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What sort of role will journalists be able to play in the world once the internet will be completely interwoven with the physical world, and information will be as ubiquitous as water and electricity? My Keynote at the opening of “Online Journalism and the 4th Estate” at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe.
A couple of weeks ago I had my hair cut. The barber I usually go to was on vacation. So I’m sitting there, we start chatting, the way you do when you get a haircut.
Barber: So what do you do for a living?
I: I’m a journalist.
Barber: What for?
I: That’s what I wonder sometimes, too.
Ladies and Gentlemen, what I’m going to talk about today is a sequel, so to speak, to what I said at the Austrian Journalists’ Convention in Vienna earlier this year. I seemed to have hit a nerve, because colleagues kept commenting about it for weeks.
At the journalists’ convention I said that I didn’t believe that this time we are living in is a good time for journalism. To the contrary: I think it is a lousy time for journalism, and here’s the reason:
Classic journalists like us are caught in the middle between the old business models that NO LONGER work and the new ones that are not working YET. And so here we are: we want to be able to make a living from telling stories, and we are confined to a no man’s land between analog and digital. We are an in-between generation.
A lot of people have asked me why I was so pessimistic about the future — after all, I seem so good at making a presence for myself on the digital channels.
Before there are any misunderstandings: I am NOT a pessimist. Quite contrariwise, I look forward to the digital future! There is no doubt in my mind that there will be a pot of golden iPhones for all of us at the other end of this transformation. Unicorns and flying cats, painting rainbows into the sky. I still firmly believe that. My only problem is — am I going to live to see it?
David Pogue is one of my journalistic role models, if not idols. Like many others before him, this man two years ago changed jobs. The went from the New York Times to a tech company, in his case Yahoo!. For those of you who were just distracted by a WhatsApp message, let me repeat that:
… he left the New-York-fucking-Times, in order to work for Yahoo!!!!
For 13 years I had been an avid reader of Pogue’s column and his intelligent and creative articles in the Times. This job change, this exit from the best paper of the world seemed like an insult to me. Betrayal — not just of me, but of our profession as a whole!
Last year I ran into Pogue at a conference in the US — and as you can imagine — I only had one question to ask him: W H Y?
David Pogue laughed, he understood my hurt and he replied:
It’s been a long way from the cave paintings to Snapchat, and it’s difficult to imagine the longest and the hardest bit is still ahead of us.
Talking about Snapchat — Snapchat is a fascinating app, because it is so terribly half-baked. The user interface is about as intuitive as a Deutsche Bahn ticket machine and the very idea of it doesn’t make sense for many media professionals: Why should images and videos self-destruct once they have been viewed, just like in “Mission Impossible”? It doesn’t make sense to me, either.
But that’s not the point. If you REALLY look closely at the new platforms you will start realizing bit by bit what it is that makes them attractive, and you will realize that all it takes is curiosity and playfulness to be able to communicate, even tell stories with this tool.
In this context I recommend the latest campaign stories from Hillary Clinton or the backstage reporting about the NFL. Anyone who has seen that is bound to change their mind about Snapchat.
Curiosity and playfulness. Two terms that do not seem to pop up right away when it comes to journalism these days. Content! Scalability! Monetize! These are the buzzwords no media summit seems to be able to do without.
The future of publishing
Here’s an anecdote about — you guessed it — Steve Jobs: We’re in October of 1985, i.e. 30 years ago, and Steve Jobs was invited to a party in Manhattan. Even though the Who-is-who of New York society is present, Jobs spends most of the evening with a nine-year-old boy, Sean Lennon (the son of John Lennon & Yoko Ono), explaining his Macintosh computer to him. A reporter asks why he doesn’t prefer to mix with the other guests, such as Andy Warhol or Walter Cronkite — why does he spend (waste) so much time with the little boy. Job’s answer: “Because the boy is asking the right questions. When I show my computer to adults, they ask: ‘what can it do?’ But the boy asks ‘what can I do with it?’”
I’m sure you all know the famous definition of human attitudes to technological progress by Douglas Adams:
I’m not the first person to tell you that we are facing gigantic changes in our society. There are forecasts saying that one third of today’s jobs will be obsolete as the world will get more interconnected and resources will be better utilized. From the taxi dispatcher to the travel agent — “cut-the-middleman” is the principle of every other new idea in Silicon Valley. And let’s not kid ourselves: Aren’t we journalists the classic middlemen? Ever since the beginning of mass media there was no such thing as the public sphere without us.
Today that position has been taken away from us, the journalists, publishers and broadcasters, by the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple. Not only do the tech titans attract attention with Instant Articles and Apple News, they are increasingly taking over marketing and sales of journalistic content, hitherto the classic role of a publisher.
Here’s a fun fact: If you bought a subscription of a paper or magazine in the old days they gave you a power drill on top. As of this week Amazon Prime customers basically receive an annual subscription of the Washington Post if they buy a power drill. Crazy times.
You are the traffic jam!
My prognosis is that traditional journalists and publishers are in for the same fate as farmers at the beginning of industrialization. We will continue to exist. But there will be significantly fewer of us than during the heyday of mass media, and we will be heavily subsidized.
Algorithms and robots will become part of journalism. Text, images and video will continue to lose in value, because they no longer depend on a physical carrier medium and can be copied and shared indefinitely. This also concerns the old debate about copyright. Money and pressure applied in the right places in Berlin or Brussels by the old proprietors of printing machines could still lobby that away.
What nobody can do anything about is another development. Those people out there, formerly known as our audience, are in a position today not only to copy other people’s content to their heart’s content, but they can also produce their own! Youtube, Soundcloud, Instagram or Periscope are their platforms where they can perform over zillions of channels, occupy niches and develop new genres.
Independent from classic publishers and broadcasters a parallel public sphere has emerged that is suddenly challenging the old elites like an awakening dragon. Politicians and journalists do no longer have the last word.
We can bemoan the loss of our significance all we want — the real point is: Most of us just don’t manage to get there, we can’t realize that PIVOTAL moment, because we are medial hybrids, torn between our analog ancestry and digital reality:
Everything we have already witnessed and everything that is yet to come is good! Copying. Sharing. Like buttons. Dislike buttons. Bare breasts. Hate messages. All that is reality, just like high and low tide, like rain and sunshine. We might not find it ideal, but we cannot change it. No use complaining if you’re stuck in a traffic jam on your way home. YOU ARE THE TRAFFIC JAM!
So when we have all made that ultimate step in our minds — when we accept the reality of the digital world. When we can take the internet for granted as you take water and electricity for granted, and so we don’t have to pay €20.00 extra for it in a hotel. When publishers and professional organizations don’t waste their resources on turf wars and on lobbying for laws aimed at protecting their vested interests, but rather into startups and development labs — then we will be free at last and only then will we be able to answer the question what we will value in the future, and what will people be prepared to pay for?
Let’s imagine a world that is so interconnected that nobody notices the internet anymore. No cables, no battery problems (didn’t I say I am an optimist?), no one has to bow down to look at their smartphone, because information is brought to us through our glasses, contact lenses or directly into our ears. When the internet of things and industry 4.0 have become invisible, because everything communicates with everything else as a matter of course, both worlds, old and new will be interwoven organically — what will have meaning in such a world?
In my mind there is only one answer: human beings. Not products such as photos, videos, or texts — but their originators. The painter. The musician. The poet. The programmer.
And our creativity is what makes is human, our intuition, our creative potential. Knowing the rules, but also knowing when to break them. In one word: ART.
Even if our labor is no longer needed, because many professions will have become obsolete. Humans can never do nothing. Have you ever tried to really do NOTHING for a while? It’s not going to work. You’ll get sick.
Of course you can spend a weekend on the couch like a sloth, but once you have watched the third season of “House of Cards” in a binge, you will HAVE to get up and do something, you can’t help it. It’s how we are programmed.
So if you ask me if there is hope for our profession, for classic journalism, alongside algorithms and robo-articles, my answer is: ART. Art is what makes us human and what makes us distinguishable and unique apart from all shares, retweets and all the other machine-generated products.
Here’s my plea to all journalists, writers or other media professionals in this audience, to all photographers, videographers, editors, designers programmers or authors: Let us not be afraid of the future! Let’s learn how to let go, how to experiment and how to improvise. Let’s discover the artist in ourselves! Art will save us.