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

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.