Testament to doomed media

  • Themes: Media, Technology

The old media has failed to rise to the challenge of tech, but we'll miss it when it's gone.

Woman reading a newspaper in front of a big pile of newspapers.
Woman reading a newspaper in front of a big pile of newspapers. Credit: imageBROKER.com GmbH & Co. KG / Alamy Stock Photo

I first became aware of the importance of newspapers when everybody stopped talking about them. It was October 1962 and, prior to that date, everybody had routinely discussed the headlines, notably in the Daily Express. Then – in family groups and on car, train or bus journeys – nobody said a word. This was because, with children present, there were no words with which to discuss the impending extermination of our species.

After 11 days the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved and the now more or less harmless Daily Express headlines were being openly discussed, but not by the children. They went on imagining the great hole where Manchester had once been and what it was like to be burnt or irradiated to death.

Later, having been unable to imagine what could possibly be done with a Cambridge degree in English, I slumped into the media. This, on a very local paper, turned out to be a dodgy not to say distasteful, exercise. This was not for me, but the media trapped me with a double promotion, first to the regional group United Newspapers and then The Times, swiftly followed by the Sunday Times, where I worked, as a contracted freelancer, for almost 40 years.

In this period, geopolitics did not change; in fact, it grew much worse. Nuclear war is now more likely than ever thanks to an increasingly brutal generation of autocrats and ever more subtle weapons. The media, however, has changed beyond recognition – also, though it may be too early to tell, for the worse.

The agent of change is obvious: the internet. This has eviscerated the newspaper business, draining advertising revenue and circulation, and it will continue to do so. Newspapers have been turning themselves into online subscription services, but online ads are worth a lot less than print. Furthermore, subscriptions are now a very crowded market and buyers are finding themselves choosing between the Mail Online and Disney Plus. Media author Andrey Mir speaks of the problem of ‘subscription fatigue’: ‘People get more and more annoyed by digital services of all kinds seeking to sneak and charge them pennies for a subscription to something.’

Meanwhile, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has, since early 2023, been charging into the online media space. A fully AI-powered internet is just around the corner. Last year it was reported that News Corp Australia was generating 3,000 articles a week written by AI. And we all know now that ChatGPT can, in seconds, write essays about anybody even slightly famous. That single debut terrorised Google, which instantly switched most of its staff over to AI.

So, in a few decades, the internet has destroyed the foundations of the press. Some may say this is not a bad thing – newspapers are too often crudely biased and slapdash products. OK, my local newspaper lied a lot and the big newspapers make a fair few mistakes; the tabloids never had a firm commitment to the truth. Yet there is one important defence of the whole business – in the old newspaper trade something like significant truth was in there somewhere, detectable with just a little effort.

That is not true of the lumbering internet behemoth. How much truth is there in the trillions of posts drifting in the ether? The answer is very little, simply because this is an open space. Not everybody can contribute to newspapers, but almost everybody can and does have their say in the swamp of cyberspace.

This means that a great deal of effort is required to find the significant truth. In 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine; all 298 passengers and crew died. The Russians and, for some reason, the Spanish, blamed the Ukrainians, but then an independent truth-teller proved that it was shot down by a Russian missile. The truth-teller was Bellingcat, a private investigative group. Three cheers for them but consider this – the truth is now very hard to find because lies can be so firmly established, as, initially, was the fate of Flight 17. In the infinitely connected climate of the internet the truth needs great thinkers and dogged idealists like Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat.

Possibly, newspapers will survive as fairly reliable truth-tellers but I have my doubts. I gave a talk at a grand Scottish school recently and I asked my sixth-form interlocutor, clearly a very bright girl indeed, what papers she read. The answer was none, but she did mention a news aggregator of which I had never heard. Mir suggests newspapers will survive little more than a decade – about the same time as that sixth former comes into her own. If they’re all like her, fine, if not…

So what shall we read, watch and learn after 2034? That depends on more important questions: why should we read, watch and learn anything? In other words, why media, what is news, and are either of them essential to the human condition?

Taking a more fundamental view, news and media are simply formalisations of speech. Long before Julius Caesar (supposedly) launched the Acta Diurna (Daily Acts), a form of newspaper consisting of official notices and message boards, humans would have been discussing these things among themselves. Even further back, animals co-operated in order to fight and feed, and, latterly, we have discovered that trees have busy social networks, the wi-fi, routers and cables of which are made of subterranean fungi.

In short, media evolved to sustain life, but what sustain means has changed rapidly with the global success of humans. Our media organised armies, trade, technology and political systems. This has happened over many thousands of years, but what we now define as media was really only born in the late Renaissance.

Newspapers appeared in Europe in the 16th century. They were, at first, heavily censored but, by the 19th century, they had, especially in the UK and US, become boisterous and, for politicians, dangerous publications.

One spectacular and – in terms of contemporary journalism – most resonant example of a politically free press was a series of articles headlined ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’, which appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. Edited by W.T. Stead, the articles exposed a massive trade in young girls for sexual abuse. The stories caused panic in Westminster – Stead’s abusers included some powerful men – and laws were rapidly changed to protect young girls.

This was a spectacular assertion of the power of politically independent media. The press and, subsequently, the broadcast media had become a new power in the land, and laws, such as those inspired by Stead, protected the rights of this newly powerful force.

There was, however, something ominous about this; not simply the political and legal power of the media, but rather the threat to the human self. The 19th-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard sensed that something was wrong.

‘As a result of knowing and being everything possible, one is in contradiction with oneself,’ he wrote. For him the self requires not ‘variableness and brilliancy’, ‘but firmness, balance, and steadiness’. The sheer availability of knowledge reduced the quality of the self.

The great journalist Walter Lippmann, writing in 1919, also glimpsed a terrifying instability in the rise of the press: ‘Men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information.’

He added that uncertainty about ‘secondhand news’ would mean that people would ‘cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions. The environment in which they act is not the realities themselves, but the pseudo-environment of reports, rumours, and guesses’.

With Lippmann I heartily agree. I now find opinions – my own included – ridiculous and the way newspapers become politically defined – usually as right or left – simply means they cannot be relied upon to tell the truth.

This was all a response to the boisterous power of the newspapers and broadcasters of the last 200 years. They had begun to represent a new world in which everybody had no choice but to be enervated daily by, well, everything. As Kierkegaard saw, in demanding membership, this new world shrinks the self.

This was just the beginning. The power of this type of media force remained largely unthreatened until the arrival, in the early 21st century, of Web 2.0. Web 1.0 had lasted from 1989 to 2004. This was the basic system in which most of us simply consumed online material. Certainly, this was a threat – notably to the powerful print unions – as it meant media would no longer need the paraphernalia of printing and physical delivery.

The unions saw this threat clearly enough. When I was pounding away on a typewriter at The Times Business News I came up with the bright idea of installing a terminal on which we could call up share prices in ‘real’ time. At once, two large and alarming men appeared to study this machine that they considered as a threat to their jobs. I backed away as one always did from the print unions in those days.

Web 2.0 allowed users to connect with each other. It was the start of blogs, social networks and, in the event, the future. If Kierkegaard and Lippmann regarded the clamorous press environment as dangerously noisy, then they would have thrown themselves off a cliff when presented with Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and TikTok. It has flung media-thinkers into a form of delirium. Social media is just too big to force an opinion or even a generalisation. This, from the normally cool, but now evidently confused, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: ‘…the urgent need for attention to the social networking phenomenon is underscored by the fact that it has profoundly reshaped how many human beings initiate and/or maintain virtually every type of ethically significant social bond or role: friend-to-friend, parent-to-child, co-worker-to co-worker, employer-to-employee, teacher-to-student, neighbor-to-neighbor, seller-to-buyer, doctor-to-patient, and voter-to-voter, to offer just a partial list. Nor are the ethical implications of these technologies strictly interpersonal, as it has become evident that social networking services… and other new digital media have profound implications for democracy, public institutions and the rule of law’.

All the old categories that used to frame our concepts of the media are dead. That clever girl I met in Scotland who didn’t read newspapers was three or thereabouts when Web 2.0 came into existence – she knew no other world except as history.

Here’s the catch. The world of Web 2.0 is dying. Its imminent demise was announced on 30 November 2022 when ChatGPT – an ‘artificial intelligence chatbot’ – was announced. Everybody had known that artificial intelligence was on the way, but this was the real thing. AI is still being incubated in the apricot groves of Silicon Valley, but it is obvious that it will come and that it will change everything.

That it should not change everything is the concern of those politicians and thinkers who are now trying to construct human defences against the age of the machine. Their problem is that, by its very nature, AI may well be unstoppable. If you build free-thinking machines, then you should not be surprised when they think – and act – freely.

And much better than us. The great environmental thinker James Lovelock, in his last book, Novacene (co-written, I confess, by me), points out that electronic circuits work 10,000 times quicker than the ones in our brain. We, in turn, he said, think about 10,000 times faster than plants. The machines would regard us as plants, but at least they might be able to save the planet from global warming. In the end, they may not bother about us – it is unlikely we would be, in their eyes, a very special species.

Anticipating the effects of AI on the media is impossible. If we simply become a secondary species governed by machines, then gossip will probably be all we ever learn of the world because all the real, effective thinking will be done by the machines. This may not happen – but what will?

Web 2.0 might provide one kind of answer. Social networking has already reduced the wealth and power of newspapers. The almost infinite availability of streamed video is threatening the existence of broadcast companies. Educating children in the worlds of politics, literature, science, and art is becoming an insoluble puzzle when confronted with their addiction to the worlds they are creating for themselves online. And so on.

It is trivial in this context to have opinions about what will happen, though we can reasonably think about what should happen.

The media should strive to tell more convincing truths than they do at the moment. The future is hard but not impossible. We should free ourselves of the worship of the tech gods – Musk, Bezos, Altman, Zuckerberg, etc – and their money. They are so blinded by their ingenuity that they know very little of value. What is clear about recent tech history is only money makes the decisions, and it should not. We should also use the media to assert humanity. Our buildings, paintings, poetry, novels and music are what we are. As the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg said recently: ‘The arts are not the cherry on the cake – they are the cake.’

The media’s responsibility is to fight this fight, to say that what has been done cannot simply be eradicated. All else is mere gossip, opinion, and tech.

One last philosopher needs quoting to warn of the failure of the media to rise to the challenge. In 1992, when the tech storm was beginning, Albert Borgmann noted that it had already ‘begun to transform the social fabric’. ‘At length it will lead to a disconnected, disembodied, and disoriented sort of life… It is obviously growing and thickening, suffocating reality and rendering humanity less mindful and intelligent.’

Personally, I’d go for mindful and intelligent, but it’s up to you, kids and ’bots, you and the people who write, film, compose and produce the media. Do not fall as silent as my parents did during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just get better at what you do. We are not children.


Bryan Appleyard