By the end of the 20th century, the business model of the media took its last and most optimal form: the media sold news downwards whilst simultaneously selling the audience upwards, to advertisers, creating a “supportive selling environment” (Herman) or agenda. Advertising dominated the business model, providing 70% of revenue and more. Ad revenue was so plentiful that it made media organizations the largest and richest corporations of the late capitalist period, on par with banks or oil companies. (A chapter from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers”, 2020).
Philosophers have hitherto only explained the world
in various ways; the point is to change it.
Karl Marx. The eleventh thesis on Feuerbach.
The business model, predominantly based on ad revenue and large profits, predefined the method of agenda-setting. Generally, the mainstream media’s journalism facilitated consumerism, political stability and the populace’s alignment with the policies of the elites, as these were the necessary conditions for the successful application of that business model. Buoyed by this economic foundation, the media also carried out a public service, supporting democracy as a political mode of capitalism.
Within the space of a mere 20 years, the internet completely broke the idyll, which had taken about 500 years to build. The consequences have gone far beyond just the switch of the material carrier and the ensuing death of newspapers. As the social, economic and technological conditions that brought about journalism are fading, so is journalism. What remains of it has begun mutating.
Both news consumers and advertisers have switched to better platforms, the internet, and then social media. Due to their departure, both business models, those based on reader revenue and ad revenue, are no longer sustainable. The media are trying to find an alternative business model, but it turns out their business was built not on news, but on the monopoly over news supply. As this monopoly is also gone the business of the media cannot be restored to any of the past forms.
Having lost business and fighting for survival, the news media need to compete with new media. The competition imposes rules that damage the news media’s authenticity and integrity. The news media need to reduce their linear and complete product, the qualities of which came from their materiality and periodicity, to the snippets, blurbs and clickbait, the only quanta of content that can fit in the new mode of delivery, the stream of the newsfeed on social media. The quantization of content leads to the “hamsterization of journalism” (Starkman) and erodes its unique content value. Suffering economically, journalism’s quality has also become adversely affected.
Simultaneously, the new medium, the internet, has rapidly increased the amount of content that is seeking people’s attention. Having become redundant, news ceased to be a valuable commodity. Journalism of fact has been replaced by opinion journalism.
The most significant change that has impacted journalism and caused its decline relates to the change in the business model. Advertisers are gone and will not return. Some residual subscription still remains, so reader revenue has become the dominant source of funding for journalism. However, this reader revenue is driven by a peculiar force. News consumers do not need news; they already know most news relevant to them, because content of all kinds, including news, is produced, sorted, personally customized and delivered first and foremost via social media and other digital platforms.
But due to their historical affiliation and morphological ‘alignment’ with the public sphere and politics, the news media still have a sanction and authority to validate news. The validation fee and subscription soliciting as donations are becoming a significant part of reader revenue. These payment motives have started impacting the principles of agenda setting.
Having lost the ability to commodify news downwards and agenda upwards, the media have found a last-ditch solution – selling agenda downwards. Under the validation fee, foundation funding, the membership model and its subscription-like surrogates, the media are paid seemingly from below; however, they are not paid for news, but for agenda-setting – for the reasons and motives normally coming from above.
This hybrid business model leads journalism to mutate into activism and the media to transform into the means of crowdsourced propaganda. Instead of manufacturing consumerism and consent, the media manufacture polarization and anger.
The hybrid and nevertheless continuously shrinking business model of the media has created a type of journalism never seen before. It has built itself upon the remains of classical journalism, appropriating its deviations and rejecting its standards. As a cultural phenomenon closing a significant epoch in historical development, simultaneously inheriting and rejecting the settings of the predecessor, this type of hybrid and decaying journalism can conveniently be called postjournalism.
Postjournalism is journalism that sells the audience to the public by soliciting donations in the form of subscription. Classical journalism pretended to be objective; it strived to depict the world-as-it-is. Postjournalism is openly normative; it imposes the world-as-it-should-be.
Similar to propaganda, postjournalism openly promotes an ideological view. What distinguishes it from propaganda, however, is that postjournalism mixes open ideological intentions with a hidden business imperative required for the media to survive. Postjournalism is not the product of a choice but is the consequence of the change in the media business model.
Postjournalism is a hyper-postmodernist entity. The value of its product is not comprised of use-value or symbolic value; its use-value is symbolic value. Postjournalism commodifies a good that nobody really consumes. The public – the donating audience – does not consume the agenda it pays for, because it pays for the agenda to be peddled to others. Ironically though, there are no others willing to follow this agenda beyond the donating audience itself.
The media practicing postjournalism produce nothing else but the donating audience through the manufacture of its anger. Their agenda production entails no consumption. Nobody learns news from this agenda. It does not even have any impact on the assumed audience. Real propaganda involves the proliferation of ideas and values. However, postjournalism cannot do even that. Those whom it is supposed to reach and convert are already trapped in the same agenda bubble.
The only “others” for the agenda bubble, made of the donating audience and their media, are the inhabitants of the opposite agenda bubble on the other side of the political spectrum. Paradoxically, postjournalism supplies not so much content but, rather, the reason for the foes’ existence and their motives, which justify their outrage and mobilization. However, there is also no expected agenda impact on opponents. The opponents do not consume ‘opposing’ content as information. They regard it as a source of energy to feed their anger. Polarization is the essential environmental condition and the only outcome of postjournalism (besides the earnings of the media that practice postjournalism).
Because of its self-containment and the need for energy input, postjournalism exists in a binary form in which the strength of the one side depends on the strength of the other. Their confrontation strengthens their audience-capturing power and maintains their business.
Postjournalism is a typically postmodernist phenomenon of simulation and self-referentiality. It follows in the footsteps of other cultural ‘post-’ phenomena, such as postmodernism and post-truth, having soaked up their essential features in applications to the media.
Postjournalism is characterized by the following essential features:
- Donscription: subscription solicited as donation
- Focus on impact, not news
- Negativity bias
- Repudiation of professional standards
- Discourse concentration