On the podcast this week, Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers: The Media After Trump by Andrey Mir. Next time: Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities by Eric Kaufmann and Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the “Real America” by Kevin D. Williamson.
Some highlights from Postjournalism:
The greatest harm caused by media is polarization, and the biggest issue is that polarization has become systemically embedded into both social media and the mass media. Polarization is not merely a side effect but has morphed into a condition of their business.
Engagement, much needed for the platforms’ business, appeared to be tied to polarization.
The news media business used to be funded predominantly by advertising, but advertising fled to the internet. The entire news media industry was forced to switch to another source of funding – reader revenue.
People almost always already know the news before they come to news websites because they invariably start their daily media routine with newsfeeds on social media. Increasingly, therefore, if and when people turn to the news media, it is not to find news, but rather to validate already known news.
The membership payers do not pay to get news for themselves (they already know the news), they pay for news to be delivered to others. The membership is payment from below but driven by motives from above. They require newsrooms to operate with values, not news. This slowly forces journalism to mutate into crowdsourced propaganda – postjournalism.
The media are incentivized to amplify and dramatize issues whose coverage is most likely to be paid for
Covering polarizing issues for better soliciting of support, the media are incentivised to seek and reproduce polarization for the next rounds of soliciting. They change the picture of the world and they change their audiences, agitating them into more polarization, for profit.
The media relying on ad revenue makes the world look pleasant. The media relying on reader revenue makes the world look grim. The decline in the media business caused by the internet has not distorted the picture of the world in the media; it has distorted the habitual distortion.
The media system based on ad revenue manufactured consent. The media system based on soliciting the audience’s support manufactures anger. The ad-driven media produced happy customers. The reader-driven media produces angry citizens. The former served consumerism. The latter serves polarization.
The least obvious and yet most shocking aspect of the discussion about the death of newspapers is the fact that we are discussing the fate of journalism, not just papers. This is neither a cyclical crisis nor a matter of transition; this is the end of an era.
Because of the Trump bump, the New Yorker, the Atlantic and the Washington Post doubled or tripled their subscriptions in the first year of Trump’s presidency.
Due to media conditions shaped in the mid-2010s, news organizations were forced to choose a side.
The evolution of the media as an instrument of commercial and political communication created the conditions that led to the formation of modern society, both in its economic and political dimensions.
Journalism is inherently designed to sell news downward, to the end user – a reader. However, as it is an intrinsic part of a whole social context, journalism inevitably switches to selling agendas upwards, with some news traded downwards as a side business. This gives us two ultimate ‘ideal’ models of the media business. Journalism is either paid from below by those who want to read news or paid from above by those who want others to read news. These two opposing models, in different mixes, have been employed by journalism throughout it 500-year-long history.
There was always someone from above who came and forced or seduced the media to sell the audience upwards, not news downwards; first political patrons, then political parties, then advertisers.
Journalism has simply lost the publishing monopoly. It has become clear that it is not the quality of content, nor the social function, but the technological monopoly over content communication that was at the core of the media’s existence.
The cost of the telegraph limited not only the number of messages that could be sent but also the size of messages, as the charge for messages was based on the number of characters. This forced correspondents’ writing to become concise and substantive, and the telegraphic style of journalism emerged. When a conveyed message is literally charged by the letter, nobody will subsidize someone’s opinions. Only naked and solid facts were therefore telegraphed. The cost of messages made facts more valuable than opinions, simply by the design of the medium.
By the end of the 19th century, the cost of the telegraph had decreased, which made it widely affordable. Newspapers became saturated with international news. The demand for guidance in this news kaleidoscope appeared. Opinions and expertise started being valued above mere facts in the media diet. In this new cycle of the evolution, opinion journalism re-established command.
Similar cycles happen each time a new mass medium appears and then ages. It happened again to radio, TV, and the internet.
News production is much more expensive than the production of opinions and expertise.
According to assumed standards of journalism, news is disseminated because of its significance. But, in fact, news becomes significant because of its dissemination.
Note: What happens to Wikipedia?
The problem is that a factoid is good; too good for the audience to want truth instead. The truth is not as good as a factoid is. Therefore, factoids are good for profit. Being an industrial capitalist enterprise, the media produce a reality that is supposed to be relevant but also has to be marketable. Even non-profit media do this, as they must compete for the public’s attention. Thus, the supply of reality in the media is impacted by the necessity to meet the demand.
The use-value of a factoid is defined by the relations of demand/supply, not by compliance to reality. In their swirling chicken-or-egg tango, readers want to read what they want, and the media define and supply it. Factoids are the news that is wanted. Journalism is the mastery of factoids.
The political biases might define what kind of induced reality will be induced, but the very inevitability of reality induction is not ideological. It rests on the commercial need to manufacture a saleable picture of the world. Ideological preconceptions simply accompany the marketing strategy in a chosen or allocated market niche comprised of liberal or conservative audiences. The media define their audience and then manufacture what their audience wants and buys.
Interestingly a factoid dovetails rather well with the concept of simulation and Baudrillard’s simulacrum.
By minimizing the size of media consumption from the media issue down to the article, the internet detached content from media brands. The media was thereby deprived of the opportunity to maintain their ownership over content. When content travels in parcels that are smaller than a physically wrapped and salable piece of media (book, magazine, newspaper), it becomes harder or impossible to commodify it under a media brand.
News bits’ shepherding on social media, whether by humans (by the Viral Editor) or by algorithms, is making journalism obsolete.
The transition from the parceled to the streamed mode of producing content had a dramatic impact on the quality of journalism. This change in the technology of production caused newsrooms to switch from fixed deadlines to rolling ones, which, in reality, are no deadlines at all, but rather a constant pressure to supply as much content as fast as possible.
The fact of the matter is that value in the media market is now extracted not from content but from the audience’s time/attention. So, content is used as bait to attract attention. No business can sell bait to fish. The only party who pays for bait in this relationship is the fisherman – those who supply content.
But when advertising disappear, journalism’s true nature comes into focus: it is a public good, something society requires but that market cannot provide in sufficient quality and quantity. Like other public goods, if society wants it, it will require public policy and public spending.
Membership is a sort of crowdsourced philanthropy propaganda and also a sort of slactivism, as members outsource their activism (support to a cause) through small donations.
The news-validation service is an important step of the media towards the membership model, as it makes people regard the media as a source of evaluation, not news.
The prevalence of opinion journalism over journalism of fact (due to the redundancy of news) makes the attitude towards events (not the news about events) the main use-value in news production and consumption. People want to see already-known news to be covered from the right angle; they also want others to see the news covered from the right angle.
If the winners take all, then it remains for the losers to only rely on patrons or foundation funding of a limited scale. Crowdfunding potential simply does not have the capacity to support all.
Because public opinion is impacted by so many distorting factors but is “supposed to be the prime mover in democracies”, the common interests “can be managed only by a specialized class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality” (Lippmann, 1929 , p. 253). This class, the class of administrators and politicians – the decision-making elites – needs to both receive adequate information about social reality and spread useful information to the public. This task can be accomplished by a special cohort of educated and independent experts who know “how to create and operate public opinion” (Ibid., 255) and can advise the leadership competently and unbiasedly.
However, these different threats must reflect a binary split value system, where the opposites play the role of mobilizing enemies for each other. For a donscription-driven media system, the Cold War ceased to be an external mobilizing factor. The fear of enemy has to come inside the national media system for the better soliciting of readers’ contribution on each side of the spectrum: the Cold War must become a Cold Civil War.
After Trump, the reader-driven media based on soliciting subscription as donation will need to find an equivalent binary threat to preserve the mobilizing power of the political cause they undertake to promote.
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.
Real propaganda involves the proliferation of ideas and values. However, postjournalism cannot even do 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.
Polarization means that journalists and the media need to take a stance. The professional standards of seeking truth, objectivity and impartiality are among the first to fall under the risk of being weakened or denied. The next are going the standards of independence, accuracy, transparency, diligence in newsgathering, accountability and harm limitation.
The democrat’s dilemma, Gunitsky suggested, is something similar but opposite: by forbidding information potentially harmful to democracy, democracy is thereby harmed; by allowing it, democracy allows antidemocratic ideas to spread.
The polarization of stances requires the commonality of topics, in which the stances have to be polarized.
Hence topics and discourses that do not support polarization will not circulate for long or will be completely ignored. All the energy potential of the media industry will focus on the topics that fit polarization.
Discourse concentration is a technical prerequisite of media polarization which can also have a set of cultural and even psychological consequences. Apart from the reduction in coverage and the deterioration of public service, the media’s obsession with topics most suited to polarization leads to an emotional surge. When everybody runs one and the same story, every ensuing account has to be louder than the last in order to be heard. New and more radical arguments and statements need to be made. Discourse concentration contributes to hysteria, a devoted companion of polarization.
Journalism wants its picture to match the world. Postjournalism wants the world to match its picture.
Post-truth is truth in the digital environment, where the physical risks of ‘wrong’ interactions do not exist. If the physical reality is made of objects, the digital reality is made of subjects – of others. The sensorial feedback of wrongdoing, the pain of hitting against objects, has turned into the pain of hitting against subjects, against others. People are training to resettle into the digitally induced environment, where the spatial dimension is replaced by the temporal dimension. Instead of physical risks, social risks become absolutized. Digital is pure social. In the digital world, death is ostracism and cancellation. Cancel culture is apologetics and the practicing of a tribe’s death penalty, similar to execution by stoning, where legitimacy is maintained by the collectivity of others. The numbers matter. This new regulator of wrongdoing is replacing the old criteria of truth: instead of the complying with the laws of the physical Universe, one now needs to comply with the values of the social Multiverse – or the part of it to which a person wants or needs to belong.
Paradoxically, the social media environment has built-in settings that encourage socializing through rage. This is something normally unacceptable and strategically disadvantageous in offline social communication. Offline, rage would result, among other things, in physical consequences that correct behavior through the sensorium. But on social media, particularly those with a short form of literacy, like Twitter, rage is not risky and can be beneficial.
Print, with its delayed reactions to linear thought, started the Age of Reason; social media with their instant service of accelerated self-actualization has turned the Age of Reason into the Age of Rage.
The new medium, newspapers, unleashed a new environmental force that enabled the public sphere and capitalism. Capitalism would not have been possible without the exchange of information about markets’ and industries’ prospects and risks. The same is true for the public sphere – it would not have appeared without the emancipated and enhanced exchange of ideas. Democracy, capitalism and journalism are substantially important to each other. They are, respectively, political, economic and communication dimensions of the same historical process.
Electronic media, as McLuhan noted, retribalized society and therefore diminished the significance and influence of literacy. This shift is not only about the ability to read and quantity of reading. The way people learn the news impacts the way social coherence is shaped – through ideas or through emotions. Reading of news, however sensational it might be, just because of its linear and semantic representation of the world, appeals to cognitive perception, whilst the delivery of information via radio, TV and now the digital media seeks to simulate the natural, sensory perception of the surroundings. Digital media do not represent reality, as writing and print used to do; they put the user into the induced reality, shaping along the way a new kind of sensorium – the digital sensorium (Miroshnichenko, 2016).
Is it possible to rearrange the economic and behavioral rewards for media use in such a manner that they incentivize people’s engagement based if not on consensus, then at the very least on tolerance instead of polarization? This is a million-dollar question, literally; though, considering the capitalization of Google and Facebook, it is more like a billion-dollar question.
Perhaps one of the potentially more fruitful searches for depolarization could be in the field of reinforcing the middle (not even the center, as the center opposes the opposites and therefore has a polarizing potential itself). If one side of the spectrum thinks the past represents nothing but shame and the other side thinks the past represents nothing but glory, the only way to mitigate polarization is not to bring those sides together but to empower the voice of the middle. It is the middle who thinks, for example, that the past is much more complex than shame or glory, both of which are, actually, political tools of the present but not conditions of the past.