Journalism’s ‘Fourth Estate’ Role Is Crumbling In The Internet Age

By Michael Collins | More Articles by Michael Collins

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s embrace of Jody Wilson-Raybould after she was sworn in as the country’s first Indigenous attorney general in a cabinet that was notably half female epitomised the progressive image that Trudeau’s Liberal government sought to portray on taking charge in 2015.

Four years later, Wilson-Raybould and another female minister have been expelled from the Liberal party. This flowed from Wilson-Raybould’s testimony to parliament that the prime minister’s office bullied her to ensure Quebec-based engineering company SNC-Lavalin avoided criminal charges over bribery allegations and then demoted her when she resisted. Trudeau, who denies the charges, has faced calls to resign. The catalyst for this turmoil? An exclusive in Canada’s The Globe and Mail newspaper in February.

The article is another of the countless scoops of significance produced by the four-centuries-old business model of privately owned print journalism. Under the model, proprietors funded credible reporting in hallowed newspapers that guided the news agenda and held power accountable. The civic role of quality print-dominated media was such a ‘public good’ it was deemed the ‘fourth estate’, a constitutionally unrecognised check on the three-way split of state power in liberal democracies.

Alas, the traditional newspaper model is struggling, possibly crippled. Free news over the internet, specialty news sites, websites that compete with classified ads, the public’s unwillingness to pay for online news, the digital platform’s dominance of digital advertising and the loss of control of content distribution to these platforms have battered newspaper revenue.

As financial pressure mounted, newspapers responded in perhaps the most self-destructive way possible – they prioritised cost-cutting over quality. As the content standards dropped, subscriptions fell and more advertisers fled. The result is that across the world, newspapers have closed – about 20% of US newspapers have vanished, mainly local ones, since 2003. Many of the survivors are less-frequently published ‘ghost newspapers’, their websites as vacuous. TV and radio media confront the same fate as advertisers shift to digital platforms.

The diminishing of quality journalism within newspapers appears unstoppable and nothing appears capable of assuming the fourth-estate role it played. The nature of the internet works against online news sites being such a civic role in multiple ways. One is people consume less news online than in print. Another is that the internet favours global over local or regional. A third is that web-based articles rotate too much and news over the internet is too fragmented to steer the media agenda. A fourth is online news sites favour quantity over quality. Another is that technology makes it harder to protect sources. A sixth is that misinformation gone viral has discredited all media. A seventh is that scoops of significance go viral too, so they bestow fewer financial benefits. Last, editorial and financial power rest with content distributors, not content creators. The few publications such as The New York Times that are thriving thanks to the web are too little read in any one location outside their home markets to matter much elsewhere.

The heart of the crisis for journalism is that the breakdown of local print coverage that weakens the media’s role as the fourth estate endangers liberal democracies and risks accelerating a tilt towards autocracy in many parts of the world. The best hope for journalism lies with its killers; digital platforms need content. But their global nature works against a comprehensive rescue.

Where would you like to start with valid criticisms of the media that shatter public trust? Its mistakes, sensationalism, biases, hypocrisy or lack of accountability? But at least traditional media had standards. The decline in print subscriptions started with 24-hour news TV in the 1990s; the platforms are not the only destroyers. Government subsidies, as occurs in Europe, are one way to help local media. But that tends to reduce scrutiny of government. Tech moguls acquiring newspapers are another answer but they buy global, not local, titles. It needs to be emphasised that quality journalism won’t disappear. National publications will survive in robust enough shape to scrutinise federal agencies. But who will report on local news? Fewer and fewer journalists, that’s for sure.

A world without a strong fourth estate to trouble the likes of Trudeau will be a more troubled one.

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About Michael Collins

Michael Collins is an investment specialist at Magellan. Since 2000, Michael has worked as an investment specialist/commentator for money managers, AMP Capital, IOOF/Perennial, Barclays Global Investors (now BlackRock) and Fidelity International.

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