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October 2013 Issue [Readings]

Content and Its Discontents


By Laurent Beccaria and Patrick de Saint-Exupéry, from an essay included as an insert in the Winter 2013 issue of the French quarterly XXI. Beccaria is the publisher of the journal; Saint-Exupéry is editor in chief. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Since 1980, our consumption of information has grown by more than 350 percent. One might have thought this would be a boon to the media, which is after all in the information business. Yet print media were thoroughly undone by the digitization of the economy. The costly, ponderous industrial process of printing faced competition from another industrial process, one with an infrastructure of satellites and subterranean networks, with servers in data centers that consume 2 percent of all electricity used in the United States, with innumerable factories producing a steady flow of objects — computers, tablets, smartphones — that allow their users to gain access, at any time of day or night and from almost anywhere in the world, to dematerialized content placed online and enhanced in real time.

Transformation appeared inevitable — hadn’t power looms replaced weavers, trains stagecoaches, and computers the abacus? For a generation, this apparently commonsense assessment of the situation has provided the basis on which print-media editors and publishers have formed their policies. On the walls of the classrooms where journalism students are offered courses in digital techniques an injunction is posted: adapt or disappear.

But adapt to what?

The Internet is at once a tool, a medium, and a perpetually expanding, constantly changing world, relentlessly focused on tomorrow. In that world, previously unknown possibilities and brand-new practices establish themselves continuously. Pressed by the Internet’s major players, newspaper and magazine publishers have advanced over shifting ground, and their erratic course has often turned panicky.

When Web usage started to proliferate, in the mid-’90s, publishers and editors opted for a combination of paid and free content. By offering to Internet users for free what print readers paid for, publishers hoped to increase audience size and regain the advertising revenue they were just beginning to lose to websites. Once it became apparent that Internet users don’t behave like other readers, new goals emerged — enlarging the papers’ Web presence and acquiring different journalistic reflexes. Editors responsible for online-only content were hired. The cohabitation of two editorial types led to disputes and power struggles. The era of the “information revolution” arrived. The next phase was marked by the spread of smartphones and tablets. Making information accessible on mobile devices became the top priority. Enthusiastic editors and publishers responded by multiplying apps.

The most recent doctrine, initiated by the Wall Street Journal and eventually taken up by the New York Times and other large-circulation daily newspapers, requires the establishment of paywalls. On one side of the wall, content remains free to anyone. On the other side, paying subscribers often have access to more elaborate (and presumably higher-quality) work. The transformation of newspapers into multimedia brands is accelerated. Journalists are tasked with producing content (text, audio, and videos) that is then distributed among the various media outlets (newspaper, website, app). They’re also supposed to “build a community” while pouring out information, opinions, and social-network updates and not forgetting, if at all possible, to maintain their blogs.

When it moves to the Web, journalism doesn’t simply change its base of support; it changes its very nature. Computer and tablet users have expectations that differ from those of newspaper readers. The principle of logical coherence doesn’t exist. A user may rummage around in an economics blog and then click on a link to a celebrity-gossip video. He’s faithless and unpredictable — this transgressive freedom is what he appreciates most. The thirst for participation in the community of anonymous commenters affects only a minority of people, but they dedicate a kind of mad energy to the pursuit. The digital world abolishes the border between journalists and citizens, between experts and witnesses.

In this ultracompetitive universe, the keyword is “traffic.” The metaphor says it all: a stream of information and a stream of readers flow together and then separate again, each particle distinct and independent from the rest. An event takes place, and a thousand images go up on the Web; a crisis emerges, and a hundred authorities confront one another; an election campaign is under way, and a thousand commenters, fact-checkers, and videographers volunteer their services. By infinitesimal but inevitable degrees, the world becomes less and less real.

Mike Allen, Politico’s chief White House correspondent, is considered one of the most influential journalists in the United States. Starting as early as five a.m. each morning, people who matter in Washington feverishly open Allen’s Playbook, which sets the tone of the day. In the current jargon, Allen is driving the conversation. He receives more than 2,000 emails daily, from which he makes a selection to publish a stream of unadorned information or hard-hitting articles that have a potential to go viral. “The people in this community, they all want to read the same ten stories,” he says. “And to find all of those, you have to read a thousand stories. And we do that for you.”

Allen is a prime example of a journalist (and therefore of a kind of journalism) uniquely linked to the real world by his digital sensors. His media duels take place on screens where “alerts” immediately follow and cancel out one another. Nothing intelligible binds together these disparate items, which are delivered in bulk, although as long as they remain up, every reader is invited to pass them on. Most of the information that circulates consists of the same dispatches infinitely duplicated, amplifying what Pierre Bourdieu, some years ago, was already calling “the circular circulation of information,” which “leads to a sort of leveling, a homogenization of standards.”

After two hours, an item of information is considered old. In this sense, the digitization of information is indeed the revolution it was heralded to be, but only in the sense of a rotation around an axis. The digital revolution is first and foremost a permanent movement centered on itself.

Journalists are subjected to what psychologists call paradoxical injunctions, that is, contradictory obligations. They are expected to keep up with the exhausting reactivity of the Web (Internet users let nothing pass), to exhibit professional mastery of a demanding range of media (at the risk of doing everything inadequately), and to conform both to journalistic ethics and to the exigencies of click tallying (everything can be measured and compared). They participate in countless seminars, where PowerPoint presentations teach them more about corporate jargon than about their profession. Working under the auspices of a “media brand,” which is increasingly a bazaar where everything’s for sale and contradictory promises are the order of the day, journalists lose their bearings.

In a world where readers are referred to as “information consumers,” the outlines of a new profession — what may be called the “information technician” — begin to appear. The job entails calibrated, duplicated, formatted writing; the triumph of changing opinions and “buzz”; confusion in communication; and marketing at every stage. Some start-ups even propose automating editorial tasks. The Chicago-based company Journatic has assembled an immense database of available news items and identified all the sources of fresh news (businesses, enterprises, associations, police reports, etc.), which it uses to provide “content” in the form of thousands of articles a month to media companies and marketers. The company’s software continuously scans its database and the flow of news from its sources to produce articles that a battery of editors, English speakers who often reside in developing countries, rewrite for a few dollars, sometimes appending to their articles vaguely Anglo-Saxon pseudonyms. “If we reprocess a press release, why would anyone pay reporter-type wages to do that?” asks the founder of Journatic. The logic is impeccable.

Pompous phrases about the need “to reinvent the press’s economic model” mask the reality: what has to be restored is the exchange value between news publications and their readers. How many of us would agree to spend two or three dollars for an espresso downed in five minutes but would balk at forking over the same for a daily or weekly news organ as these are currently conceived? To be useful, desirable, and necessary — that’s the only economic model worth considering. It’s as old as the world, as old as commerce.

The press will never again be the megaphone it once was, capable of reaching millions of readers. There is no dominant medium anymore, only a bewildering welter of noise and information. By bowing out of the race, a renewed press can be a medium of depth, and it can speak as an equal to all those who want to open themselves to the world.

A reader isn’t an abstraction reducible to what he buys, his level of education, or his professional status. A reader is a man or a woman, young or old, lighthearted or serious according to circumstances, and always with his or her own different, individual tastes and background and knowledge. It takes time to forge reciprocal ties, but regaining readers’ trust day by day is one of the great joys of this profession.

Holding itself aloof from the powerful, establishing no ties with anyone, stubbornly going about its work, but doing no more than that, are all to the benefit of the press. Its role is to go and see; to search, to confront, to question; to “thrust the pen into the wound,” as Albert Londres recommended; to doubt, to verify, to understand. And to recount what has been seen and understood; to find the words that will make the reader feel, see, and hear.

All ways are open. A reformed press is possible. But it will have to rest on four pillars.

time: Racing to break news is a combat sport that journalists have been practicing for many, many years. Editorial departments have immense stores of tasty anecdotes revealing the methods employed to get a scoop before a rival publication does. Some journalists have taken insane risks to submit an article on time; others have behaved like rats so they could turn in a photograph before anyone else. Such tactics no longer make sense when news is free and technologies are evolving dramatically. The press of the twenty-first century must explore other rhythms and learn again how to surprise its readers. Everything must be done to convey news more intensely, to concentrate on lasting substance, whether the article is ten lines or ten pages long. Journalists must take the time to investigate — to let the scene sink in — and they must learn to work against reflexive emotions.

the field: The journalist is a professional who goes where the reader can’t. That’s part of the job description. The reporter bears witness and passes on information; he or she is the reader’s eyes and ears, hands and brain. By providing details, by evoking colors and smells, by renewing emotions and shining light on facts left in shadow, journalism must give life to what doesn’t exist in the media turbine. For the press of tomorrow, everything that doesn’t enter into the calculation of media noise units is fertile ground — which means about 99 percent of the surface of the planet.

the image: More than ever, the press must be beautiful. Several billion photographs and drawings are available online, but it makes no sense to jumble a thousand images together. The press has everything to gain from taking up photojournalism again and playing with illustration, all the more so in that today’s new technologies make it possible to work directly with authors all over the world, in Iran, in Colombia, in Australia, or in a hamlet in Puy-de-Dôme. We must take advantage of this opportunity and reinvent portfolios and text–image associations that will speak to contemporary readers.

coherence: The philosopher Jacques Ellul was right: what threatens us is not the excess of information but the excess of insignificance. Journalism that distracts and numbs, that heaps together everything and everything’s opposite, is journalism dragged into a system of convulsive gears. Journalism that enriches, that reconnects its readers to the world, is useful journalism. In that little word, “useful,” is all the value the press so cruelly lacks, whether in print or online, in the twenty-first century. Coherence and trustworthiness constitute the press’s primary usefulness. Major news organizations have everything to gain by speaking in one clear, coherent voice. If the press is willing to renounce the algorithmically identified targets it’s so desperately aiming at, it will find readers again and reestablish a relationship of trust.

Every day, remarkable articles are posted online or published in print. The journalists who write them are learned, timid, mouthy; autodidacts, crazies, and enthusiasts; young dreamers and old dogs. Some know all there is to know about a subject as narrow as a knife-edge; others are only waiting to learn. Some dilettantes have that certain unnerving quality called talent; some “pros” can be as subtle as cudgels. Journalism isn’t a normal profession.

Nevertheless, it would be enough to leave the road and go down some untrodden paths. To have a look around, simple as it sounds. To speak to the readers who have been deserted by the press but are still hungry for it, waiting for an editorial project that appeals to them and speaks to them. The number of people who shape their own lives without making much noise is greater than one might think. They’re to be found everywhere, in the cities and in the country, at every level of society. What unites them is a certain idea of what it is to be a human being and of what our relation to the world should be.

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October 2013

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