The 'Single Factor' Theory in Media Development





Expectations run well ahead of actual practice. Even with computers now commonplace in the work environment and increasingly so in the home, paperwork has hardly decreased, though this was touted as a feature of change in a computerised world (Reinecke 1982, 148). There is an expectation that new technologies replace the old and this expectation has accompanied the introduction of many new media technologies. In the case of the newspaper, declining sales are commonly attributed to the introduction of new media forms, especially television. The power of influence accorded to technology positions it as the prime causal factor effecting changes in all media, when it is only one of a number of influences which affects audience attention. As Curren (1970, 115) states:

 

It cannot be concluded ipso facto that, because the development of television viewing has coincided with the fall in newspaper consumption, television is the causal factor in the decline. The decline may reflect an expansion in the range of recreational opportunities, an expansion that only coincides with the growth of television. For that matter, the decline may reflect a deterioration in the quality of the press or any number of other variables.

 

Curren (1970, 116) sees the correlation between television's introduction and newspapers' decline as inconclusive. He also proposes that the convention of regarding newspaper circulation figures as indicators of demand is not enough:

 

Newspapers differ significantly in terms of content, size and price and these differences are increased by taking a period of years as a basis for comparison. No statistician would measure the demand for chocolates, for instance, by calibrating the number of boxes sold per annum. It is equally doubtful whether the convention of treating circulation as a standard unit of measurement provides a satisfactory basis for statistical analysis.

 

To illustrate this point, Curren (1970, 117) cites the example of newsprint rationing which occurred in England between 1939-45. Rationing caused many newspapers to be reduced to around a third of their usual size, so in order to obtain the same quantity of news content as in prewar papers, consumers would had to have purchased more than one paper.

With the introduction of radio broadcasting, new technology was again regarded as potentially displacing the old. However, in spite of the 'threat' of radio technology, press and radio developed a complementary relationship, both with the audience and as industries (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach 1989, 108). Research by Lacy (1987) reveals that the introduction of radio had little impact on newspaper circulation (in Picard 1989, 23).

Declining circulation figures are certainly 'real', but their interpretation is often misguided by a kind of media displacement theory - that is, when circulations fall, it is assumed consumer attention must be displaced to another media form. Surveys of the audience for news services across

media, shows that both newspapers and television are equally as vulnerable to other influences on audience attention. For example, in the USA between 1980 and 1984, newspapers lost around 12% of their young adult readership. The common assumption was that they were lost to television, however, over the same period network newscasts lost 52% of young adult viewers (Fitzgerald 1996). In April 1995 in the USA, the Times Mirror Centre poll found 45% of people surveyed had read the newspaper the day before, down from 58% in 1993, and 48% had watched network television news the day before, down from 60% in 1993 (Hume 1995b). Whether these losses went to cable television news services is difficult to determine, what is important, however, is that both old and new media forms are here shown to be competing equally.

In the late 1960s cable technology was heralded as spearheading a new communications revolution in the USA. Popular press eagerly expounded the revolutionary developments and "profound" social change this new technology would bring, as did official government sources. A report filed with the USA's Federal Communications Commission in 1969 talked of the information abundance which would be offered by cable delivery as bringing about "...a revolution that will produce a profound change in the way society is structured and the way we live" (in Surman 1995).

The scale of technological impacts is an unknown quantity, yet it is continually cited as the single or dominant factor shaping communications systems. As Starker (1991, 7) suggests, such a "single factor" theory of media influence makes social structures appear more manageable and controllable. But technology is not the only "single factor" theory. The other unknown quantity of 'quality' is also commonly associated with declining newspaper circulations. Sensational subject matter has been a criticism levelled at newspaper and magazine formats throughout their respective histories. Mayer (1964, 22) has identified sensational news content as an issue in Australian papers since the early 1800s:

 

One has only to glance at the files of the Monitor (1826) to see that the paper specialised in what today would be called horror, sadism and human interest.

 

The tabloid format, originally intended to present a more aesthetically pleasing layout, has become synonymous with a lesser quality of content (Hogben 1990, 23). But while media critics cite sensationalism as generating discontent amongst the newspaper and magazine audience, that same sensationalism also rates well. As Curren (1970, 106) observes,

 

Sex, crime, violence, scandal and gossip, the very topics deplored, regularly obtain high 'thorough readership' scores... It is curious that those very items to which declining newspaper sales have been attributed also happen to be the items which readers tend to read most avidly.

 

"Single factor" theories are numerous, a fact which should negate their influence, but the ability to better manage public discussion through single issues has ensured their constant revival through various eras of communications and new media development. For Latour (1987, 180) those single factor theories extend into self-contained "networks" of associations which, in being self-contained, maintain their own boundaries, but in being network-like are also able to extend those boundaries. The single issue of technology and its chain of associations has certainly been the most seductive and the most laden with promise. The machinery of the 'revolutionary' mass printing technologies which developed in the 1800s, was within the reach even of smaller operators and promised access to a vast and diverse audience. It also promised a presumably diverse audience a diversity of product. But as communications history has shown, the hardware was scarcely an issue.

The intangible circuitry which connects the global communications grid of the late 20th century is made of the same stuff as that of revolutions past. It is the network of the imagination, located in the ether and driven by the machinery of dominant sociopolitical practice. The problem of 'knowing' the invisible nexus is overcome in its embodiment in the hardware of the revolution. What is concealed beneath this embodiment, however, is a complex web of political relations which continue, from one era to the next, regardless of revolutionary markers on the surface. As James Carey and John Quirk (1973) argue:

 

The 'third communications revolution' has within it the same seeds of miscarriage that have historically attended innovations in communications. Rather than creating a "new future", modern technology invites the public to participate in a ritual of control where fascination with technology masks the underlying factors of politics and power.

 

The Role and Status of the Printed Word in 1996
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