Fiddling with the true record of newspapers’ post-print struggles robs our first drafts of history of crucial lessons for media

Three editors: Lionel Barber of The Financial Times interviews http://video.ft.com/5113031401001/Lionel-Barber-discusses-future-of-media/Life-And-Arts Alan Rusbridger, who led The Guardian for 20 years, and Zanny Minton Beddoes{{{CK SP}}}} of The Economist. The dark shape racing towards them looks like the chiefly Facebook-shaped digital juggernaut they are discussing with commendable calm.

Lionel Barber (left) of The Financial Times interviews Alan Rusbridger (right), who led The Guardian for 20 years, and Zanny Minton Beddoes (centre) of The Economist. The sinister dark mass behind them could be the Facebook-shaped digital juggernaut they are discussing with commendable calm.

In the outline of his unfinished manuscript about the difficulties of constructing accurate history — partly scratched out as a prisoner of Germany in 1940-4 — the French historian and Résistance operative Marc Bloch wrote [ the italics are his, in all cases ] :

VI. EXPLANATION IN HISTORY

By way of introduction: the generation of skeptics (and scientists)

1. The idea of cause. The destruction of cause and of motive (the unconscious) [ … ]

2. The idea of chance.

3. The problem of the individual and his differential value. [ … ]

4. The problem of ‘determinant’ acts or facts.

Apologie pour l’Histoire, ou Metier d’Historien, 1949 [ a posthumous work published in English in 1954 as The Historian’s Craft ]

All three versions of his manuscript ended with these words: ‘In history, as elsewhere, the causes cannot be assumed. They are to be looked for …’. If he were extending those notes today, we would propose:

5. The problem of the sound byte and tiny attention spans.

Explanations shrunk to sound bytes can wreak havoc with historical truth. That would account for the hair-raising contrast between our analysis — two posts ago — of why The Guardian’s economic model of giving everyone free access to its website is unsustainable, and the answer to virtually the same question by the architect of its strategy, Alan Rusbridger. That prospective revolution failed because it was halted halfway, as if lacking the courage of the convictions that got it rolling — including the editor’s enthusiasm for the advent of ‘participatory journalism’. But he and his managerial colleagues did not go far enough. For old media in transition, free access can only make economic sense — some day — in combination with building in some version of the audience participation or collaboration that defines social media. Recently, the post-Rusbridger Guardian made a stunning turn in the wrong direction. As we noted on this blog last month, relying on the accuracy of a report by Private Eye, the paper’s present leaders decided — unbelievably — against allowing its new class of readers paying £5 a month for ‘membership’ privileges to elect a representative on the paper’s governing board, the Scott Trust. (‘Readers’ Knives,’ Private Eye No: 1422, 8-21 July, 2016)

You would glean none of that from Rusbridger’s reply in an interview with the editor of The Financial Times — at this newspaper’s first ‘live’ festival in London earlier this month — to a question about the explosion in readership after the launch of his content-is-free business model:

Lionel Barber: Under your editorship The Guardian became incredibly successful in terms of developing a global audience. You went from 300,000 in the UK to literally millions. Can you make money out of that audience?

Alan Rusbridger: Well, the answer to that changes from year to year. At the time I left, we were just about managing sustainability and then everything changed — not through anybody’s fault. Except that Facebook came along and this behemoth started taking 85 cents out of every dollar in terms of the advertising revenues that came in. And that’s a completely changed environment. There’s no point whingeing about it, it’s a brilliant company. Google’s a brilliant company. But it does mean you have to adapt your business model not only in light of things that may change from year to year but from month to month.

The facts called for giving the FT editor a different sound byte altogether. But that would have put the former Guardian chief, who stepped down last year, in the awkward position of criticising his change-resistant former colleagues for their inability to understand, as he did, digital technology’s inversion of the pyramid they were used to — with journalists at the top and their audience members squeezed together, powerlessly, at its base. He could have given a colourful, entertaining account of, for instance, the shattered egos of senior journalists and columnists subjected for the first time to criticism by readers in comments sections — and to competition from blogs. Instead, he expressed himself eloquently on the perceptions that made him a Moses who lost most of his followers, because they lacked any glimmer about the Promised Land to which he was trying to lead them:

I felt that my job was to try and understand the technology, not because it was technology but because it signified a completely different social shift. It was the biggest thing since Gutenberg — not the technology of printing but the democratisation of reading and of thought. And we’re moving from a vertical world in which the people with the knowledge used to drip it down to something in which it’s much more widely dispersed. And as editors, you can’t afford to ignore that.

In their joint interview, Zanny Minton Beddoes, the practical editor of The Economist, described a survival strategy pegged to pushing for the replacement of advertising revenue by expanded circulation and subscriptions. This could succeed, for the special reason why publications focused on finance and economics are virtually the only big names in journalism that are doing well behind the paywall or subscription barrier. Her plan represents a different recognition that success will entail some kind of financial reward for the reader-participants in publishing’s future. The economic model that we have advocated on this blog would give readers small monetary stakes in media organisations. That would be just right for the communal-minded, left-leaning progressives said to dominate The Guardian’s audience. By contrast, readers are willing to pay for old-fashioned subscriptions to The Economist — or The Wall Street Journal or FT — in the hope of learning what they can to protect their piggy banks from disaster. (See ‘The Guardian wants to look like a Facebook extension, but the right model for a socially sensitive, reader-supported newspaper is either Private Eye or Tsū.co’.)

Surely a sound byte encapsulating some of that would have been a more useful guide for editors coping with the digital transition than implying that the Guardian‘s huge economic losses are simply the fault of Facebook, which came along and devoured old media’s future.

How does a partisan press mislead the public and distort an election? Watch this conversation between Cenk Uygur and Bernie Sanders on The Young Turks

Bernie Sanders being interviewed about corporate media's partisan distortions of the truth by Cenk Uygur on The Young Turks, 23 March 2016

Bernie Sanders being interviewed about corporate media’s partisan distortions of the truth by Cenk Uygur on The Young Turks, 23 March 2016

Partisan press = blinkered vision + distorted facts Reichenau Island, 2011, by postgutenberg@gmail.com -- Originally posted on this blog on 5 May 2013

Partisan press = blinkered vision + distorted facts
Reichenau Island, 2011, by postgutenberg@gmail.com
— Originally posted on this blog on 5 May 2013

 

Weakening the capacity of the proudly partisan old media establishment to undermine democracy has been one of this blog’s causes from the start. In 2013, we collected a few of our posts about the evils of a blinkered — and blinkering — partisan press in one entry in post-Gutenberg.com during a British debate on the subject:

How Lord Justice #Leveson let down everyone who cares about the practice of journalism ‘without fear or favour’

We do not have a vote in U.S. elections. But, following the drama as closely as we can — like anyone anywhere on the globe not buried in a cave with abysmal wifi reception — we were delighted by the proof, in a superb half-hour interview, of exactly how influential old media are warping their depictions of Bernie Sanders and his campaign:

Must journalists and writers wait for salvation in heaven, or Godot? Facebook cares more about helping publishing businesses than creators

 

This gorgeously illustrated 1997 essay in The New York Times is proof that the destruction of the livelihood of print journalists began long before the digital revolution in publishing. - Graphic by Phillipe Weisbecker

This gorgeously illustrated 1997 essay in The New York Times is a marker in the destruction of print journalists’ traditional means of economic survival — which began before the digital revolution in publishing.
– Graphic by Phillipe Weisbecker

 

‘Genius has patience,’ Michelangelo reportedly said, but how much patience can reasonably be expected of ordinary mortals? This week’s announcement by Facebook of a clever ploy for co-opting some of the most famous print newspapers into serving its own ambitions led post-Gutenberg to re-read a passage about waiting for salvation in heaven in Wuthering Heights. What saves the chapter from soppiness is that Cathy, like any actual, lively little girl, frequently has to be scolded for cheekiness by her father, the beneficent Mr. Earnshaw, and this happens just before he dies, when she and her darling Heathcliff — who has yet to turn into the über-monster of romantic fiction — are close by. A few hours later the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, checks on them.

I ran to the children’s room: their door was ajar, I saw they had never lain down, though it was past midnight; but they were calmer, and did not need me to console them. The little souls were comforting each other … no person in the world ever pictured heaven so beautifully as they did, in their innocent talk; and while I sobbed and listened, I could not help wishing we were all there safe together.

Why will drawing such a parallel make strange, bordering on bizarre, reading for anyone not closely acquainted with journalism and the writing life? Because no one has been broadcasting the harrowing stories of bottomless insecurity, agony, havoc, misery and ghastly compromises in the private lives of journeymen scribblers who have been mown down by the juggernaut of online publishing.

Why not? Pride. Denial. Never-say-die bravado that makes affecting Beckettian irony and superficial detachment, when discussing the topic at all, preferable to bleeding onto the carpet. If there has been a richly documented multi-part series on this subject in a well-known newspaper — some counterpart of award-warning coverage of, say, the suffering of iron and steel factory workers in the West put out of work by foreign competition, or about shamefully exploited and underpaid electronics and garment industry workers in the East – post-Gutenberg has somehow missed it.

Numbers — related not to journalists but their comrades in the making of books — are the chief evidence of the despair on which no one is reporting noticeably.  A headline in the Guardian last month inspired by a University of London study of writers’ earnings read, ‘Median earnings of professional authors fall below the minimum wage’. [p-G’s emphasis] Most shocking was that ‘17% of all writers did not earn anything at all during 2013,’ even though ‘98% of those authors had published a work every year from 2010 to 2013.’

A report earlier this month on a panel discussion of the same subject organised by the American Authors Guild stated that preliminary results of a similar survey of U.S. authors revealed that …

… 49% of U.S. authors assessed their writing income has decreased over the last five years. Respondents’ median writing-related income decreased 24% in that time frame, to $8,000, while they spent nearly 50% more time marketing themselves and their work.

Now, here comes Facebook, bearing gifts – none of them directly designed to help reporters, writers and editors, working in-house or as freelances, or any other actual creators of the stuff of news, as opposed to media owners and their financial managers and overseers:

This week, Facebook launched Instant Articles, a feature that allows publishers to host their news stories and content directly on Facebook. For consumers, this is a much faster, richer, and easier experience for reading articles directly on their News Feeds and primarily on mobile. For Facebook, this is a big improvement to the user experience and to its app “stickiness.”

That is an extract from a report in Forbes the old ‘capitalist’s tool’, and the business-and-technology section of the NY Times said:

The news publishers can either sell and embed advertisements in the articles, keeping all of the revenue, or allow Facebook to sell ads, with the social network getting 30 percent of the proceeds. Facebook is also permitting the news companies to collect data about the people reading the articles with the same tools they use to track visitors to their own sites.

For publishers, the Facebook initiative represents the latest in a series of existential balancing acts. The social network, which has more than 1.4 billion active users worldwide, captures more attention of mobile users — and prompts more visits to news sites — than virtually any other service.

While we seem to be watching Mark Zuckerberg lead newspaper bean-counters to the Promised Land, a piece of news about him at the week’s end was hardly what those of us worrying about media concentration and mogul megalomania wished to see. Maybe his intentions were all-virtuous; maybe not:

 …Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has responded to Ukrainians’ complaints about “unfair” deleting and blocking of their Facebook posts and accounts. The tech boss says they were too hateful.

In a Thursday Q&A session, Zuckerberg dismissed claims of Russian influence being behind the blockings. He was responding to a complaint that had garnered almost 50,000 likes. …

Post-Gutenberg would be infinitely more comfortable with decisions about censorship made by a moderation panel made up of democratically elected Facebook users than unilaterally, by the big chief himself. Once Zuckerberg has enough newspapers beholden to him, will he prove capable of resisting corruption by excessive power?

We prefer Google’s openness to new conceptions of media organisations and digital publishing: 

Google is spearheading the creation of a new fund that will give grants to European news organisations that are creating “high-quality journalism.”

The new Digital News Initiative (“DNI”) is being launched as a partnership with eight European newspapers: Les Echos, FAZ, The Financial Times, The Guardian, NRC Media, El Pais, La Stampa and Die Zeit.

The money will not be spent at those titles. Rather, they will advise on the spending of a €150 million fund to help news organisations “demonstrate new thinking” in digital journalism.

Google is also going to invest in training and research for journalists, including staff in London, Paris, and Hamburg who will train newsrooms in digital skills. It will invest in training partnerships, as well as funding research into digital journalism. …

About time, too. A 1997 article that turned up in forgotten clippings files about a year ago reminded us that digital disruption has merely accelerated the destruction of traditional publishing that began decades ago. In ‘The Writer Is Dead. But His Ghost Is Thriving,’ Jack Hitt anatomised the train of events through which scribblers ghosting books for celebrities earned the living wages they no longer could, writing under their own names.

With any luck, the spheres of exploration in Google’s Digital News Initiative will include co-owned media — the subject about which this blog drones on tirelessly. Leaving out the cooperative idea, which has the support of the wildly popular Pope Francis, some Charlie Hebdo staffers and the rapper Jay Z  — a group diverse enough to have been imagined by a lunatic — would make not the smallest particle of sense.

Also for paying attention to the needs of creators of all stripes, we would like to see Facebook and Google do more in copyright protection, so that tragedies of throttled creativity, such as the one described in this outstanding contribution to the bulletin of the venerable Authors Guild, can be averted:

… In the nineteenth century, American magazines printed pirated British prose rather than pay American writers; the practice stunted the emergence of a national literary culture. We could read Dickens without paying him; was that worth sending Melville to work in the Customs House? Who knows what he might have produced with greater financial security? In my case, I planned a really expansive digital edition of my next book, with dynamic interactive maps, embedded with videos, and ways for readers to explore the intertextuality of this book with my previous two. But why send readers to an edition that will earn me less than the hardcover, that will be pirated immediately, and that Google might appropriate? I’m not running a charity. That is a digital work that will not come to be, because of piracy and the attacks on the value of digital creations.

T. J. Stiles, ‘Among the Digital Luddites,’ Authors Guild Winter 2015 Bulletin