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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 3/25/10

The Collapse of Journalism/The Journalism of Collapse: New Storytelling and a New Story

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[A version of this essay was delivered as the Lawrence Dana Pinkham Memorial Lecture, Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, India, March 18, 2010.]

by Robert Jensen

There is considerable attention paid in the United States to the collapse of journalism -- both in terms of the demise of the business model for corporate commercial news media, and the evermore superficial, shallow, and senseless content that is inadequate for citizens concerned with self-governance. This collapse is part of larger crises in the political and economic spheres, crises rooted in the incompatibility of democracy and capitalism. New journalistic vehicles for storytelling are desperately needed.

There has been far less discussion of the need for a journalism of collapse -- the challenge to tell the story of a world facing multiple crises in the realms of social justice and sustainability. This collapse of the basic political and economic systems of the modern world, with dramatic consequences on the human and ecological fronts, demands not only new storytelling vehicles but a new story.

In this essay I want to review the failure of existing systems and suggest ideas for how to think about something radically different, through the lens of journalists' work. The phrase "how to think about" should not be interpreted to mean "provide a well-developed plan for"; I don't have magical answers to these difficult questions, and neither does anyone else. The first task is to face the fact that every problem we encounter does not necessarily have a solution that we can identify, or even imagine, in the moment; that identifying how existing systems have failed does not guarantee we have the capacity to devise new systems that will succeed.

This is a realistic attitude, not a defeatist one. The lack of a guarantee of success does not mean the inevitability of failure, and it does not absolve us of our responsibility to struggle to understand what is happening and to act as moral agents in a difficult world. In fact, I think such realism is required for serious attempts at fashioning a response to the crises. The eventual solutions, if there are to be solutions, may come in frameworks so different from our current understanding that we can't yet see even their outlines, let alone the details. This is a time when we should be focused on "questions that go beyond the available answers," to borrow a phrase from sustainable agriculture researcher Wes Jackson.

The old story

Before taking up that challenge, I want to identify the story that dominates our era, what we might call the story of perpetual progress and endless expansion. This is the larger cultural narrative in which specific stories that appear in journalistic outlets are set. Charting the whole history of this story is beyond the scope of this essay, so I will confine myself to the post-WWII era in which I have lived, when this progress/expansion story has dominated not only in the United States and other developed countries but most of the world.

This story goes like this: In the modern world, human beings have dramatically expanded our understanding of how the natural world works, allowing us not only to control and exploit the resources of the non-human world but also to find ways to distribute those resources in a more just and democratic fashion. The progress/expansion story assumes we have knowledge -- or the capacity to acquire knowledge -- that is adequate to run the world competently, and that the application of that knowledge will produce a constantly expanding bounty that, in theory, can provide for all.

The two great systems of the post-WWII era that were in direct conflict -- the capitalist West led by the United States and the communist East led by the Soviet Union -- shared an allegiance to this story, that humans had the ability to understand and control, to shape the future, to become God-like in some sense. Even in places that carved out some independence in the Cold War, such as India, the same philosophy dominated, evidenced most clearly in big dam projects and the Green Revolution's model of water-intensive, chemical farming.

The failure of the communist challenge was said to be "the end of history," a point where the only work remaining was the application of our technical knowledge to lingering problems within a system of global capitalism and liberal democracy. Even with the widening of inequality and the clear threats to the ecosystem from human intervention, the progress/expansion story continues to dominate, bolstered by a widely held technological fundamentalism (more on that later).

The bumper-sticker version of this philosophy: More and bigger is better, forever and ever.

There's one slight problem: If we continue to believe this story, and to base individual decisions and collective policies on it, we will dramatically accelerate the drawdown of the ecological capital of the planet, hastening the point at which the ecosystem will no longer be able to sustain human life as we know it at this level. In the process, we can expect not only more inequality, but in times of intense competition for resources, a dramatic increase in social conflict.

This critique cannot be dismissed as hysteric apocalypticism; it is a reasonable judgment, given all the evidence. The progress/expansion story has left us with enduring levels of human inequality that violate our moral principles and threaten to undermine any social stability, and an endangered ecosystem that threatens our very survival. Whatever systems and institutions we devise to replace those at the root of these problems, the underlying progress/expansion narrative has to change.

The collapse of journalism

In the United States, it is clear that at least in the short term, there will be fewer professional journalists working in fewer outlets with fewer resources for reporting. The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism sums it up in its 2010 State of the News Media report: "[W]e estimate that the newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity since 2000, or roughly 30 percent. That leaves an estimated $4.4 billion remaining. Even if the economy improves we predict more cuts in 2010." Newspapers are hurting the worst, but there is no good news from any news media.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
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