Journalism is still crossing the Rubicon from analogue to digital

What is the role of the journalist in the digital world? Halfway across the Rubicon from analogue to digital, the media’s ability to report events has vastly altered in the last 20 years — with more rapid changes than any time since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century.

Just like then, we don’t have a map for the future. At both points in history the traditional model broke down. Journalists have been through much the same change that scribes — who would go on become the literary classes — went through when the printing press arrived. Before the printing press there was order, an established way of producing limited quantities of written material. In 1440, Gutenberg kickstarted the printing revolution, and by 1500 printing presses in Europe had produced more than twenty million volumes. In the 16th century, with presses spreading further afield, their output rose tenfold to an estimated 150 to 200 million copies. Some jobs went, but many more were created.

As print expanded its reach, there was a flowering of consciousness triggered by public debate which led to the Renaissance and the start of the scientific and industrial eras, all triggered by language, written down and widely circulated. The UK’s first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, was published in 1702, yet was only in 1966 that The Times put news on its front page — until then it had been adverts. By 1977 newspapers were regularly using colour photographs. In the 1980s the first electronic word processors arrived, and from then on there was an ongoing state of flux with technology lasting five years and ongoing software updates and developments.

Yesterday’s Renaissance is today’s information age, and yesterday’s circulation is today’s connectivity, but the current situation is more dangerous because where the printing press enhanced language, the internet is distorting language beyond recognition — testing it to destruction, you could say. Where we are today, the links in the most basic chain of communication — what truth is — are in danger of being undone, and that’s one of the existential challenges facing journalism in the digital age: how do you respond to an era of untruth?

What we can say is that no one saw coming — I know that for a fact because I was working in the industry, in the computer games market, from the early 1980s. No one knew. Maybe Steve Jobs suspected. Bill Gates just got lucky folks. Otherwise no one was prepared for the digital age until it happened. Some traditional industries adapted better than others, new ones sprung up, is all. The outcome is that the number of publishers broadcasting content today is potentially anyone with internet access — that was 4.4 billion people in 2019, up from 439 million in 2000 and the first billion in 2005. Hundreds of millions of people publish data, opinion and cat photos every single day — in fact they’re using up so much energy that by 2050, at the current rate of progress, the whole energy sector will be entirely devoted to keeping the internet going, there’ll be no capacity for anything dull like heating. Maybe Elon Musk will be able to sort it out with a battery powered by radioactive waste.

However, newspapers’ problems began before the arrival of the internet. The first 24-hour news channel was CNN, which started broadcasting in 1980. The BBC started its 24-hour news channel in 1997. That really opened the floodgates because the BBC is — or was last time I checked — a public service broadcaster. Ever since, people won’t wait for a set time — a formal publication date — to satisfy their thirst for news. No one is saying the demand for news is dying — people can’t get enough of it — it’s just a question of how and by whom it’s presented and what people will pay for it.

Another leaving speech at the Cambridge News, 2012: redundancies in the newspaper industry were ongoing for the first two decades of the new century

From around 2005, as digital technology kicked in, the newspaper trade responded to the threat with redundancies, and for about 15 years the pace of downsizing in the local press was brutal. And all the time print was losing market share to digital platforms that travelled light — no fact-checkers, no taxes or pensions paid, minimal head counts. Start-ups, but start-ups with transnational teams of tens of thousands of people. Did I mention they pay no tax, thus making their organisations parasitic to the organism rather than productive for it? The front end — endless free information and entertainment — has obscured the hidden price tag.

Whatever you think or believe about the media, it’s much harder to change existing infrastructure than it is to spark up new infrastructure from scratch, which is why Silicon Valley companies have done so well this century — they have no legacy model to trade out of. Newspapers generally prefer to be seen to pay their tax and wages bill in the country they print in — and also to contribute to good causes in the local community. In the Cambridge Evening News, right up to about 2005 we had a department called Press Relief, and the Press Relief team’s role was to spend a chunk of the owner’s money on charities, families and people in difficulties — and the online equivalent of dog sanctuary videos.

There have been consequences. The Times’ headline writer would have spotted the reporter’s assertion that the Europe Court of Justice is based in Strasbourg rather than the correct location, Luxembourg City. Someone didn’t know and the checks weren’t there.

But mistakes were made in the old days too — one paper I worked on put three ‘m’s’ in ‘accommodation’ as the first word on the lead story’s headline. ’Try to avoid shooting the messenger’ should be every journalist’s motto.

So what of the future? What can we say about journalists further down the line?

Maybe there’s a range of options for what news journalism could look like. The worst case is that future content will be defined by algorithms tailor-made for the individual. Stories will be personalised just for you, just to get you to read it. If you’re a car-owning republican with a disability and liking for conspiracy theories about everything from 9/11 to the death of Jeffrey Epstein, algorithm-driven content could be created solely to retain your eyeballs for as long as possible, irregardless of the truth and bereft of any wider context. Other stories may contain the ‘proper’ news as a sort of shop window, but that could be ten per cent of what comes into your feeds. It’s not the algorithms fault if people prefer feuds to pacifists, disasters to triumphs. There will be even fewer journalists — or content managers, in the new argot — all competing with the other platforms online. Local newspapers may do better if the local community engages with it, which makes whether there’s a future for journalism somewhat own to you. Certainly there are journalists like Carole Cadwalladr or George Monbiot, the counter counter-insurgents, who will do well however their work is presented.

So the possibilities for journalism lie between two very different points of the spectrum. One the one side, you have this AI-driven model which tailors news to individual taste, pretty much oblivious to the wider world because it suits corporations to have society divvied up into convenient batches, to be saturated with mindless distraction. On the other side there’s credible, fact-checked news publishers who have retained a print edition but have yet to find ways to monetise their online product.

Which one is chosen depends on consumers: how much readers will pay for accurate and fair reporting — and how? Journalism will follow the market: if the market wants to be deluged with clickbait, perhaps tailor-made clickbait, that’s what they’ll get. The challenge for all media is that it can’t stand still because the ground is breaking up underneath its feet: it either moves one way, which is totalitarian by nature, or the other, which is based on failing liberal values of tolerance, justice and the rule of law. We’ve no clear view of what’s on the other side while the crossing the Rubicon from analogue to digital. Journalists aren’t ahead of the game, but maybe some proprietors are. The Rothermeres, Murdoch and Barclay group of owners certainly got their way when they embarked on a 20-year campaign to ridicule and undermine the UK’s membership of the European Union.

Politicians who want to avoid close scrutiny will target the mainstream media and try to restrict press freedom, as we found out on February 3rd, 2020, when the government attempted to ban some of the press in the lobby of No 10 Downing Street.

Muzzling the press allows a new type of leader — Erdogan, or Trump, or Bolsonaro, and perhaps Johnson — to rewrite history, presenting themselves as the true guardians of the nation, and allowing themselves to raise a new generation of citizens raised on their authoritarian ideology.

I’ve missed out one final component: you. We’re in an age where everyone has a story to tell and a platform to all it on. There’s things you can be doing to protect and nurture your own story: encourage your children’s education, develop critical thinking, learn about your heritage and take precautions about your online data, stay close to your values — and analyse what those values are. What do you really think of Modi, or Harry and Meghan, or Extinction Rebellion? Do you think fast fashion is wrong? How vegan could you become? Journalists and authors use language to record and sometimes shape narratives. So be it — story-tellers have been with us from time immemorial. They may have been called scribes, or writers, revolutionaries, bigots — and in Piers Morgan’s case hate-mongers — but humanity’s biggest thirst is for meaning, the meaning that a story provides. So maybe journalism’s role as storyteller-in-chief is under threat, but history suggests that this too will pass — if only when the alternative becomes clear.

Journalist, writer; facilitator at Cambridge Open Media

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