Journalism and data: business models and social functions

Journalism has undergone large and defining changes since the internet and digital technology. It is poised to keep doing so in the years to come, so many pundits.

As true as this assumption sounds and is, my question – to which I have no answer yet but towards which I pay the respect of a critical (morozovian, if you wish) attitude – is whether the biggest confusion arisen in the last two decades has been about the economic models for journalism, rather than about the defining elements of what journalism is.

The latter traces back to what we have learnt at school and university about media, freedom of expression, state-owned vs. private owned media outlets and so on (you can state they were mostly models of a liberal political science theory of democracy) and about the kind of intellectual work and social competences required to produce good and indipendent journalism.

On the contrary the first set of ideas seems to me coming from a larger bias we hear louder and louder these days. To sum it up roughly the bias goes: it is digital, it is disrupting thus it will be good (if not better).

Some other people suggest to put it in a different way, though coming out with similar believes: internet has changed everything, there is no alternative to this development, thus it will be good (if not better).

According to these views, and peer-pressured to become more digitally friendly, journalism needs to run after different models of creation, duration, consumption and sustainability, developed by an industry based on marketing and advertising revenues. If you look at the data about internet users behaviour, you can easily imagine that for journalistic work this means – day in day out – to squeeze into social media. The consequences of such consumption patterns are evident: at a conference organised by N-Ost last year in Berlin, some of them were discussed by Angela Phillips from Goldsmith University.

This alone equals to acknowledging a lenghty and yet very likely death to independent,, fact-checked, investigative journalistic work for how we know it and a growing distrust of media as a mean of delivering information and opinion about facts and events.

The push for more data journalism is one symptom of this troublesome condition. In its core parts, it seems a good idea to slip more data into journalistic work, to make use of more and more statistical models and open data.
Yet the decisive, game-changing part of journalism at its best (i.e. to uncover stories, explain linkages and make sure that a story speaks to the readers) is put aside so that the medium becomes also the aim, while the content becomes a secondary element of a new internet-of-things-friendly model of producing and consuming news.

I am not sure that running after the supposed advantages of a technological improvement will solve the evident troubles we are experiencing, at least not until a fair and convinced discussion is raised about the essential and indispensable social and political functions journalist work shall play in our societies.

I am aware that this observation is partial and not conclusive; as a matter of fact it is also not the main focus of this blog.

In my next post, I am going to talk more about the role migration played in the media coverage of the 2016 presidential election and will try to figure out what could possibly be the implication for the upcoming elections in several European constituencies. Sneak peek is an article by Eric Kaufmann, published on the LSE Blog few days after Trump’s election.

This article has been drafted on a sunny Berlin day, with the unrivalled support of the 2010 self-titled album by A Winged Victory for the Sullen

First draft November 13 2016