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For years, journalism has been increasingly replaced by the Internet, IT, algorithms, and even AI or artificial intelligence. In sharp contrast to ordinary newspapers, this allows Internet sites to micro-target consumers for advertisement. This offers them a distinct advantage when competing for the all-important advertising dollars. Many readers and in particular, those who received their news via the web and through Facebook, etc. live in the false image that they control what they read on their Facebook website. The days of ready what you want are long gone; however, the myth remains. Today, algorithms decide what is placed in front of them (and us) and what they find when they “search” the web. Google decides – not you.
This allows micro-targeting consumers of Google, Facebook, etc. based on algorithms. It can also micro-target voters. In the Age of IoT – the Internet of things – real-time analytical systems can comprehend big data to self-improve algorithms. This is known as machine learning. These are interactive system linking data capture to monitoring tools for the remote control of electronic objects and, by inference, human beings. These systems have already infiltrated the work of journalists impacting on the three core activities of journalism: a) information gathering;
b) information processing; and c) developing news content.
Practically, many activities of human beings can be monitored and quantified and potentially automated. In the world of journalism, there are already robots that write news items. These are mostly used in financial reporting and for the creation of sporting news where StatSheet’s robots, for example, already write sports news. With IT, algorithms, AI, writing robots, etc., the days of the mass distribution of newspaper is nearly over. In a sense, society will revert to the pre-1830s when newspapers were for the selected few, the well educated and well-to-do middle- class with an interest and the financial ability to afford a quality newspaper subscription.
The rest of society, i.e. the vast majority will receive either no news at all or second-rated and often distorted and manipulated news fragments through their Facebook account, on Twitter and through YouTube, etc. At the gateway between both groups will be churnalism – the churning out or mass manufacturing of something that was once called journalism. Increasingly, this sort of churnalism is produced by robots. In March 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported on a 4.7 magnitude earthquake in the city three minutes after the rumbling stopped. Nobody could have imagined that a robot wrote the news story.
The machine-writing robot simply applied natural language generation (NLG) based on the automatic creation of text from a digital source. NLG is a technology that has been developed substantially during the past two decades. So far, it has not profoundly infiltrated other areas of journalism apart from sport and finance. Its corporate inventors like to highlight the fact that NLG adds to the work of journalism and is not designed to replace journalists. They claim it replaces the boring parts of journalism.
Still, as automation and the robotification of journalism moves forward as cost pressures on news outlets grow, it is relatively easy to predict that it will replace vast numbers of journalists. Beyond that, there are already autonomous video production systems which automatically combine and edit text, pictures, and short videos. Drone camera footage will add to this. Meanwhile, Twitter has already replaced journalists when it comes to breaking news. But not in the case of Donald Trump because Donald Trump himself “is” the breaking news.
In Trump’s world of short-termism, people with the attention span of a fruit fly, and the endless drive to acceleration, the speed of news reporting is becoming increasingly important. Artificial intelligence is here to assist this sort of acceleration. Simultaneously, it concentrates even more power in the hands of a handful of corporations with the resources to operate sophisticated AI systems. In a recent Swedish experiment, researchers found there is no essential difference between news created by a person and news written by an AI robot. Worse, 54% preferred robotic news, while 44% preferred the news report compiled by a person. Most interestingly, the research found that 64% of people below the age of 35 years prefer news made by an AI robot.
With automated news – just like assembling a kitchen toaster, a coffee maker, etc. – a wide range of stories can be produced at minimal cost and at lightning speed. Beyond that, bots as automated social actors operating in complex networks can already simulate human behaviour, engineering yet one more method of the robotification of journalism. In addition, content management system such as Drupal, WordPress, and Joomla – digital publishing – have become ever more affordable. As this moves forward, our culture will be flooded with short stories and fewer news items. Many of them will be shared between different platforms 24 hours a day. All of this will contribute very little to our understanding.
Amongst all this was the surprisingly re-birth of the newsletter in Belgium. These are email notifications used by up to 30% of Belgians with an even more significant number among older news users. Historically, newsletters date back to the 1830s appearing in regular intervals. The more modern application came when Buzzfeed launched its email newsletter service in 2014. Email newsletters have the advantage that they appear in your email inbox relying on established habits like checking email. Overall, newsletters are still one of the most reliable digital channels editors have at their disposal to build a habit of news reading. Subscription to Counterpunch and BuzzFlash, etc. are successful illustrations.
Some outlets gave gone further than that. They send out a morning email of their newsletter at around 7:00 am to focus on the main story of the morning. A second notification covers the lunchtime reader who prefers al-desco, i.e. having lunch at their desk rather than going to the park nearby, so there is one (or a nearby beach for Australian readers). A third newsletter is sent out at around 4:30 pm containing the biggest news stories of the day. These stories are often kept behind a paywall to entice subscriptions sold by the newsletter provider. Finally, at 7:30 pm, the last newsletter is solely intended for subscription holders.
Such newsletters, just like other news, can include infographics which is information presented visually to clarify complex ideas and facilitate understanding. Coronavirus maps are a good example. Traditionally, such visual maps date back to 1854 when a British doctor named John Snow constructed a map showing cholera cases during ten days around a public water pump in the London suburb of Soho. It correctly identified the water source as the cause of cholera. Since then, we have used such maps because they visualise information.
Beyond that, digital media are increasingly using 360-degree videos. These are applied by, for example, the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, UNHCR, etc. Then there is the 2012 virtual reality film Hunger in Los Angeles. With these videos, people can almost gain a first-hand experience.
Still, the power and reach of Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, etc. remain the main challenge to journalism. Today, more than 57% of the US population between 18 and 24 years old and 43% of 25 and 34 years old receive their news through these platforms. Donald Trump’s constant and consistent hyper-presence on Twitter will only increase his success transitioning him from TV to Twitter.
Overall, TV is slowly losing its dominant position as the leading news medium. Today, almost all under 30-year-olds have practically abandoned broadcast news. Unless TV reacts to the challenge of ever-decreasing TV consumption, the TV will soon be irrelevant. TV seems to be a 20th-century model that no longer suits the 21st-century media landscape. On the downside of the diminished role of newspapers and TV, is the fact that hard news is fleeting while opinions are increasingly mixed with news and entertainment.
On the other side, TV is still the medium through which – especially Donald Trump’s older voters – receive information and above all – again like Trump’s voters – who do not read newspapers. In any case, TV is set to survive well into the 21st century; however, its role will continue to shrink. Longer formats, more contextualised reports and in-depth decrease as attention spans shrink rapidly. More alarming is the decline of the role of TV as a source of information for society as a whole. This decline will lead to further fragmentation of society. Keeping society united and well informed about important issues is something Facebook and Google’s algorithms cannot do and have no interest in doing.
In any case, the news presenter as a well-known and trusted source of information will increasingly be bypassed through direct communication by politicians like Donald Trump. With that, fact-checking is superseded in favour of sensationalism. This is known as ATAWAD – Any Time Any Where Any Device. ATAWAD has already broken the TV-vis-à-vis-audience link for many of those under 40 years of age. In short, post-war TV broadcasting defined the years between the 1930s and 1970s; Cable/Satellite TV defined the era between the 1970s and the 1990s; digitalisation defined the era of the 1990s and 2000s; while the Internet defined everything beyond 2010.
Whatever one might say about Donald Trump, he has successfully managed the transition from TV into the Internet age. He has moved from TV to Twitter without a glitch. Donald Trump is not a newspaperman. His Twitter actions are very much in line with the fact that US newspapers only gain $1.- for every $25.- they lost in advertising. Newspapers are dying – Donald Trump doesn’t care about that. On the upswing, only quality papers like the New York Times, the British Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the British Guardian, the French Le Monde Diplomatique, etc. will survive. Some journalism will also survive in the form of quality papers offering a subscription model instead of click- baits.
Increasingly, this will mean a stupidification of the likes of Donald Trump voters and quality news for the educated middle-class. Donald Trump will love it.