I actually didn’t want to write this article: I vacillated for a few weeks and came to the conclusion that enough has been written about the media – and specifically about newspapers. But a few things motivated me to write after all.
One of those things was a radio interview with various representatives of Swiss media organizations. Topic of the discussion: The importance of media (high) and the influence of economic interests of the stakeholders behind those organizations (very low). Opinion- and debate leadership were discussed – and the impact on society. The participants left no doubt that the media were extremely important for all areas of any given country. All I could do was turn up the volume, no doubt with an astonished and disbelieving look on my face. Are these people talking about the same journalism we experience every day?
For, the great debates triggered by journalists are becoming more and more difficult to find. Tabloid journalism and fact-based reportage are becoming intertwined and opinion leadership is increasingly predefined by the political direction of the publishing companies – if it even exists anymore. Journalism is rapidly moving away from participating in the debates which impact society.
The changes in user behavior appear to be almost completely passing by some newspaper companies. Because the changes that are taking place due to new technology are generating nice feedback effects on the media landscape.
One must first realize that newspapers never subsisted on journalism. Readers were never willing to pay the “real” price for journalistic endeavors; subscriptions were always only the smaller portion of revenue. The lion’s share of revenue was always generated through advertising. And it was exactly the ads that diminished first the moment the Internet came to prominence; today, only the number of ads is only a fraction that it was in the past.
The same can be said for advertising in general. Spend has been consistently declining and still doesn’t represent media use. But we’re getting closer, year by year. And, correspondingly, the situation of the media organizations is becoming increasingly dire.
The measurability of ad activities has become the central issue in recent years. Whereas most offline advertising can’t really be measured (in my mind’s eye I can see a couple of media people cringing at this statement – but yes, that’s the way it is when one defines the requirement of measurability as a clearly proven state rather than a random sample of a survey), online marketing has virtually defined itself through measurability and analysis. In any case, some marketing managers are always more skeptical when they are asked to invest part of the budget in activities that can’t be quantified very well. This effect will further reduce ad business for newspapers.
But, measurability has become a currency of sorts regarding online offerings by newspapers. Since these ad products are sold by clicks and thus need traffic, journalism is committed to generate those clicks.
The result of these changes is a transition to more superficiality. Instead of going into more depth, more “slapstick stories” are produced, because these simply lead to more clicks and traffic. And much effort is expended in creating sensationalistic headlines – tabloid or provocative heads mean more clicks. Occasionally, even rather good articles sometimes have ridiculous, zombie-like headlines.
For, even the most serious academician is interested in the story about Angelina Jolie’s breast amputation. Most wouldn’t admit to it, but a small click to read an article’s lead is possible for most. After all, no one need know.
The thusly conditioned journalist who is also under the gun – at least in a small way – is therefore insidiously changing how he defines journalistic success. Whereas it used to be precisely these great debates and content, today success means clicks and traffic. That readers often don’t even deal with the actual content (beyond the lead) escapes many journalists. Or they just don’t care.
And thus traditional journalism is becoming less important. Important in the sense of societal debate and exchange. This isn’t a loss of values, but rather the logical corollary of the changes described above.
Basing a future business model (“paid, quality journalism”) on exactly this rather shallow content can only end with a disaster. This doesn’t mean, however, that I think that paywalls (i.e. fees for content) have no future whatsoever.
Due to the fact that the pace there is less frantic, I think that weekly publications especially could be well-suited for such models in the future. But I don’t believe that they can subsist exclusively in this way.
Very often paywalls are executed very poorly. A particularly blatant example in the recent past is the one from the local Swiss paper “Basler Zeitung.” All of this “tinkering” is also available in a mobile app, of course – which doesn’t mean that it’s suitable for mobile use though.
The result is that the app is de facto unusable. Even worse: many people in my immediate surroundings didn’t even realize that the idea was to purchase digital content, they thought it was a bug. And since the app got on their nerves, they deleted it.
Whereas the media used to shape and dominate the talk of the town – that is the current societal debates (sort of like beacons of public opinion) – many of these debates are shifting to Facebook. In the past weeks I’ve followed discussions about the Swiss elections more often on Facebook. And yes, of course there is a lot of primitive, laughable content.
But don’t deceive yourselves; pub talks 25 years ago were no more content-driven than Facebook posts are today. If, however, we ignore this and filter some of the stuff, there are more people who are participating in discussions and voicing opinions than ever before. One can only support this if one believes in democracy.
Slowly but surely our time is delegating information to the individual. We can observe this, for instance, in the area of product information. Today it is par for the course that consumers are taking advantage of vendors. This “empowerment of the individual” isn’t stopping at the media. And it’s only been possible since digital technologies provide every citizen with the possibility to express an opinion to a wider audience. For example, with a comment on a tabloid website or with a blog. Just to mention the bandwidth of possibilities.
Fundamentally, this is a good development, since it distributes opinion leadership and creation to more and more people – and the more, the better. This automatically lessens chances for abuse or conspiracies. You have no idea how much traditional media institutions are influenced by economic interests – in ways large and small.
Viewed in this manner I am looking forward to a heterogeneous “media landscape.” One in which many individuals express their personal opinions and develop their own ideas. This leads to a broader, more diversified and independent discussion. We have been traveling down this path for some time already.