Will journalism survive the internet?

The internet is not about just replacing newspapers. It’s about how the news ecosystem is now organized. Journalism used to have a monopoly over news delivery and agenda-setting. This monopoly is now gone. New mechanisms for the search, selection and delivery of content are not just replacing journalism – they are better.

  • Andrey Mir was an editor in local newspapers in the 1990s and managed a national business magazine in the 2000s. He has a degree in journalism and linguistics and taught media and business communications at several universities. Now he studies and teaches media at York University, Toronto. Mir authored a number of books on media and communications. His latest book, “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization”, has made a buzz in the Western media. Some critics have called it the most important exploration of media since McLuhan. So, why is the author so pessimistic about the future of journalism?

– You have predicted the end of the traditional media, promising “agony and convulsion” to them in the oncoming years, is that correct? And, please, clarify – is it about newspapers alone or does it involve radio and TV, too?

– Yes, traditional journalism as an institution, industry, and profession has five years of agony and another ten years of convulsions. This is true regardless of the format – be it newspaper, radio or TV – and regardless of country. The rapid proliferation of the internet has synchronized media processes around the world.

– Do you mean it is the digital that is the gravedigger of journalism?

– Yes, it is already clear to everyone that the internet is better suited to the delivery of the news than the paper carrier. But the materiality of the carrier is not the main issue. News orgs may decorate their product in whatever way they want or can; they can give away a hat or a bag to each subscriber, but the issue is not on the side of the producer. Their main issue is on the side of consumption. Therefore, there is nothing they can do about losing ground. The consumer of the news receives a more convenient, higher-quality and more personally adjusted picture of the world via the internet and especially on social media.

– But are social media able to replace journalism? In my opinion, from what I see on social media, yes, there are some professional journalists out there, and you can find some high-quality stories or pictures. But generally speaking, this all is amateur samizdat. The main reason is that, unlike in the news orgs, there are no editors, and there are no filters on the internet that stop rubbish from being published.

– Indeed, many people deem the Internet a dump. And it is a dump, at least in terms of dropping any and all content. Anyone can post anything, with no selection or fact-checking. However, the thing is that content on the internet is filtered – not before posting but after posting, in the process of distribution. I call this mechanism the Viral editor.

Every user wants a response to their existence and therefore has a stimulus to seek something interesting, to make something interesting and to share it or expose themselves to others somehow. This can be done through any form of digital engagement that is thoughtfully designed on social media: likes, reposts, comments, and so on. If the friends in the user’s network like or are interested in what he or she has done, they, too, will like, repost, and comment. Thus, the search, selection, and refining of the news and any content occurs. In essence, this is the job of the editor. But now it is done by collective efforts in the process of viral distribution – hence, the Viral editor.

On the Internet, we are connected with people with our types of interests and intellectual demands. They deliver to us precisely what is of interest and relevant to us. If you are into politics, economics or model trains, your selection of bookmarks and friends will reflect this. To better facilitate this process, the algorithms of Google and Facebook will learn your preferences and show you what you most likely need. There has been a lot of criticism of so-called filter bubbles, but we must admit that the Viral editor removes 99.9999% of the tremendous amount of rubbish on the Internet and delivers to us socially significant content with personal relevancy unthinkable in any media before. In sum, the Viral editor possesses the best expertise, the best evidence, and the best authors humans can have. This includes the best journalists, by the way, as they are among the most active and profound content producers on the Internet.

No journalism specialization remains untouched by the Internet. Let’s take breaking news and reporting on the scene. The first thing a person does when seeing something noteworthy – something newsworthy – is take a picture and post it with a comment on social media. It’s not an opportunity anymore, it’s the duty of any smartphone owner, as everybody needs a response from others. It’s their need for social grooming, or what Hegel would call the “struggle for recognition”. These acts of spontaneous but nevertheless unavoidable reporting are called “random acts of journalism”.

As a result, any noteworthy/newsworthy event is reported. Actually, all events whose potential for newsworthiness is above zero get reported. The Viral editor selects the most newsworthy and delivers it to those for whom it can be of relevance. This occurs in the same way a bio-editor would have done it but with a much better scope and reach.

However good a professional reporter is, they still need to arrive at the scene. But somebody with a smartphone is always on the spot. In pursuit of response, they will report everything – from a fallen tree to a fallen airplane. As a result, the millions of random reporters, managed by the Viral editor, get the better of the hundreds of professional reporters, even though an average professional reporter is by default ten times better than an average random reporter.

All in all, the internet is not about just the replacement of the material carrier. It’s about how the news ecosystem is now organized. Journalism used to have a monopoly over news delivery and agenda-setting. This monopoly is now gone. New mechanisms for the search, selection and delivery of content are not just replacing journalism – they are better. This is despite all the criticisms people have regarding the internet, as they are experiencing shock, of course. This shock is similar to the fever of getting immunity to the new environmental settings.

– You also declare that the tendency is global. But as far as I know, the circulation is stable for newspapers in some countries in Europe and Asia. At the end of the day, the habit of reading morning newspapers is as fundamental for the middle class as having a morning cup of coffee…

– Right, we observed some circulation growth of newspapers in India or China only recently, at the beginning of the 2010s. This was related to residual urbanization, industrialization and the associated process of growing literacy. These are the processes that accompanied the emergence of newspapers in Europe in due time. Now the circulation growth even in those regions stopped. We all are now on the same page – the last page of newspapers.

It took newspapers centuries to spread around the world. Smartphones conquered all the countries simultaneously and immediately occupied the niche of mass news and entertainment delivery. Some countries have entirely skipped the era of newspapers in their media development, as they got smartphones instead. There is an interesting phenomenon: the spread of the infrastructures of the next generation is happening faster than the modernization of old ones. Some regions might not have canalization, but they have started getting 5G.

The internet by no means targets old media specifically; it has nothing against them. On the contrary, it offers them amazing technical opportunities. The issue is that the internet offers them to everyone else. And even though an average user is much worse than an average journalist in whatever work with content, all the users together, with powerful psychological stimuli and a technological design that fosters total engagement, create an environment of news supply, the quality of which would not have been available to old media in their wildest dreams. My digital device, with my bookmarks and my friend feed, informs and entertains me by an order better than any classical media outlet or all of them taken together. The time of classical journalism is gone. What we are witnessing now in the news media is the residual panic of the civilians after the army has abandoned the fortress. By the army, I mean the business of news media.

– Let’s assume you are right, and the internet is killing old media. Isn’t the timeframe you give for the press to survive too short?

– If we take a look at the market mechanisms, the shift has already happened. Both advertising and audiences have fled to better platforms on the internet. However, there is still a demographic resource that is slowing the death of newspapers. This demographic resource will allow old media to exist yet another 10–15 years. I am talking about the last newspaper generation, people who were born before the 1980s. Their socialization occurred when newspapers were still strong in shaping news agenda. Unlike them, people born after 1990 were socialized with digital gadgets.

The 1980s, roughly, was the demographic watershed between the Gutenberg era and the digital era. People of the first digital generation, millennials and those going next, might have seen newspapers, but they do not have necessary experience in newspaper consumption. They do not know how to subscribe to newspapers or buy them at a stand. Most importantly, they don’t know why they would do that. They did not learn the myth about the role of journalism. Moreover, millions of today’s students, Gen Z, have never even touched a newspaper. It does not even make any sense to appeal to their sense of nostalgia. They don’t have a sense of nostalgia regarding newspapers because they don’t have any sensory experience with newspapers.

As long as there are people who are nostalgic about the role of newspapers, there will be those who at least declare their loyalty to the old formats, though this is already often a false loyalty. The number of these people is statistically already insufficient to economically sustain classical journalism via subscription or advertising. However, they still create some social demand for the non-transactional subsidizing of journalism.

In 15 years maximum, the last newspaper generation will leave the scene of decision making. This will happen everywhere at approximately the same time. With that, not only the market demand, but the demographic demand for journalism and old media will fade away.

– What then do you say about TV and radio? They look more compliant with modern technologies.

– TV awaits the same fate. Programmed TV watching was a product of the industrial epoch and a TV set with a set of channels… the pun is accidental but makes sense. Broadcasting has ceased to be simultaneous for all. This was a technological restriction of signal delivery that has been overcome. As a result, programmed collective watching has yielded its place to selected individual watching. This is the difference between TV content and video content. People will watch what they want, not what they have been scheduled to watch. This eliminates the economic basis for channel-centered advertising and subscriptions.

Production centralization will be replaced by consumption centralization. This means that channels are replaced by platforms, and the channels’ owners are losing to the platforms’ owners. This is a technological shift creating a different environmental setting for screen watching. No matter what channel owners struggle to do, they have already lost their monopoly over watching and are thus losing business. As is the case with newspapers, the market shift has already happened – now it’s a matter of the oncoming generational shift.

The biggest TV brands will likely mutate into video content producers, maybe with some specific rights or reputations, but among and within other platforms of delivery and consumption. They will find themselves there among other talented and soon to be powerful video and news-video content producers from the ranks of today’s influencers and partisan or brand media. But the separate industry of television will die; or, it may be better to say, it will dissolve in the new environment.

As for radio, its fate is a bit more interesting, but the end is the same. Radio has suffered the least among old media from the internet. The reason is so-called forced consumption. Statistically speaking, people listen to the radio in traffic while driving their cars. As soon as the car learns to drive itself, the hands and eyes of the driver will be free, and he or she will immediately grab their smartphone. When that happens, radio will die instantly. Its best remainders will join the talking department of the metaverse, the podcasts, where they are already drifting to.

Interview with Andrey Mir in “Rossiyskaya gazeta”, translated.

The interview continues here:
Whoever will pay for journalism, they will pay not for journalism

Categories: Future of journalism, Postjournalism and the death of newspapers, Viral Editor

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