For liberal democracy as we know it, the decline of professional journalism is certainly bad news — without it, vocal majorities dictate political decisions increasingly rooted in extreme, intolerant values.
One hundred years ago nobody could have imagined modern human civilization without horses: Those animals were the crucial element in transportation and agriculture, for traveling, waging wars and building peace. However, if the last horse were to die tomorrow, nothing would change in our way of life. Horses are wonderful, elegant, beautiful creatures, but their ‘profession’ is outdated. Just like journalism will be, soon.
I belong to a minority of journalists who believe that our profession is doomed. At least journalism in the way we understand it as the preparation of news stories, according to certain professional standards, for publication in the mass-media –- journalism, with the two main components of establishing facts and explaining the context. Before long, probably not more than a couple of decades from now, that type of journalism will simply become obsolete.
The internet changed the world in a way that nobody could have predicted several decades ago, when it was invented. Not only has it changed the way we communicate and gather news and information (through a “democracy of distribution,” as Om Malik would put it), it has also influenced our daily habits and basic concepts of privacy, anonymity, the rules of public debate, moral responsibility and political participation.
An older type of news consumption, consisting of prolonged viewing of TV news and the morning ritual of the daily newspaper, is vanishing. The younger public –- actually, increasingly all age groups among the public –- no longer gets its news from the traditional media industry. It is a common phenomenon that internet platforms like Twitter and Facebook are beginning to dominate preferred news sources.
For instance, last year research showed that two-thirds of British kids have access to a tablet computer at home and spend more time on the internet than in front of the TV. Yes, they may still watch TV on their tablets and mobile phones, but they search on-demand content, not live TV. Of course, the debate about program formats and content is still open –- but media platform trends are undeniable. In two decades, kids will not even know that TVs were once transmitters of news and information.
And who knows what Apple is ‘cooking up’ in its laboratories. But whatever the next hot tech invention is, it’s likely to be even more mobile, more personalized, smaller and better connected than anything we know now.
OK, the BBC and CNN — although technologically and content-wise transformed in ways still unpredictable — will probably survive as a media platform beyond the next two decades. But most of the others will not.
This change of platforms is essential for changes in the journalistic profession. The ‘news cycle’ of the new digital platforms is measured in hours, and more often in minutes. The new digital format is screen-frame fixed, measured in words and short videos, not in paragraphs. Fact-checking and backgrounding is improbable, if not impossible. Context doesn’t matter much anymore –- what is important is speed and attraction. Presidents, supranational organizations and businesses tweet their positions on even the most complicated matters! The race to break news is more important than the competition for well-balanced news with integrity of sources and facts. Many commentators agreed that during the recent American presidential election, Trump’s prolific Twitter mass-messaging was more influential as a news source for the voters than traditional U.S. media.
OK, the BBC and CNN — although technologically and content-wise transformed in ways still unpredictable — will probably survive as a media platform beyond the next two decades. But most of the others will not. Even the giants will have to reduce their own journalistic input for the sake of ‘civic journalism’ and the ‘you-get-your-say’ approach. The result will be ever more shocking, exclusive and scandalous news content.
It changes the way that future newsrooms will look. In a few years, one should not be surprised if the number of drones exceeds the number of reporters. Drones, not journalists, will be assigned by editors to cover live news events, press conferences or civic unrest and natural disasters. Drones’ speed, video feeds, up-close shots, and uncensored reality are more attractive and less expensive than journalists’ work.
The craft of journalism facilitates public debate, that essential tool of democracy.
This rapidly changes the way that advertising money flows through the media, forever crushing the business models of traditional media. For instance, sport and entertainment attracts the biggest advertising budgets on TV, while the news is, comparatively speaking, the biggest spender. That is, if news is not done as merely the aggregation of whatever is on the Web at any given moment. The way of ‘selling’ news to the fractured audiences and advertisers will have to combine a lot of entertainment content, various scandals, crime and disasters, with information slots getting shorter and shorter.
When I elaborated my views on this at a recent conference, a young member of the audience ‘jumped’ at me, saying that journalists were the very reason why he had become a blogger. He saw his role as being to inform the public about various subjects and “truths” that the traditional media were refusing to inform about, or were doing so dishonestly. “So,” he passionately demanded to know, “why is the vanishing of journalism such bad news?”
The news is neither good nor bad as such. It is simply how things are. However, for liberal democracy as we know it, the decline of journalism is certainly bad news. The craft of journalism facilitates public debate, that essential tool of democracy: Facts are identified and context is reported, sources and interlocutors are consulted, space and time is given to minority views and less popular opinions, content is ‘packed’ in a credible and responsible way. Without that, democracy rests on a vox populi approach, where vocal majorities dictate political decisions increasingly rooted in extreme, intolerant values.
That is why populists, with their easy answers on complex matters, dominate debates on many important issues. To paraphrase Ivan Krastev: you can tweet the revolution, but to reform society you need good, old journalism. Good luck, liberal democracy!