He was the second person to ask the same question that day. “Do you think the newspapers are going to end?,” he asked me as soon as he knew what my profession was. I’m a journalist, but it could be a dinosaur, it’s the same for a lot of people. He was a successful businessman, working with new technologies and startups. Earlier that day, an Uber driver had asked me the same question.
– I just ordered and won an LP record player for my birthday – I replied in a boldly way to the financier.
– I don’t understand – he said.
– I think it should be prohibited to listen to Billie Holiday, for example, on anything other than a record player. That noise that resembles the rain, the cadence of the needle, the order of the songs, everything is part of the experience – I added.
–So you believe that the fashions come back? – he asked me.
– Not necessarily. Usually, yes, but this is neither nostalgia nor preciousness – I continued.
The old end of journalism
Throughout that day, I thought about how lost we are in journalism with the latest technological advances and social changes. From “citizen reporting” to the immediacy of new generations, from fake news and the offensive of States against their own journalists to the surrender to a dark future. But we always survive.
Later, I went to explore my books on journalism and discovered that, for different reasons, this anxiety about the future of journalism has never ceased to be present.
In 2001, when I was still studying, I bought the Folha de São Paulo Style Manual–I have several books and manuals that help me to solve from grammatical doubts to ethical dilemmas. On the front pages, written by an editorial board that included the popes of journalism at the time, there were the same concerns about the extinction of newspapers.
“Journalism reflects fractures and dislocations that have yet to be mapped and faces dilemmas capable of calling into question: what to inform and for what?,” said the Manual in its introduction. I stopped reading at that phrase.
For many, many years, the newspaper’s success or failure was tied to a simplistic equation: circulation. “Are we using the correct rule to measure the success of journalism?,” I have been asking myself.
Information is power, as long as it is qualified
In the conversation I had with the young entrepreneur that day, I asked him if he didn’t bother to read what the press published to find out how his surroundings affected his business. The answer was contradictory.
First he said no and gave me a good argument: in his world, he was used to talk with a series of stakeholders, that is, he spoke directly with very high qualified sources.
Then he said that there was a lot of ‘crap’ circulating with the same news nomenclature (I agreed), but he ended up mentioning a source he considered qualified: The Economist.
I then explained to him the difference between journalism and futurology and, as in my professional life, the best headlines had come from the least likely sources, many of them from the base of the pyramid, simple people, invisible to the world of authorities.
I ended up convincing him that information is power, no matter where it comes from, as long as it is qualified. This, it was to be seen, was the great current challenge: legitimacy.
The phrase “information is power” I had taken from the book The Year of Magical Thinking, by the journalist Joan Didion, who, in a short space of time, lost her husband and daughter.
In order not to succumb to the pain, she decided to study in detail what mourning was. She wanted not only to get information about what she was facing, but to chart a pain that, at one time or another, we all go through in life.
That day, I thought about the role of newspapers from every angle I could imagine and throughout history. From the sea charts that guided sailors to commercial routes to the first newspapers, from the despair of low circulation to the fake news.
At the end of the day, I had come to the conclusion that these changes were viewed with dread by journalists, but that they could also be the cornerstone for the question launched in 2001 by Folha’s Manual. “What to report and for what (purpose)?”
The enemy on the couch
Eventually, the lack of a filter on what circulates as “news” would lead to the extinction of a model for journalism, I thought. We just needed to close the credibility equation. Journalists would have to qualify more if they wanted to compete with their worst enemy: their retired Uncle Bill, who, from the height of his couch, replicates everything he receives on WhatsApp for a group of 30 family members, who, in turn, do the same thing, without any method of checking the legitimacy of a news source to the detriment of newspapers.
But the truth is that journalism has not started to change either with the Internet or with the lack of credibility (even though it is essential). Journalism has, in fact, undergone changes that mirror civilizational, technological and social transformations.
The Holliday factor
George Holliday says he was at home in the San Fernando Valley suburb of California when he heard the sound of sirens and helicopters. It was just before 1 am on a Sunday when he, the owner of a small plumbing company, saw an African American man on the floor, being beaten.
The launch of Sony Handycam in the 1990s, a version that everybody could operate, made the USA the most watched country in the world. From small family moments to weddings, few families have escaped the fever of a camera to record everyday life. However, what Holliday did that day, inadvertently, was to start a new era of journalism. An earthquake as big as the advent of the Internet and social networks.
At 12:53 pm, Rodney King was subjected, already immobilized, to a beating of three policemen who inflicted 50 blows a minute, while Holliday was filming from his balcony. The next day, he sent the tape to a local channel.
When the footage hit CNN, the tension between police and African American citizens had reached its limit. The result was an uprising in Los Angeles that caused 53 deaths and more than $ 1 billion in losses. March 3th, 1991 changed the history of journalism forever.
The impact of Holliday’s act was just no greater than that of Abraham Zapruder, a worker, who just under three decades earlier, filmed the 26 most watched seconds in history: the JFK murder. And that, well before the massification of Sony cameras.
Stunned by the possibility that everyone could contribute to journalism, journalism itself was dizzy. That was well before the smartphone era.
Today, this type of contribution is known as citizen journalism. It is logical that media owners want to cut costs, but they will have to qualify this type of collaboration if they do not want to succumb to the meteor of information overload.
Back to the dialogue with the executive
With financial markets totally vulnerable to the world around them, why wouldn’t a financier be concerned with obtaining information? That’s when I started to understand that the problem was closer to the question than to the answer.
The problem is not newspaper circulation, nor newspapers itself. The problem is what and how to report. Ancient theories like the “gatekeeper” come back to the fore. From the fact to the editor, the gates through which the news goes will have to be re-engineered.
American journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel believe that “each generation creates its own journalism”, but that the general role, which is reporting, never changes. Our generation will have to prove that this function is their goal.
I was still a teenager when I attended a lecture by the Brazilian writer Nélida Piñon–this decades before ebooks. She talked and talked about literature. At the end of the lecture, someone asked what advice she would give to a tech tycoon who said she would end books as objects.
She did not hesitate, instead she smiled broadly and said: “Good luck!”
You can call me an optimist, but today I would say the same thing to the English executive and the Uber driver.
Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes