Thirty or so years ago, many journalists saw computers as liberators. Almost overnight, making newspapers became far easier. Thanks to technological progress, they could put whatever they had to offer on paper without having to worry about the complicated mechanical side of their trade, or deal with the skilled but on occasion stroppy individuals who got their fingers dirty and risked lead poisoning taking care of it. Until then, changing a few words when a deadline loomed, let alone redesigning a page after one had already gone to press, could be enough to set off a newsroom drama; with computers, it all took a couple of seconds.
For a while, journalism enjoyed what in retrospect would be seen as a golden age; huge amounts of money flowed in, politicians grovelled before inquisitorial reporters determined to “speak truth to power,” “media studies” grew fashionable among the young, while once-despised hacks got lionised by representatives of the local elite.
But then things started to go badly wrong. Instead of slowing down, technology kept barrelling ahead. It soon began tearing large chunks out of what had been a highly profitable business. To the chagrin of professional journalists, many other people – even semiliterate kids – found it had become wonderfully easy and astonishingly cheap to get into the act. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and others gave them the means to reach large numbers of people for free.
As well as letting in an unruly army of competitors who, before then, would have been turned away by editors who played the role of gatekeepers, technological progress hit the press where it hurt most. Revenue from classified ads quickly dried up. The circulation of many newspapers fell so abruptly they either died or took refuge in cyberspace, putting large numbers of journalists out of work; in the United States, less than half as many people work in newsrooms today than did a mere 15 years earlier; about 170,000 as against 412,000. Elsewhere, the story is much the same.
Television outlets were also affected as more and more channels became available; long-established networks suddenly found themselves competing against upstarts using first cables and then satellite dishes. That was only the beginning. By abolishing space and time, the Internet made the old model as obsolete as the one that for decades made print journalism what it was.
All this raises some disquieting questions. Change is coming so fast that all attempts to adapt to whatever happens to be the current circumstances are provisional at best. What seems to work today may be hopelessly out-dated tomorrow. If journalism as we know it is on the way out, what will replace it? People will always want to be informed about what is happening and what it means, something professional journalists did as they saw fit for many years but which is now in the process of being taken over by a swarm of individuals whose qualifications are, as diehard defenders of the old ways keep pointing out, of dubious value.
While the going was good, the relationship between politicians and journalists was distinctly adversarial. The men and women of the Fourth Estate felt that at long last they had the upper hand and were entitled to treat those in power as probable miscreants with much to hide. They put them in the dock. Some made a name for themselves by hectoring presidents, prime ministers and lesser functionaries in what they insisted was an effort to make them come clean.
As was to be expected, many politicians were greatly annoyed by being confronted, day after day, by people who made it clear they despised them for their moral and intellectual failings. Some dreamed aloud of the putative benefits of living in “a world without journalists.” But politicians were not the only ones to feel this way; in the US and Europe, many agreed that those working for what they disparagingly called “the mainstream media” had got above themselves. That is one reason why, as the opinion polls keep reminding us, their current reputation is far lower than the people involved in them would like to think. Another is the assumption that they are dominated by political activists who are far more interested in churning out partisan propaganda than in getting at the truth.
Of all Western politicians, Donald Trump has been the most eager to take advantage of public distrust of his country’s major newspapers and television networks. Rightly or wrongly, he thinks the undisguised hostility of The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and the like – plus the BBC which has no qualms when it comes to taking a partisan approach to US affairs – actually helps him retain the loyalty of his base and is more than happy to engage in wild polemics with his journalistic detractors. Among other things, this ensures that he continues to hog the limelight.
Many European politicians of nationalistic views would like to emulate Trump by taking on the journalists who enjoy attacking them, but so far the only one who has had much success in this particular field is the Italian Matteo Salvini. Other politicians, among them the ones calling the shots in Brussels, seem more disturbed by what is going on in the “social media” the US tech giants have empowered than by the sporadic excesses of their established predecessors whose dominant figures tend to share their values and preferences.
To appease these, the European top dogs say the time has come to rein in purveyors of “ fake news,” by which they often mean not outright lies but legitimate information they think should be denied to simple folk. The solutions they propose include not just slapping multibillion-euro fines on companies like Google for alleged antitrust violations but also twisting their CEOs’ arms to persuade them that on occasion censorship is called for.
No doubt some members of the old journalistic establishment would be happy to ally themselves with like-minded politicians in exchange for some protection against the individuals who, in addition to depriving them of money, have also taken away their cherished monopoly as purveyors of news and views. But doing so would not help them regain the trust of the many who have lost interest in what the traditional media have to say.