A Review of Andrey Mir’s “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers.”

 postjournalism

While there are several books analyzing the impact of social media on society, Andrey Mir’s book “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization” distinguishes itself by focusing on the impact of social media on traditional media.

The defining analysis of traditional media is Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model (PM.) The PM begins by observing that traditional media outlets are corporations that are in the business of selling their readers to advertisers, who are the primary source of revenue.

Accordingly, the PM posits that the world-view that would be advocated by traditional media would be in accordance with the broad interests shared by the media institutions, themselves corporations, and advertisers, which are other corporations. Herman and Chomsky then go on to identify the detailed mechanisms through which the PM operates and devote the bulk of their work to a detailed empirical study establishing that the media coverage is overwhelmingly in accordance with what is predicted by the PM.

The primary contribution of Andrey Mir’s book is to convincingly show that in the current media environment established over the past decade, the premises underlying the PM no longer hold. The main cause for this change is the advent of social media. Briefly, all the advertiser money that was looking for an audience and found a venue through traditional media is now diverted into social media. Social media offers a far more personalized and targeted audience profile than is ever possible via traditional media. In this sense, although Facebook and Twitter wouldn’t seem like direct competitors to the New York Times, in a very real sense as regards to the advertising market, in fact they are.

The numbers Mir shows to illustrate this shift are compelling. He notes that advertising revenues for print media have been in sharp decline in this century, with 2014 being the year that newspaper revenue through readers purchases or subscriptions exceeded the advertiser revenue. A quote by media analyst Media Perry from 2014 is worth repeating: “The decline in print newspaper advertising to a 63-year low is pretty amazing by itself, but the sharp decline in recent years is stunning. Newspaper print advertising revenues decreased more than 50% in just the last five years, from $37.6 billion in 2008 to only $17.3 billion last year; and by almost 70% over the last decade, from $56.9 billion in 2003.” While the digital advertising business overall is booming, the share of it in traditional media is not. The duopoly of Google and Facebook surpassed 60% of the share of global digital advertising in 2019. With highly personalized, targeted advertising delivered through search results (Google) and social media (Facebook), traditional media are simply inefficient when it comes to the advertising business.

The net result is that “in total, America’s newspaper advertising revenue fell from $63.5 billion in 2000 to $12.3 billion in 2018.” The chief executive of the New York Times, Meredith Kopit Levien, stated recently that: “In 2020, we reached two key milestones, both of which we expect to be enduring: Digital revenue overtook print for the first time, and digital subscription revenue, long our fastest-growing revenue stream, is also now our largest. Those two milestones, and our best year on record for subscriptions, mark the end of the first decade of The Times’s transformation into a digital-first, subscription-first company.”

At this point, it is simply not true that corporate media is in the business of selling readers to advertisers. Instead, corporate media is in the business of selling content to subscribers. This is a profound change with potentially profound implications on journalism. Careful observers of the media did note this trend. For instance, media scholar Robert McChesney wrote in the preface to the 2015 edition of his book “Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times” that: “It is ironic that the journalism hellhole I described in 1998 looks almost like a Golden Age today. Journalism has been in freefall collapse since the early 2000s…With the emergence of the internet, advertising no longer is tethered to journalism and the commercial basis for sufficient general news production has collapsed. This is a disaster for a political system predicated upon having an informed and engaged citizenry. There is no reason to believe widespread and effective commercial journalism will ever return…..In the new era of smart or targeted digital advertising, advertisers… purchase access to target audiences directly.. Advertisers no longer need to support journalism of content creation at all…. It (journalism) is a public good, something society requires but that market cannot provide in sufficient quality and quantity. Like other public goods, if society wants it, it will require public policy and public spending. There is no other way. The marriage of capitalism and journalism is over. If the United States is to have democratic journalism, it will require massive public investment.”

The effects of this trend are already playing out. The book lists various local media outlets who have now been effectively destroyed. The ones remaining are busy diversifying their business through what the book calls the addition of “cute little monkeys.” For instance, the Washington Post has rebranded itself as a broader publishing platform named Arc, that also happens to have its own newspaper. The book also describes how jobs are cut and the emphasis is increasingly on generating clickbait. For instance the Wall-Street Journal used to produce 22000 stories a year in the early 2000s but by 2011 was producing the same number every six months, and this count did not include web-only material. This phenomenon was described in the Columbia Journalism Review as the “Hamster Wheel” of journalism: “The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake… volume without thought…But it’s more than just mindless volume, it’s a recalibration of the news calculus.”

The key question that arises in the above context is whether there is a significant bearing on the effects predicted by the PM. According to the book, the primary effect of the above structural changes has been to increase polarization in the discourse. Several plausible arguments are offered in support. Stuart Ewen’s classic book “Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of Consumer Culture” refers to a “philosophy of futility” induced by advertising, generating disinterested, apolitical audiences who will be political spectators but active consumers in the economy. As such traditional media was oriented towards producing the above attitudes. But in the new environment where revenue is driven by subscriptions, the dominant factor is reader engagement. Nothing engages readers like clickbait, and there is no better clickbait than polarizing content. The book brings up a study of images of food shared on social media where the research indicates that people tend to share “images of food that look less and less like what regular people eat every day” because “the algorithms that drive participation and attention-getting in social media, the addictive `gamification’ aspects such as likes and shares, invariably favored the odd and unusual. When someone wanted to broaden out beyond his or her immediate social networks, one of the most effective ways to achieve mass appeal turned out to be by turning to the extreme.” Since most people encounter news articles primarily on their social media feeds, the above phenomenon applies to news articles as well.

While the arguments indicating the incentives for polarization are persuasive, the evidence shown in terms of effects on actual discourse is somewhat thin. The primary example used to illustrate polarization is Trump. While Trump’s coverage is indeed a good example of the points made in the book, it would have been more convincing if the book had produced other such examples. After all, the PM which this book draws heavily from, established itself primarily by going through copious levels of evidence across a variety of issues (a vast majority of the book on the PM is empirical evidence). A similar level of evidence is missing in this book. To be fair to the book, unlike the PM that evolved over decades, the current changes in the media environment have happened quite suddenly. Therefore, there isn’t much data thus far and determining their full effects will take time.

Furthermore, careful observers of the media continue to find the tendencies indicated by the PM. It is not as if the media’s coverage of any number of issues including racism, immigration, climate change and foreign policy has fundamentally altered. This may be in part due to the fact that the structural change noted above has been sudden and therefore the institutional behaviors driving past behavior continue to play out. It may also be due to other factors in the intellectual culture that go beyond the structure of the media itself. Either way, a fuller reckoning of media discourse in the modern context, that accounts for recent structural changes, is needed.

Perhaps a bigger issue with this book is that it takes the existing media environment as a given. It feels when reading the book that the forces driving these profound changes in the media environment are unavoidable. But this is far from the case. For instance, would the polarizing effects still exist if social media becomes a paid service that is ad-free? Or even better, what if Big Tech is broken up and the various algorithms that are used open sourced and placed under democratic control? We cannot proceed to answer this question if we do not even pose it. It seems that answering questions such as the above is crucial if one is to think about saving journalism.

In fact, the above criticism also holds for much of the discourse about social media even on the left. There is no denying that we are going through profound changes in the media environment and that this is happening at a time of unprecedented challenges to democracy. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of attention paid to post-truth and manufacture of ignorance, and how Trumpism feeds and exploits such trends. Yet, a lot of the discussion treats Big Tech as a given and generally downplays its role in fomenting these trends.

Fortunately, the above criticisms open up the possibility for follow-up work in this space. The book deserves credit for highlighting in stark terms, a problem of great urgency in a struggling democracy. It should be treated as an urgent call for action.

Raghav Kaushik is a writer from USA


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