Society Debates

The press in Europe (3/5): Newspapers will not die in Silicon Valley

26 December 2012
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Frankfurt

In the Internet age, anyone can be an author, journalist, publisher, and anyone can earn money from it: So went the mantra. But the democratisation of information never happened. Excerpts.

What have we gained from this Internet dawn, so full of promise? Everyone has in his pocket on or on his desk, all manner of devices which give him him more means of communication than the American president would have had 20 years ago. For a couple of euros, a person could transform himself into a television studio producer or a publisher. Anything was possible, they all said – but it was all snored away.

Let's face it: it's been a disaster. Either that, or it has been a dream that, now that we're all awake, we should stop and have a good think about.

We are not talking about the newspaper crisis here. If after the bankruptcy of Frankfurter Rundschau and the demise of the Financial Times Deutschland the great Pavlovian apparatus of public communications and media is talking so much of missed opportunities – all this not always wrongly, but always self-righteously – then it's time to take another look at who's in the same boat.

Internet intellectual

To sum up, with a kindly eye towards those who have slept through it: 10 years of commercial Internet, 10 years of the information economy, five years of smartphones and at least 20 years of the ideology of the Internet intellectual that comes with all that – the tale of self-empowerment of each and every individual as a voice of public opinion and individual participation.

What has become of the euphoria that was there at the start? What went wrong with all the theories about a technology that would transform all our social and economic relations – and that has turned out to be nothing more than the greatest advertising coup in world history, for Silicon Valley?

Eighty million Germans that, overnight, could be their own publishers, printers and authors. So where is the new Pulitzer? Where is the blogger-, start-up-, news- or communication model that even, to some degree, pays off?

Perhaps there is such an abundance of death wishes for the “traditional” media in this field, which never really came to life itself, because some believe that only a silver bullet will help and success will be theirs only if the competition is dead and buried. “Let them eat the future,” the great American journalist Thomas Frank once said of this strategy. Each new generation of iPhones, would programme the social future, it was claimed.

Nobody is more keen to play this game of technological determinism than journalists. Colleague Wolfgang Blau, for example, head of Zeit Online – which has never made a penny but that lives off its reputation, and whose material basis he is constantly questioning – is now touring the nation as the reincarnation of neo-liberalism: the market has decided that we are going to have to live with the reality that entire industries and occupations are going under.

‘Californian Ideology’

But salvation is ready and waiting: a portal that specialises in media economics doesn't see anything to worry about in manufacturers of consumer goods producing their own news pages. At least there, one recognises the conflict of interest. Already we can look forward to the time when Apple reports on working conditions in China and Coca-Cola on the benefits of globalisation.

The fact is that the information economy has, in its current alpha version, led solely to the birth of industrial giants, to processes of concentration, to making the individual more and more frequently the exploiter of his own ego. And the “Californian Ideology”, heralded many years ago by the sage of Silicon Valley, Kevin Kelly [the founder of Wired magazine], is camouflaging the return of this neo-liberalism disguised as techno-utopia.

Kelly's prediction that anyone would be able to generate his very own 15 megabytes of fame and gushing advertising revenues from home, has come true for only a handful of people around the world. The only thing that springs to mind is the Internet project of the millionaire Arianna Huffington (the Huffington Post), bought from AOL and known for not paying any royalties to its authors.

And so if no new media have spring up, what has? Corporate giants, that delete books from e-readers remotely (Amazon), that censor book titles or newspaper content (Apple, Facebook) or favour their own products in their search results because they see themselves as media providers (Google).

Naomi Wolf's new book Vagina: A New Biography was renamed V *****a by Apple's iBookstore, and only had its original title restored after loud protests. Evgeny Morozov in the New York Times has brought this and other examples to public attention, pointing out how the information giants are about to redefine cultural norms in authoritarian style, often without anyone noticing.

Awaiting enlightenment

And we're still waiting for the political and social self-enlightenment of people who have all the information at their fingertips, as was predicted by Silicon Valley. Participation is becoming more and more restricted to reward systems via recommendation buttons, permanent plebiscites of the consumer and his “I like” existential orientation.

If anyone proves that the Arab Spring was not caused by Twitter and Facebook, as Robert S. Eshelman has shown in the magazine The Baffler, but by unions organising in secret for years, then that in itself is not to slight the smartphone or Facebook.

It rather poses the question of how international journalism could be capable of such truncations of the reality – and now seems barely able to reflect on the comments of former Egyptian Google manager Wael Ghonim that the “Egyptian working class has not been reached through the Internet and Facebook. Social media played a role, yes. But this was no Internet revolution.”

If newspapers, whether they are on paper or on the net, are no longer needed, they have only themselves to blame. But when has that ever been any different? Is Germany seriously arguing, in the 21st Century, whether you should be able to hold things that you read? Are we arguing over the rustling of paper when everybody knows that in a world without paper a newspaper printed on paper will fill a niche market?

Society needs good journalism

As if that were the question. As if the question were not much more about whether journalists resist the hype or want to continue to make a caricature of an industry that's still printing big headlines about its own crisis? As if there were seriously an ontological difference between, let's say, bloggers and journalists, and not for example just a single distinction; and as if they were not in the same boat. Newspapers, for sure, must be standing invitations to the intelligence of this world (of bloggers and journalists), and it is true that their greatest learning needs are there.

“How can good journalism survive?” asks the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. But that is not the question.

In a world in which it's easy to figure out what institutions would benefit most from the atomisation of the public discourse, the crucial question is “How can a society survive without good journalism?”

Now, when more and more journalists unfortunately are penning their predictions for society from Silicon Valley and Wall Street, we risk a quite simple and rather philosophical prediction: not at all.

Other parts of the series:

El País: delusions of grandeur

Still pandering to the power brokers

Culture is becoming a luxury

Embedded in the Brussels bubble

Translated from the German by Anton Baer