going to change everything.

Within six months I was editing a magazine featuring a monthly column entitled ‘The electronic author’, and a year later, when I walked into my first large newsroom in London, everyone was speculating about what digital media would do to our craft, if not our jobs.

At that time, the technology in the UK was about a year behind what I’d see back home. Australians often forget that we are a test market for many new products, but also naturally a nation of early adopters.

From there, the industry’s feet hardly touched the ground. Change was a monthly or weekly phenomenon.

In early 1997, the company I worked for launched ‘Revolution’, a magazine covering the emerging industry of online marketing. At the same time we realised we needed to market our own product, journalism, in the same way.

It’s important to note, too, that although broadcast news has huge audiences, and radio is very good at breaking live stories, it remains the case that print and online journalism, including online video, are still central to setting the national news agenda.

Written journalism wasn’t disappearing. By the late 1990s, forward-looking newspapers were setting up online-only editing desks, and reporters and commentators were learning to alter the ‘evidentiary structure’ of what they wrote -- a hyperlink to a supporting document freed journalists to get on with better stories (at least, that’s the theory).

And then the redundancies started. Small, nimble teams of journalists began to filch the advertising revenue that had funded the lumbering print publications for decades. The big publishers bought them out, learned from them as best they could, and cut the large head-counts that once had been funded by ‘rivers of gold’.

That was the first big change in the relationship between politics and media. Large newsroom used to put individual journalists on rounds that were viable because of the large volumes of advertising available to the print-based empires.

Gradually, numerous rounds were consolidated, and individual journos began to juggle so many topics that it became easier for a good spin-doctor to get their preferred message past the gatekeeper. And there were a lot more spin-doctors employed - many of them ex-journos.

That history takes us up to roughly the mid-2000s. Both journalists and the pollies were just getting used to the shrinking newsrooms when the second wave of revolution swept the world – social media.

While online news publications had encouraged reader comments for several years -- some moderated, some not -- the emergence of MySpace in 2003 and Facebook in 2004, followed by Twitter in 2006, deprived media owners and journalists of any control over reader comments.

Moreover, social media linked commercial and political organisations with customers and voters directly, in many cases providing low-cost direct marketing that previously had only been possible by handing over wads of cash to media owners.

Learning to harness the power of new media -- or rather learning how to stay afloat in the swirling waters of information and opinion -- has not been easy.

The 2010 ‘Arab spring’, for instance, was warmly embraced by social-media evangelists, and it did seem for a time that Twitter had become the ultimate foil against tyranny.

Four years later, those assessments are much more problematic. Twitter-accelerated revolutions that previously would have spread more slowly -- as they did via underground newspapers in occupied France and fascist-controlled Italy during the Second World War.

The Twitter-paced revolution, in retrospect, came with its own dangers and it will be years before the geopolitical shock-waves of the Arab spring subside.

That is not to take issue with the need to tear down some of those regimes, so much as to note that it all happened in an explosive, uncontrollable way. The WWII French resistance, by contrast, had capitaines, commandants and lieutenant-colonels liaising with exiled générals.

Things aren’t quite that dramatic in domestic politics, but because the digital media revolution is still in flux it would be wrong to think that the abuse of power by political, commercial, or even religious groups, could not get out of hand.

When I began my career, the old structures of accountability via the ‘fourth estate’ were bedded down: pollies, company directors, church leaders and so on all knew how the system worked. Journalists were trusted ‘elite authenticators’ of information.

And now? The early stages of the social-media revolution have shown us that old-media brands are important sources of authority, but so are the autonomous bloggers, tweeters and occasional mainstream commentators who would not call themselves ‘journalists’ per se.

But the need for good journalism has not changed. In the decentred swirl of information and ideas, busy people need some fixed points to make sense of the world and, particularly, to work out which politicians or businesses are ripping them off.

This has increased the importance of the ‘personal brand’, in which a living, breathing individual stakes their reputation on the information and ideas they publish.

Those brands are diverse -- from celebrity blogger Perez Hilton and loony revolutionary Russell Brand at one end of the spectrum to commentators such as Martin Wolf, Thomas Friedman and Bill Gross at the other.

Business Spectator was launched in 2007 with very much that ethos. The names and faces we published, love or hate them, built or failed to build their personal brands based on the quality of their research, critical thinking and their ability to articulate both.

As I said at the start, the revolution is far from over. To steer Australia’s democratic institutions, the economy and our justice system through the difficult years ahead will require a new generation of fourth-estate writers supported by discerning readers.

Whether they work for newspapers or not, the role remains the same, and those who do it best will develop the strongest personal brands over time.

The price of freedom, as the old saying goes, is eternal vigilance. More than ever, that’s a job for the reader as much for the journalist. I wish my Business Spectator colleagues the very best in continuing to set the pace in the latter role, and thank the thousands of readers who’ve supported and held to account my own work in the past years.

And you can, of course, continue to follow my personal revolution via twitter: @_Rob_Burgess