Factoids and Fake News

Martin Gurri interviews Andrey Mir about the future of journalism

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Shortly after the publication of the first edition of “The Revolt of the Public,” I received a little book with the intriguing title “Human as Media: The Emancipation of Authorship.” The author was Andrey Miroshnichenko—having found his last name to be unpronounceable by English speakers, he later shortened it to Mir—and the book was a brilliant explanation of the internet.

To an uncanny degree, Mir and I shared the same assumptions, observations and sources. The same obscure passage from José Ortega y Gasset can be found in both books. It seemed fated that we would establish a lively long-distance intellectual friendship, sharing odd bits of information from the ever-expanding media universe. My understanding of the digital landscape would have been vastly impoverished without this exchange.

At present, Mir is a media scholar at York University, Toronto. He is a native of Russia and worked for 20 years in the Russian business media before turning his attention to the impact of new media on society. Mir is a prolific writer who has authored many books on journalism, communications and politics. He also blogs at Human as Media.

His latest book, “Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers” (2020), breaks new ground in our understanding of the relationship between traditional and digital media. In “Postjournalism,” Mir explains the ideological corruption of newspapers—for reasons mostly related to business—and predicts the extinction of journalism as an institution and of the news as an industry, driven by an inexorable demographic transition. For anyone interested in the past, present or future of the news and of media generally, “Postjournalism” will be a revelation.

This interview was conducted in writing and has been edited for brevity. 

MARTIN GURRI: You predict with great confidence that newspapers will soon go extinct as an industry, and even provide the time of death: the late 2030s. Has anything occurred since the publication of “Postjournalism” to change that deadline? Is it possible that some innovation or change in public tastes might bring the newspaper back to prosperity? And can you describe what their “death” would look like?

ANDREY MIR: I don’t think anything can change the slide of the newspaper industry toward extinction. Some local events can slightly correct the development, as has happened in the U.S. with Donald Trump. Now that Trump has left the White House, the largest media outlets have lost a driver for business and are returning to a declining trajectory. But no newsroom innovations or investor’s efforts can change this trajectory, since the main problem is on the opposite side, on the side of consumption, not production.

The internet revealed that the business of the news media rested not on information but on the lack of information. Those conditions are gone. The market is already willing to abandon newspapers, but society is not yet ready. Social habits have slowed down the process. But it is demographics that have begun the final countdown. This is why it is possible to calculate the deadline, figuratively speaking. Millions of students today have never even touched a newspaper. They simply do not know how to consume the press, nor are they aware of why they should do it. As soon as this generation takes command, newspapers are done. Hence the last date for the industry—the mid-2030s.

The process of the newspapers’ extinction will look like a comet with a condensed core and long tail. Circa the mid-2020s, the biggest newspapers will stop printing and declare the final transition to digital. For many others, this will be the moment of veiled extermination. Those newspapers that have noncommercial funding will last a bit longer. But even the funding secured for the lucky few will make no sense if there are simply not enough readers around. So the media industry has about five years of agony and ten more years of convulsions ahead. The little that remains of the industry afterward will be vintage art forms.

But the main issue is that, while discussing newspapers, we are in fact talking about the fate of the news media as an industry and of journalism as an institution. Their business was in print and on the air, and it was based on the limited access of the public to the news. Old journalism does not have a viable business model in the digital world.

GURRI: What are the historical forces that have driven traditional journalism into “post-journalism”? Can you explain the difference in the ideals and value systems of the two practices?

MIR: Throughout the entire 20th century, the news media was funded predominantly by advertising, which brought in 70%-80% of the media’s revenue. The internet took this business away from the media. In 2013, the ad revenue for American newspapers dropped below the level at which the industry started measuring it in 1950. A dramatic and yet unnoticed switch had happened: The news media in general became dependent not on ad revenue but on reader revenue.

When the media rely on ad contracts, they try to accommodate advertisers. They address the affluent audience, avoid controversial and divisive topics, foster a consumerist lifestyle and embellish reality: They “manufacture consent.” When the media rely on reader revenue, they tend to cover negative events because negative news is more valuable for people’s decision-making, as behavioral economics teaches. Hence the negativity bias and all that “doom and gloom” that used to flourish in tabloids, as reader revenue was always substantial for them.

Since today content hunts for people from every device, the media cannot make money by selling the news. People usually get the news from social media, but if the news found in social media is disturbing or questionable, they look for validation. This validation is the only service that the mainstream media still can provide.

So, instead of supplying the news, the media switched to news validation. And they must deal with the most disturbing news. The switch in the business model forced the media to operate with the emotional and ideological value of news rather than the news itself. Reporting has been displaced by commenting. This was not an extraordinary development for Fox News, but for The New York Times or CNN, the shift has been tectonic.

And then came Trump. The business model of “disturbing news” validation, which in part propelled Trump to power, happened to be the only successful model for the news during his tenure. The audience had a lot of disturbing news, delivered by Trump as a medium directly, and the mainstream media quickly learned to sell the approval or disapproval of Trump as news. They started soliciting subscriptions as donations to the cause of democracy. This in turn began influencing newsroom policy.

Thus journalism has mutated into post-journalism in just five or six years. Journalism sought truth; post-journalism has traded truth for justice. Journalism explored what existed; post-journalism judges if the existing is right. Journalism described; post-journalism prescribes. Journalism looked for the world as it is; post-journalism covers the world as it should be. Trumpism aggravated this mutation, but the mutation’s roots were of a technological and business nature.

GURRI: The motto of The Washington Post is “Democracy dies in darkness.” Will democracy die in darkness if newspapers and journalism in general go extinct?

MIR: I think the current form of democracy will die in noise, not in darkness. Representative democracy was created by the Habermassian public sphere and its main medium, the press, after the emergence of the bourgeoisie in the 15th-17th centuries. And it is now challenged by the direct democracy created by digital media.

Historically, direct democracy was restrained by the size of community, but the internet has canceled those physical limitations. Because of the internet, we have, in fact, more democracy then ever before in human history. People speak their minds. Not just sanctioned people or the rich or elected officials or the educated—all people. This is direct democracy at an unprecedented scale. It destroys the status quo of representative democracy and leads to what you have called the “crisis of authority” in “The Revolt of the Public.”

But when the limits for opinion expression are lifted, the limits of opinion absorption come into play. All of us are unable to deal with the opinions of all of us. The emancipation of expression does not guarantee the capacity of perception. On the contrary, the more people talk, the harder it is for them to hear each other. Voices must be louder and the rhetoric more radical in order to be heard and taken into account. So the current form of democracy will die in a cacophony of yelling and screaming. The romantic motto of The Washington Post has nothing to do with this development: Because of the impact of the internet, the opposition to journalism is not the darkness of underreporting but the cacophony of overreporting.

Andrey Mir

But there is something more, besides this cacophony: the design of the digital platforms that profit from user engagement. It would be too idealistic to say that people really speak their minds on social media and that nothing else transpires there. We have now two completely new sources of power: a very agitated digital crowd and a very monolithic digital oligarchy.

Basically, the essence of politics in the near future will be the fight between old institutions of representative democracy and these two new sources of power earning respectively social and financial capital on the direct democracy of the internet.

GURRI: A century ago Walter Lippmann posed the question whether news and truth were the same thing. How would you answer that question? Does the arrival of post-journalism entail a culture of post-truth—and if so, what will be the social and political consequences?

MIR: I think we need to look at the methods of verification of news in the physical and digital worlds. The news covering the physical world was easily reality-checked. If a merchant or a citizen used the news and failed in whatever enterprise they were attempting, the news was fake. Reality verified the news by the commercial, political and sometimes even physical failure of a user.

But this take on news is a bit romantic. It treats the news as pure information, which it is not. Selling the news downward to readers or an agenda upward to patrons, the media induced reality. In a sense, the news media prepared society for the relocation into the digital environment. The media became the first industrial human practice whose criteria of truth relied on dissemination. Thus appeared the “factoid,” facts that existed only in media coverage, a predecessor of fake news.

In the digital world, the only reality that the news can be checked against is the attitude of many people. Significance is no longer the cause but the product of dissemination. This is an inevitable outcome of the very idea of selling news for profit.

The biggest issue with post-truth is not its divorce from reality but its escape from the monopoly of the authorized institutions. When everyone can produce and deliver news, it creates chaos but also a very competitive environment, in which old media need to compete with the noise and radical character of the news produced by social media. The emancipation of fake news by the internet makes post-journalism more radical. Factoids from the news media are losing the battle with the fake news of social media, which forces post-journalism to undertake more and more desperate attempts to keep control over the agenda.

A reality check for the news under such conditions is a digital-reality check. This explains why the news media became so dependent on the Twitterati. Under the ad-based business model, the media created the notion of newsroom autonomy to withstand the pressure of business and political interference. The new business model with its dependence on reader revenue arrived so fast and is so financially weak that it has allowed no time for the media to elaborate the new forms of newsroom autonomy. It is not the relation of the news media to the truth that has suffered—that has never been ideal. What has suffered is the authority and independence of journalism, diminishing its place in politics and social life.

For more on this topic, see Martin Gurri’s essay, “Post-Journalism and the Death of News.”

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