Obsolete or long distance runners?
Today’s prosumers, as some believe, have the daggers under their cloaks that will finally put an end to print media, once and for all. According to this line of argumentation, the advent of prosumers, half consumers and half producers of content themselves, are superseding publishing houses and their functions. Gatekeepers, mediators - that was all necessary yesterday. Today, anybody can reach everybody at any time, without having to avail themselves of printing machines or television studios. And to the extent that everyone makes use of these potentials to communicate actively and independently gatekeepers will become superfluous, media monopolies and their power of shaping opinions will disappear, while authors and publishers will meld and merge and publishers will become a relic of the analog age.
While this all sounds perfectly reasonable on first sight - let us stop for just a second: Why then is Wikileaks offering its contents to print magazines? Why is Wikileaks, the spearhead of uncensored information freedom, engaging in some opaque dealings with the flagships of the print media world? What are the reasons for this? Wikileaks of all conceivable protagonists, the epitome of the Internet, whose name suggests a stronger affinity to social networks than traditional media, is courting newspapers? Why?
There are many reasons for print
There are certainly a number of different reasons involved here. And as so often, money could be one of them. To begin with, Wikileaks has to cope with estimated annual costs of around 150,000 euros. In order to raise this sum, Julian Assange and his comrades-in-arms have asked for donations, but have also attempted to auction off information. In 2008, these attempts failed in view of the effort and resources required. Wikileaks lacks direct market access to sell contents to end customers, as well as the necessary instruments and is certainly also confronted with the unwillingness of consumers to pay for the respective contents. By contrast, Der Spiegel sold the entire circulation 48/2010 reporting on the US diplomat files, that is 1.25 million copies, within two days and had to put in additional print runs. The last Spiegel edition that achieved similar success was back in 1995. This was certainly good business for the print magazine. Consider the fact, however, that the same people who put down 3.80 euros for a copy of these magazines would not have put down the same modest sum to access the Wikileaks web site. Insofar as direct payments are conspicuous by absence, the net pirates are left with the hope that the publicity generated via newspapers and magazines will translate into willingness to make donations.
But there are other aspects of this cooperation apart from money. Without print magazines we would not know, for example, that the American diplomats regarded Guido Westerwelle as a “highly exuberant, effervescent personality“ with “very few own ideas“. Because none of us would have wanted – or would have been able – to have read 250,000 documents in order to have filtered out the two dozen files that really hold dynamite for us here in Germany - or amuse us - from of a plethora of day-to-day, uninteresting or highly specific notes. According to Spiegel information, some 50 editors spent five months doing precisely that. Without this Herculean labor the "Embassy Files" would only have been a useless and boring convolute of mails between diplomats. It is evident that we need filters if we are not going to drown in a torrent of data. We have to sort, evaluate and structure – and that is precisely what media do. Tons of plain, unfiltered information are usually worthless.
In addition, newspapers provide processing services in terms of objective content and language. In this particular case, they were also pushed to their limits in view of the sheer volume, but the Guardian, for example, was able to provide a map showing the distribution of the countries in which the files originated across the globe, and supplemented this with a number of expedient articles from the archives that provided some historical content (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2010/nov/28/us-embassy-cables-wikileaks). In this way, journalistic capabilities promoted and enhanced our understanding.
Thirdly: In the Alexa-Page-Ranking, for example, the Wikileaks website ranks at place 861, while the New York Times takes place 92 (Spiegel 138, Guardian 201). In addition, there are four times as many sites linking to the Times than to Wikileaks.org. Which means that print media are once again providing Wikileaks with coverage and attention that it would have never gained alone. So here, we have the good old newspapers that are also attracting and loyalizing readers on the net, and in this case to an even greater degree than such a spectacular web portal like Wikileaks.
Fourthly: The fifty or so Spiegel editors and their numerous colleagues at the Guardian and the New York Times who verified the files provided Wikileaks with an additional, priceless asset, namely credibility. There are hardly private users out there who would have been in a position to have examined and assessed the material in terms of authenticity and consistency. In the absence of genuine verified knowledge, simple belief or disbelief are the only remaining options. A media institution with a reputation vouches for reliability and credibility, while a large team of experts verifying facts has invested a huge amount of work to ensure this. There is no need for blind faith here, as the likelihood that the information is valid is high.
Anyone could go out and buy a baking oven and maybe get hold of a lease on some land, but not everyone will be able to become a baker or a farmer or have the inclination to do so. And as the same applies to journalists, the citizen journalist is pure fiction. The phenomenon we are referring to here is known as the division of labor within society, something that has been perfected in the course of thousands of years. And journalists are also a product of this development. They are specialists for what is certainly the most important raw material of our day and age, namely information. Their profession and expertise entails filtering and sifting through information, verifying facts, processing, enhancing and finally disseminating the relevant information. The net has certainly not made such competence and skills superfluous. In fact, they are more relevant than ever before.
for many of them are facing difficulties. Declining circulation and advertising earnings are facts, quality losses due to rigid savings policies are unfortunate realities, while there is a desperate ongoing search for viable Internet business models. Nevertheless, print media should not succumb to the argumentation that their only option is to simply give up and shut down. As before, they are able to wield a number of options and advantages which the Internet cannot simply replace by its mere presence. This is documented by the example of Wikileaks, where a prominent netizen appeals for the support of print media. While the paper that print media use today may become superfluous over the long term, their information expertise and communication skills are in demand. Also - and most especially - in the Internet age.
Jens-Christoph Brendel has spent most of his professional life to date working on and with IT in editorial departments. In doing so, he has moved from the editor’s desk to the admin console and back, a number of times. He is currently editor-in-chief of the Linux Technical Review.