The Stormy Scenario May Be the Order That Journalism Needs
Jan 31, 2018
The future of journalism lies in embracing change and finding sustainable models amidst the disruptive impact of technology giants.
"In a dark time, the eye begins to see" - Theodore Roethke
Every week, tech companies announce the rollout of a new resource, something that will bring great benefits for society, something that will generate significant revenues and relevance for publishers, something that journalists have long been waiting for and will return them to their roles as caretakers of society and guardians of democracy. The media and its adjacencies were taken for years by a kind of sebastianism, an irrational wait for the return of something that decayed a long time ago. Journalism needs to mature and leave a state of denial that it can survive with the help of Facebook and Google. It's time to get over and stop pretending that display advertisements, subscriptions, and patronage will make dead flowers rise again.
When Radiohead's Thom Yorke blasted Spotify as the "last fart of a dying corpse," he nailed a movement that is not about the subject he was addressing - music - but content (a pretty much hated word for journalists) or anything that can be reduced to bits.
Spotify does for music what the other digital giants do for text, video, services, or finance: they exploit a technological development that made a whole industry useless in the blink of an eye. "You cannot fight piracy, but if you kneel to me, I can give you my breadcrumbs," they said to the music industry. And so record labels did it, just like they did with Apple when Steve Jobs proposed a similar rationale with iTunes. Neither Spotify nor Apple intend to help anyone but themselves. The whole justification of a better service, happier customers, or any other happy endings are marketing fodder. The reality is that there is a newer, more aggressive, and intelligent challenger leading the current incumbent to the dust.
The convulsed digital transformation that shook up all industries and virtually wiped out any business model even slightly dependent on old traditional media revenue is much less of a fairer arena and much more of a new ground where old titans become too slow to react, just like dinosaurs did. The way it is now, small competitors have slim to no chances of success against the leading players, exactly like before. The difference is that these new owners of the court are far smarter, bigger, and manage their public image very well to look really good.
It's not difficult to see it. Most newspapers that were not lucky enough to have global brands went down in the mud. Those who survived did so by receiving oxygen from parent companies or diversifying as much as possible, even if it meant trouncing the once-called-quality-journalism they offered proudly for decades or even centuries.
To go concretely to an example, let's talk of a player that seems genuinely looking for answers: last year, Medium announced changes looking forward to making turning users into subscribers. Here is the paragraph that Ev Williams, the Twitter and Medium founder wrote to announce the feature, saying that "media is broken":
"Even better content: We will be routing 100% of the revenue from founding members (those who sign up in the first few months) to writers and independent publishers who have important work to do. Those who have hard-won expertise, do exhaustive research, and think deeply. Those who make us all smarter. Those who maximize our understanding of the world but don't necessarily maximize clicks — and, therefore, are at a disadvantage amongst the highly optimized algorithm chum being slung by the truckload by low-cost content purveyors."
And also: "Let's stop relying on ad buyers and social media echo chambers to determine what we put in our brains — which is just as important, or more so, than what we put in our bodies,"
Williams is not doing anything less than any media player in the business - trying to solve the ad/exposition problem. We can add here the notifications from Facebook as well. It is safe to say that the blogs or similar that bring official news from Facebook, Google, and the other tech giants are the most relevant sources in the industry. The media industry looks for their help because it presumes - wrongly - that the ones who destroyed the old order will set up a new one. Maria Bustillos, Editor-in-Chief of Popula, the first Newsroom on Civil (a blockchain-based ambitious project), even goes so far as to put responsibility over the tech titans:
"There is no exaggerating the irresponsibility of Silicon Valley's tech titans, who somehow wound up being in charge of your information, who are accountable to nobody, and who have no earthly idea what they are doing."
The main issue so far is that journalists and journalism are trying to find a technological solution to ease its pains and to fit an old, decaying business model which tried - and failed - to adapt to a mutated environment that does not support it any longer. We are performing a cardiac massage on a long-dead skeleton. Technology evolution made newspapers possible in the 15th century and made it unfeasible 500 years later. It has been severely wounded when Google started and was bound to die when Facebook decided to turn its service from a people's connection tool to a wider media management system. These platforms are not journalism's social place to live. We need to go for a new one, like Heather Bryant wrote brilliantly on Féderic Filloux's Mondaynote.
We would do much better looking for changes in the way we make things in the first place. This should not be a naive, full-of-love attempt to reach a socialist utopia where people give everything for a greater good. It needs to be, instead, a rational, goal-driven wide revamp around all content production and management that define needs and resources having in mind the creation of sustainable independent businesses capable of paying its own bills and strong enough to refuse favors if it decides as such.
For the last 10 years, we have been seeing gloomy predictions for journalism and each time they become worse. From technological developments to revenue trends, the promise of a better future revealed always to be a mix of wishful thinking and plain cheating from the feudal tech lords. You name it: video as the ultimate media, Instant Articles, viral stuff, citizen journalism, social influencers, social-first content, and so many others were the well-marketed romantic tale we have been told to not flip out given the hypoxemia the whole ecosystem has been submitted more and more.
Now that the sky could not be darker in terms of finding a private, independent, sustainable, donation/clickbait-free way to see journalism through the next decade, we may be paradoxically, for the first time, becoming able to see concrete answers. We may also be starting to search for answers more maturely, aware that no one will come to save journalism from the armageddon announced for so long. No Facebook, no Google, or no Amazon (Washington Post aside) will share their staggering revenue with publishers, let alone do it with other players of the traditional model like advertisers, government, or NGOs of any kind. This is not a bad thing if it means that we are stopping to look for trendy, fashionable solutions and looking forward to starting afresh with a grit we lost in the last decades of stability the West had.
Technology corporations, rich individuals, and government will not come to save anyone, nor will "love" or principles restore the status quo that societies had until two decades ago to watch its own bowels. This is not what they do. Billionaires and corporation boards or shareholders can help if they can, of course, but it's not their task to do so nor something in their nature. It's time to stop the denial of the self-importance journalists give to themselves and see how the gaps left by failing journalism structures can be filled on a sustainable and feasible way, without crying foul or looking for scapegoats.
Facebook hasn't elected Trump nor planned to wipe journalism out and the bloody news feed behavior is not the source of grace for anyone (not even to social-media-born-non-journalistic players like Buzzfeed). This is a mess we need to clean by ourselves, and it won't be above other people's shoulders (Mondaynote's Filloux talked about it here as well).
Today, there is no lack of civility from anyone compared to any other period in history. People, individually, can do harm and good, but collectively, mankind has an awful record in preventing tragedies from happening. This is the reason why we have everything we need to act. It was not easier before. Journalists (or whichever name they have following the media Big Crunch in digital) need to step into the duties they had before, but not necessarily doing journalism as we know.
We need not to fix what's broken, but we need to replace the broken with something that works. Much more maturity is needed to shape the new elements. We need to somehow stop engaging in rabid discussions and start trying to find out why they happen in the first place. The energy that a good share of US media is spending trying to frame Donald Trump for an impeachment would be much more efficient in trying to understand why he has been elected and why his voters don't believe in what they read in newspapers. Even with everyone going to the same side, it will be hard to create the new path. This new path cannot be based on the well-read and educated intellectuals communities of affluent America or Europe. It needs to include the citizens left out of the economic gains of the last 20 years and it needs to have a replicable business model.
Once again, unfortunately, history shows that we allow disgraces to happen before we do something. There are loads of money in venture capital available to projects that frankly are not promising. There are tons of brilliant people in media able to lead these projects, but for one reason or another, they are not available - but would be with such an important calling. And there is more: without the "help" of the major tech companies, society, publications, readers, and journalists will have to look into old problems again and define everything again: the right periodicity, price, platform, format, platform, tone, business model, everything, without having those huge smoke curtains that were the promises of a revenue Graal following the increase in video, adoption of a brick-like rigidity regarding SEO, wait for the trends to produce the content or buying useless Facebook ad space to fill the follower bases with witless, uninterested audiences (when not plainly fake).
Building this new environment (can't say if it is a platform) to allow free societies to discuss its own fate (maybe it is journalism, maybe not) is impossible without forgetting the old structures, which were secure once. People hardly like to get into a crisis, as it is painful and traumatic more often than not. Leaving the tech hype off (as much as possible) cannot let things worse than now, so maybe the whole gloomy perspectives we have are the beginning of a more solid, reasonable, and stable situation. It seems impossible now, but as Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Afghan guerrilla leader who expelled the Soviet Union and died fighting Al Qaeda, used to put, sometimes it's impossible to win the war and you must only survive and never surrender. Looking at where we are now, for me, it's a good motto to start with.