The basic point that Byrne makes has certainly been repeated endlessly - the Internet has radically transformed the business of news and the companies which have understood how to make a living collecting and distributing news in the last century are failing to find a new model as the fundamentals of this business change. Byrne also mentions (though without commentary) the fact that the people running these news businesses have been making changes which make them even less relevant. I thought this observation was particularly well stated:
Likewise, these newspapers have dumped most of their foreign bureaus, food critics, and film critics, and are loathe to assign reporters to stories that will take months to research and write. In doing so, they are eviscerating that which makes newspapers different from online reviews, blogs and websites.But Byrne goes on to complain that there is an enormous threat to our democracy because of the decline of these traditional news businesses and I think this is a mistake.
It is undoubtedly true that we are in the midst of an enormous tumultuous period of change for the news business. It is also true that from the perspective of the traditional news business, their model is being eviscerated. But this does not mean that there are no possible models for a news business. In fact, I believe that the future of news is very bright and that as a society we will (and in some cases already are) enjoy more news content not less in the future.
First of all, Byrne ignores the fact that bloggers and "citizen journalists" are already making an enormous impact in challenging entrenched media interests and bringing more facts and more "sunlight" into our political processes. The political campaigns of the past year showed how effectively the non-mainstream media could play a role in debunking lies, providing information which would otherwise not have made it into the limited space of broadcast media, and giving people with specific local information a way to get that information to a national (and international) audience.
The wonderful NPR program "On The Media" recently had a segment on the Japanese Kisha Press Clubs which make transparent a fact which is as surely true with our mainstream media -- that journalists will sometimes become too friendly with the people that they are covering in order to obtain access and that this closeness will then taint the coverage of these people. The Kisha Clubs institutionalized this closeness even going so far as to manage a list of issues which all participating journalists (which is to say, those that got access to representatives of the government) would agree NOT to cover. And this is only coming to light now because of bloggers.
Journalism will change, the business of news will change, but rather than looking at the failure of the traditional news media as being a threat to democracy, as Byrne does, I prefer to look at the strength of our democracy as being the force which will lead to a new journalism and a new business of news. This was certainly the case for the newspaper industry we have today. Newspapers were started by people passionate about the mission of the fourth estate and only later were taken over by accountants.
Al Gore, in his closing keynote speech at this year's Web 2.0 Summit conference, provides an interesting perspective on the broadcast media industry. In brief he observes that the printing press started a process in which knowledge was democratized but that television (and in general the concentration of media ownership) was a "re-feudalizing" force in our society for the past 50 years. Concentrating ownership and control of the media into a small number of corporate interests reduced the number of voices participating in the conversations of our society. While one could certainly point to the tendency of some news vehicles (like Fox) to use this power to promote a particular ideological position, the more frequent result was blandness.
Social creation of the news is removing the blandness and is a force FOR democracy. The future of in-depth reporting, investigative journalism, and foreign news desks, which Byrne worries we will lose, will emerge from this creative power of social production. We are still in the infancy of this new medium and we have a lot to learn still about what forms this NEW fourth estate will take. But I already believe that we are witnessing an explosion of news, not an elimination.