This is the third of three introductory lectures in online journalism I gave at the Akademie Mode & Design in Berlin. Part 1 was The media and the internet: The history of a failure and part 2 was From digital sweatshops to the integrated newsroom.
On July 20, 2012, a man open fire at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. In the hours following the shooting, an 18-year-old living nearby gathered all the information available on the massacre and posted it on Reddit, a social network. With the help of other users, he was able to provide the best, most up-to-date summary of events (he also uncovered information the police hadn’t).1 When asked why he did it, he simply said that "[he felt] like [he was] helping out people who needed to know this stuff."2
Less than one year later, bombs went off during the Boston marathon, killing three. As some users of Reddit aggregated information as had been done after the Aurora shooting, others tried to find the culprits and failed miserably. Not only did they not identify the bombers, they falsely accused several others, who faced real threats.3
The internet allowed anyone to publish anything and be read all over the world. Online, everyone is a media, the saying goes. Everyone is free to publish quality research as well as rumors and disinformation. This opened journalism to many newcomers for better and for worse but, more importantly, not everyone has become a media ; the situation is more complicated.
Disintermediation for the powerful
In theory, anyone connected to the internet can become a publisher. The cost of distribution are nil (they are paid by users to their internet service provider), so that, for publishers, the only cost center is content creation. Early observers expected that anyone with a story to tell would find his or her audience directly and that all intermediaries, first of all the media, would disappear.4 Things did not exactly work out this way.
That anyone can be a media means that any organization can now sell attention to advertisers - something over which, just thirty years ago, traditional media outlets had a near monopoly. Google and Facebook, as we saw in the first lecture, grabbed most of the market. Other companies that gathered page views began to sell it to advertisers. Telephone companies, for instance, are now among the top providers of content and sellers of ads. In France, Orange garners ten times as much page views as its closest competitor, Le Monde.5 In Germany, T-Online is bigger than Der Spiegel.6
Not all content, however, is journalism. Large tabloid brands, especially in the United Kingdom, used the internet to increase the number of unverified, highly biased articles they published, and thereby increased revenues. Others, outside of the media world, copied this business model. In the town of Veles, Macedonia, several teenagers created websites that served wholly false stories to pro-Trump users in the United States, thereby earning good money and contributing to the “fake news” maelstrom that engulfed the media industry in 2017.7
The ease with which one can publish on the internet dramatically changed the concept of advertising. Before the web, companies that wished to address their customers or prospective buyers needed to pay a media company, which had access to the attention of a segment of the population, for advertising space. They can now address their audiences directly, bypassing the media. Volvo Trucks, for instance, which sells lorries, always needs to address truck drivers. In 1998, they did so by paying millions to NBC, a television network, to broadcast a rather dull commercial.8 In 2013, they did not use television at all and instead posted a highly-polished video on Youtube (the epic split feat. Vandamme), with very little advertising budget.9
Next to brands, political parties also make use of online channels to reach to prospective voters directly, creating new media brands to serve their message. Newsletters and social media enable political parties to address an audience, but creating news content help parties shape the worldview of their voters, ensuring that they will stick to the party’s ideology. Le Media, an online television channel, was created in France in January 2018, for instance, ostensibly to support France Insoumise, a leftist party. This trend is not new. While rare in the second half of the 20th century in non-socialist Europe, party-affiliated media outlets were commonplace prior to the second world war (in Germany, Vorwärts was the newspaper of the SPD, Die Rote Fahne the one of the KPD).
Bypassing traditional media did let unheard voices find new audiences. New brands or magazines emerged to serve marginalized communities or explore new formats. Individuals set up websites to circulate their writings and reached audiences of millions. The 2005 referendum on the European constitution in France, for instance, was influenced by personal blogs as much as by traditional media.10 In general, the rise of new ideologies, especially the sadopopulism of Trump and the AfD, was enabled in part by the disintermediation the web enabled.
The internet changed a lot since 2005. The period going from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s was special in two key aspects. Internet penetration was large enough to offer potentially huge audiences to any publisher (even lone bloggers) and distribution channels were varied enough to prevent any organization from acting as a bottleneck (a blog was distributed over email, via RSS readers as well as social networks). Starting in the mid-2010s, a few companies obtained a monopoly position on the attention of users. Apple and Google owned the attention of their smartphone users while Facebook owned most of the time spent online (millions of users think that Facebook is the internet).11 Once in a position to control the distribution of all content, they made publishers pay for the attention of users, reintermediating the relationship.
During about ten years (approximately 2005-2015), it was true that anyone could be a media. Today, one would need a hefty marketing budget to pay Facebook (which owns Instagram and Whatsapp), Google and Apple to reach a sizable audience. It is still possible for an organization to reach its audience directly, bypassing the media, but only the wealthy can benefit from it.
The rise of one-person brands
In this open decade between 2005 and 2015, popular bloggers could reach large enough audiences to develop businesses out of their activity as content producers. Michael Arrington, a lawyer, created Techcrunch, a blog, in 2005, in which he chronicled the news of Silicon Valley. In a few years, it grew into a media company, employing several journalists and organizing conferences. It was sold for $25 million in 2010 (by contrast, the price of the Chicago Sun-Times, established 1948, was believed to be around $10 million in 201712).
Several (almost all male) entrepreneurs managed to create new media companies, most of them doing journalism, starting from their blogs or personal page, with minimal investment. Matt Drudge (Drudge Report), Om Malik (GigaOM) or, in Germany, Stefan Niggemeier (Bildblog) and Sascha Lobo are all examples of media entrepreneurs who rose to prominence thanks to the disintermediation the internet allowed.
Nowadays, internet giants do exert a tight control over the way they distribute the attention of their users, but they encourage the creation of content on their own platforms. (More content on their platform means more time spent by users means more advertising revenue). This allowed some users to grow their following very rapidly and gave birth to Youtubers, Instagrammers and Snappers.
Some of them reach audiences larger than traditional media outlets and attempt to cover current events and provide political commentary. In 2015, German Youtuber LeFloid interviewed chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance (watch here), a performance for which he was thrashed by many traditional political commentators.13 While politics as such is not a topic most Youtubers want to cover (because their audiences are not interested14), some social media stars enter the field of current affairs, either because they are paid to broadcast a given message or because they decide to address events in the news cycle. French Vine, then Snapchat star Jérôme Jarre conducted several campaigns (regarding Somalia and Myanmar) that praised the actions of Turkish president Erdoğan, for instance.15
For all the novelty the internet brought, these online stars are closely intertwined with the traditional media industry. LeFloid, the German Youtuber mentioned above, joined ProSiebenSat.1, a large television broadcaster, in 2015.16 Many multi-channel networks, the agencies that help Youtuber and other social media stars make money from their channels, belong to traditional media companies.17 While any individual with enough talent and luck can become a one-person brand and, possibly, do journalism, he or she will end up working for a traditional media company, much like television entertainers do.
The fallacy of citizen journalism
Mobile phones and social networks let anyone report on live events. The first time non-professional journalists, dubbed “citizen journalists”, reached the core of the news stage was in 2005, during the London bombings. For the first time, a large part of the footage available to cover the even was shot by people who simply happened to be in the underground when the bomb went off, not professional photographers.18
Citizen journalism was a hot topic in the news industry as quite a few managers imagined that they would be able to replace staff journalists with unpaid “citizens”. Backfence, a citizen journalism startup, tried to provide a platform for communities to create and consume journalistic content. It failed,19 as did most other startups in the same vein.
The web and, later, social networks did let people who were not professional journalists cover the current affairs of their town or community on a regular basis. (Unlike the examples mentioned above such as Techcrunch and Om Malik, these political journalists never had the chance to make enough money from their activity.) It often took the form of someone starting to blog the deliberations of the local city council in towns where the local newspapers either did not do it or was so infatuated with the local administration that their reports were indistinguishable from political propaganda. In France, for instance, Christophe Grébert’s blog became a strong counterweight to the mayor of the city of Puteaux (45,000 inhabitants, near Paris), thereby fulfilling one of the main missions of journalism.
Others became journalists by providing coverage of specific communities, such as Gaspard Glanz, a French videographer who specialized in covering the country’s social protests.20
These reporters blur the line between journalists and non-journalists. While they indisputably provide verified information to a wide audience in the general interest, they are rarely considered true journalists by either professional organizations or by the government.21 As a result, they do not benefit from the legal protection afforded to journalists or from the solidarity of the profession.
As the media industry lost steam (as we saw in the first lecture), hiring slowed down. Many journalists now do not benefit from a full-time contract with a traditional newsroom and work on the fringes of the industry, as part-time freelancers or volunteers. They are extremely vulnerable to predatory legal actions (e.g. a rich person or a company suing a journalist on libel grounds just to intimidate him or her) as they do not benefit from the help of an in-house legal department.
Sometimes, professional media organizations do support these solo journalists. Grébert received support from Reporters without Borders several times, after he was sued by local politicians.22 Glanz did not receive help from fellow journalists when he was put under house arrest or when people believed to be police officers threatened to kill him on Facebook.23
“Citizen journalism” is a fallacy because either journalism is defined by actions, implying that anyone who publishes verified information is a journalist, including the Reddit user who narrated the Aurora shooting and Gaspard Glanz who publishes videos of protests. Or journalism is defined by employment situation, and only those who work in a newsroom can be journalists. As we saw, no clear distinction can be made between both worlds.
The web did allow some organizations (companies, political parties) to bypass the media. However, the oligopoly of a few companies over the attention of the population (Google, Facebook, Apple) created a new barrier that only the most wealthy can overcome. For the rest, there remain the possibility to reach large audiences on Youtube or Snapchat, or on a political blog. Despite the novelty, these Youtubers or nonprofessional journalists remain closely associated with traditional media companies, who are essential to their distribution, monetization and protection.
Cover illustration: Raoul Hausmann, ABCD, 1923.
10. Pô, Jean-Damien, and Nicolas Vanbremeersch. La campagne électorale de 2007 et le débat politique en ligne. Commentaire 1 (2007): 147-155.
11. Millions of Facebook users have no idea they’re using the internet, Quarz, 9 February 2015.
12. Will Tronc Get Squeezed Out of a Sun-Times Acquisition?, The Street, 16 June 2017.
14. Les YouTubeurs et la présidentielle: le grand malaise, Slate.fr, 10 April 2017
15. Comment la Turquie d’Erdogan fait sa pub grâce à la Love Army de Jérôme Jarre , Buzzfeed News, 29 November 2017.
17. Multi-Channel Networks (MCN) : Génération de média digital-first, Brandtube.fr, 14 January 2016.
18. Did London bombings turn citizen journalists into citizen paparazzi?, Online Journalism Review, 12 July 2005.
19. An interesting view on the website from 2005: Guest Writer Liz George of Baristanet Reviews Backfence.com Seven Months After Launch, 30 November 2005, Pressthink.
20. A French Videographer is Detained, Highlighting France’s Odd Use of ‘State of Emergency’, Global Voices, 11 November 2016.
21. There are other reasons stated for their refusal to consider them journalists. Grébert was elected at the city council and is active in politics. Glanz did not hesitate to take partisan stands in his videos. Active political involvement and biased reporting are not unheard of in traditional newsrooms, making both criteria unlikely candidates to decide what is real journalism and what is not.