Tuesday, 5 January 2010

history of world journalism in crisis from 1886 Paris

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On 19th January 1886, Charles Ange Laisant, publisher of Le Petit Parisien wrote a letter to a colleague, complaining about news media.

“Journalism is terribly crowded,” he wrote, to Fernand Pelloutier.

“The struggle for life is terrible, especially in Paris. I know many men of talent who do not even have enough to live. On the other hand, I do admit that there are some lucky idiots.”

Journalists are feeling less and less lucky, more idiotic, as journalism continues a slow motion train wreck through debris from the world economic crisis.

Most failed to report causes for the crisis until it was too late.
Strangely, there are some within the media who nay-say any crisis in journalism, commentators like Jeff Jarvis a notable example.

"The fall of journalism is, indeed, journalists' fault. It is our fault that we did not see the change coming soon enough and ready our craft for the transition. It is our fault that we did not see and exploit—hell, we resisted—all the opportunities new media and new relationships with the public presented. It is our fault that we did not give adequate stewardship to journalism and left the business to the business people. It is our fault that we lost readers and squandered trust. It is our fault that we sat back and expected to be supported in the manner to which we had become accustomed by some unknown princely patron. Responsibility and blame are indeed ours."

Jarvis missed the operative part of the phrase "world economic crisis" - the word spelt "world" - and somehow seems to believe that, alone in the world, journalists have managed to escape the crisis that affected billions of others - only to stuff it all up themselves.

A short history of journalism in crisis shows the warning signs were there early, starting with science journalists lamenting a lack of talent.

Like Laisant’s letter - one of the first recorded instance of using the word journalism - the Jarvis comments show how tough journalism can be.

Warnings of journalism in crisis have been around, almost as long as the term has been used. Termed the “first journalist” in English speaking parts of the world, Daniel Dafoe wrote Robinson Crusoe and followed that up by starting the one of the world’s first periodicals. It was quickly shut down by an annoyed English king.

However, no time in history has seen a journalism crisis like this one. Job losses in the last two to three years have been extraordinary. Tens of thousands of news media workers have been cast adrift from the journalism family, a few 'lucky' ones getting a job in “communications” and other public relations positions. Just over 30,000 job losses from newspapers are in the US alone, with 312 recorded for 2010 already.

Few figures are kept outside the US.

International Federation of Journalists, for example, refers to 600,000 members, but that figure has remained static for some years. International Labour Organisation offers all kinds of statistics, but nothing that assesses size of journalistic ranks.

Also extraordinary: the depth of media silence greeting debate around journalism in crisis. Prompted by academic events to debate the issue, news media have stayed away in droves.

Or, remarkably for one paper, The Guardian, a column declaring not enough being done about journalism in crisis, while another said it was a lot of fuss about nothing - both columns written by the same man.

Laisant - original French below - would recognise the symptoms of journalism in crisis, if not it's global scale.

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"Mais le journalisme est terriblement encombré. La lutte pour la vie y est terrible, surtout à Paris; je connais des hommes de beaucoup de talent qui n'y trouve même pas de quoi vivre. Par contre, j'avoue que des crétins y font fortune."

Lettre Charles-Ange Laisant à Fernand Pelloutier du 19 janvier 1886; cité par Maurice Foulon dans « Fernand Pelloutier, Le livre du centenaire » -1967

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