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