A democracy without arbitrators?
The German Professor Holger Wormer was asked to write a foreword in the Study "The Field of Nonprofit Funding of Journalism in the United States" by prof. Lewis A. Friedland (Director, Center for Communication and Democracy, University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Ph.D. Student Magda Konieczna.
“NEWSPAPERS ARE VITAL TO THE SYSTEM. They are more vital to the system than HRE Bank, Deutsche Bank or Dresdner Bank. They are infinitely more vital than Opel and Arcandor. (...) The system for which they are all vital is not called the market economy, nor the finance system nor capitalism, but democracy.” This classical model of the media as the “fourth pillar” (Rousseau) of the political system which Heribert Prantl (a German journalist and member of the editorial board of the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung) outlined in the Süddeutsche Zeitung is more appropriate than ever.
A FIRST LOOK at the USA shows particularly dramatically how quickly the erosion of what was possibly once the most stable democratic pillar of the world can come about. Even cities with millions of inhabitants such as Chicago are under threat of having to carry out their democratic discourse without a single local daily newspaper; on the internet, the numerous obituaries of American print media are collected on one website with the telling name “newspaperdeathwatch.com”.
A SECOND LOOK at the home of investigative(!) journalism shows something different, however: whilst the alarming reports of the threat to the culture of debate in the media in Germany were received in many quarters almost with ambivalence, the threat is obviously taken much more seriously in the USA – and not only because of its disproportionately large scale up to now.
THE FIRST AND THE SECOND LOOK were together the reason that the study we commissioned to carry out analyses the American situation first, before demonstrating the corresponding potential of foundations in the significantly younger democracy this side of the Atlantic. Foundations in the USA have reacted to the threat in good time. And interestingly, they are reacting not only on a superficial level, by, for example, announcing prizes for journalists and perhaps providing short-term support to individual divisions with “start-up financing” (often the antithesis of sustainability). On the contrary, many leaders of American foundations are giving systematic thought to the question of how one can keep broad sectors of the population informed about socially relevant debates with the help of journalism (at the Kaiser Family Foundation, for example). And they are thinking about how, after the structural change in the media, the things that the media makes indispensable for a democracy can be maintained (with the many-faceted attempts by the Knight Foundation to systematically support qual- ity in journalism, for example). Because that is often easily overlooked, including by journalists, in the model of the fourth pillar of the state: the useful capacity of this pillar depends not only on its sheer scale, on the number of different media, but also on its substance. In short, from the quality and profes- sionalism of the journalism.
JOURNALISTIC PROFESSIONALISM is an indis- pensable part of a functioning democracy. Without good journalists who research extensively, make discoveries, observe a wide range of processes over the long term, keep an eye on numerous themes and differentiate important information from interest-led PR, a civil society cannot prosper. To complicate matters further, the tasks of the fourth pillar (also called the “fourth power”) are if anything becoming more complex. As a result, WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk, one of the main German public broadcasting stations) Editor-in-Chief Jörg Schönenborn expressed doubts as far back as several years ago as to whether the word of the fourth power was still finding the right targets: “the model for the separation of powers comes from the times when the fabric of the state still had real limits in every area (...). But what we are seeing today is a considerable loss of the ability of governments and parliaments to control things given the break-down of borders. (...) The ‘fourth power’ therefore has far more to examine than just the behaviour of the other three. (...) The truly important exposés of the future will play out in economy, in the development laboratories of research and industry and in the rambling landscape of EU authorities.”
THE COUNTER-QUESTION FROM THE SOCIAL MEDIA COMMUNITY, the Facebook, blogger or Twitter etc. Community is meanwhile: does this role of the fourth pillar of democracy still have to be filled by journalists and media in the traditional sense? Or is it enough in the age of “social media”, of “-pedias” and “-leaks” for information from any source to be uploaded directly to the internet by the people concerned? This community of “citizen journalists” could then take over discussion and analysis and democratic participation would also be done justice.
BEYOND THE BASIC DEMOCRATIC FACTION of “new” and “social” media, communications experts (incidentally with extraordinarily varied expertise) are also sensing new possibilities for businesses, foundations, associations and politics to communi- cate directly through the web, bypassing journalists to deliver their messages directly. For them, “Web 2.0” is the magic formula that will enable them to break the old media’s uncomfortable stranglehold and achieve direct access to markets, end users and recipients.
THE IDEA OF “DIRECT-TO-CONSUMER” COMMUNICATION is however only practical, or indeed promising, at first glance. Whether it is for the genuinely noble goals of foundations and fundamentally democratic citizen journalists or unforgiving business interests, the proven model of mass media remains in many respects superior to the newcomers. There are at least four reasons for this:
THE RESOURCE PROBLEM: in an ideal situation, the journalist is an arbitrator in a democracy. As with any arbitrator, he will regularly make a wrong decision. And he will not always side with a particular team – even if it is clearly the better team, the one with the better goals. But that also means that he will ensure in all cases that the opposition of the moment sticks to the rules. In a world comprised only of the communications and counter-communications strategies of different positions, there would be a huge waste of resources. What has been the task of journalists in the media up to now – that is the observation of all of the positions of the opposition, and if necessary its public image – would now fall solely to each player (with the motto “every man for himself”). But that would mean an enormous expense for every individual company, every individual institution – provided of course that they could find people with even vaguely sufficient qualifications for the job at all.
THE COMMUNICATION PROBLEM: currently, the qualified people in the media have often studied for many years, have an ever-increasing number of doctorates, and have completed countless internships, a traineeship and possibly a school of journalism. And nevertheless, as is made clear in the media every day, they often fail. So how are lay-journalists or self-declared communications experts, with the exception of one-off successes, supposed to succeed where a host of frequently vastly better-educated and more experienced journalists so often do not? Why, for example, do even the best science communicators among scientists reach for the most part only their peers, or in the best case the top 10 percent of the educated classes in society, but almost never the youth and especially rarely the less edu- cated classes?
THE FRAGMENTATION PROBLEM: it looks no better, and this is a further reason that it is destined to fail, from a quantitative rather than a qualitative standpoint where recipient is concerned. Economic success (in the pharmaceutical or automotive industry, for example) is based, with a few niche exceptions, on mass production, on the success of blockbusters with a scope of millions. So why would such an economic system, least of all in the media and communications sector, now settle on a fragmented market, in which one niche of a few hundred to a few thousand users is ranged against another? An institution’s own message, even the most important message of all on a particular day, which up to now has still often succeeded in being heard amongst the numerous dissemination channels of the media, may well be lost in the roar of the general increase in number of messages. “One in seven people reads BILD”, ran an advertising campaign by the German newspaper BILD in 2000. The cinema advertisement illustrated the fact with a well-known German fairy tale (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) featuring the corresponding number of dwarfs. Regardless of the quality of this medium, which then enjoyed a reader ship of over 10 million, whoever wants to bypass mass media in the future will have to get used to the idea of “dwarf communication” in quite another sense.
THE CREDIBILITY PROBLEM: even before the magical attraction of “Web 2.0” there were and still are numerous attempts at direct communication between all sorts of institutions and the end user, in the form of posters, advertisements, brochures etc. And yet up to now a negligible number have abandoned their activity in the press entirely and dedicated themselves to their own marketing. Because naturally, the credibility of a message in the editorial part of the media which has passed all of the hurdles of journalistic inspection is always greater than that of the smartest brochure or the most original advertising campaign. What is more, even when advertising in newspaper and magazines, marketing strategies of- ten like to use formats that, with the exception of small variations in layout and the shy word “advertisement” in size 8 font in the top right, give the impression of an editorial page. And that is certainly not because this form was more attractive than the ideas that the highly-paid graphic designers came up with, but because it was more credible – or at least looked it.
ALREADY AS A RESULT OF THESE FOUR FACTORS, which outline only a part of the natural limita- tions of “direct” communication, institutions, which have an interest in a culture of rational public debate, cannot forego a functioning media system. This is especially the case for foundations, since they es- sentially have nothing else to sell than good argu- ments and noble objectives. However for the afore- mentioned reasons they will not be in a position to guarantee the reach, acceptance and professional- ism of things addressed to a wide range of sections of the population. Effective communication with the public without mass media is an illusion. (What would even WikiLeaks be without its huge dissemi- nation and analysis by the classical media?) Certainly journalists do not always do in their role of arbitra- tors (see above) what a foundation – however noble its goals – might wish them to. But that is precisely their strength.
we must give urgent thought to the question of how we can establish and strengthen journalism as a crucial element of a functioning democratic entity. And we must, using foundations in the USA as inspiration, think about it in Germany now, since it takes some time for one to find effective answers to these fundamental questions. We must therefore explore several experimental options now, which the established media cannot or will not explore themselves. We must not wait until the erosion of a vital pillar of democracy has caused long-term damage to the foundation of an operational press, since it is far more difficult to recreate something that has al- ready been destroyed from scratch than it is to take something and give it new substance. In a country in which one can even adopt potholes in run-down streets, it should also be possible to find donors to help the fourth pillar of democracy to once again achieve the useful capacity that befits its importance to the system, as mentioned at the beginning. The present study is a first stepping stone to that end.
Dortmund, Spring 2011
University Professor Holger Wormer