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The Fourth Estate. And So Forth

The Fourth Estate. And So Forth About going past the median in mass-media. And about disintermediation in the news market

The press today makes it easier to formally prove one’s credentials as a journalist as opposed to one’s calling for the profession or even vocation, through personal probity and other underlying yet necessary qualities. You may say that this utterance is an opinion, a matter of taste or a value judgement. You may even call it confirmation bias. There is nothing wrong with such thoughts, but we say about journalism that, before values enter into the equation, it must concern itself with verifiable facts and objectivity.

The following thoughts are not an auto-da-fé or some inquisition into the deontological lapses of contemporary journalism, though factually provable deviations are mentioned, of a technological, sociological and ideological nature. These deviations are caused by the economic balance of (opportunity) costs and (expected) benefits, as in the cynical phrase “the conscience goes through one’s stomach” (when it does not settle there permanently) or Upton Sinclair’s memorable turn of phrase, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. 

Notes on mass-media ideology

Or how some manage to pressure the press 

Around the 1950s, three American professors of communication – Fred S. Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm – identified four “theories” of the press. In fact, they are “perspectives” on the field which have remained current, co-exist in the world (and sometimes in the same country) and become dominant in turns, depending on who is playing the role of pied piper. There would be space here to chart the press in space and time on such coordinates, but that is for another time.

The first is the authoritarian perspective, and the statist fetish. Mass communication, essential for the dissemination of centralized wisdom, must be kept away from heresies. The structures of social control require propaganda and instruction, on the supply side, and docility and passivity on the demand side. The journalist is possessed of a martial spirit and is a shield against the enemy, personified or otherwise. The press is subdued either through property relations (public property especially) and by “sticks” (censorship) and “carrots” (public subsidies).

The second is the libertarian perspective, stemming from post-Magna Carta England, but with its true expression in the Anglo-American New World. Freedom of speech is about maintaining the search and laying the groundwork for uncovering the “trust”. A pluralist and competitive press sharpens the public common sense and becomes the custodian of the balance of power in the classic Montesquieu triad of executive-legislative-judicial. It is an idealist and idyllic perspective, but is the typical press for a liberal democracy, with a laissez-faire, capitalist market economy.

The third is the communist perspective. It may be past its shelf life, but persists in the world’s most populous country, among others, and so remains valid. It accepts only criticisms of non-fulfilment of commitments, but not of the commitments and policies themselves. The role of the press is not to ensure the transparency of mundane trivialities, but to offer up fables and guidance on achieving the projects of the “New Man”. Its deontological criteria are linear: anything that serves the path to communism is fit to publish; anything against the path is not, or is downright immoral and objectionable.

The fourth perspective is that of social responsibility. It is self-proclaimed progressive, politically correct, even prudish with regards to risky subjects, and goes beyond simple media freedom by adding (or substituting it for) the idea of loyalty towards public opinion. It is not the consumer who sanctions the press through markets, but the “citizen”, though often in name only. “Crimes” of language, attitudes, representation and asymmetries of presence and messaging (including commercial) are condemned. This press propagates activist, egalitarian and inclusive theses, which are “environmentally sound”. 

Notes on the sociology of mass-media

The return of the 19th century 

In an article published by The Economist better than a decade ago, the following headline shocked: “News is becoming a social medium again, as it was until the early 19th century – only more so”. Somehow, we are speeding towards the past. A past when mediatizing was done through social contact, rather than a professionalized guild controlling a process of mass production. The mass stayed, but the social aspect erupted and it is growing fast. How so? That is a sociological irony with technological roots…

By the beginning of the 19th century, there was yet to be a technology for rapidly disseminating information to a numerous audience. Drinks in the local taverns and printed epistles and pamphlets were the “newspaper/radio/television/internet” of the age. The spread of typewriters and the revolution of scale and economics made printing relatively affordable, but dissemination was still based on personal connections. From Martin Luther to the revolutionary Thomas Paine, information and ideas were in a “pop” symbiosis, with little differentiation between producers and consumers. Media was “social”.

The steam driven printing press and the appearance of mass market newspapers, like The Sun in New York, modified the media landscape: news travelled fast, their production was becoming professionalized and performed by a select group. Distribution was no longer horizontal, but vertical, from a specialized purveyor to a general audience, a tendency which reached its heyday with the radio and the television in the 20th century. These media technologies gave birth to media moguls and their empires, to specialized news agencies and to new economic models, related to adverting and subscription.

Over the last decade or so, the Internet has disrupted the industrial model of the press and has fostered the re-emergence of the social aspect of mass-media, at a far greater level. The signs were there from the start, with the first fora and newsletters based on mailing lists, but it is only in the 21st century that a critical mass was reached that is displacing established actors and business models. Smartphones and social media networks – Facebook, Twitter – seem new, but they are a reinvention of how people used to collect and share information in the past. John Locke and Benjamin Franklin are the ancestors of the bloggers. Wikileaks is treading the path of anti-system pamphleteers in the English civil war. And parallels abound.

The opinion content of the news is growing and the news itself is becoming, as a result, more polarized and partisan, as in the glory days of the pamphleteers. It is obvious that the conventional media organizations fostered in the last century and a half are experiencing adaptation problems. The mainstream media age may, in hindsight, be considered a relatively brief and abnormal period, when information was de-socialized and which eventually came to a deserved end. What is left of the claims to respectability of mass-media (editing, fact checking and ethics)? Some existing media organizations will survive, others not.

Undoubtedly, journalism is no longer the exclusive preserve of journalists. Regular people play an active role in the news system, alongside a series of enabling technology firms, new wave media organizations and non-profits. Successful media entities will be those adapted to the new reality, by re-evaluating the reader-consumer, especially in the context of the “socialization” of advertising, by accepting social and collaboration features, by giving up on professional egocentricity. The digital future of media has a whiff of the paper and ink of the early years. 


Notes on mass-media technology

Or AI vs. human (un)intelligence 

We are in the interregnum when the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR 4.0) is starting to be implemented, and the press is not just writing about it, but also using its instruments. In fact, is has been in the vanguard of the societal transformations which required not only a new mental scaffolding, but also a new technological underpinning of the production-distribution-consumption cycle. The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam to mechanize production. Printing was not far behind. The second used electricity for ubiquitous labour saving and mass production. Printing was booming, but we also got media for the other senses, through radio and television. The third was based on electronics and information technology leading to automation. The simplified contact between diversion and discernment eventually complicated our understanding of the world. Today, Industry 4.0 relies on a fusion of technologies which blurs the borders between the physical, digital and biological spheres. We are luxuriating in information (harsher words are also appropriate, but going deeper into the forest, is it possible that we might not see it again for the trees?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Meera Selva, researchers with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) at Oxford University, wrote about a number of “things everybody needs to know about the future of journalism” in an article published by the World Economic Forum (“Davos” being known for its support of IR 4.0). The first is that we have entered a world where news organizations are no longer the gatekeepers, but in which the media can still set the agenda, and the various platforms (social networks, but also search engines and aggregators) control the public’s exposure to them. According to various research, around two third of the information flow is mediated in this way, as opposed to direct consumption from the news organizations. This intermediation coexists with a type of disintermediation tied to the social media phenomenon. These circuitous routes have yet to spawn filters that narrow exposure (although detractors are claiming just that). Regardless of where one stands, there is no doubt that variety is the attribute that best describes the experience of digital consumers’ exposure to mass-media.

Another interesting observation is that we have a small minority of news lovers (probably part of the larger concept of infovores). Based on the interest for the news and the frequency of access, the article states that news lovers are 17% of the public, while 48% of people check the news once a day, and another 35% are infrequent consumers. These patterns indicate a future of information inequality far beyond anything today, and not because of lack of access, but because of low interest, low commitment and, in some countries, low trust. This ultimately impacts the business model of the news. The fear is that we are seeing the weakening of professional journalism, which is vulnerable to commercial and political pressures. Even decades after the World Wide Web appeared, around 90% of the income of editors around the world comes from print editions, while digital incomes are usually growing slowly and, where it exists, media that is not niche is under significant financial pressure, which exposes it to the caprice of “benefactors” (private, but especially public!).

Despite this, we can state that we are in an age when news is more diverse than ever, and journalism is more acerbic than ever, capable of “wrestling” with figures and entities long considered intangible – from the greatest politicians to royals and religious leaders, and to the greatest companies. This potency of the press may be an illusion conjured by the “deep state” (“parallel state” in Romanian parlance) and this would make an interesting research subject, since relevant information in such a regime becomes not just confidential, but effectively classified. The question that haunts us, beyond human limitations and humanity’s mental and especially moral faults, is the ability of the “4.0” paradigms to effectively substitute or compensate for these faults. Can the “cold bloodedness” (beyond sizzling CPUs) of Artificial Intelligence be the hyper-objective alternative to journalism, especially in its investigative, violent, vigilantist, vitriolic forms? Especially since even the latter forms are suspected of partisanship, bias and even corruption. Is the recipe for Watergate 4.0 a mix of the incorruptible algorithm and the huge processing capacity? 

In memory of Florin Petria 

After 20 years in which I have written in the press (neither on the frontlines, nor as the rearguard; neither naïve with regards to the forcefields penetrating the domain, nor deformed/reformed by these when it comes to my ideas), I can say that it is hard to talk about myself as a journalist-journalist. I tried to at least be a pen with few ink blots, regardless of paper or ink. I learned with Florin Petria, the creator of Piața Financiară, a highly-reputed Romanian economics/business magazine, that even in journalism there is a “division of labour” – wills correlated with abilities – and where, like everywhere, one can do good even though one is not destined to do everything right. Thinking critically and creatively in a subdomain of journalism, the economic one (which is also invariably… political, a word whose roots call to mind the city upstream and the “city elders” downstream), is the “patch of land” where I became a disciple of Florin Petria.

The economic journalist has the chance to look at his own industry, that of journalism, through different glasses (not standardized, since the social aspect of economic science means that it must still accommodate different viewpoints). The tools of the trade are not just dry economic indicators which, nevertheless, speak of a global industry of “media and entertainment” (brothers in modern conceptualization) worth 2 trillion dollars and of printing (a direct descendent of the ancestors of the press) worth 300 billion dollars. The economics of the press also relates to multiplication effects throughout the rest of the economy of the messages delivered, to the relationship between the guild rituals, “conservative” par excellence, and the technological solutions engendering massive disruption and robbing us of the “human touch”, and to what legitimizes us professionally. As a journalist, I believe that, ultimately, one of our missions is to fight against the phenomenon of plentiful information bereft of knowledge.


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The Romanian-American Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture (RAFPEC)
Amfiteatru Economic

OEconomica No. 1, 2016