The (Past, Present and) Future of (Danish) Journalism
People who have seen the Oscar-nominated film A Royal Affair will be familiar with Denmark’s first attempt at freedom of speech. On 4 September 1770 Johann Friedrich Struensee, the royal physician to the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark, lover to Queen Caroline Matilda and de facto regent of the country, abolished censorship. Danish citizens immediately seized the opportunity to publish torrents of smear leaflets, and Struensee himself soon had to restrict this freedom or risk anarchy.
Shortly after the very brutal execution of the Enlightened doctor, censorship was firmly reinstated.
Denmark regained freedom of the press on 5 June 1849 and a number of newspapers established themselves across the country. They were each ideologically attached to a political party; they published the opinions of their party and only people who already agreed with the party line would buy and read a particular paper.
As Modernism and Capitalism reshaped the western world, the form of journalism they teach us about in school and which we praise as a hallmark of civilization took its form. Government was parted in three as suggested by political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu – also of the Enlightenment – and the press gained its reputation as the fourth power.
Sometime in the 1990s a small crack appeared in the foundation of this apparently rock solid mastodon of media business. No-one noticed at first but the internet built a formidable structure against which the dinosaurs of information had no defence. Printed newspapers went from being the de facto standard in news communication to being a niche product.
“Blogs and wikis [...] was what the Web was supposed to be all along.”
“What’s very important from my point of view is that there is one web [...] Anyone that tries to chop it into two will find that their piece looks very boring.”
- Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, computer scientist, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web.
Money was lost. Money is still being lost. Power is shifting. Some news traders attempt variations of pay-walls to secure a source of income. Most have failed. More will fail. To succeed with a closed garden approach a combination of quality products, a dedicated audience and a few secret ingredients are needed.
But there is something much worse than the financial challenges: Democracy itself changes as its keen and alert watcher – the media – is being stripped of its powers. Now politicians communicate directly with their voters via blogs. Representatives no longer depend on news media to get their messages out. Only the fast-paced short TV news retain their grip on the agenda.
So, what do media outlets do? They use their websites to leak teasers for their main stories the following day in the hope that the story gets on the agenda. Only then will a few readers pick up a copy of their printed newspaper. Experiments with citizen journalism are still in their beta prototype phases.
While citizens – news consumers – feel more free and informed than ever, actually they are burying their outlook with the debris of confirmation biases. While Facebook denies it has any adverse effects in this regard, they do filter and sort in the updates their users get. Many Facebook users share news stories – but only people who the Facebook algorithm believes are likely to agree with the sentiments of the posting user are actually likely to see that update.
Wait a second… Isn’t that almost the same thing as the 19th century newspapers affiliated with political groups?
“Yes, it’s exactly the same,” says Natasha Friis Saxberg, Danish social media researcher, “we are not very objective and don’t have a lot of perspective in this regard. Neither physically or online, it never changed”.
If Facebook is an enhancer of subjectivity it’s certainly something media professionals should stay away from when just looking for an update on the state of the world. Except search engines do almost the same nowadays. Competition for delivering useful results has made search engines personalise search result algorithms quite a bit. We are getting our outlooks trapped in filter bubbles, warned Eli Pariser in a TED Talk.
For a professional journalist who isn’t working in a propaganda organisation it might be a very good idea to log out of Google before googling, out of Hotmail before using Bing and out of Yahoo! before using Yahoo! Search. Or just use DuckDuckGo.com instead.
“We have all experienced the filter bubble,” says Saxberg. “Common users have no idea, they just clicked to accept terms. The problem is, we don’t know how information is found and selected for us when we search”.
Software has already begun writing baseball match reports. At the Intelligent Systems Informatics Lab at Tokyo University, Japan researchers are building an actual robot that photographs, interviews and publishes stories online. The absence of truth in US politics has inspired The Washington Post to start developing a real time fact checking algorithm. The future journalist will be working with and competing with robots.
And as for skills, as any member of an endangered species in a changing environment journalists will need a variety of skills, the ability to learn new skills and the willingness to adapt. There are no pluses nor minuses of multi-skilling – it is a prerequisite. Survival will also require the courage to stand up to the dogma of the dinosaurs and risk failure when going against traditional wisdom. Question marks have a new future in headlines, the journalism itself isn’t the product, anyone with a smartphone and a hidden talent can be tomorrow’s Pulitzer candidate.
These were just the ramblings of one veteran blogger who’s gone studying journalism. Might be less than prophetic. The future will not be what it used to be.
Photo by European Parliament via Flickr under Creative Commons license.