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Late one evening in March, I was sat in the JFK Forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School, surrounded by dozens of journalists and academics. We were watching Nina Martin and Renee Montagne, from NPR and ProPublica, collect their Goldsmith investigative reporting award for “Lost Mothers,” a harrowing and important piece of work exploring the shocking number of American women who die in childbirth every year.
As they were being given a standing ovation, I finally formulated the question I’ve been struggling with lately: With this kind of brilliant and high-quality journalism being pursued around the world every day, why is it that the news industry is steadily shrinking?
I’m a research fellow exploring alternative futures of journalism in the age of social media at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy. Inspired by the work of the late media scholar James W. Carey — who looked at the media within the dynamics of culture, rather than the mechanics of economy or politics — I want to understand what is happening to journalism underneath all the noise and preoccupation with Donald Trump, his election, and his day-to-day dramas.
Let’s make a distinction here between journalism and news. Journalism, as media scholar Michael Schudson defines it, is “information and commentary on contemporary affairs, normally presented as true and sincere, to a dispersed and usually anonymous audiences so as to publicly include that audience in a discourse taken to be publicly important.”
News, on the other hand, is a standardized nonfiction literary form and only one of the many kinds of a journalistic output. News in this form was invented more than 200 years ago in response to very specific social and cultural conditions and was ignited by a new technology called the telegraph.
Today, nearly every one of those cultural conditions has changed. So, if the context of what we called “news” for nearly two centuries has radically altered, is news still functioning as it should? What is its role supposed to be, and what purpose is it fulfilling? Is news still relevant at all?
The Telegraph Brought News Home
The invention of the electric telegraph in the 1830s allowed the fast and international transmission of bursts of information in short, staccato messages, which were, ironically, not unlike tweets. The telegraph powered the emergent American penny press, which had become hugely popular among the growing middle and working class. That disrupted the overly opinionated, partisan, and largely amateur journalism of the early 1800s that appealed mostly to the political elite and the upper class.
The telegraph brought news of elections, wars, disasters, crimes, weddings, and deaths to people’s kitchen tables; it was how the world found out about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. It enabled people to see beyond their geographic limits, breaking down physical barriers of time and space.
The telegraph added a global dimension to people’s lives and helped turn that curiosity into a demand.
For the middle and working classes at the time, the prevailing trend in literature was grand, aspirational works on one side or detailed provincial or familial news on the other. The upper class had some access to foreign news, but before the telegraph, that news was stale, overly formal, and old-fashioned, imported from the UK, then at the height of its global power.
The arrival of instant news transported the middle class from a local perspective to a global one, from a generalized view of the world to one full of specifics, and from a world centered around fiction to one grounded in fact. And this opening up of the 19th-century media world happened alongside the Enlightenment, where myth and religious narrative gave way to scientific methods and rationality. News became how the middle class positioned itself in the expanding wider world and claimed a distinct cultural identity. This hunger for news was a cultural response to a prevailing sociopolitical environment.
“News both forms and reflects a particular hunger for experience — a desire to do away with the epic, heroic and traditional in favor of the unique, original, novel, new — news,” wrote Carey in his 1992 essay A Cultural Approach to Communication. He regarded news as tied to its meaning for the middle class and predicted that it would dissolve when that class no longer finds it relevant.
Today’s Media Crisis
We all know that the news industry is in trouble. Weekday circulation for U.S. daily newspapers, print and digital combined, fell to 35 million in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center — the lowest circulation since 1945, despite the population nearly tripling during those 70-plus years. Newspapers are earning less than half of the revenues they made a decade ago despite a rising number of subscribers, and news organizations are employing significantly fewer journalists. Pew estimates there are around 40 percent fewer professional journalists in 2016 than in 2006, and (speak to a journalist) many of those who remain are underpaid and overworked.
News businesses have been grappling with these imploding business models for more than a decade. New internet technologies empowered new players — mainly Google and Facebook — that have claimed control of distribution and the advertising revenue that goes with it.
Inspired partly by President Trump, politicians from Burma to Libya and from Syria to Spain now openly attack journalists, calling them “fake” or “biased,” accusing them of twisting reality and trying to bypass news organizations by using social media or live television. The public, meanwhile, sees journalists as too soft on power or too close to the wealthy and don’t trust what they perceive as conflicts of interest.
It is true that some serious news organizations have recently seen increases in paid subscription services. The New York Times recently claimed to have nearly doubled its number of subscribers to 3.5 million. Yet subscriptions don’t directly equate to readership; it’s valuable regular income, but how many stories do subscribers actually read beyond the main headlines? And how many renew their subscriptions?
More significantly, this can be seen as a temporary and unique anomaly, a “Trump bump” of new subscribers who regard this as a monthly fee of the anti-Trump resistance. Subscribers wear their membership as a badge of support for one side of this highly polarized political moment in much the same way as each of us like a comment on Twitter or Facebook without having read the full argument. It’s an exhibition of our worldview.
Carey observed that news is not just a product, but also a symbol and an identity-linked ritual akin to attending church: “a situation in which nothing new is learned but in which a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed.”
The End of Globalization
Trump’s “America first” rhetoric may have unleashed the reign of the most unlikely president of the United States, but it also signified an end of a predominant theory of the past 50 years: globalization.
It chimes with the faltering of global institutions and geopolitical aspirations: the declining authority of the UN, impending regulation of internet businesses, closed borders, the rise of nationalism, and seemingly intensifying religious and racial prejudices. In recent years, the World Economic Forum has hosted passionate debates contemplating the end of globalization.
“Nations will revert to their natural tendency of hiding behind their borders, of moving towards protectionism, of listening to vested interests, and they’ll forget about transcending those national priorities,” said Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, in January 2017. It fits a surging, troubling trend toward protectionism, toward barricading ourselves against the outside world, against “the other.”
News, both as a commodity and as a cultural invention, has also been affected by this process of deglobalization, as evidenced by our declining coverage of international news in our media. By 2010, the frequency and space of foreign coverage in four British newspapers and the number of foreign news stories in the United States had nearly halved over about three decades. Even wealthy American TV has scaled back on budgets for foreign-based reporting, cutting expensive foreign correspondents and bureaus. Foreign reporting now tends to be limited to issues directly tied to national interests, such as war or terrorism.
“In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, ABC, CBS, and NBC devoted a combined 4,828 minutes to international news,” reported the American Journalism Review in 2011. “By 2000, after more than a decade of steady decline, the three networks aired only 2,127 minutes of international news during newscasts.”
Perhaps that shift is related to the end of the Cold War, which was, for decades, the main source of conflict around the world. Yet the decline continued even after the 9/11 attacks and the consequent global war on terror — which led to the unprecedented occupation of two nation-states in the Middle East and all the related stories of liberation, rebuilding, and insurgency for the Anglo-American media.
Our Post-Enlightenment Era
This shift away from globalism is both geopolitical and social, as if it is no longer fashionable for the middle class to be part of the wider world. The rise of religious or ethnic prejudices can also be related to this larger trend. It is a move inward, manifesting itself in many ways, including technology. I’ve written before about how the decline of hyperlinks, and consequently the web, reflects a wider cultural shift from outward to inward, from the global to the local.
It oddly fits with the aesthetic of the burgeoning craft movement: local food, local wine and beer, local artisan shops, and the rise of handicrafts. Yet despite this trend toward all things local, journalism manages to miss out yet again, because there has been no apparent surge of support for local politics or local newspapers. In fact, local newspapers have consistently shrunk and, as Margaret Sullivan wrote in the Washington Post in 2017, are now on the verge of “extinction,” implying a lack of wider interest in local municipal elections — and even in the process of participatory democracy itself.
If you asked me how the appetite for the “local” is manifesting itself in news, I would have a surprising answer: friends and family. Facebook’s recent decision to prioritize updates from friends and family in the news feed was both a reaction to political pressure over spread of disinformation and a hint at what Facebook and its gigantic global audience regards as the most valuable news. “Research shows that strengthening our relationships improves our well-being and happiness,” said Zuckerberg, explaining the decision.
But updates about births, deaths, marriages, babies, and other life events of family and friends are the local news for many people. The popularity of Instagram or Snapchat stories is built around these interpersonal audiovisual diaries about our lives. And this is happening even while, poignantly, the rise of loneliness in an individualistic capitalist economy with collapsing welfare states means that people often live away from their network of family and friends.
Celebrity news is another way this “local” interest is manifesting itself. After all, if we regard celebrities as the cousins we don’t see anymore, it helps explain the spread of lucrative celebrity news around the world. Many scholars see celebrity culture as linked to a middle-class desire for social mobility, but it could also be understood as a response to the increase of nuclear families and the social epidemic of loneliness.
And travel is yet another factor, one that offers some form of global identity for those who are still interested in the wider world. International travel is cheaper and more popular than ever, so the middle class no longer needs news to satisfy their global sense of adventure. They can reach distant cultures and destinations themselves, in person.
Your Daily Dose of Drama
News can no longer be seen only as a vehicle for transmitting information. Carey opened our eyes to the key aspect of its global dramatic and ritualistic experience.
When we read a news story about climate change, corrupt politicians, or abusive celebrities, we not only become aware of the details of what has happened, but also feel ourselves caught up in the drama of the story. We take sides, and we want our side to win. “It does not describe the world, but portrays an arena of dramatic forces and action,” Carey wrote.
As scholars like Michael Schudson and John Fiske explored, news is by nature a drama with a calm beginning, a disruption at its core, and the prospect of a resolution at its end.
Schudson notes that journalists always aspired to astonish people at breakfast tables, rather than to help them understand things. They want their readers to ask their partners or colleagues, “Did you hear…?” They want to be the reason people talk.
That function is also now in a serious decline. On one hand, consumption of information has become a very private act that could happen anywhere and any time, thanks to mobile devices. The days when most people would sit to read a morning paper or make time to watch an evening news bulletin have passed. On the other hand, the inventions of cinema, television dramas, and, more recently, binge-watching entire series on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon have slowly come to dominate the market demand for drama. From Game of Thrones to Orange Is the New Black, from telenovelas to Turkish soaps, screen drama is now feeding the appetite for what used to be a major appeal of the news.
Moreover, the 24-hour news channels that have managed to build an audience have often manufactured on-screen drama between the host and their guests, something media scholar John Fiske describes as “soap for men.” Conventional news bulletins, such as PBS NewsHour, have consistently lost viewers; PBS NewsHour lost more than half its viewership over the past decade, to around 1 million viewers per night, whereas cable news audience has not declined overall.
Notifications Are Not News
Just as the telegraph made reporting independent of time and space in the 1830s and the production of news possible from anywhere, it was the shift to mobile internet and smartphones that freed the distribution of news from the tyranny of location and time. Now anyone can receive news at any time and in almost any place.
This has led to a bifurcation. On one side, we have notifications—short blasts of information often directly from the newsmakers themselves. Think of tweets by fire or police departments, politicians, or the PR departments of big companies. They are bypassing news organizations.
On the other side, we have long, collaborative, detailed, and expensively produced reporting and investigations that often take months or years of work. This longform and long-term journalism is far more expensive and in-depth than the news stories that dominated journalism for a long time, functioning more like nonfiction literature.
Whatever we have between these two is an increasingly less viable form of news. Many newsrooms have spent the past decade pouring time and journalistic resource into churning out 800-word duplicate versions of news stories already on dozens of other news sites, none of which makes financial or strategic sense anymore. The same is true in video journalism, where studies suggest readers respond best to short, two-minute animations or to hour-long in-depth documentaries. Midlength articles making money for some publishers are opinion pieces, not news stories.
What Is Left of the Future of News?
Let’s admit that news, as we recognized it for two centuries, is dying. It has lost most of its purpose for the majority of the middle class, and its value as a commodity has evaporated. But if news is almost dead, how can journalism — and thereby democracy — survive?
The biggest challenge for journalism is how to stay relevant to a democratic society even while its primary form — news — is disintegrating and while being buffeted by the twin forces of entertainment and propaganda. It is a grim picture and an extremely challenging task, but two recent trends offer some hope: the rise of podcasts and digital video.
Radio, and podcasts in particular, is a hybrid medium. It is still largely word-based and therefore capable of empowering rational arguments and elevating serious conversations, but it can also convey depth of emotion. Using Neil Postman’s dichotomy, it is somewhere between the textual, “typographic” form of books and the visual, “photographic” form of TV as a medium for intellectual engagement, and perhaps this explains why serious, in-depth podcasts and audiobooks are growing in popularity.
Digital video is also gaining momentum. The combination of serious investigative reporting, opinion, and dramatic structure is a promising sign for the future of journalism. Video can both conduct and cultivate passionate public conversations about important policy issues, and for a much wider audience than academic nonfiction books. Ironically, both are reincarnations of existing forms of radio and documentary cinema.
The wider context, however, is bleak. Human civilization seems to be entering a new phase we could call the “post-Enlightenment,” where the central pillars of rationality and the written word are being structurally replaced by images and emotions. Faith is replacing facts; like buttons kill links. Television is making a comeback, dominating every aspect of our lives and reducing it all to entertainment, as Neil Postman warned in 1985 in Amusing Ourselves to Death.
The steady growth of inequality and the collapse of the welfare states have led to a decline of public education and public media around the world. This has only helped our departure from the principles of the Enlightenment, in which knowledge and education were used to overcome prejudice and ignorance.
We should pity journalism. It is not only seeing the news at its very heart taken out, but at a time when democracy is outsmarted by entertainment, it is losing its entire purpose. Carey had a line for this, too: “Without the institutions of democracy, journalists are reduced to propagandists or entertainers.”
“The Founding Fathers were historians enough to know that democracies or republics have a life expectancy of about 200 years before decaying into tyranny. They underscored that democratic institutions are fragile, the moments of their existence fleeting in historical time. The great imperative of journalism is to prevent us from unconsciously lurching back into domination, however benign and friendly its face.” — James W. Carey
Carey’s warning has never sounded more true. He not only assumes that democracy needs journalism; he also believes that journalism and democracy are, in fact, names for the same thing — in essence, they are both forms of a public conversation. “What we mean by democracy depends on the forms of communication by which we conduct politics. What we mean by communication depends on the central impulses and aspirations of democratic politics. What we mean by public opinion depends on both.”
Media scholar Jay Rosen has his own interpretation of Carey’s account of democracy: “Journalists earn their credentials as democrats not by supplying information or monitoring the state — although both may be necessary. As energetic supporters of public talk, they should be helping us cultivate certain vital habits: the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, decide the alternative purposes that might be pursued.”
If, as Carey suggests, democracy is the same thing as journalism, it should not surprise us to see both in deep trouble these days. We can only save democracy by saving journalism — or vice versa.