In his essay Death to the Mass Jeff Jarvis develops an argument he has been making for years. Treating the public as “a mass” and giving them a “one-way, one-size-fits-all product” is no longer appropriate.
I’m totally with him on that. It is just one reason why newsprint national newspapers in Britain, the epitome of mass-marketing, are increasingly viewed as irrelevant by readers (and the people who want to reach them: advertisers).
Here’s Jarvis: “What has died is the mass-media business model — injuring, perhaps mortally, a host of institutions it symbiotically supported: publishing, broadcasting, mass marketing, mass production, political parties, possibly even our notion of a nation. We are coming at last to the end of the Gutenberg Age.”
By contrast, Facebook connects people with people while Google gives people the option to go directly to what they want, and not what newspaper editors (aka information gatekeepers) tell them they should want.
Value, argues Jarvis, is far better than volume. And I nod again. He is on the money, is he not? I don’t need to repeat all of his core argument (go there if you wish) because it is good and I was on board long ago.
But where I depart from Jeff’s joyous acclamation of the brave new world of a post-mass disaggregated digital media is what it portends for our world.
He is convinced that quality journalism will prosper from “a relationship strategy” built around communities and shared interests. Allowing that to be the case, the key problem is still about revenue, about how we fund journalism when there is no mass paying for it.
Jeff asks that question of course. His answer is, to be frank, anything but convincing: “The industry is exploring various new revenue streams.” In other words, despite the exploration, nothing has yet worked.
This crucial question cannot be passed over. The funding of journalism, real journalism, the kind that costs money to produce – such as resource-heavy, lengthy, investigative journalism and the eye-witness, independent reporting from international conflict zones – is key to the future of democratic society.
Without money, whatever the strength of the argument in favour of a new form of journalistic distribution, whatever the good intentions of individual journalists, the act of journalism is imperilled.
There are plenty of pie-in-the-sky ideas about how we can re-attract advertisers, but none sounds remotely practical. We’re on a wing and a prayer here, Jeff. All your enthusiasm and optimism will not solve the problem.
Clearly, given that Google and Facebook are now the largest distributors of journalistic content, we journalists – providers of the raw material from which they benefit – need to reach an accommodation with them. They are our replacement newspapers, our hosts, our new media magnates.
We are in the content creation business. They are in the distribution business. They need our “product” and we need a portion of their profits to fund us.
Unlike our current “big media” publishers, they know more about their users than we ever did about our readers. That’s a great help to us. They also foster relationships, another help for us in reaching the right people with the right material.
Collaboration makes sense, but does anyone recognise the urgency of reaching an agreement?
I see journalists vanishing before my eyes. And I see journalism turning into “churnalism” on a daily basis. And that’s what frightens me most about the future: how will democracy be served if journalism means no more than the publishing of PR-packaged content “mediated” by people who never leave their computer screens?
Then there is the possibility that if journalism becomes something of a niche activity, how will we have a “national conversation” and, even more pertinently, if there is to be such a conversation, who will set its agenda?
I know the future is net-based. I knew it years ago when it was neither profitable nor popular to say so. I share much of Jeff Jarvis’s vision and his distaste for old-style, top-down, mass market journalism.
But how can we save public interest journalism, and the journalists who provide it, unless we find a business model to fund it?
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