Review of ‘New Media, Old News: Journalism & Democracy in the Digital Age’ edited by Natalie Fenton

New Media, Old News: Journalism & Democracy in the Digital Age is the culmination of a multi-year team research project conducted under the auspices of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre. Editor Natalie Fenton and eight other Goldsmiths researchers deployed ethnography, interviews, and qualitative content analysis to study the effect of new media upon news and current affairs journalism ‘that purports to be for the public good and in the public interest, even if this is experienced as no more than an ideal ethical horizon both by those who produce it and those who consume it’ (3). Twelve tightly interlocking chapters revolve around the following question posed in the specific context of the UK journalistic field: Is optimism about the democratizing potential of new media warranted?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is, with hardly any exception, a resounding negative. Although there are occasional attempts to moderate the book’s pessimistic tone, it is hard not to conclude from the team’s research that the case for democratization through new media is grossly overstated and that traditional structures of power will not be overturned. New media, they find, has both enabled and accelerated shifts in journalistic practice that results in, among other things: the homogenization of news content across competing outlets and multiple platforms; improper, sometimes outright unethical, sourcing of articles; a deterioration of working conditions for journalists; increasing reliance upon a few, trusted mainstream sources at the expense of marginalized voices; and forces on the periphery of the journalistic field such as NGOs acting only to reinforce existing practices instead of reforming them.

Chapters can be roughly divided into those focusing upon mainstream, corporate journalism and those focusing upon alternative news media outlets. All of the contributions to this book are superb, and because the high quality is so consistent none are especially standout. Of particular interest to students and sociologists new to the study of journalism, however, is James Curran’s ‘Technology Foretold’, an analysis of the unrealized hype that seems to accompany every new media form, from cable television to the dotcom bubble, and a chapter co-authored by Angela Philips, Nick Couldry, and Des Freedman on the characteristics and pre-conditions of ethical journalism. On the other hand, those seeking the cutting age will undoubtedly appreciate original case studies of the openDemocracy website by James Curran and Tamara Witschge and the press release culture of NGOs by Natalie Fenton.

In sum, New Media, Old News is a sobering and thoroughly-convincing antidote to any lingering utopian notions of Internet-centred ‘techno-optimism’ (188). But if we cannot rely upon new media to cure journalism’s ills, what can be done? Fortunately, Rodney Benson’s concluding chapter offers the following three-part prescription: ‘first, to maintain and even strengthen the autonomy of core mainstream media, whether public or private; second, to maintain and expand diversity at the margins (using the state to promote speech that is under-produced by the market, when necessary); and most of all, third, to figure out ways to connect the two’ (199). It’s a tall order to be certain, but reformers and researchers alike have Fenton’s book to thank for advancing the conversation in such fruitful directions.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge.

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