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The chatter’s been picking up about it: is journalism facing an “extinction level event”? That’s how the editor of one of the country’s top papers puts it. Consider the following, from this excellent and highly recommended Atlantic Monthly article, by one of the Washington Post’s most senior journalists:
For a few hours last Tuesday, the entire news business seemed to be collapsing all at once. Journalists at Time magazine and National Geographic announced that they had been laid off. Unionized employees at magazines owned by Condé Nast staged a one-day strike to protest imminent cuts. By far the grimmest news was from the Los Angeles Times, the biggest newspaper west of the Washington, D.C., area. After weeks of rumors, the paper announced that it was cutting 115 people, more than 20 percent of its newsroom.
So. News is seeing round after round of savage layoffs. Journalism as a field’s in dire shape. Local newspapers have been decimated, and the handful of titans which remain are shadows of themselves. And as the article above points out, while journalism’s been in trouble for quite some time, the latest slowdown, accelerating, is troubling, and striking, because usually, just before an event like an election, readership picks up. Not any longer, it seems.
What’s really going on here? A lot more than meets the eye. Let’s begin with a very quick set of economics, before we come to the trend inside all this.
News is always going to struggle in an economy like America’s—a hyper capitalist one. The old secret of the profitability of newspapers—which made Warren Buffett’s fortune, among others—wasn’t that news itself was profitable (it never was), it’s that classifieds used to be money machines. Remember those? Once upon a time, they were what glued local economies—from labour markets to used goods—together. But now, of course, they’re very much a thing of the past. You don’t seek a connection at your local newspaper’s lonely hearts section—you get on (shudder) Tinder.
So the decline of news is in this sense an old story. But the larger point, and problem, is often missed in America. Journalism is the very definition of a public good—I’m better off when you have it, consume it, engage with it. And in hyper capitalist economies, public goods are always under provided, and underfunded, because, of course, me being better off when you consume something too dilutes a profit motive. In the classical analysis of economics, journalism is a thing that’s perhaps the purest public good of all, a form of education, which is best provided publicly. But of course America’s social contract, resistant to public goods of any kind, rendered that flatly impossible, and so America never developed a BBC, CBC, NHK, or Deutsche Welle.
And as history unfolded, the way that we began to consume information itself changed. Dramatically, sharply, and suddenly. Think about it with me. “Newspapers” are premised on a kind of arms-length way to consume information. An impersonal one. There are a set of journalists, whom you don’t know, providing you stories, facts, analysis, understanding. In many cases, in the old world, many of those journalists went on to become household names, garnering fame of their own, like, say Walter Cronkite.
There’s nothing wrong with that—but like I said, the way that we consume information was to change radically. How do we consume it now? Not impersonally, but relationally. The younger you go through the generations, the more pronounced and marked that effect is. Now, information’s something that flows through relational channels. I know this person, they highlight or share or recommend this or that with me, and I do the same for people I know.
This is the rise of new micro-trend: relational information. Not impersonal information. They’re very different.
Relational information flows through networks, and gives rise to “network effects,” so now we speak of things “going viral,” and “social media engagement” and so forth. Impersonal information couldn’t be more different.
That’s not to say that any of this is good for us, necessarily. Relational information sprung up and disrupted—utterly—the old model of impersonal information. For a panoply of reasons. Trust was falling in orthodox institutions, and so people began to lean on one another more. It was easier, cognitively, attentionally, to read a tweet, or even a dozen, than a dozen hard-fought newspaper articles. Trust, too, played a role: maybe I trusted all those people online who were my new “friends” more than I ever did “the news.”
But of course all this has come with fairly devastating consequences for society. Because as relational information has become the way we consume information, almost exclusively, many, many distortions take place. “Fake news” has become a watchword—people trust and believe altogether too credulously what they shouldn’t, just because it comes from their “friends.” They get trapped in filter bubbles and echo chambers, of like minds, where veracity and truth are long-forgotten values. In that process of amplification, the baser emotions—anger, fear, rage, titillation, are what are most easily triggered, and spread, catching fire, in a process of social contagion.
The rise of relational information hasn’t been good for us, in other words. You can see that in many, many statistics, from the percentage of people who believe “the election was stolen,” which has risen over time, showing us the power of relational information to distort the truth. To the way that screen time is associated with higher levels of every form of misery there is, really, from loneliness to anxiety to despair. You can see it, of course, in the “polarization” of our societies, cloven in two, divided into “spheres” of information, from the “manosphere” to the “Trumposphere” and so forth.
So what are we to do with all this, exactly? Many thoughts occur to me, but amongst the first is that traditional news organizations have been incredibly bad at adapting to relational information. That’s because impersonal information is the diametrical opposite, and it’s what they spent a century or more becoming good at, ending up in what’s known as a “competence trap.” Today, we’re going to need to innovate the way that we “tell the news.” As a simple example, most orthodox news publishers don’t even have TikTok accounts, but that’s where the vast majority of young people get their news. The point isn’t TikTok—it’s that news must become relational, in real and deeper senses, if it wants a future. People demand relationality now, to build trust, to forge a sense of community, to be part of a movement—and just giving them impersonal news is by now a badly obsolete way of thinking.
Of course, that’s difficult for orthodox publishers—and even those who think of themselves as cutting edge ones. Journalists aren’t encouraged, even allowed, to build relationships with readers—that’s seen as a conflict of interest, or at best, a shallow indulgence. But is it? Or should news be pioneering new ways to tell its stories, that involve relationality at its core? If nobody much is listening anymore, whose fault is it? Everyone’s in a sense, but even most news startups aren’t relational—they’re the same thing with a slightly different brand. And so they’ve struggled to really do well, too.
Hovering above all this remains the conundrum of news as a public good in a capitalist economy. Can that square really be circled? The Atlantic article highlights one effort that’s being made: many countries are now demanding that Big Tech essentially pay journalism a fee. Those pennies add up, and can keep journalism healthy. This is a way of subsidizing a public good—we can simply think of it as Big Tech paying a sort of public service obligation if you like. Not a bad model—but in America, I feel, probably one with a limited future.
So should a thousand small publications bloom, instead? Like, perhaps, right here at The Issue. I’m not really a journalist—just an economist, a management guru, whatever you want to call me. My job isn’t deep investigative journalism—which is is an essential component of a healthy society.
And it’s in this sense we should think about the annihilation of news and journalism. Well-being—it’s so often at the heart of what we discuss. How healthy is a society without a vibrant journalism and news field? Probably not very. You can I can both think of many societies like that, and they’re usually not democracies, happy places to live, prosperous, open, or healthy in any other sense of the word. The reason we should want to prevent an annihilation of news and journalism, in other words, is for the well-being of our societies, in all the senses you can already probably think of: democratically, civically, educationally, informationally.
But crossing that bridge is going to require many things. New models of subsidies and payments, like those involving Big Tech, and even, yes, the much-derided “government intervention.” It’s also going to require existing titans of news understanding in a much, much deeper way that the shift to relational information is here to stay, and that as it is now, it’s bad for us, but their opportunity is just that, building a better model for relational information, that isn’t quite so poisonous. And it’s going to take plenty of experiments starting, trying, and failing, which is what all the little independent newsletters and publications and even VC-backed startups exploding these days are really doing, whether they know it or not.
That’s a tall order. It’s a lot of pressure. Can journalism survive? Probably not as we know it. But the opportunities are manifold. Think of all the ways that information roars, surges, and flows now—and how little explored it all is still, in this vein. The future, I think, lies there—and news organizations are going to have to shape it more forcefully, with more intention, purpose, and courage. They shy away nervously, still, from the micro-trend of relational information—but trends are greater than organizations: they’re forces of history, and the challenge is to harness them, direct them, sail with them, because none of us can really contain them.
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