It's been a busy year for U.K. media. It started off with the pomp and ceremony of the Royal Wedding, moved to the embarrassing unravelling of News Corp. over a phone-hacking scandal, and ended with the devastating riots, which started in North London and then inspired copycat lawlessness in cities across the country for a few alarming days in August. When you look at it all written out like that, it's a wonder we survived at all!
From the posh gown of Duchess Catherine to the frightening violence of the riots, this year of contrasts threw a spotlight on radical changes in the ways that news is gathered and presented-changes which themselves, at times, seem to be driving the news agenda.
For the Royal Wedding back in April, the official souvenir program published in aid of Princes William and Harry's charitable foundation was available as an iBook (designed and produced by Haymarket Media Group, publishers of Brand Republic among other titles) to download free from iTunes. The Times used the occasion as a shop window for the goodies available behind its recently erected paywall, producing a lavish Royal Wedding preview as a free iPad app featuring stately classical music, a fly-through guide to the procession route, animated cartoons, and a "Create a Kate" wedding outfit maker.
So far, so sensible. Fast-forward 3 months and the flip side of the U.K.'s dysfunctional newspaper industry was under the spotlight as the publishers of The Times, News Corp.'s Rupert and James Murdoch, testified before a House of Commons Select Committee about the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.
In the short term, the scandal prompted the closure of the paper, which had been published since 1843. In the longer term, the ramifications are still to play out, with James Murdoch likely to be called back to testify before Parliament and speculation about whether other, non-News Corp. tabloids may also have been guilty of malpractice.
Meanwhile, at the "quality press" end of the market, alongside the paywall-packing Times, publishers are experimenting with formats and business plans in an attempt to bolster their balance sheets in the face of falling circulation and advertising revenue. The Guardian launched a new homepage specifically for the U.S. market in September, 2 months after it announced that it would no longer be producing a printed international edition.
In June, The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, announced a program of major transformations, in response to "inexorable trends" in media consumption, that would see the publisher move from "a print-based organisation to one that is digital-first in philosophy and practice." Part of this strategy is to continue to pioneer what Rusbridger calls "open journalism-editorial content which is collaborative, linked into and networked with the rest of the web."
Whether the open or closed model--The Guardian or The Times--will win out in the end remains to be seen. However, a different take on openness and the new digital landscape was thrown up by the inner city riots, which, it has been claimed, were fomented and organized using messaging and social media services-with BlackBerry Messenger (the choice of many young people because of its free instant messaging facility), Facebook, and Twitter coming in for particular opprobrium. "We are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality," Prime Minster David Cameron told an emergency sitting of Parliament.
This rhetoric has simmered down, in part because the clean-up armies of broom-wielding citizens who massed in the streets in the days after the riots were also recruited and organized using social media networks. And it is hard to see how politicians, who have avidly supported the regime changes of the Arab Spring that were themselves enabled by social networks, can seriously consider shutting down social media sites and the free speech they encourage.
Despite all this, conditions for the U.K.'s regional press remain extremely challenging. Trinity Mirror, which owns 160 regional newspapers, announced in June that its profits for the first half of 2011 were 65% down from the previous year. In the U.K. at least, talk of crowdsourced news and hyperlocal citizen journalism has yet to come to fruition. The U.K.'s newspaper readers might be forgiven for wondering whether social media outlets will end up being the only source of local news available.