Out of Print by George Brock: An unfinished and chaotic story

Brock convincingly disabuses readers of the notion of a “golden age” of journalism in the postwar period. But he often doesn't go far enough.

It is difficult to imagine a more tumultuous summer for journalism than the one that has just passed. It started in June with a British institution, the Guardian, striking at the heart of the US political system and its unhealthy relationship with mass surveillance. Led by its ferociously persistent blogger Glenn Greenwald, the paper’s US operation unearthed arguably the most significant story since Watergate: a story leaked to Greenwald by the whistleblower Edward Snowden.
 
Simultaneously, the great Washington Post, which broke Watergate and removed a president 40 years ago, was being sold in a distressed state by its owner, Don Graham. Conceding that it no longer had the means to invest what was needed to revive the Post, the company passed the title for a mere $250m to Jeff Bezos, the man who made a fortune from the online retailer Amazon – part of the vanguard of digital disruptors that have heaped financial pressure and technological challenge on the conventional media.
 
Neither of these significant events happened in time for the publication of Out of Print, though it is exactly this paradox of vibrant journalism and dying newspapers that George Brock sets out to describe. Brock, who spent 28 years at the Times and is now the head of journalism at City University London, argues that the experimentation and inventiveness of the new news media are cause for greater optimism than the red ink on the balance sheets of media companies.
 
Seeking to reassure the doom-mongers, he delves back into the history of journalism and demonstrates the shaky beginnings and rapid innovation that powered news journalism for three centuries before the maturation and slow decline of the business in the 20th century. His précis of the history is fascinating and elegantly done. Brock describes the flourishing and then censoring of the new presses under Cromwell, and traces their development through to the explosion in regional and London newspapers two centuries later. Between 1837 and 1887, Britain went from having 264 regional papers to 1,366 and papers in London grew by a factor of 12 – a growth rate to shame Silicon Valley.
 
Brock convincingly disabuses readers of the notion of a “golden age” of journalism in the postwar period. “The second half of the 20th century, a period seen by many journalists as an era of heroic achievement and stability by journalists, was also a long decline for newspapers,” he writes.
 
The problem is that this is an unfinished and chaotic story, which makes the gear change from a clear historical trajectory to the messy present rather heavy. For those who are never happier than when confronted with graphs of declining sales per thousand of population, the detail in Out of Print will be welcome. For those who like to imagine that journalism will always exist on a big scale in robust and large institutions, it makes for more troubling reading.
 
Brock seeks to lead us from the darkness of this downward growth chart into the light of case studies and new models that point the path to potential sustainability. Perhaps the local news collaborations in New Jersey, maybe the hyper-social approach of BuzzFeed, or maybe just a man with a very big chequebook and lots of patience, such as Jeff Bezos, will bring forth answers and money.
 
The book loses some of its coherence once Brock starts to explore the digital realm, simply because there is too much to know or digest. Unlike with his confidently set-out timeline of print journalism, we cannot know how this story will end. All witnesses at this point are unreliable. His remark that journalism will be remade by “existing organisations that adapt and new entrants who can supply a demand better than legacy news media” is relatively uncontroversial, but it does not go far enough in pushing at just how far this institutionally based idea of journalism has come under pressure to the power of the individual.
 
The path for modern journalism today follows the lines of the splenetic start-ups of the 17th century as much as it does those of grand institutions in the past century. 
 
Emily Bell is director of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
A printing press in Yangon. Image: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.