Journalism and the Web are in an ever uneasier alliance. Since people traded in their newspapers and magazines for the opportunity to stare into a screen, the appreciation for the written word and those that produce it has been in a steady decline (in Germany, those that can't keep their eyes off their phones are known as ‘smombies’, or smartphone zombies. It's in the running for word of the year there).
Print journalism, together with gossipy magazines, know that there is hardly an answer to the fact that people now take their news and information off the web, while rarely paying for it. But print journalism was not the first victim. The first victims were artists, who saw their music being downloaded on a massive scale, and not being paid a dime for it. Was it the end of music when an artist’s only option to make some money was to go on tour? I don't suppose it was. But I would assume there is less incentive to go full throttle on a music career when the payoff is very little. I once read that for anyone to become very good at something, one has to dedicate a large amount of time to practice. That is why athletes are paid a stipend just to train, compete and become the very best they can be. Will journalists be paid a stipend by their governments? In my country surely not. In Holland, it is all about austerity. Artistry is seen as a hobby, not worth investing in.
Lenny Kravitz, surely not a poor man, was the one complaining lately that people do not appreciate his music anymore, because they all rip it for free off the internet. Has it become the same with quality, print journalism? With fewer people buying newspapers and magazines, and fewer willing to pay for it online, where is journalism headed?
An insiders look at the slow skinning of quality journalism can say a lot about the future. And it doesn't look pretty. As for many subjects, you'll rarely be the first one and only one to write about it. The first time I actually realized the severity of this gradual process, is when I read about it in the New York Times. Coincidentally, I knew of someone who worked in the business that forms the greatest threat to journalism, and could tell me about its inner workings. As of right now, one of the largest American companies in the tech business is investing heavily in something that will destroy this form of art I hold so dear.
What many people in the journalism business wish to see happen, now that the internet really shook things up in a massive way for them, is to see good articles behind a wall where people have to pay for them. This way, people will get paid, and things will turn out alright. These articles would be served up together with shorter, easier to digest ones, to seduce people to pay for the real thing. What they didn't realize is that in Internet-time, things go really fast. While they endeavor to turn a profit Internet-wise, big companies are breaking down the whole structure of quality journalism.
Journalism has to innovate as fast as their competition, because they battle for the attention and money of a new generation of kids, our future, that will read a lot less than the generation before them. They have short attention spans, are on Whatsapp and Facebook all day for the quick fix, and are being hunted by large companies that see them first and foremost as consumers. I can say for myself that I encountered a lot of people at University that never read a book in their leisure time. And this would be the place where the most intelligent people should come from.
Facebook will integrate news channels in its feed that are geared to generate as much clicks as possible, turning out profit due to all the ads on the page. They are not the only one. The American tech company I referred to, and many more, all have teams working around the clock to pick and choose the stories and information that will generate these clicks. With their eyes constantly on the money. Per region, and per country, algorithms will decide what information and news you will receive, dependent on the largest amount of people in that country that will click on it. If an interesting and well written article will receive few clicks, it will simply vanish, gone forever. Journalism will thus only serve the advertising industry, not itself. Moreover, it will lose its function of educating the population and being a tool for research and a stage for interesting stories. People will stop being educated after their years at school, if they were paying attention and spending enough time there in the first place.
When you ask a child of what he wants to see on TV, he will want to see Spongebob or Johnny Bravo, together with some videos of cats that lick their own faces. A few years later, he might want to watch a game of football on TV. On the Internet, he will want to see the same. When what is offered to him there is all that seems to interest him at that particular time, every challenge to the intellect of the child has stopped. He will never really learn anything anymore. There is nothing on offer to urge his curiosity, and open up a new window to another world. Facebook will just be videos of cats, and some football player scoring a nice goal. This will be what he will click on, and the algorithm will decide that this will be what you will see too. I'm not trying to sound pretentious, but is this really something that is good? Will stupidity and mediocrity be celebrated over originality and creativity? What is this coming to?
So how can we turn this around? Us, the lovers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, everything else, and my very small band of readers. Will we have mass sit-ins in front of tech companies’ offices? Will we go on strikes, perform terrorist acts, hijack a plane? The answer to this is that this process is unstoppable. Like the undefeated champion boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr, money in itself has no worthy opponent. It conquers and defeats and, some say destroys, everything in its way. Will the future be a more intellectually stimulating place because of it? Certainly it will not. Ways to make money off journalism will become scarce, and the industry will become a niche market.
A savior has to be in the form of one, but hopefully several billionaires, that are fond of quality journalism themselves, and want to preserve it. For the greater good. Like billionaires now, who have their pet projects building missiles, spacecraft, and all kinds of future tech stuff; future billionaires will hopefully become nostalgic in a world of aluminum, hover boards, and cat videos. In between all their clicking, they might want to order a hovering cup of tea, seat themselves in a comfy anti-gravity chair, and consume some good journalism. And hopefully, send some kudos our way.