The Digital Revolution does not change the most important thing about journalism

A most important point about the digital revolution in journalism currently under way is this: That whilst it changed pretty much everything, from paradigms of scale to the organisation of knowledge and the tools of all trades, it did not change the actual role and function of journalism. Nor did it change its importance for a free and democratic society. However, whether it means that society can free itself of the false idol of journalistic objectivity is an altogether different and urgent question.

As many others have described, the digital revolution changes apparently everything; and it continues to do so, in a way that is unprecedented since Gutenberg and/or Industrialisation. Maybe even more so. Professionally and personally for me, few things have changed my daily work, challenged my thinking, driven my professional curiosity and academic studies over the last two decades as the digital revolution of media and journalism. And of course as I am writing this, the revolution continues.

This is a dispatch from the trenches. 

Like other journalists of my generation, I lived through the revolution as it radically changed the tools and practices of the trade. For a short period of about 28 months around 2008-2010,  probably like no other editorial manager around the globe at that time, I worked on developing and maintaining sets of editorial standards across dozens of languages and different cultures for a large and complex public broadcaster, right as the digital revolution brought in the massive deprofessionalisation of journalism, but also liberated and empowered the craft in ways previously not imagined. And like quite a few other philosophically inclined people, I dove (dived?)  into the epistemological and even the ontological aspects of what does not change but matters even more than any aspect of the digital revolution: the concept of objective truth in journalism, and the social function of journalism in particular and mass media in general in society.

Hang on there, Christoph. 

Are you really saying that journalistic truth, objectivity and the function of media don’t change? Not even since Facebook and WhatsApp? Yes. I know that is a contentious claim, but one I would argue can be proven both inductively and deductively, not to mention anecdotally.

As a print journalist, I saw how the revolution made newspapers first easier to produce and then seemingly obsolete before taking the latest turn – “glocalisation 2.0”- which I will deal with in this post briefly too, if I have the time, but intend to deal separately at another time. As a TV reporter, I saw how the revolution first made the field work easier, faster and better – and then break all the rules before moving away from TV to form its own eco-system as a form of social medium (e.g. YouTube). As an online and social media journalist, I saw how the web and the technological means at our disposal helped create new and amazing expressions of journalism – from “Medium” to Twitter. At the same time, I witnessed a lowering of professional standards of practice, from research to publication, across the vast phenomenon of not just lazy journalism (aka “the land of lousy hacks”) but media instituions: The revolution has already brought to light that some alleged bastions of quality journalism (in particular broadcasting networks) are in fact just tabloidist ventures operating behind a veneer of cultural gravitas and legitimacy, and compensating for a lack of fairness and objectivity with ideological zeal previously hidden to an analogue public. In this new era, the digital public it constitutes is a different beast altogether.

(Compare – carefully, with a view to content and form –  a print edition of the “Spiegel” during its heyday in the second half of the twentieth century to the – by some measures massively successful – website of 2014, and you will be instantly struck by the differences, but also the similarities underneath which shine through when compared.)

Obviously, there is a lot more to be drawn from what I have summarised here. But since my train ride will be over in a few minutes, let me bring it back to the point of this rambling piece:
That whilst the digital revolution has changed pretty and conitues to change just about everything, from paradigms of scale to the organisation of knowledge and the tools of all trades, it has and will not change the actual role and function of journalism. Nor did it change its importance for a free and democratic society. Consider what happened in the “Arabellion”, the “Arab spring”. Consider the “filter bubbles” in which people spend their time on Facebook [note: link is to a piece in German].

Ok, I hear you say, so journalism is still required. D’uh! What’s the point of all of this?

Firstly, I don’t think it is a banal point at all. Secondly, it makes me very excited and optimistic about the future, but also concerned that we need to explain this – and its implications – to young (and older) journalists. Thirdly, it is not just about empowering journalists. We also may see the digital revolution as a means of what Gaston Bachelard called a useful “epistemological rupture”: As an opportunity to look at assumptions and unquestioned premises around the function of journalism. And in particular of the nasty, false idol of journalistic objectivity – of which I must write more very soon.

Poor Amazon is asking its authors for help against Hachette

This letter was in my inbox on this fine summer morning. I read it over eggs and bacon, our traditional Saturday brekkie. It’s a good yarn. Orwell is referenced. Not sure if Hachette will also write to me (I have published with Kindle Direct, not them, but I believe Amazon has contacted Hachette authors, so come on!). I would like my letter with some references to the French Revolution, Communism and – of course – the story of David and an astro-turfing Goliath thrown in, please.

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read). A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures. And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

Please consider including these points:

– We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at http://www.readersunited.com

Das vermessene Selbst (Vorfreude auf ein tragbares katholisches Internet)

Diese Woche habe ich eine seelische Spontan-Amputation erlitten. Beim Einstieg in den Zug prallte meine Tasche so unglücklich im Gedrängel an eine Stahlstange, dass die gläserne Oberfläche des Tablet-Computers in seiner Hülle splitterte. Wie bitte? Der kaputte iPad soll eine seelische Spontan-Amputation verursacht haben? Nein, natürlich nicht.

Es war noch viel schlimmer.

Continue reading “Das vermessene Selbst (Vorfreude auf ein tragbares katholisches Internet)”

Wir brauchen “Big Data Catholicism”!

An allegory of consumption by Mike Licht. (CC Image).
An allegory of consumption by Mike Licht. (CC Image).

Die Zukunft ist mehr als nur ein digitaler Pfarrbrief, aber das wäre schon mal ein Anfang. Wir klagen statt dessen viel darüber, dass die Politik, die Rechtsprechung, die Kirche und auch sonst eigentlich alles der neuen digitalen Realität hinterher hinkt. Leider ist das auch wahr. Wehklagen oder Wegschauen bringt aber nichts. Wir müssen uns der Realität stellen, und ihre Chancen nutzen – auch für die Kirche.

Jedes Mal, wenn wir mit unserem Handy in der Tasche unterwegs sind; wenn wir ein Foto schiessen, an der Kasse mit einer Karte bezahlen, wir eine SMS schicken oder eine Email lesen, Geld abheben oder überweisen: Wir hinterlassen eine breite und tiefe Datenspur. Auch wer nicht auf Facebook mitmacht, oder bei Twitter, wird erfaßt. Keiner ist immun. Unsere Daten werden fleissig ganz automatisch gesammelt, und da kommt ein riesiger Berg zusammen, ein ganzes Gebirge an Informationen.

Klar: Wer auf dieses Datengebirge (neudeutsch: Big Data) Zugriff hat, der kann damit einiges anstellen. Viele finden das gut, vor allem Firmen, die unsere Aufmerksamkeit an andere verkaufen – Google zum Beispiel. Andere finden es riskant, oder gar prinzipiell schlecht; vor allem in Deutschland sind das nicht wenige, wie jüngst die Reaktionen auf Alexander Pscheras Text zu “Big Data” auf Zeit Online wieder gezeigt haben. Die zum Teil hysterischen Kommentatoren warnen wieder einmal vor den Risiken des “gläsernen Bürgers” und einer Gesellschaft, in der die Krankenkasse oder auch nur die Suchmaschine mehr über einen weiß als die eigene Ehefrau. Wer mit “Google Now” lebt, weiß, was ich meine – und weiß vielleicht auch, dass das ganze enormes Potential hat. Auch und gerade für die Kirche. “Big Data Catholicism”, das ist es was wir brauchen.

Im Land der Diözesanen Datenschutzbeauftragten

Worum geht es? Wenn die fortschrittfeindlichen Reflexe mal ausgezuckt haben und die euphorischen Loblieder auf die schöne neue Welt verklungen sind, dann wird jeder zugestehen müssen: Es geht nicht darum, ob “Big Data” gut oder schlecht ist. Die neue Datenwelt ist einfach nur eine objektive Realität, die auch nicht mehr weg gehen wird. Es geht darum, wie mit dieser Realität umgegangen wird. Deutschland hat bekanntlich weniger Twitterer als andere Länder; nicht einmal auf die Lesungen in deutscher Sprache kann man mit Smartphone oder Tablet zugreifen. Auf Englisch, Spanisch oder Italienisch alles kein Problem. Dafür hat bei uns jedes Bistum einen diözesanen Datenschutzbeauftragten. Gott sei Dank. Warum kann ich dafür immer noch nicht auf einer einfachen App herausfinden, wo in München, Landshut oder Tölz der nächste Gottesdienst ist?

“Big Data” in der Hosentasche

Diese Fragen treiben viele engagierte Katholiken um. Bei uns im Erzbistum München und Freising sind wir zumindest auf dem richtigen Weg, wenn sich demnächst die Macher der Pfarrbriefe und Kirchenzettel, der Websites und Facebookseiten aus allen Regionen zum Medientag treffen. Mehr dazu übrigens in der kommenden Ausgabe der Münchner Kirchenzeitung (die man längst online und im iTunes-Store als ePaper lesen kann). Beim Medientag wird es nicht nur um die Frage gehen, welche Schritte auf dem Weg zum digitalen Pfarrbrief zu gehen sind, sondern auch, wie in Zukunft die Sekretärinnen und Ehrenamtlichen in unseren Pfarreien die Veranstaltungen und Gottesdienste nur noch einmal eingeben müssen, damit diese Informationen dann überall verwendet werden können. Ich freue mich schon auf die Apps und anderen Möglichkeiten, endlich diese Informationen in der Hosentasche immer dabei zu haben. Das ist “Big Data Catholicism”, wie er sein sollte.

(Crosspost mit meiner Kolumne “Wimmers Woche” auf http://www.muenchner-kirchennachrichten.de)