Get over: there is not going to be a tech Graal to save journalism

These days, the general feeling among the digital media observers in the world is a mix of fear, uncertainty and commiseration. The industry as we know is plainly sinking. Digital journalists are replacing the number of traditional media jobs at a scale of 20 to 1. The wages are plummeting (in America far less than anywhere else). Tech companies are showing signs that they are also set to jump away from the journalism boat after spending their entire existence pledging loyalty to “quality journalism”, whatever this may mean. Following this trend, the once media-darling digital-born operations are letting the mask fall and biting the dust with everyone else. Any schadenfreude is allowed here (although it is difficult to consider a loser someone who leaves richer than before). The technomodernpress was a disease with a staggering price.

Two articles from Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg columnist, called my eye in the last couple of weeks. The first was about how Google and Facebook can be disrupted, even if it sounds unimaginable today; the second was about how tech is starting to lose its war on journalism. The tone may sound aggressive, but I believe most of his opinion it is not. All global behemoths in history seemed indestructible at some point, and the only difficulty is to guess when the current rulers will succumb.

Note that I am not saying Bershidsky is the first blast against technology coming from the journalism court. What I mean is that it is the first time that I see the issue between technology and journalism framed in a sense that vents out a feeling that they both are intrinsically against each other. So he goes:

“It seems like only yesterday that journalism faced existential challenges from technology platforms that helped anyone publish whatever they wanted, took over the distribution of news, and usurped the advertising market with promises of precise targeting. It turns out that the news profession can be quite successful at repelling those challenges. The enemy is in retreat; the news business just needs to be bolder about claiming the spoils.”

This is not the kind of attitude we had seen until now. But why now? Because Mark Zuckerberg said so out loud. He was doing it before, but every single media company in the world except those owned by Rupert Murdoch were dancing to Facebook’s song, changing format, platform, number of posts, tone, communities, broadcasting live and absolutely doing whatever it takes to look well in the eyes of investors, shareholders, partners, friends, neighbours or anybody else who care even a little (very little). It’s astonishing how such a relevant question was left untouched for so long and has only been addressed after a top executive has decided that he was not going to pretend anymore.

After the most important new year resolution ever in media’s history not even those in the craziest denial state were able to pretend that the tech giants are not available at all to support journalism or society in itself. They are businesses and businesses behave following another priority. People are not a priority, let alone, journalism. Blasting Facebook is childish. They never said that protecting democracy or free speech were flags for them and if any of the pitches that their PR teams made it look like so, well, it wasn’t right.

But this is not their fault nor a bad thing in itself. Journalism and tech companies are merely formally accepting a marriage that was doomed a long time ago. The current business models of both parties are antagonistic, set to fight a deadly battle against each other. It’s not about how available the tech giants are to incentive journalism. They love journalism as long as it is paid by somebody else. Not a penny will come back from their bellies to the ad market. Done. It’s good to realise this (much better than waiting for the next “trend” like, video, instant articles or any other trick).

What seems to be happening here – now – is that both journalists (and publishers) and the technology companies are coming to terms to agree that their business models collide. Even with the goodwill or sympathy from Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page, Facebook and Google are not in a position to give back what they have taken in the last decade from the news industry. Their marketing teams had a hell of a work to build fantastic fairy tales where tools were to be provided to make the best journalism ever and that the new features in their platforms were undoubtedly pipe in new revenue that would make everything to make all of us live happily ever after.

This call into maturity for the news industry took too much time to arrive, and one of the reasons was the existence of a legend. According to this tale, “clever” digital-born companies, with a tech DNA, young journalists and an appetite to publish almost-done press releases from the tech companies PR departments stood a chance to produce great journalism, with substantial revenue and high-quality standards (whatever this may mean). Buzzfeed, Tech Crunch, Mashable and a few others carried a flag of a possible utopia, something that was just a step ahead, something that smart journalists could see but traditional, boring, archaic ones didn’t. But it was, plainly speaking, a lie. There was never a real chance to make ends meet.

Why they made it? Because they were a central part of the Silicon Valley marketing machine, the endorsers of a new media promise whose model was robust as air. Now that Buzzfeed has very clear that will not make relevant money outside its meme production line, Mashable was sold to avoid bankruptcy, and a handful of others are looking for honourable surrenders, the card castle of the digital-born-media story is on edge.

No company that depends on any revenue stream that competes somehow with Facebook and Google will see the sunshine for much more time unless the money comes in from elsewhere in the form of donations, acquisitions or stupidity. Only global media brands that were capable of diversifying kept the current traditional revenue sources and follow a well-rehearsed PR symphony have a chance to go further. Other than those who already went to the floor, most of the big organisations will merge, be sold, split or cease to exist. The doom has arrived, and now each one should recognise its sins.

They kept pushing Google up, backing up Amazon’s strategy or seeing the genius of Mark Zuckerberg when tying publishers hands-on video, SEO-rich articles, social activity or live broadcasts. If the media finds itself in the pitiful state it is, it’s in significant part because of the complacency or connivance of them. The tale of the first generation of digital-born media players was, as I said, a lie, and it’s set to be gone soon.

It is impressive to see how the whole tech niche (this writer included) just pretended that the current media model wasn’t broken. The preachers of the tech Graal kept their denial state long enough to be happy to tweet to their selected clique followers, sipping espressos in posh cafes in NY or San Francisco., while reality bites were hard. Sadly, the rest of the world didn’t stop. The meagre ad revenue migrated to Google and Facebook. Local newspapers were squeezed to death, creating the “news deserts” Tom Stites talks so well about and the short time we had to fix what was fixable is gone.

This text tries not to be pure finger-pointing, but also (especially?) an admission of guilt somehow. The vast majority of the industry is legitimately composed of honest, hard-working journalists who are not in the business for money (if they were, they would be earning it smartly somewhere else). There is a lot of us who believed that tech would come to rescue us (at least partially) from the media barons who drained society’s blood for so long, but we were wrong. Innocent, but still wrong.

 

Cassiano Gobbet

I am a journalist, interested in everything related to the equation technology + communication.