Owner-sensitive media

One wonders if God is any more interested than the rest of us in hapless moaning. There’s a lot of it about. In the course of “researching” this article — i.e. glancing over a few Internet links — I have just acquired my fill of quasi-highbrow European journalists, bemoaning fate. It seems the Internet has eaten their lunch. All this hype “they” — often the same writers — were feeding us twenty years ago, about the marvellous future emanating from Silicon Valley, is now being unselfconsciously revised. I never expect them to remember what they used to say. For years I have marvelled at the ability of the smug progressive types to “get on the right side of history,” not only prospectively, but retroactively.

At last the full horror of their situation is sinking in, as their quasi-highbrow rags burn away. It is impossible to sustain any kind of serious-looking publication in this “new economy.” Papers like El Pais in Spain — the voice of The Future only ten years ago — discover that their stock is now worth so little that their hated bankers casually soak it up, then start writing the op-eds. The paper recently disemployed one-third of its workforce, hitting editorial staff disproportionately. Many names renowned in Spanish progressive journalism went out with the bathwater. This helps make space for the new, owner-sensitive points of view.

In France, the winds of change blow in the opposite ideological direction. The French secularizing state has long had its fingers in every journalistic pie, through shameless subsidies, & courts promptly responsive to executive displeasure, & a culture in which all the important people in government & media are closely affiliated through old school ties. Now that the government is socialist again, & the newspapers are no longer worth much, the one dissonant, mildly anti-statist voice is getting choked. The chief editor of Le Figaro was disposed of, after the paper’s military-industrial proprietors were advised that his liveliness could jeopardize their every government contract.

Unsurprisingly, it is a conservative, once deadly serious business newspaper — Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung — that most clearly discerns the trend, & its cause. “Freedom of the press” depended, quite entirely, on the profitability of the press. A paper losing money can only beg, & must listen politely to the whims of its donors. The FAZ correspondent Frank Schirrmacher observes the growing acceptance of the idea that commercial interests should not merely sponsor, but supply their own news. We may thus look forward to a near future when, “Apple reports on working conditions in China, & Coca-Cola on the benefits of globalization.”

This is an old story, for me. When I published the Idler magazine, the advertisers left me alone. For though the Idler soon had more paid circulation than other papers in which they did advertise, & rather finer “demographics,” we lacked the correct “market placement.” It was nothing personal: we simply didn’t provide a medium in which, they thought, rank consumerism would show well. A couple of times very rich men offered to “save us” from our constantly impending financial doom, on the one modest condition that we overhaul the magazine, to reflect their views & tastes more faithfully. The choice was finally between extinction & prostitution. Being the curmudgeonly sort, I picked extinction; most publishers would swing the other way.

That was then, this is now. In 1984, when we started up, it was still possible for such a rag to limp along, on subscription revenue alone, with the occasional toss-in from a small-scale “angel.” We continued limping for nearly ten years. Given current economic & technological realities, even that feat would be inconceivable; for the most vulgarly commercial papers cannot be made to pay. And the number of profitable Internet media operations, around the whole world, is very close to zero. It is not a case of “adapt or die.” This is now a both/and proposition.

My brilliant elder son reports to me from the frontiers of the cybernetic economy. Yes, he gathers, industry might return to North America from the cheap labour countries, thanks to technology that eliminates labour almost completely. That is to say, industry may return, but not jobs — except for a tiny, specialized elite of techies, themselves obviated every few years.

The path from free lunch to no lunch has been short in all ages, but greed interferes with our capacity to learn. I mentioned pain & failure as the great teachers in my last post; & would tack on hunger except, it motivates more than teaches. My guess is that, being hungry & having no prospect of employment, the “market correction” may motivate people to grow their own food.

Let me recommend that to young aspiring journalists, who wish to surf ahead of the wave. Small farmlots may seem a muddy way to earn a living, but consider: you can eat what you can’t sell. You might also want to acquire some formidable assault weapons, in light of “the lessons of history.” But do yourself a favour & buy nothing high-tech. For while they may look convincing, these state-of-the-art automatics spray state-of-the-art ammunition, & the fools buying them don’t realize how quickly it will run out.