A few years ago, a barber asked me what my profession was. I replied I was a journalist. “What for?” he asked. Me: “That’s what I keep wondering myself.”
So what are we doing all this for? This is a question I have been asking myself a lot lately. This is not the midlife crisis of a former journalism student who hasn’t noticed there was such a thing as growing up, that would be much too easy. Because it isn’t me, who is in a crisis, it is journalism itself. There are still people who proclaim at industry events that there has never been a better time to become a journalist. They either have come into a great inheritance or they have stocked up on substances I have yet to discover.
Why Journalism? And why am I so worried? It’s simple: I love my job and I keep wondering whether I will be able to afford being a journalist for another twenty years. How can we make money on the internet? Nobody can tell at the moment, not even people like myself, who always seem to have answers to everything. There was great internet euphoria at the beginning, then came disenchantment and now we’re panicking. If this were a Netflix series, we would be at the beginning of Season Two.
If the disruption of media were a Netflix series, we would be at the beginning of Season 2
Here’s what happened so far: The initial battles are behind us. Content for free, clickbait wars, any number of copyright episodes. The smoke is lifting. There are countless victims, and yes, there are a few minor successes. Not only have online desks become an established part of any media outlet, they are even taken seriously by the powers that be. Broadcasters and publishers are definitely putting the web first now. In many years of trench warfare, enough top-notch editors have fallen by the wayside to make it seem advisable even for DER SPIEGEL to merge their print and online operations.
Publishers are only just celebrating their first successful digital subscriptions (much too expensive in Germany, and much too complicated — but hey), when new threats are emerging. Digital advertising revenue has taken a dive — not only in terms of money figures but also in terms of speed — in a way that no-one would have thought possible. The series-savvy audience already knows where these budgets have migrated, of course. The plot gets even spicier by the fact that broadcasters and publishers are receiving subsidies from Silicon Valley via projects such as “Google News Initiative” or “Facebook Journalism Project”.
A much more powerful army has gathered right in front of them, outside our own Great Paywall
After the usual skirmishes on the web (great performance: Donald Trump as King Joffrey), the current season is taking its course towards a climactic end: Who will inherit the leaden throne of newspaper publishing from Rupert Murdoch? Through a surprising twist in the plot our brave media warriors have to find out that their enemies are not where they thought they were in far-away Mountain View or Menlo Park. No, a much more powerful army has gathered right in front of them, outside their own Great Paywall. Hordes and hordes of the Undead, hellbent on sensationalism and never willing to pay for anything — there were formerly known as the readers.
Back to our everyday work in the media: I no longer see our recurring fistfights with Google as cargo cults (not to be confused with the popular management strategy: Our market share is decreasing? — we need a new logo!). They are mock battles designed to divert our attention from our real adversary. It is an adversary that we never confront other than under duress: Our viewers, our listeners and our readers. In fact, we are fighting against ourselves with the attitude we are showing towards this new audience of responsible and sometimes deeply anxious consumers.
A maze of subjective truths — they are never completely right and rarely completely false
People are in the process of realizing that there are no more simple answers in an omni-connected world, that there is no such thing as monocausality. Everything is connected to everything else. It’s always been that way, of course. But now it has become obvious for everyone. Tangible. In times of the printed word there was a finite number of texts, access to original sources was limited and reciprocity between sender and recipient was virtually non-existent. Today everything is transparent and strangely enough that’s why it is all so opaque. A maze of subjective truths — they are never completely right and rarely completely false.
But I have noticed something else in my wonderings about journalism: People do not read anymore. Steve Jobs said that once when he meant to emphasize the advantages of the iPad vs the Kindle. Today, almost eight years after his death I am convinced that the founder of Apple was right — at least in principle. The arithmetic of media use in our society is shifting from paper to screens and this in turn has led to a shift from text to audio-visuals. We perceive texts, but we no longer really read them.
Had anyone told me during my studies at the Munich Media Institute that one day our “recipients” (sic!) would be standing at bus stops and on train platforms staring at their telephones, I would have dropped out of journalism studies and taken up computer science instead. Or Therapeutic Dance. It’s always been futile to draw conclusions from the past for the future. Remember the industrial revolution, the coachmen and the quest for faster horses.
History never repeats itself but sometimes it rhymes
In my view the most obvious heralds for structural change in journalism are smart phone apps such as Snapchat, Instagram or Tik Tok, but streaming platforms like Netflix or YouTube are also important. In a Bitkom (German digital industry association) survey young consumers said recently which function on their cell phones was the most important one after music: Video. Even before social and messenger services. The very concept of a daily paper is unknown to these kids, and they prefer to send their WhatsApp messages in voice form, because they can’t be bothered to type — will we ever be able to reach this generation with written texts or linear programs on TV or radio?
About ten years ago I started an experiment. I set out like David Attenborough in order to study my fellow humans’ media consumption — in the wild. I kept a tally of every person I saw outside my own Media and Business Lounge bubble holding a paper or magazine, and of every person I saw with a laptop or a smartphone. In 2010 the balance was still about even. Today we know: Screens have won.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings: Our main competitor is sleep
Then I changed my focus. I no longer cared about the carrier medium. I wanted to know what was happening on those screens. So I spied on people by looking over their shoulders, and to my great surprise hardly anyone was reading a text on their device, let alone consumed a journalistic product. Instead, I saw games, films and text messages. The printed version of DER SPIEGEL had not given way to the digital version of DER SPIEGEL, but mainly to Candy Crush, Sodoku und WhatsApp.
And that’s only the beginning. There has been a sharp increase of Netflix, Amazon Prime and other video content on the screens around me. This fall both Apple and Disney will be starting to cash in on their multi-billion investments by launching their own streaming services. Starting in 2020 we will see Quibi, a video platform tailored to smartphone screens. Falling prices for data plans and increasing bandwidth are further enabling the trend away from text to video. As Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix, so aptly put it: “Sleep is our competition.”
The beginning era of 5G means hyper-connected communication on steroids
Are you ready for some more gloom? The next epic battle that we as journalists will be facing in this Game of Phones can me subsumed in two characters (no, not AI, that we will talk about later): I mean 5G. Video is data-intensive and on the mobile web it is still considered a luxury, particularly in an digital emerging country such as Germany. In this country stuff can take ages to load, and in some places, there isn’t even the most basic reception. This has meant an unnatural protection for text and audio.
My prognosis is that this will change dramatically over the next couple of years.
A world running on 5G will have nothing in common with our present mobile experience. The 5G network will be faster and more powerful than anything we have so far associated with the internet. It’s going to be a whole new era, with data throughput at 20 times faster than glass fiber. We used to have mass communication — then we will have communication of the masses, if we don’t have that already. Not only will every recipient be a sender, as Bertolt Brecht predicted in “The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication”, every recipient will also be a mobile multimedia producer.
All floodgates will be open once the Fifth Generation of mobile communication will be upon us
All floodgates will be open once the Fifth Generation of mobile communication will be upon us. Text, audio, video — everything digital will fight tooth and nail for that ultimate resource that can’t be increased at will: Attention. Where will be our place as journalists in an arena where everyone will be fighting against everybody else in the quest for attention? What will be our raison d’être, when more and more politicians, corporations and athletes are running their own channels, circumventing us, the former gatekeepers, communicating directly with their target groups? What will we be needed for?
Apple has set an example: They no longer focus on the technological superiority of the iPhone, but they emphasize privacy as its distinctive feature now. We as journalists should also focus on gaining the trust of our users. I’m not saying win back trust, because looking back in history it seems people never really liked us that much. In the dark analog ages, we only had that one advantage: People just couldn’t get around us.
Without even noticing, we have become the coachmen of the digital age
We have to face reality: Without even noticing, we have become the coachmen of the digital age. Or was it that we just didn’t want to notice? We have to re-invent ourselves in a world where the means of information and disinformation are practically unlimited. Not just once, by re-organizing the newsroom, but again and again. Particularly as far as our digital offerings are concerned.
There can be no question that society needs professional journalism. But how are we supposed to make a living, if our product is no longer transporting information (sales), not even our award-winning reporting or features (editorial). I don’t think it makes sense to place a fat ‘plus’ sign next to our best content and hide it behind some sort of paywall. The texts that we used to get paid for will have another purpose in the future: They will be advertising trailers for the actual product.
The corporate creed of ‘Brand above All’ does not help when you sell content
Some outlets are already experimenting. DER SPIEGEL has been trying out various stage formats. DIE ZEIT is exporting its format ‘My Country Talks’ after it was successful in Germany. Handelsblatt’s Readers’ Club has become a full-fledged source of revenue. The minds behind these formats have understood one thing: Audiences do not care about brands, they care about people. The corporate creed of ‘Brand above All’ does not help when you sell content. The strongest brand has always been a real person. In the digital age this is truer than ever. Just ask Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg aka PewDiePie.
In this not-so-distant future it will be more important than ever to focus on staff. In a world where everyone is connected to everybody else, power shifts from the institution towards the individual. So a tweeting employee will be an important brand ambassador. There has never been such a power shift, and it will require an entirely new type of leadership. Many outlets seem to be overwhelmed with this change. Will our media managers ever be able to manage this loss of control?
This ongoing brain drain in journalism is probably going to get worse
Significantly, broadcasters and publishers have been losing their journalistic talent to tech corporations such as T-Online, or to digital publications such as Buzzfeed or Vice. We will never hear from all the others who never even think about going into journalism in the first place. This brain drain is probably going to get worse, just at a time when we need the best and the brightest, those who can think beyond norms standards and who don’t care about positions and hierarchies. Creative minds with new ideas who also know how to live by those ideas.
This is all the more important, as journalism will be facing that other great revolution, which will bring us even more upheaval: Artificial Intelligence. Our material world is rapidly being transformed into bits and bytes. Digitization means that even we, our thinking and our actions will be translated into data. In other words: The machines are presently in the process of learning how to read us. Have we ever learned to read the machines?
What we need in the future is digital empathy
In the age of hate messages and fake news we expect our audience to be media-literate. But are we digitally literate? On the eve of the age of artificial intelligence we aren’t even capable of explaining to our children how an algorithm or a search engine works. Are we up to the historical task ahead of us? Outings to Silicon Valley will not be enough. What we need in the future is digital empathy. By that I mean not only empathy with people using digital media, but also with the digital processes behind those media. They are governing our lives and all our relationships after all.
All we can do in this ongoing Game of Phones is to realize that just like our smartphones we need an update every couple of months. We will have to get used to the idea that we will never reach that promised land — much as we might try. That we can only master the process of digital transformation together with our audience, not against it. That our ticket to the future is not some abstract brand, but individuals, every user, every colleague. That 5G and the ensuing hunger for video will only be another medium for that ultimate product that it’s worth fighting for, now more than ever: Trust.
Will we be successful? To be continued.