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Things fall apart: why journalism might not survive what’s coming next

Newspapers will die when the old people do but it’s worse than that: we’re barrelling towards a future with no media outlets at all, argues a new book. Danyl McLauchlan explains ‘postjournalism’. 

The first commercial newspapers appeared in Europe in the early 17th century, and the last will roll off the press sometime in the early 2030s. A few may linger on as playthings for states or billionaires, but newspapers will effectively be dead. They’ve had a good run: 400 years is not bad for a media technology. And there will still be news after newspapers; hosted on the online platforms that destroyed them. It’ll just look radically different from the journalism that dominated the industry during the newspaper era, so much so that the media theorist Andrey Mir doesn’t think it should be called journalism any more. He suggests we refer to the new media product as “postjournalism”.

Mir’s last name is actually Miroshnichenko. He was a business journalist in Russia for many years, but he shortened his name to something more pronounceable when he migrated to the west. Now he teaches media theory at York University in Toronto, Marshall McLuhan’s old perch. In his book Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization Mir is here partly to praise newspapers, partly to bury them, but mostly to explain why their death is (a) inevitable and (b) a very big deal. He communicates this with a history of news media and a blizzard of concepts and neologisms, so here’s a very partial glossary of postjournalism – arranged chronologically rather than alphabetically – to sketch out where he’s coming from.

Avvisi

Prior to the development of the printing press in the late 15th century, most of the texts in Europe were over 1000 years old and written in Latin. Every royal court had a handful of literary nerds – ie people who could read and write – whose job it was to copy them. With the automation of printing they’re liberated from this work, and they start writing letters to each other, filled with gossip, political intrigue and commercial information. The letters get circulated and copied, and this quickly turns into a business. The most successful newsletters were the Venetian avvisi, and they were so successful that political elites moved to regulate and censor them and found their own propaganda outlets. So from the beginning of journalism there are two funding models: bottom-up, ie readers pay for news that has value to them, and top-down, an interested party – typically someone rich and powerful – pays for news to be disseminated because it benefits them to do so.

The public sphere

In 1631 Cardinal Richlieu helps establish La Gazette as a propaganda outlet. This is one of the first newspapers that modern readers would recognise as a newspaper. The Cardinal and Louis XIII are frequent anonymous contributors but the editor Théophraste Renaudot rewrites their copy. (Mir: “And so we see the birth of political journalism.”) The model gets taken up by most of the princes of Europe, but has an unintended consequence: it creates “the public sphere”, an idea we’re all so used to that we have a hard time conceptualising it. Mir uses Habermas’s famous definition: the public sphere is “the domain of social life where public opinion can be formed”. It’s the creation of the idea that there is “a public” and that it should know what’s going on in the nation and the world, and have opinions on it, and that these opinions should count for something. If you were a monarch or aristocrat or the church during the feudal era, you displayed your power before everyone else, but you didn’t care what they thought about anything. Now that they were reading about you and your foreign policy in your newspaper, you cared, and so did they. And this can have either a democratising or revolutionary effect, or both. Changes in media technology or models are always taken up for short-term, pragmatic reasons but can have huge political and social consequences, is Mir’s point here.

Boomers on lawn chairs read The Press, bright green grass, beaut day

Boomers of Christchurch, March 2021 (Photo: Peter Meecham/Getty Images)

Neue Rheinische Zeitung and the philanthropy model

The newspaper founded by the Communist League, edited by Karl Marx, and a key actor in the revolutions of 1848. Once you get widespread literacy and low printing costs (pulp paper, rotary presses), you get newspapers accessible to the bourgeois and then the working class. This creates the conditions for the socialist revolutions of the 19th and early 20th century. Marx’s newspaper is significant because it invented a new business model, neither top down or bottom up. Instead it was crowdfunded by his fellow revolutionaries. They didn’t want to read news about the collapse of the July Monarchy – they already knew about it. They wanted “the workers” to know about it and to learn about it through a revolutionary lens. Mir is going to argue that philanthropy is the business model that newspapers and online media will revert to during their dying days.

Manufacturing consent

Also known as the Propaganda model, this is the classic Herman-Chomsky model of 20th century media, a now obsolete conception that ageing left-wing intellectuals still cling to as they rail against a corporate media that has been disintegrating before our eyes for decades. The propaganda model was primarily a business strategy, and it was both bottom up and top down. Readers subscribed to the newspaper, then that readership became a commodity that the newspaper could sell to advertisers. This was such an outrageously successful model most of the others just fell away. But the incentives created a very specific type of media, the purpose of which Chomsky described as “to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society”.

At the height of their profitability at the turn of the millennium, advertising provided about 80% of the revenue for newspapers. But this was an unstable model. Journalists want to be doing journalism: they want to be covering wars, and unveiling corruption, and speaking truth to power and all that public good stuff they get awards and public recognition for. And they were using advertising revenue to fund all that activity. This meant that advertisers were subsidising an expensive industry, most of which had little or no direct value to them. So as soon as a better, cheaper alternative came along, advertising migrated online leading to the very rapid collapse of newspapers.

Photo of a man holding a lamp, looking to camera, plus a black and white book cover

Media theorist Andrey Mir (Photo: Supplied)

The propaganda model drove the “both sides”, objective and impartial style of journalism that we associate with the media values of the 20th century. But there was a famously narrow window of authors and viewpoints allowed through the gates to report that news. You didn’t want to publish stuff that upset the readers or the advertisers too much. There weren’t a lot of minority authors or radical ideas around in 20th century news.

With the rise of the internet you get the emancipation of authorship. It is both great and terrible in ways that are obvious to anyone who has ever been online. Because if everyone has a voice then Nazis have a voice, Russia’s propaganda corps has a voice, bad actors monetising conspiracy theories have a voice. The torrent of information and misinformation is partly corrected by the viral editor; the algorithmic and mass psychological mechanism that sorts the near infinite amount of new content generated every minute of every hour and amplifies the most popular, directing it at the people who will most respond to and engage with it.

The viral editor operates via platforms, primarily (in approximate order of popularity) Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. It doesn’t care about individual media brands, only the content and how much engagement it drives. Most media theorists describe this as “unbundling” ie the contents of your newspaper used to be bundled together, now you read a Stuff article, then listen to a New York Times podcast, then read a Spinoff take. But Mir thinks there’s something deeper than unbundling going on.

What’s really happened is a change in the quantum of information. It used to be that you bought a morning newspaper, or a weekly magazine, then read some or all of the stories. Maybe you just did the crossword, or read the comics – doesn’t matter. What mattered is that you paid for the newspaper. Now the quantum of information is a headline. “Kabul has fallen to the Taliban.” Or not even a headline, since most news stories get live-tweeted by the journalists covering them before they even file any copy. Maybe you click a link to the eventual story, maybe you don’t. If you do, the content is probably “free”, in that in exchange for reading it your data is being captured and your attention and behaviour is being monetised by Google or Facebook or the media company you’re clicking through to.

Old photo of Jonah Lomu seated at table surrounded by media, sound booms and mics etc

Jonah Lomu and media, October 1999, Bagshot, near London (Photo: Olivier Morin / AFP via Getty Images)

All of these changes lead inexorably to the logic of postjournalism. There is no longer an economic rationale for newspapers but there is a social rationale, the notion that they’re integral to the survival of democracy itself. Mir: “the myth of the newspapers’ significance … held by the older generation and desperately promoted by the newspapers themselves”, will keep them alive for a few more years, until the ageing demographics that still absorb media in this antiquated quantum of information die off. When the millenials and zoomers – who largely regard them as bizarre historical artifacts – become the primary consumer market, the format is dead.

So what is the value of online media if the news itself is free, unbundled and curated virally? Different media outlets experimented with different models with little success, but then, in the midst of the 2010s, a number of media trends all clicked into place with the rise of a plucky new politician named Donald J Trump.

Part of the postjournalism model came from cable news, most notably Fox: people will pay for your media product if it makes them feel like they’re under constant threat from an imminent enemy; and that watching your news channel is the only way you find out about this and, in some vague slacktivist way, fight back. And this was combined with the philanthropy model pioneered by the Communist League all those years ago, resurrected by the Dutch news website De Correspondent and the UK Guardian, algorithmically perfected by the Washington Post and New York Times and taken up by online media the world over. The crowdfunded philanthropy model.

If I click on an “objective” news story about the fall of Kabul to the Taliban I don’t learn much that I don’t already know, ie that Kabul has fallen to the Taliban. I’m probably not gonna pay for that. But what if I could click on a highly editorialised story, or even just an opinion piece that blamed the fall of Kabul on a politician or party or ideology I don’t like? A story that validates what I already think about the world? What if I wasn’t really paying for the news, but donating to make that editorialising news free to other people who I wanted to persuade to the worldview it promoted? What if the news was less like a factual description of the world and more like an activist cause I strongly supported? The world the way I want it to be?

Mir provides a concise definition. “Postjournalism is journalism that is economically forced to take a political side and produce polarisation and anger in order to trigger the audience’s loyalty and donations in the form of subscriptions”, or, in a pithier way “the commodification of polarisation”. Obviously this isn’t how the journalists producing this content regard their work: the New York Times reporter Wesley Lowery describes it as journalism with “moral clarity”, and Mir is very dry when he observes that when objectivity paid the bills that was the core value, but now that activism pays the bills, moral clarity is what counts.

This focus on polarising topics leads to discourse concentration: an intense focus on events that are likely to drive subscriptions. These are often – but not always – about politics, race or gender identity, and they’re almost always about someone saying something controversial, often on social media or in some ideological rival’s media outlet. In Mir’s model left-wing and right-wing media and political figures are in symbiosis with one another: each generates the content for the other’s revenue-generating content (“Can you believe what Mark Richardson/Judith Collins/Jacinda Ardern said today?”).

Close up of Donald Trump talking and clearly loving himself talking, into a dictaphone held by a reporter

Trump, talking, 2016 (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Mir believes that Trump was the perfect subject for postjournalism. By giving him unprecedented, saturation coverage US media outlets facilitated his victory while simultaneously depicting him as an existential threat to democracy that only a digital subscription to the Post or the Times could defend against. Before Trump the New York Times digital subscription numbers were languishing at a million readers, with no growth. Today they’re at 7.5 million readers. Mir: “Donald Trump made American media great again.”

But it is a dubious form of greatness. The Times published literally thousands of articles and columns alleging that Trump and his inner circle colluded with Russia to subvert the outcome of the 2016 election. The Mueller report completely failed to substantiate this, which would have been a crisis for the old form of objective journalism, which relied on credibility to sell itself. Instead the Russia story was a triumph of postjournalism, because it outraged and terrified millions of people into buying subscriptions. But now Trump is gone and US media is experiencing “the Trump slump” – a dramatic decline in viewership. Mir: “The audience’s eventual deafness to the media calling for donations may become the natural limit to this business model (if society does not disintegrate completely before this happens)”.

There’s a story we can tell ourselves about journalism being good and postjournalism being bad; or that the former was true while the latter is “fake news”, and that is very much not Mir’s story. A lot of journalism was bad; a lot of postjournalism is good. But he’s not that invested in the quality or the content or even the truth-value of either format. He’s a disciple of McLuhan: the medium is the message. “The ad-driven media produced happy customers. The reader-driven media produce angry citizens. The former served consumerism. The latter serves polarization.” The medium of postjournalism delivers the fragmentation of the public sphere. We lose the consensus reality of the journalism era: different consumers of different media can now occupy profoundly different realities.

And you don’t get the political transformation brought about by the early newspapers that invented the philanthropy model. Those liberal and socialist papers were founded with ideologies and political goals; modern newspapers are a business and their goal is economic survival. They struggle to adhere to an ideologically coherent editorial stance because the most important editors are the viral editor, and the need to generate new subscriptions via novel existential crises and moral panics. The political movements Mir predicts in our new informational environment are characterised by the protests of the BLM movement and the nihilism of the Trump supporters storming the US Capitol. “There were no revolutions before newspapers, and there will be none after; only riots (yet, maybe, coups).”

Here are the subscription numbers for New Zealand newspapers over the last 13 years (the Herald withdrew from the survey).

Table of data showing subs dropping off

It’s not hard to see the postjournalism/philanthropy model emerging here as a response. On the rare occasions I write about domestic politics I’m usually writing what Mir would call postjournalism: highly editorial with no pretence of objectivity; so is almost every other columnist. (Go to an archive and pick up a newspaper from the 1990s – there’s hardly any editorial: it’s mostly news). Our big media companies currently exist in a hybrid state: it’s fascinating to contrast the front pages of the newspapers to the lead stories on the web sites on the same day. It’s often journalism versus postjournalism.

Do we have the economies of scale to support a postjournalism media if the numbers above continue their current trajectory? Mir is sceptical that any media outlets anywhere survive over the long term. The most generous philanthropist in New Zealand (that we know of!) is the state. What happens when we see a right-wing government that is less favourably inclined towards an industry that is rapidly shifting left?

Most nonfiction books about a social problem have a last chapter in which the author proposes solutions, leaving the reader with a glimmer of hope. Mir might be lecturing in Canada but he’s very Russian. He does not have solutions. The death of newspapers and radical transformation of media is just a thing that will happen, and has mostly already happened, and the consequences are already playing out. All we can do is observe it and devise responses. Instead of an optimistic ending he winds up his book with this quote from the Russian dissident and philosopher Grigory Pomerants:

The Devil emerges from the foam at the mouth of an angel fighting for a sacred, just cause. Everything turns to ash – people, systems, but eternal is the spirit of hatred in a fight for a just cause. Because of that, evil on earth knows no end. 

And a quote from McLuhan:

Pattern recognition in the midst of a huge, overwhelming, destructive force is the way out of the maelstrom. The huge vortices of energy created by our media present us with similar possibilities of evasion of the consequences of destruction. By studying the pattern of the effects of this huge vortex of energy in which we are involved, it may be possible to program a strategy of evasion and survival.

Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization, by Andrey Mir ($26 paperback, $10.90 ebook) is available via the author’s website Human as Media

 

 

 




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