This post is also available in: German
A week ago I was invited to present my vision of the future of journalism at the Austrian Journalists’ Convention. What I ended up saying – kind of off the cuff – didn’t seem to be what most media professionals in the audience had hoped for – not from someone like me, anyway.
(I gave my talk without a manuscript, so this text might differ slightly from what I said here and there.)
I would like to say a few unusual things today. Unusual at least for those of you who have known me for years and who might have suspected me of being on some kind of drug.
Our legendary Cordt Schnibben of DER SPIEGEL wrote recently: ”If you call a tsunami what has been upsetting the media for the last few years, then blogger Richard Gutjahr is one of the few who have been joyfully riding atop of this tidal wave of destruction.“
If only. I have rarely felt as contrite, as depressive and without hope as you are seeing me today. This can’t be the effect of beautiful Vienna’s morbid charm alone.
I have tried out quite a few things in my professional life as a journalist, including Twitter and Medium, YouTube and Periscope, and on the monetary side of things I experimented with the notorious Lousy Pennies for micropayments and with crowdfunding to raise a million.
The idea behind all these efforts was that something was bound to turn out to be the real thing, so that we will continue to be able to make a living from being a journalist. I really would have loved to be standing here telling you: This is IT! This is the solution. If we are mindful of this, that or the other, journalism will thrive. I have deluded myself.
Here I am today, at my wits’ end. I lost my way, I lost my faith. My faith in journalism, my faith that we will be able to make things right again, so that journalism will again provide for us all.
This is not the best time for journalism that ever was. It is a lousy time.
Listen to me, interns and rookie journalists in this audience – don’t let anyone bullshit you: This is not the best time for journalism that ever was. It is a lousy time.
Here is what I deceived myself most about, the fact that makes me so desperate: There is no end in sight for this time of change and of upheaval. I would even go as far as saying that none of us in this auditorium will be able to reap what we have sown. At least not by sticking to what we mean by classical journalism.
When we talked about reducing editorial staff, I thought that was going to be a phase. Seven years of plenty, seven years of famine. Joseph in Egypt, you know the story. Schumpeter. Creative destruction. Steve Jobs and his dictum of death as a life-changing agent. Death making room for the new. ”Die Hard“ for media professionals. Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.
None of this is true. The New York Times is sacking more and more journalists. Columbia University is not filling vacant professorships, they are reducing the number of students, because there is not enough demand for graduates any more. We are not dying slowly, we are dying in super slo-mo. It is a slow and never-ending death.
The tsunami referred to by Cordt Schnibben is in fact a deluge, and sooner or later it is going to wash us all into the open ocean.
Some of us are sitting in publicly-funded life boats thinking this is none of their concern. Others are putting up paywalls in the futile hope that those might stem the tide.
I don’t think we even have the faintest idea what is hitting us here. We row our boats hoping against hope to find terra firma some time.
We swap war stories at conferences like this one in order to give each other hope, sugarcoating the bitter pill of our hopelessness.
Many of us still believe that it is particularly in times like these when the sheer quantity of information is exploding in our faces that people need more guidance. That might be so, the problem is: Who is saying that in the future it will be the journalists who are giving that guidance?
On the internet it isn’t just us, the journalists, who are giving guidance – first and foremost this is done by the big providers such as Google, Facebook or Twitter. Do a reality check: Where do you turn first if you need information about a specific topic – Google or the home page of your paper?
If the New York Times posts its articles directly to Facebook, instead of placing a link to its own page – what does that mean for journalism? Will we, the authors, end up as content slaves, toiling away at a conveyor belt?
I am absolutely certain: the big mass layoffs are still ahead of us. And even if the situation will stabilize one day – the golden days of print are over, and there will never again be a need for that many journalists.
We haven’t evolved in the same way as our audience.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Things are not going well for journalism. And we have contributed to the situation ourselves. We haven’t evolved in the same way as our audience. We use Google and call it research. The simple truth is: Our readers know how to google as well! I would even go as far as saying that many of our readers, listeners and viewers know even better how to google than we sometimes do – they find sources and original documents on the web that had escaped our attention, because we were in such a hurry, and so they can demonstrate our own inadequacy to us.
The German term “Lügenpresse” (lying press) is historically charged. It has probably resonated with so many people, though, because they had come to realize that journalistic reporting can be pretty stereotypical, if not downright biased.
Our opinion about a topic is often formed before we have even grabbed the phone. And if a survey does not yield the results the chief editor has proclaimed at the morning meeting, then we’ll edit them accordingly, won’t we?
How often have I heard someone say about their own research errors: “That’s not gonna get noticed.” How much poison in one sentence.
By and by we as journalists are not only losing our credibility, but also our right to exist. We have already yielded our role as gate keepers to the general public, well-networked as it is. Ditto our role as fact checkers. Obviously Google, Facebook & Co. are also a lot better at marketing than we could ever be.
But here’s the worst part: Our product is no longer right. In a world where news are in oversupply, the last thing people need is a journalist telling them the same things that everybody else is telling them.
I don’t want to take too much of your time – we want to have a debate as well after all – let me conclude by telling you about a few regrets that I have, things that I would do differently today if I had a chance to start over:
If I were getting out of school today, I wouldn’t go into journalism; I would probably get together with a few other hungry people; launch a start-up.
Be clear-cut, don’t wear yourself thin in old structures where the old hands don’t like your ideas. Start something new with a clean slate, think new thoughts.
Many of us can’t do that, because we spent our formative years in classical broadcast media or publishing houses. Innovation doesn’t thrive in old structures. Innovation comes from rebels, misfits, outsiders. As Amir Kassaei once said: “In times of upheaval you have to be radical instead of trying to muddle through with mediocrity.”
Let’s face it: This age that we were born into just isn’t our kind of age – it is not the age of bean counters, or accountants, and it is not the age of story tellers, or journalists. It is the age for people holding visions, an age for founders, for entrepreneurs.
But here is a quantum of solace: Journalists are like the bad weeds that grow tall. We are like Zombies. We will be back, one day.
For the time being, however, I fear we are bound to die. We will have to die in order to live.