Juuso Järviniemi recently attended the M100 Young European Journalists Workshop and is inspired to write this short piece on the future of the media .
The M100 Sanssouci Colloquium will take place on Thursday 17 September.
Authoritarian-minded governments have free media in their crosshairs, both inside and outside the European Union. The COVID-induced recession will damage most areas of the economy – including the media sector. Digitalisation has changed the way we consume news and journalism, and requires media platforms to adapt their formats and business models.
With the numerous challenges facing the media, it’s clear that the European media landscape in 2030 won’t be like today’s. What’s more: the media are the engine that drives our public debate, which in turn means that changes in the media landscape will inevitably affect the quality of our democracy.
Yet saying that there will be change amounts to little more than stating the obvious. It’s much more interesting to ask what exactly might change, what concrete events might lead to these changes, and how we can turn our best-case scenario into reality.
This year’s M100 Young European Journalists workshop challenged two dozen students and young media professionals to tackle these questions over a series of nine day-long Zoom webinars. The participants created two ten-year scenarios – one positive and one negative – to serve as a starting point for discussion at this year’s ‘M100 Sanssouci Colloquium’. The annual conference brings together media executives, scholars and other thought leaders, with the 2020 edition’s theme being the “post-COVID media order”.
“How did you get the news?”
Perhaps the most monumental change the media has experienced in the last twenty years concerns the way news are delivered to consumers. Many are lamenting a downturn in the quality of public discourse since the dawn of social media – but with imagination, we can envisage news feeds and chat apps as a force for good.
When George W. Bush was elected as the US President in 2000, Europeans would have heard about it on the morning TV programme, on the radio or the newspaper. In 2020, many of us will find out about the American election results by opening Facebook on our phones. Our past online behaviour will determine whether we see commentary that celebrates the results, or shocked speculations about the results signalling the end of the world.
Over the past years, algorithms have divided us into ‘filter bubbles’, fanning the flames of social conflict. Our access to the news is filtered by intransparent forces which are, at worst, designed to extract reactions from us by making us feel outraged. Meanwhile, accessing journalism via a news feed has weakened our sense of connection to any specific media – scrolling Facebook or Twitter and tapping on headlines isn’t quite the same as delving into a magazine you’re holding in your hands.
Instead of permanent rage, our non-stop access to media content could be translated into something much more gratifying. Imagine using an app built for the needs of journalism, enabling your preferred media sources to deliver the right kind of content to you at the right time: quick headlines in the morning to make you feel informed, stories about social phenomena at noon to fuel your lunch break discussions, longer reads in the evening when you have time, and light stories before bedtime. Instead of making you feel angry, algorithms would make you feel curious, inspired and cheerful.
Or what about eschewing algorithms altogether? Already today, Telegram channels – not the same thing as group chats – are an important source of news in different ex-Soviet countries, and among specific niche groups. Receiving chat messages from your favourite media sources, or even individual correspondents, would combine constant news access with an uninhibited connection to journalistic content. A more flexible, youthful and fast-paced alternative to the classic email newsletter, if you like.
Will the state nurture journalism, or suppress it?
The prospect of the deepest recession of our lifetimes, together with technological change, means that many established media platforms are liable to face financial struggles. For example, traditional local newspapers may face a tough choice between moving their existing readership online; missing out on a new generation of readers; or maintaining an attractive paper and online offer simultaneously with limited resources.
If a media platform cannot remain profitable, but is deemed as a valuable element of our democratic society, one rescue option is public grants or credit. By funding media to support their adjustment to change, governments can ensure a vibrant public discussion, with a plurality of voices present.
The danger is that ill-intentioned governments could use similar tools to coax media into producing uncritical coverage. By using the outlet’s political positioning as the yardstick for its contribution to the public debate, governments could pervert an otherwise good idea, and give an air of legitimacy to their media-suppressing policies. Public funding is a tool that can be used for good or ill – something to bear in mind if private profit starts escaping crucial areas of the media sector.
Fact-checking is another delicate subject that will turn even more touchy if the state gets involved. The nightmare scenario for 2030, created by the M100 YEJ workshop participants, saw the public sector putting its weight behind fact-checking services in order to help combat fake news and divisive stories. With time, fact-checkers’ links with the government would deepen, and fact-checking would turn into a ‘ministry of truth’ while unsuspecting readers continue to have faith in the platforms.
The ideas and discussion arising from the young journalists’ workshop are only the beginning. With positive and negative scenarios articulated, decision-makers can start their debate on what the media and governments can do to foster a healthy public sphere between now and 2030.