Don’t Get in a Huff! Carla Buzasi and the Future of Journalism

SARA STILLWELL questions whether the rise of digital media has empowered the masses.

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carlabI spoke to Carla Buzasi on Monday after the Cambridge Union and Huffington Post’s Feminism Forum, part of the Huffington Post’s Conversation Starter Series.

As UK Editor-in-Chief of the Huffington Post, Buzasi has argued that in the past that to have a voice in the media, “you needed a printing press” and, to really flourish, vastly expensive marketing campaigns. The monopoly on information was held by newspapers with “decades, if not centuries worth of heritage.”

Now, however, she says that “the Internet and popular culture is demanding more than the same old rehashed headlines that we read and read again, while spoon-fed press releases from the major political parties are challenged.”

Buzasi notes that the internet has given ordinary people a stronger voice online how and brands like the Huffington Post “which only launched in 2005 in America, and is not even two years old in the UK, are setting the news agenda.”

But to me, this is a typical viewpoint, a regurgitation of the regular refrains in the media about ‘the power of social media’ and the ‘democratisation of information.’ It is true that Stephen Fry has (far) more Twitter followers than the major UK newspapers’ accounts combined, and that Lucy Anne-Holmes was able to launch the particularly successful ‘No to Page Three’ Campaign without any of the usual necessary personal connections.

The "No More Page Three" campaign launched via Twitter

The “No More Page Three” campaign launched via Twitter

A step in the right direction may be occurring in the online newspaper sites hosting blogging platforms – something true of the Guardian, the Independent and the Huffington Post itself.

In support of this promotion of blog content, Buzasi insists that “nobody has a monopoly on good journalism”. But if we understand “good journalism” to mean what is widely read and well-regarded, this is not very apparently the case. Buzasi concedes that “there is still a little bit of an old boys club” in the media; but I wonder how far this “little bit” extends. It is not easy to break centuries of habitual loyalty, nor is it easy to break away from a subservience to the news agenda determined on a much higher level.

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People have more avenues for expression than they used to, and curated blog content on large websites may offer some opportunity for making those avenues lead to consequences that really count. But ultimately, no matter how loudly the mantra of social media as ‘the big game-changer’ is chanted, what we ought to remember is that the Internet is not a panacea to the dominance of a few elite voices.

“The traditional news sources still govern which stories appear in front of us at breakfast”

Everyday ‘tweeters’ and ‘bloggers’ online are still significantly overshadowed by the larger media outlets. Free expression may have been facilitated by the internet, but a monopoly on information continues, buoyed by the most honest variation of Del Boy’s guiding life principle: ‘he who pays, wins’, and the prevailing conventions of ‘legitimacy’ – give referencing a blog in an essay a go and you’ll see what I mean.

The traditional news sources still govern which stories appear in front of us at breakfast or are poured over by high-flying commuters on trains to London. They still decide the news agenda: that the three dead in Boston on 15th April were more newsworthy than the 33 dead in Iraq and that the “blooming” Duchess of Cambridge is front page material while the 19,000 children who die daily from starvation – that’s a football stadium of children every day – are not even worthy of a mention. To a certain extent, the blogging and Facebook world, with their users’ limited resources, can only ever be a response to that.

Sara Stillwell is president of Girton JCR and president of the Cambridge Hub.