The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism
by Jack Fuller
University of Chicago Press, 2010, 224 pp., $25
It may seem a bit overwrought to begin an essay on the media with a parody of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, but truth requires it. For a specter is haunting the press, the specter of the digital revolution. The digital revolution has already had social and political consequences arguably as significant as the advent of the printing press in the 15th century. How will the media and the professional of journalism itself adapt to the new world into which applied science has shoved them? More important, how will the institution of representative democracy, which is premised on the existence of intermediaries between citizens and political elites, deal or coexist with the prospect of a de facto direct democracy, in which consumers of information are also simultaneously uncontrolled and unmediated producers of it?
Jack Fuller’s book, What is Happening to News, aims to answer these questions. Fuller, who has worked in print media for more than forty years, takes as his examples those that have come directly from his experience as editor, then publisher, of the Chicago Tribune. In 13 chapters, Fuller leads the reader from the old news order to the world of the digital revolution, using the most recent discoveries in neuroscience to explain why the human brain is perfectly shaped to exploit the basic features of the new media: the preference for negative information, the bias to see the world in binary terms of “us” and “them”, the emotional bonds one forms with celebrities, the tendency to keep recent news in mind and crowd out old information.
But if neuroscience explains much, Fuller is also perfectly aware that it does not answer the key question of whether journalists should surrender to the trend, or fight against it. Fuller recommends that journalists adopt approaches that have been successfully applied in other fields of knowledge like film, music and video. He would have journalists fight, but fight smart. In the end, he leaves it to future generations of journalists to discover new rules of the game and apply them to the profession.
One of Fuller’s recommendations for attracting and keeping the public’s attention is to let go of the dry, objective, disembodied analysis that was one of the principles of the Standard Model of Professional Journalism, invented and consolidated in the 1960s. He suggests that writers begin writing in the first person, conducive to a more emotional approach. So I will yield to that temptation, even if I must confess that 36 years spent in various positions on the editorial staff of Le Monde have brought me closer to traditional journalism than to the casual glitz of “citizen’s journalism” created by the Internet.
My journey was no coincidence. The founder of Le Monde, Hubert Beuve-Méry, was traumatized by the French newspaper culture of the interwar period, when the Comité des Forges, a group of high-ranking industrialists, essentially controlled the French press. After the Liberation, Beuve-Méry strove to create a “newspaper of newspapermen”, independent of all political, economic and financial powers. Without saying it, and perhaps without knowing it, he inculcated in us the core principles of the Standard Model: pertinence, distance and independence. Commentary was free and facts were sacrosanct, he added, demanding a strict separation of the two.
I neither can nor wish to follow Fuller into his digressions on the philosophy of knowledge and the neurosciences, and how they help justify the rising power of the new electronic media. Suffice it to say that, as Fuller sees it, emotion is neither distinct from nor inferior to reason and cognition in understanding the world. He essentially takes the reader on a brief course of phenomenology, using the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty to show that what we call attention amounts to applying our own cognitive maps to constitute, not merely discover, the world.
Whatever one makes of this line of approach, one fact is undeniable: Print media is in crisis, in France as it is in the United States. The speed of information, its price (free!) and the interactivity offered by the Internet has upset both the media landscape and the business model of journalism. Reflection is rapidly giving way to emotion. The continuous flow of news, far from forming citizens who are better informed and better able to render political judgment, tends to generalize and trivialize information, destroying the hierarchy of importance. Just as Gresham’s Law tells us that bad money drives out good money, so “bad” information—information that is not verified, cross-checked, categorized and contextualized—drives out good information.
Nonetheless, the public at large now appears to give more credibility to uncontrolled sources of information available on the Internet than to articles written strictly following the Standard Model of Professional Journalism. This crisis of confidence has affected all experts to the benefit of “decentralized judgments”, as if truth is more reliably determined by the multiplication of spontaneous opinion than by analysis based on knowledge. One would think we are living in a dystopia where the mad musings of postmodernist relativism have come true.
In France, the new dispensation has made a perennial problem worse. Each year, the daily La Croix lists professions according to their reputation. Journalists are inevitably at the bottom of the list, after the politicians and just before the prostitutes. What this says about the quality of prostitutes in France I do not care to speculate, but one has to worry that next year’s study will demote Standard Model journalists to the very bottom of the heap.
Thanks to the changes in the media environment, too, the “knowledge gap” is increasing instead of diminishing. Again, as it is in France, I suspect it is also in America. The informed public, which can be found mainly in the educated strata of the population and remains attuned to the “classical” form of journalism, is dwindling. Serious journalists may seek gratification and comfort in addressing themselves primarily to this category of readers while more or less ditching the wider audience. Some may even prefer to write just for themselves, purveying a form of journalistic narcissism bordering on memoirism. If they succumb to this temptation, journalists would no longer be fulfilling what Fuller called their “social mission”, and what Beuve-Méry considered a true “public service.”
The challenge confronting the media today is thus twofold. First, journalism must find a way to increase its audience in the era of the digital revolution without jettisoning its “classic” principles. Indeed, now more than ever these principles must be reaffirmed. Second, it must find a way to sustain print media as a privileged space for reflection and detachment in an economic environment that clearly favors electronic media. All the large newspaper companies, in France as well as in the United States, are trying to find the miracle solution to these imperatives.
None seems yet to have found the answer. As Fuller shows, we live now in an era of trial and error, of experimentation, in a business whose basic model had not changed much in nearly two centuries. Newspapers are increasingly available in digital versions for a minimal fee that does not necessarily cover their overall production costs, however much they save in paper, ink and delivery burdens. Clearly, posting journalistic production online has not, at least not yet, been proved to be profitable. These days print-media editors hesitate between full electronic publication, which may contribute to the “cannibalization” of print versions of their newspapers, and posting online summaries that might push readers into a race to the electronic bottom, to an information sewer full of sound bytes, slogans and other pulse-raising but vacuous ephemera.
Editors and publishers also vacillate between demanding a monetary contribution from readers, however small (which, even if it does not render the activity profitable, at least reaffirms the principle that “information has a price”), and offering free access. Editors go back and forth between these solutions, having not yet found a balance. It is the same with news sites not tied in with giant multimedia press corporations.
As it is in America, so it is in France—only more so. Several endogenous factors add to the uncertainty and concern here: the structure of French publishing houses, the role of traditional unions in the printing trade, and, more recently, the relationship between political power and the newspaper profession.
The French print media distinguishes both between the daily papers and the magazines, and also between the press in Paris—still called “national”—and the regional press. France has a relatively weak daily press, with a limited circulation compared to Italy or Germany, for example. But its magazine industry, in both weekly and monthly publications, is significantly more developed, more specialized and, on balance, more political in its choice of subjects. The national press in France does not include any popular daily paper that reaches the circulation of Germany’s Bild. Indeed, the largest press run in the French daily press, 800,000 copies, is for a regional paper, Ouest-France, which has less than a quarter of the sales of Bild. The national press, edited and produced in Paris, does not sell much outside the capital, but it is present in the French provinces at exorbitant distribution rates. For example, Le Monde sells about 80,000 copies in metropolitan Paris (population ten million) but only a little more than a thousand in Lyon, the second-largest city in France, with a population of one million.
Over the past few years, the regional press has increased its presence, leaving most regions with a single news company, or even a single daily paper. If there is any competition it is no longer among newspapers but between newspapers and the new media. In the same way that the regional press companies have locked in a dominant position with their readers, they have also established a near-monopoly on the local advertising market. In so doing they have prevented the big national papers from publishing regional editions, depriving them of the opportunity to increase their audience and financial base.
This weakness has been accentuated by the union traditions in the printing professions. After World War II, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), close to the Communist Party, which at the time represented more than a quarter of the French electorate, secured for itself a monopoly in the daily press using a closed-shop system in both the production and distribution departments. At the time the system offered several advantages: flexibility of personnel provided by the union, depending on production needs in terms of pages and press run; equal treatment for small and large newspapers; and a cooperative system of distribution, allowing all publications to be readily available throughout the country. There was no hint of editorial interference—all in all, a major step up from the era of the Comité des Forges.
The CGT monopoly lasted more than half a century, changing only when production and distribution techniques were diversified, provoking repeated strikes and other protest actions, such as “technical” breakdown or non-delivery, and even destruction of newspapers copies in the most tense situations. The CGT still has a small foothold at the printing presses themselves, the final stage of print media production, but it represents a significant cost for the media groups. Some of them have not survived, and the others find themselves in situations of financial weakness that often prevent them from developing and modernizing, forcing them to beg for help from the government. And here we come to the politics of the matter.
Financial assistance for the press is a tradition in France, and when it is done in an egalitarian, general manner, there is, in theory, no infringement on the independence of journalists. Assistance may come in several forms: direct aid to publications too small to have access to the advertising market; postal grants for distribution of subscriptions; preferential tax rates; support for the modernization of the big printing presses; or financing for plans to reduce personnel. For the print media, annual financial aid averages around €280 million, or about U.S. $372 million. (For the sake of comparison, note that the media group Le Monde was recently taken over by three investors for €120 million.)
In 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a “special assembly of the press” to find, with the help of the professionals, ways to address the crisis and the future of media. Sarkozy follows the media and publishing industries very closely, in the audio-visual as well as digital domains, and he has sought to put his stamp on the nexus between politics and the press in France. That stamp has alarmed many people.
Of course, even before President Sarkozy turned his attention to the French press, we were no longer living in the era of Charles de Gaulle, when the Minister of Information—a position that has not existed for several decades—would himself call executive editors to give them the headlines for that evening’s television news. Public television (back then there were no private channels) has for many years not been “the voice of France”, as Georges Pompidou, De Gaulle’s successor, called it in the 1970s. In 1982, President François Mitterrand gave authority over public (and private) television to an independent agency whose members were appointed according to the rules of nomination for the French Constitutional Council. Nominations were tendered by the President of the Republic, the President of the Senate and the President of the National Assembly, and the directors of public television were in turn nominated by that institution. This is the arrangement that Sarkozy brought to an end last year.
Considering that the only shareholder of the five public television channels is the State, Sarkozy decided that the president of the holding company encompassing those five channels should be nominated by him alone. He suggested that he would hold a few preliminary consultations, of course, before deciding, but he did not suggest he would be bound by those consultations. He has also felt unusually free to give his opinion as to the content of certain programs, and he continues to appear on public and private channels as often as he likes (members of the government have a “permanent invitation”). Meanwhile, the Duhamel brothers, veterans of French television, one of whom is still on the air (the other was recently jettisoned), have just released a book called Cartes sur table (“Cards on the table”) in which they detail the considerable political pressure the government has brought upon them in recent years.
But the President is interested in more than public television. The first private channel, the powerful TF1, is the property of Martin Bouygues, who also happens to be a friend of Sarkozy. The President does not hesitate to show his irritation if journalists seem to be favoring his political adversaries. It is true that the Société Bouygues, a large construction company, subsists largely on public commissions and projects. The same is true for the Groupe Lagardère, which is involved in the publishing and arms industries, both of which also depend on the state. Sarkozy has both financial and emotional ties to Arnaud Lagardère, the CEO of Groupe Lagardère, and considers him a “brother.” These ties, many believe, find ways to spill over into publishing content and related decisions of both commission and omission.
Arms manufacturers take a particular interest in the media. Serge Dassault, a Senator in the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), the majority party in France, is the mayor of a small town, Corbeil, in the Paris suburbs. He is also the owner of the massive company called Dassault, which produces airplanes and weapons, and the boss of Le Figaro, one of France’s most important national daily newspapers, equal in most respects to Le Monde. Le Figaro has always been a conservative newspaper but it regularly made room for other opinions; one of its best op-ed writers, for example, was the renowned sociologist and philosopher Raymond Aron. Ever since the most recent presidential elections in May 2007, however, Dassault transformed the newspaper into an electoral pamphlet for the President of the Republic and his party, the UMP.
So is the freedom of the press at risk in France? That might be a bit excessive. Publications that are independent of the large industrial conglomerates linked to the state and at the center of the media still exist, and they still publish, distribute and have readerships. Their content is not determined by political orientation, and their editors do not clamor for power and position within the state-dominated media-business juggernaut. There are journalists who still fight to preserve their freedom and defend the principles of the Standard Model of Professional Journalism. No one has been sent to jail, or even to court, for expressing any political view. No one has been threatened, and no facilities have been vandalized. What is happening to media in France is more subtle; it is a tendency inherent in the gravitational pull of a large state.
Moreover, set against the pressures on independent media is the fact that that the digital revolution has facilitated the development of many independent news sites that express the breadth of opinion. Not all of them diminish or drag down public debate, although there is the risk of deluging democracy with a flood of news unchecked by professionals or any filters whatsoever. In news production, the intervention and presence of experienced professionals is indispensable. Whatever else it demonstrates, the Wikileaks affair has shown that divulging State Department dispatches would have been an even greater catastrophe had the newspapers with first access to them not done yeoman’s work in choosing, categorizing, interpreting and putting them into perspective. This ought to encourage journalists like Jack Fuller, and me, who grew up on the old-school precepts of pertinence, distance and independence. We need not surrender to the electronic whirlwind; we can negotiate with it. Amid the nearly unlimited possibilities of the digital revolution, there is still a way to use this new technology to promote, not undermine, democracy. We must find it.