The changing role of journalism and the media

‘But what’s happening today – the mass ability to communicate with each other, without having to go through a traditional intermediary – is truly transformative.’
(Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian newspaper, ‘The splintering of the fourth estate’, .. via How is the diminution of traditional, and often hierarchical, “authoritative” intermediaries changing the role of publishing in social life? You should choose one broad area of publishing, such as, for example, journalism or music publishing.


In today’s contemporary society, it is clear that the rapid change and evolution of the media environment is having a profound effect on many aspects of social, cultural and economic life. This is highly evident in the field of journalism, where the diminution of traditional and established media intermediaries is changing both the nature of journalism and the wider role and impacts of publishing for our society. The breakdown of transmission style communication, the increased ease of publishing as well as the evolving sphere of communication can all be seen to have a significant effect on publishing and its impacts on social life.


In his speech, ‘The splintering of the fourth estate,’ Alan Rusbridger illustrates that the media industry as a collective is going through a rapid period of change.

“…change is happening much faster – so fast that we are, as an industry, collectively suffering from what deep-sea divers refer to as the bends. We are traveling through a period of extreme change faster than our corporate bodies can cope with. It’s painful – and, if not treated quickly and correctly, can be fatal.”

It is this ‘bends’ that Rusbridger identifies which has significant consequences for established, traditional and authoritative media intermediaries.


The field of journalism has been one established on the notions of ‘the fourth estate,’ a principle where the media act as a watchdog over the actions of those in charge, the government, and ergo protect the citizenry from official wrongdoing, negligence or corruption.

It is this watchdog role that the media adopted in its infancy that lead to the establishment of today’s authoritative and hierarchical intermediaries.


This watchdog media transmitted information to the citizenry, they gave them information that they thought was of crucial importance for the maintenance of democratic cohesion. This model of transmission set the standard for the way in which the media convey their information to their consumers.

Alan Rusbridger cites Raymond Williams in his description of transmission style communication, “”Much of what we call communication is, necessarily, no more in itself, than transmission; that is to say, a one-way sending. Reception and response, which complete communication, depend on other factors …”


It is the digression away from this type of communication that has had significant impacts for journalism and its role as a ‘publisher.’

News organizations are losing their role as the exclusive provider of information to society. They do not solely ‘publish’ in the traditional sense anymore.

We can see that the breakdown of transmission style communication for news organizations has been transformative for their role as publishers, and lead them to focus on the tasks of aggregating and distributing available and relevant information to the citizenry.

They are no longer the provider of information, but collators of information who present it in a manner that is known, accessible and trusted to the public.


The ease with which information may be published has profound consequences on the media and has essentially been detrimental to both its hierarchical structure and its business model.

The ‘media’ as an entity has endured and evolved through many stages where information has suddenly been able to spread faster than was previously thought possible. A historical example of this would be Gutenberg and the introduction of printing to Europe.

The digital revolution we are currently seeing at the hands of the Internet and Web 2.0 is one of the most radical platforms that has ever been available for the public to communicate through.

The citizenry is able to publish, consume, archive, aggregate and re-distribute information in a way that has never been possible before.

The consequence of this for journalism and its role as a publisher of social information cannot be understated.

The flow of information has been transformed from one-way to circular by the advent of Web 2.0 and audience and consumers of news media are now able to actively participate in the information production and publishing cycle.

Whereas formerly the media hierarchies were at the top of a one-way flow of information, they are now forced to compete with potential consumers’ increasing ability to aggregate information for themselves.

Rusbridger acknowledges this when he says, “Instead of trying to write everything ourselves we’re increasingly a platform as well as a publisher.”


Rusbridger raises the point in his speech that, “The digital space is – without going into complex arguments about net neutrality – owned and regulated by no one.”

It is this lack of regulation in the digital environment that contributes to the increasing ease of publishing information.

The legal and regulatory framework within which media organizations must publish information can have stifling effects, especially with matters concern libel or defamation.

The Internet, however, effectively exists outside of these regulations and this has significant implications for how publishing can affect our society and democracy.

An example of this is the website Wikileaks and it’s publication of classified government information. The information that becomes available to the public via Wikileaks, such as footage of ‘Collateral Murder’ or diplomatic cables has a profound effect on the information that is available to the consumer about the actions of international government.

Through Wikileaks publishing this information, they have brought the issue of publishing into the international spotlight and associated it with charges of treason and espionage.

It becomes apparent through looking at this example that not only is this having an effect on the role of publishing, but also what can be published.


The sphere of communication with which the public is interacting is rapidly expanding at the hands of social media including Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

These have proved to change the way in which information is published, being far more instantaneous and far reaching, and have featured considerably in the change and diminution of traditional media outlets.

Rusbridger acknowledges that many journalists and media practitioners are dismissive of these social media forms and their role in journalism. However he makes the point that, “We can be sure that the motivating idea behind these forms of open media isn’t going away and that, if we are blind to their capabilities, we will be making a very serious mistake, both in terms of our journalism and the economics of our business.”

The motivating idea behind these forms of open media forms the basis of a new attitude toward communication, publishing and the flow of information.

The way in which information of received and transmitted is no longer unidirectional, with the help of these social media platforms it can now be seen as a sphere in which information is simultaneously published, distributed and aggregated.

Rusbridger highlights some of the benefits of these social media forms for publishing as changing notions of authority, community creation, being a formidable aggregation tool and a wonderful tool for distribution.

In terms of changing notions of authority, Twitter and other social utilities create a virtually unregulated realm where the opinion of the expert is not sought each person who publishes is recognized as being on an even playing field.

As Rusbridger puts this, “As this ability of people to combine around issues and to articulate them grows, so it will have increasing effect on people in authority. Companies are already learning to respect, even fear, the power of collaborative media. Increasingly, social media will challenge conventional politics and, for instance, the laws relating to expression and speech.”


The effect of these new social media platforms can be seen most prominently in the attempt of the hierarchical and established media intermediaries to incorporate them into their organizational and business models.

Alan Rusbridger explains the ways in which the Guardian, a highly revered international media source, has attempted to incorporate the open and social media platforms into their news distribution and aggregation strategy.

“Distribution, breaking news and aggregation? At the Guardian and Observer we have more than 450 people on Twitter, together with 70 different single-subject sites or section feeds. Our journalists are out there, reaching a different audience from the core Guardian readership, seeking help, ideas, feedback, joining in the common conversations.”

Journalism is one of the oldest and most established arms of publishing, and the changes that this practice is making to its structure is demonstrative of the impact that these media forms are having on publishing.


The role of journalism and media organizations has fundamentally and perhaps permanently changed.

The established, ‘authoritative’ media intermediaries are no longer solely depended on by society for the transmission of relevant communication. Platforms such as social media have proven to be effective distribution and aggregation tools that allow the news consumer to customize the published content that they interact with. The news environment is increasingly about interaction.

This has shifted the role of the news media organization from sole provider of information to joint aggregator and distributor using both its own media and the new media that it now competes with.

“We’re now competing with a medium that can do many things incomparably faster than we can,” says Rusbridger.


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