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Technological Determinism and the Future of News

The next speaker at ECREA 2010 is Tamara Witschge, who examines the debates around the future of news. New media technologies are coupled with an idea of progress, and are sometimes mythologised as the answer to dwindling audience figures for journalism; this needs to be critically examined. There is very little space for working journalists to challenge how technology is implemented, which is driven often by technological determinism.

Technological determinism is rife in journalists’ understanding of current changes, in fact; technology is seen as the only way out of the current crisis in journalism. First, there is the perception of an imminent threat; second, audiences are going online, and journalists perceive a need to chase them; embracing new technologies is seen as the only way to do so. So, technology has been coupled directly with progress, and this is seen as the only salvation for the industry.

At the same time, there is a romantic harkening back to the good old days when audiences were easily reached by newspaper sellers; this sense of loss amplifies the sense of urgency in connecting with new audiences. The rationale for connecting with new, young audiences is put outside the newsroom; partly, the need is simply also to keep advertisers happy and thus ensure a continuing revenue stream for journalism.

The problem, however, is that younger audiences still use TV, and online audiences don’t generate substantial advertising revenues at this point. Even larger news sites are unable to sustain advertising revenues that are similar to when had been possible offline; the high cost of producing quality content cannot yet be sustained. Such challenges are presented as opportunities, however, as well as inevitable in the switchover to online; anyone challenging the push to online is positioned as a luddite. There is very little tolerance for a slower pace of change – doubters are simply regarded as people who have yet to see the light. New media technologies are also coupled to efficiency; they are seen as enabling news organisations to do more for less.

Technology is not a force in itself, of course. When speaking about journalistic futures, the coupling of dwindling audience figures with the progressive technology rhetoric masks the economic aspects of the shift online; there needs to be a more critical rethinking of where the future of journalism lies, and what role technology might play in it.