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Interview with Mark Deuze, professor of Media Studies

The death of journalism?

Journalism is dead. Or at least, that’s the growing consensus amongst trendwatchers, newsmakers and other self-styled media gurus. With a constant barrage of dire warnings about falling revenues, unemployed journalists, diminishing newspaper subscriptions and lower standards, it’s no wonder a career in journalism seems like a one-way ticket to poverty and unfulfilled dreams.

Not so, says Mark Deuze, professor of Media Studies at the UvA’s Faculty of Humanities. If Deuze is to be believed, the changing journalism landscape might be in flux, but is also alive and kicking. ‘The need for skilled, well-rounded journalists will always remain.’

In this month’s ‘UvA in the Spotlight’ we speak to Deuze about his thoughts on journalism, the media and his latest research project.

Photo: Eduard Lampe

Can you tell us more about your recent book Media Lif­e?

The central premise of Media Life is that we as society do not live with, but inside of media. The notion that we live with media presupposes an ability to switch off and turn away from it whenever we choose. This, I believe, is an illusion. Instead, I argue that media is not only inextricably linked to everything we do, but also influences and adds meaning to every relationship we as individuals have. Transcending normative notions about good and bad, Media Life exhorts readers to accept that our lives take place within media and therefore to think about how to arrange it in the most responsible way possible.

You’ve referred to journalism as a ‘zombie institution’. What do you mean by this?

Many people tend to mistakenly interpret this metaphor as criticism. My reference to ‘zombie institution’ actually has its origins in the field of sociology, where a number of sociologists have used the concept as a way to dismiss traditional notions about classical social institutions such as the ‘family’, ‘political parties’ and the ‘state’ as non-existent entities. To refer to journalism as a ‘zombie institution’ is simply to argue that journalism as a concept is meaningless. The term ‘journalism’ can refer to everything and nothing at the same time. It forms a rich palette of activities (gossip, lifestyle, politics, sport) and includes a large variety of actors, ranging from war correspondents to opinionated bloggers, Facebooking teenagers to garrulous tweeters. In short, journalism is a dynamic concept: it’s both tangible and intangible.                

Is journalism a dying profession?

Not at all. However, if with journalism you mean a career at a newspaper or in broadcasting, then yes, the word ‘moribund’ is appropriate. There is no denying that, compared to freelancers, the amount of journalists working in a newsroom has decreased over the last ten years. This is a worrying trend, especially when one considers that newsrooms provide a safe haven for journalists to do their work. If these end up disappearing, journalists will have a harder time performing their duties. This doesn’t mean, however, that good journalism will become impossible or that it will die because of a drop in revenue. There is no proof that the average person’s desire for news is diminishing. What is changing is his or her loyalty expressed in subscriptions to publications. Readers are more capricious and emotional in their choice of news. This phenomenon definitely poses a challenge to traditional models of revenue generation, but is by no means a death sentence.   

If journalism means many things and includes a large assortment of people, such as career journalists and amateur bloggers, what is the continuing use of professional journalism training programmes?  

Although journalism can include numerous things, professional training programmes will remain relevant. Referring to our own programme [Master’s in Journalism – ed.], it derives its right to exist from a number of things. Primarily, it was created out of a commitment to quality journalism. Our programme is focused on one specific competence: inculcating students with the skills and level of reflection needed to produce quality, investigative journalism regardless of medium. In addition to this, training programmes are also important in that they sculpt ‘super citizens’. Professional journalists are ideal citizens: they’re socially involved, able to gather, process and disseminate large quantities of complex information, and they understand the inner workings of society (political system, economy, etc.). With this in mind, I think the need for skilled, well-rounded and informed journalists will always remain.

Fair enough, but why keep on releasing new job seekers into a market already flooded with unemployed journalists? 

If you look at the figures, most of our alumni are employed and have very good jobs in journalism. That said, we’re lucky because our programme is small, has excellent lecturers with vast experience and holds a respected position within the media landscape. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should assume things will stay that way in future. Indeed, current trends suggest a shift in the way journalism will be practiced as a profession. Aside from being skilled, tomorrow’s journalists need to be savvy entrepreneurs and prepare for a career which is fulfilling but also volatile. An entrepreneur isn’t just someone who knows how to generate revenue, but is also a risk-taker pur-sang; someone who pushes the envelope and sees new opportunities. This is what the world of journalism needs now more than ever.     

Do you agree with those who lament the dumbing down (vervlakking) of professional journalism?  

The notion that journalism is being dumbed down for mass consumption seems unfounded when one looks at the current media landscape. Not everything that is being produced is rubbish. On the contrary, despite commercial and financial pressures a lot of quality journalism appears on a daily basis. Articles are becoming longer and more in-depth, and newspapers thicker. This would suggest that the general demand for good journalism isn’t diminishing, but actually growing.        

What are your current research projects about?

At the moment I’m involved with several projects related specifically to the field of journalism. One of these is about the role and position of freelance journalists in the Netherlands and in other countries. My aim is to get a better idea of how the field of freelance journalism functions. How is journalism defined within this environment and subsequently put into practice?

In another project I explore the role of women in the world of journalism. Not only does this role need to be highlighted because it’s a special one – the last major project was done about thirty years ago – but also because female students have comprised a majority of journalism graduates since the 1990s, yet they remain underrepresented in the workplace.  It will be interesting to learn more about their experiences as professional journalists.

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