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Interview with Terhi Rantanen
"Everyone wants news but no one wants to pay for it"
February 2012 / By Jordi Rovira
In mid-December, Terhi Rantanen took part as visiting lecturer in two IN3 seminars, where she spoke of communicative modernity and global risks on the one hand, and on globalisation and the media on the other. In this interview, Rantanen seeks to look back to understand that what is often presented as new is simply a reinvention of the past and she admits that certain journalism companies, such as newspapers and news agencies, are coming to the end of an era.

Lately, the media find themselves in the midst of constant revolution, to the point where there are such recent changes that there is no academic literature. How are you experiencing these years?

A large part of my research is into traditional media but as most of my colleagues are experts in new media, I'm benefiting from their work and from the debates that are increasingly arising with regard to this subject. The thing is the pace of news is so quick that even journalists are finding it hard to keep up with it. We academics have a slower pace and we're used to following in the trail of journalists, but just like them, we're feeling this pressure of immediacy when, in reality, good journalism and good university work require time. An article for an academic publication may need two years to complete. Ours, then, is a very slow process.

But when we speak of the media, the changes are happening so fast that what we've been analysing in these two years could have changed completely!

Yes, that's right. In any event, when we think of new media, we usually see them as a new phenomenon. Yet when we look at the history of the media, we see that the same problems arise when a new medium emerges. There was great excitement about the telegraph, it was said that the world would change. The same thing happened with the telephone and the cinema. People spoke of how social relations would change, of how television would affect children, the same as is happening now with the internet. And although it might look like self-promotion, this is the idea I put forward in my latest book When News was New.

In the book, you speak of how the concept of news has been reinvented. Is the internet the latest reinvention or have there been other times lately where this has also happened?

What I try to say in the book is that I feel that we should never think that something is completely new without looking at what came before. Even when we study the new media, we should also look to the past because it's the only way to really understand if it's new or not. People say that something is new because it seems to be and it sounds like it is because it's fashionable. When that happens, we have to go further and contextualise it and try to see what really is new, whether it's the technology itself or what that technology allows. Because technology always innovates, but when something new comes along, we have to ask ourselves the same questions as always.

But the number of people that the appearance of a medium such as the internet affects is huge. Is this the main difference with previous technological revolutions?

I agree with your view, even though there are many people who are not connected to the internet. 2011 was very interesting for the social and political movements that occurred in the Arab world, where something different is happening in the world. We're right in the midst of this phenomenon, seeing the effects of the social networks, and there are very few academics who can now offer an immediate analysis of everything that's happening.

Let's talk about your book. How has the very meaning of news changed?

I wanted to know what it was that made news be seen as news, so I began to look at news throughout history. In the nineteenth century, people swapped stories that were news, but things changed with the arrival of the telegraph and the speed that this meant. Then, the first news agencies were set up, which sold news as the new product it was. Therefore, they had to get exclusives, newsworthy events. So, thanks to the telegraph and this new format that needs a structure, people began to recognise news as such. Newspapers were sold because people wanted to know what the latest news was. So, suddenly, the urgency arose of having this latest news and, as new media such as television appeared, the ratio of this news was ever closer, until now with the internet...

... it's 24 hours a day.

It's constant, permanent. But then how can the news be new? If news is constant, available in a question of nano-seconds, who gives the latest news? How do we define what news is without this concept of temporality? And, in addition, now everyone is a news provider. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, journalists could say 'I smell news, I know how to do it' and journalism became a profession. But now with the internet, if someone likes something, they post it and send it to others.

Most of them send news produced by the media.

Yes, and that's why the media can't close in on themselves. In the United Kingdom and Finland, the media have asked their readers to send them their latest news, which means that they recognise that they're no longer the only ones to have this knowledge. And to come back to your question, there's the subject of news and information. In the past, journalists could define what news was. Now, on the internet, there's news and information, and one is very different from the other. What I say in the book is that news hasn't died but the concept of what it was has died, because it's now become very difficult to define what is news and what isn't.

Rupert Murdoch said: "The world is changing very fast. Big will not beat small any more. It will be the fast beating the slow." Have the media, in being obsessed with being the first, forgotten to try to be the best?

This is a very important aspect, because in this fight for immediacy, no one has the time to think about what is being said. A year ago I was on a Reuters Thomson project and I was surprised by the managers of this news agency telling us that they didn't want to be objective, that that was no longer important. Precisely because news is everywhere, what they want now is to explain what it means.

But the agencies provided objective information. Now they want to do the opposite?

Exactly! The traditional media are changing and they need to reinvent themselves. Newspapers are in the midst of a fight. On London stations, they give you the newspaper for free and a lot of people don't even take one, whereas in the past there were children selling them to you. I've spoken to lots of journalists and editors and they have serious doubts about the future of printed newspapers. The news has always needed a paper support to be printed on, whereas now, news and paper lead separate lives.

Paradoxically, information calls for more information than ever, many people post news that comes mostly from newspapers. By contrast, the newspapers are in the midst of a huge crisis.

Because what we're speaking of is the viability of a business model. Everyone wants news but no one wants to pay for it. It's the culture of everything for free, especially among young people. They ask you why they should pay when they can find it for free on the internet. And in all this, there are different aspects to consider, such as the credibility of some news. Traditionally, people trusted the media. That was their trademark. But if these media disappear, who will have this authority? Who will provide people with news? Besides this, it's also occurring that if someone's got money, they can subscribe to news services that provide analysis and much more information.

But then we go back to information for the privileged who can afford to pay for it.

Yes, and the rest will find it for free on the internet.

Two years ago Time magazine reopened the debate as to whether users should pay for online versions of newspapers. Some media believe that there's no alternative if they want to be profitable, while others feel it's too late to make users pay.

Some newspapers are charging because they were losing a lot of money by offering it free. I see a model where the internet will provide the latest news as it's the fastest media of all. In this context, printed newspapers may have a future if they specialise in the interpretation of news or in a specialist subject, such as the Financial Times, for example. And it's interesting to see how history repeats itself in the sense that before newspapers, we had the Journals, which were interpretative publications.

In any event, predictions about the future of newspapers are not usually optimistic.

As an academic and media expert, I think that the possible disappearance of newspapers will be a very unfortunate event. The only way to survive is to try to think of new formulae that we still don't know of today. Many people around the world are looking for solutions but it's still too soon. I only know that the traditional media are heading towards the end of an era.

 

Profile

  • Terhi Rantanen is Professor of Global Media and Communication at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), where she runs a pioneering eponymous programme and which includes the participation, besides the LSE, of the University of South Carolina (Los Angeles) and Fudan University (Shanghai).

  • Her field of research includes global media, global news, media in the Communist and post-Communist era, the history of the media and the history of media studies. Before coming to work for the LSE in 2000, she was a lecturer in the Communication Department of the University of Helsinki.

  • She is the author of numerous studies, including The Globalization of News (jointly with O. Boyd-Barrett, Sage, 1998), The Global and the National Media and Communications in Post-Communist Russia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and The Media and Globalization (Sage, 2005).

  • In her latest book When News was New (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), she speaks of how the concept of news has been reinvented at different times in history.

  • She is a regular contributor to the press, radio and television. She is also editor and founder of Global Media and Communication, a publication specialising in everything to do with the media.

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