Prof. Volli, you are a well-established semiologist with a long history in the newspaper world, and we believe you’re uniquely suited to reflect on the present and future of journalism.
Let us start with a core question: what “relationship of significance” – to use an expression to dear to semiology – do you see between the impoverishment of journalistic information and the cultural direction of contemporaneity? In other words, does the miserable condition of current journalism arise from specificities in the field, or is it the reflection of a constantly ongoing entropic tendency?
First of all we have to define what we mean by miserable condition of current journalism. Journalism is a fairly contingent historical fact in Western cultural history. The first newspapers emerged around the mid-18th century as mere commercial news bulletins, and they didn’t assume the form we currently associate with high quality journalism until the late-19th century.
Nowadays we experience an economical and technological crisis due to the development of alternative communication media; the renewed predilection by our society for reticular communication (as opposed to the mass communication that characterized the last century); disintermediation, that is the refusal to give up important issues such as information, politics and culture to specialized organs. Such tendencies have produced different forms and economies of information, which are now still in their embryonal phase, making it hard for them to attain the same quality that characterized the best journalism of the past (which was however rare and reserved for elites). I think social grammars evolve slowly, and that today is but an intermediate and pretty imprecise moment.
Youth. Let’s talk about young people. Our startup, Notum, which aims to propose a new economical model for journalism to publishers and reporters, is mostly made up of 20-somethings. What relationship do young people today – whom you teach to and talk to every day in university classrooms – have with the world around them? Do they feel part of it or are they alienated? Does it somewhat reflect a lack of interest on their part, or are they just victims of a context, created by their fathers, they wish and often choose to rebel to?
The young people I meet through the University seem, on average, quite lucid and sufficiently prepared, with a more detailed and precise idea of the world than my generation ever had at their age. They find themselves, however, in a most difficult situation when it comes to finding a decent employment, which influences their possibility to be independent, to start a family, to improve their social condition of origin. The true problem, for them, lies here.
How comes the journalistic industry can’t find a sustainable remedy to the tumble of revenues that is going on all across the globe? When and how, in your opinion, does this economic tumble influence the impoverishment of contents.
The journalistic industry is obsolete both in technical and cultural terms. Technically speaking, news travel much faster than their possibility to be elaborated, and spread horizontally more than vertically, starting from a qualified source. Culturally, the journalistic – and more in general the cultural – industry has lost its exclusivity over opinion and circulation of news, and more importantly it’s authority to distinguish itself from everything else that circulates on the Internet. The revenue crisis derives from a progressive refusal by audiences to pay for goods they feel should be “naturally” free.
In-depth research requires time, reportage requires time as well as higher expenses due to the bigger amount of time required. In other words, the dynamics brought about by web fruition of contents collide inevitably with the time-frames and budgets of good journalism. So far, we managed to dodge this issue, or rather we chose to go with the instantaneous times of the web, but this choice is proving unsustainable. Unsustainable primarily from an economic point of view, but I suspect also from a qualitative point of view. Don’t you think people are tired of information bits gathered and recycled here and there superficially, not checked and re-proposed more or less mechanically?
Of course, the “citizen journalism” model that apparently prevails on the web has lots of defects, it risks not only being superficial, but also and often partial, propagandist and frankly mis-informational. The issue is to convince an audience that it is worth spending in exchange for n informational guarantee. This is a leitmotif in many industrial sectors, seemingly quit far from journalism – from air travel to fashion. How much is a customer willing to pay to travel with a quality airline instead of a low-cost? In exchange for what? Why is the same piece of clothing with exponentially more if it is branded? Will the fake brand industry kill true designer fashion?
It appears clear to me that new models are necessary – not simply the old ones revised and re-proposed – and just as essential is that quality be at their core. Perhaps it is possible to find ways to empower information, distancing it from the infinite circulation of contents that has irreversibly come to characterize social media. What is sure is that a strong technical, economical and contents innovation is required.