How Journalism Drowned in an Ocean of Text

Journalists can’t undo the decline of ad revenues. But they can take a stand against the over-abundance of cheap, service-oriented content.

Before launching head-first into a debate, it’s useful to clarify a few basic terms. What do we mean by journalism? Certainly not every word that is printed somewhere, and not even everything that appears in periodicals (newspapers and magazines). A few hours spent at a newsagent (yes, I sometimes take my time) should be sufficient to illustrate the current over-abundance of articles.

Journalism accounts for around five percent of newsstand offerings – at most. The remaining 95 percent aren’t just food or computer journals, how-to guides for knitting aficionados, chess magazines or porn – most of what is published in newspapers doesn’t qualify as journalism, either. It might be “nice to have,” but it’s not “necessary” (I am avoiding the term “superfluous”). Even so-called “quality newspapers” often include more than fifty percent of service-oriented articles: the obvious PR articles in the travel, technology, automobile, food, and financial advice columns, but also much of what is published on traditional, “journalistic” pages.

When thinking about the crisis of journalism, we don’t have to worry about those targeted, non-journalistic articles (which, by the way, are often superbly written). But the abundance of those texts is one of the reasons why actual journalism struggles: Their production is cheap and can easily be scaled.

This crisis of over-abundance, driven largely by the increase of narrative, opinion and “soft-form” articles (which, to some extent, includes texts like this one), has driven market prices down and has rendered professional journalism all but impossible. The crisis of journalism is caused by too many articles.

Thus, when I speak about “rescuing” journalism, I restrict my argument to the small subsection that we can rightfully call journalism: the professional observation, research, presentation, and discussion of current and relevant development in politics, the economy, culture, science, and society. Essentially, the argument is limited to work which reasonably contributes to the creation of a democratic public sphere (or at least is proclaimed to do so by pundits from the media and from politics in their Sunday sermons).

Journalism that requires a high degree of research and specialized knowledge (but which often fails to generate significant output, to the chagrin of its financiers) is endangered for three reasons: first, the advertising industry does not have to rely on newspapers or magazines anymore to reach a mass audience – hence the number of ads and the price per ad continue to tumble. Second, structural changes and increased network effects within the publishing industry create dependencies and considerations that led many publishing directors to replace true journalism with simple texts. Third, a growing number of writers produce a growing collection of cheap and service-oriented texts under rather precarious conditions.

Journalism cannot do much to affect the first two developments. But it is possible to influence the third one: if fewer young people were enticed to enter one of the many institutions that supposedly provide journalistic training (they have grown into a formidable jungle), it wouldn’t be as tempting and as easy to produce random texts, which end up as filler material on online platforms and in newspapers. We would reduce the degree of over-abundance.

But that’s not what is happening. Instead of applying the breaks and cleaning out, the industry is spawning ever more private and public courses, degree programs and summer academies that employ “journalists” (who rarely produce actual journalism) to teach future journalists about journalism. Publishing houses, which have evolved from the manufacturers of journalism to assembly line producers of content, can’t complain. Even journalistic associations willingly accept new members, regardless of whether they engage in actual journalism or merely produce texts.

Sensationalist journalism – which is barely related to actual journalism (but which can be superbly written nonetheless) – is cheap because it is so abundant. It makes for a great filler and allows publishing houses to turn a nice profit despite declining ad revenues and despite the newspaper crisis.

Read more in this debate: Jonathan Cook, Chris Anderson, Richard Collins.

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