Monday, July 13, 2009

Bastille Day and The Fourth Estate

(Updated July 14, 2014)

How can we let Bastille Day, July 14, pass without examining the future of "The Fourth Estate?"

As we mark the 225th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, heads still figuratively roll as more media companies place jobs under the blades of corporate guillotines.

Coming to terms
"The Fourth Estate" as we think of it today is a phrase invented in England but likely rooted in French history.

In France, King Philip IV in 1302 convened the Estates-General triad of clergy, nobility and commoners. His deal: They would approve new taxes, he would grant them more freedom. The Estates-General was active at first and then went dormant.

Along came 1789, a financial crisis, the guillotine, King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, a reconvening of the Estates-General, distribution of the U.S. Constitution articles, and a commoner-led revolution.

Later in England the three estates were parallel, The Lords Spiritual, The Lords Temporal (together making up the House of Lords) and the commoners (The House of Commons).

It was also in England where the term The Fourth Estate as applied to journalism stuck.

Author Thomas Carlyle in 1849 credits politician Edmund Burke, who likely was thinking about French history: "Burke said that there were three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important far than they all."

British politician and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay is quoted this way: "The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm."

Even in a more egalitarian America, the term is often applied to the news media because of its government watchdog role, a de facto regulator.

Coming to termination
Under a generations-old business model, those who rule news media "tax" advertisers to underwrite much of their operations.

It worked in newspapers, later for over-the-air broadcasts. And cable.

The model held for so long that those who ruled the media could not fathom transformative technology and the quickening pace of change. 

Nor were they ready to cope with the loss of control as the Internet first and later the Web and now app after app put "commoners" more in control of what they want to see, when they want to see it, how they want to discover it, what they want to say about it and how they want to create their own flow of "news."

"Taxed" advertisers have gained more and more freedom to say what they want and where they want to say it. Increasing online and mobile advertising dollars flow more to Google, Facebook and Twitter rather than to news sites.

Control over news creation spread to "commoners," too.

In theory, anyone can say anything. Anyone can be a citizen journalist.

Just about anyone can start a blog. We can open Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Google+ or other accounts. We  tweet, text, sext or toss in our two cents in a Web site's story comments. Despite the fees to access wireless networks and set up home wi-fi, it all comes at a much lower cost for "commoners" who don't need to tax advertisers to get their "jobs" done and their "news" delivered to friends, foes, frenemies and other followers of all sorts -- even if only at 140 characters at a time.

Thousands of traditional "Fourth Estate" jobs are perishing never to return in the forms we once knew them. Pew estimates newspaper and magazine newsrooms chopped 54,200 journalism jobs in the past decade, offset by the creation of only 5,000 internet-based news jobs.

"The vast majority of bodies producing original reporting still comes from the newspaper industry, Pew said.

But don't let anyone get too complacent. There are more revolutions ahead.

Nothing stays.

Even the guillotine fell out of favor.


Anonymous said...

Let's not forget that advertisers still need the "commoner."

thepainterflynninblackandwhite said...

I nicked your Babington quote and did not give you credit which I will now Computer trouble -(OO)-