Prof. Dr. Christoph Neuberger

The future of journalism in the digital world

If we want to talk about the future of journalism, we should first look at its present. The internet, which has shaken up journalism, has been a medium of public relevance for around two decades now. This means that we have already been able to gather a lot of experience. As we know, journalism on the Internet has lost its monopoly position as gatekeeper, i.e. as the authority that can make the final decisions about what is published and what is not. The opportunities for participation and interaction as well as the increased transparency that we find there have changed a lot about the public sphere. Political groups, but also other groups pursuing particular interests, are now able to communicate directly with citizens. The public not only has access to a wealth of information on the Internet, but can also express itself on social media.

Professional journalism and the traditional mass media initially tended to ignore the Internet in the 1990s. There were few who welcomed it euphorically, but few also saw it as potential competition. Since the turn of the millennium at the latest, when there was a considerable slump in the advertising markets from 2001 onwards, this medium has been taken seriously. Since then, we have tended to have a critical, negative attitude towards it. At the very least, there is a lot of talk that journalism is in crisis. But this crisis is not just an economic one. This is perhaps the aspect that is most evident because it can be best expressed and proven in figures. Here, however, we will differentiate between three different crises before examining the question of how journalism can develop in the future. However, the aim is not to make fixed predictions, but to identify options and make recommendations on how journalism could develop further.

Firstly, a few words on the economic crisis that has been clearly visible to us for around 15 years: it has to do with the fact that traditional mass media, especially daily newspapers, are losing reach. At the same time, journalistic offerings in both traditional media and on the Internet are losing relevance as advertising media because there are many new and better advertising options on the Internet, such as the personalisation options offered by Google. Apart from this, the public's willingness to pay for journalistic content is still very low.

These three explanations for the economic crisis are based on figures from the long-term mass communication study by ARD and ZDF, which make this shift very clear: towards the internet, away from the old media (Breunig/van Eimeren 2015: 511). Among 14 to 29-year-olds, this migration is even more drastic than in the older population groups (ibid.: 512). Younger people already use the internet for around three hours a day. The amount of time spent watching television and listening to the radio is falling. In the case of the daily newspaper, this has almost completely disappeared. The drop is particularly significant here. It is also interesting to see what young people are looking for on the Internet. If you ask them about their motives for using the internet (Breunig/Engel 2015: 330), they are not just interested in entertainment, it is not just about small talk, it is not just about computer games, but also very much about information and knowledge utilisation. The Internet is now clearly overtaking traditional media such as television, radio and daily newspapers. This is not yet the case if you look at the population as a whole. There, television is still in first place when it comes to the use of information and knowledge. This is no longer the case for younger people. One could now assume that young people will find the right path when they are older, namely towards traditional media. A cohort analysis by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research, which asked the various age groups about their newspaper usage at five-year intervals, shows that this hope is likely to be in vain (Schneller 2015: 901). This shows that those who started reading daily newspapers at an early age continue to do so as they get older. And vice versa: those who read few newspapers at a young age will not start picking up the daily newspaper when they get older.

As far as willingness to pay is concerned, the Internet also has a major problem here, because although people will pay for journalistic information when it is printed, they are still very reluctant to do so when it comes in electronic form. This is also shown by the Allensbach study, according to which only around four per cent of internet users have paid for information from daily newspapers, while eight per cent are interested in doing so (Schneller 2015: 0897/2 July 2015). So it is still a minimal proportion that wants to pay for it. In this respect, we have a clear economic crisis in journalism.

But I would argue that there are two other crises. Secondly, there is an identity and quality crisis in journalism. What do we mean by that? The Internet is leading to a dissolution of boundaries in journalism. It is becoming increasingly difficult to determine what journalism actually is. There are two boundaries in particular that we can look at here: firstly, the boundary to amateurs, to so-called citizen journalism. Many people here label themselves as journalists. In individual cases, amateurs achieve respectable results - but overall, citizen journalism is not competitive (Neuberger 2016: 6-9). On the other hand, it is about the boundary to the representatives of particular interests who engage in public relations and advertising. They now have direct access to their target groups on the internet, whether they are customers in the business sector or citizens in the political sphere. They like to give themselves the appearance of journalism and imitate journalism, making it increasingly difficult for the public to recognise the difference. Studies now also show that it is becoming difficult for the public to recognise the differences, as in a survey I conducted in 2011 (Neuberger 2012: 52): In each case, around a quarter of internet users say that they find it difficult to recognise journalism on the internet and that it is also difficult to correctly assess the quality of offerings. It is unclear what standards the providers in question are guided by. This is also confirmed by other studies, which point out that the use of information is becoming increasingly superficial and less and less source-critical. There is a certain lack of choice. For example, Google is often mentioned when users are openly asked about their information behaviour - and not the underlying sources that actually matter (Hasebrink/Schmidt 2012: 35, 37, 39, 54). In 2013, 30 per cent of respondents "somewhat" or "completely" agreed with the statement: "I don't really notice which websites I use. I look at news that interests me." (Hölig/Hasebrink 2013: 533) When assessing the trustworthiness of a news source, the name of the website or journalist is less important for younger audiences than for older audiences (Hölig/Hasebrink 2014: 537). Meanwhile, 18 to 24-year-olds use social networks more to obtain political information than (print and online) newspapers (ibid.: 538). During election campaigns, citizens also increasingly inform themselves on the websites of political parties and politicians (e.g. BITKOM/Forsa 2013: 4). There is an interesting study by the Pew Research Centre in the USA, which also asked why people follow politicians on social media (Smith 2014: 4). Around a quarter of those surveyed said: I get more reliable information there than from the news media. These are all indications that some users no longer care so much about where they get their news from, and also that less value is placed on reputable sources.

The situation is not yet dramatic. A survey conducted in 2011 showed that professional journalism still has the edge when it comes to quality: German internet users were asked to which services they are most likely to attribute quality criteria such as credibility, topicality, objectivity and thematic expertise (Neuberger 2012: 48). Press websites scored best here, followed by radio websites. However, social media are relatively strong for individual items. Wikipedia in particular, for example, is considered to have a higher degree of independence than professional journalistic websites.

There is a second facet to the identity and quality crisis. It is not only the case that other players are beginning to move closer to journalism. At the same time, professional journalism is being forced to change its own shape. It has to find its new role on the Internet. What it has done in the traditional media, namely one-way communication, is no longer enough. It must also open up here and utilise the special possibilities of this medium. But that is not enough. There is also a third crisis: a crisis of credibility that can be said to have been - literally - talked into existence. On the Internet, journalism can no longer control criticism of itself, as was the case in the past. Back then, you could write letters to the editor and the editors decided whether a letter critical of journalism would be published or not. It was therefore largely in the hands of journalism to control criticism of itself. This has changed on the Internet. There are positive aspects to this, if you think of services such as the Bild blog, which provides very detailed and critical coverage of the Bild newspaper, and now also other media.

However, in the last year and a half or so, a completely different kind of criticism of journalism has emerged on the Internet, which no longer just criticises individual mistakes, but attacks journalism in a very generalised and campaign-like manner. There are often easily recognisable political intentions behind this, especially in the context of the PEGIDA movement. The buzzword "lying press" was voted "bad word of the year" in 2014. It is easy to imagine that this debate alone is contributing to journalism losing credibility. Of course, those who make the lying press accusation argue exactly the opposite: they say that the press has long since lost credibility among the population and see this as a result of alleged abuses in journalism. It is rumoured that journalism is closely intertwined with political and economic elites, that it tries to manipulate the population, that it deliberately passes on false information or omits explosive information, for example in the context of the Ukraine conflict or now in the context of the refugee debate. This is the third crisis in journalism, which can be illustrated by Udo Ulfkotte's book Gekaufte Journalisten. A pamphlet that has sold over 120,000 copies (Fleischhauer 2015: 98) and was on the Spiegel bestseller list for many months. However - and by this I mean that it is a "fabricated" crisis - neither a significant loss of quality on the part of journalism nor an abrupt loss of credibility on the part of the public can be seriously proven (Reinemann/Fawzi 2016). Instead, an attempt is being made to deliberately damage an institution that is important for democracy.

These are the three crises of journalism that I would like to distinguish. Following these three points on the diagnosis of the present, I now have four points on the question: What can the future of journalism look like? As I said, I don't want to make any predictions here, but rather consider how journalism could behave and what options are open to it.

A first important point, which may sound a little banal, is the recommendation that journalism must learn to move in this new dynamic, very turbulent environment and constantly renew itself. It needs sophisticated innovation management. Only then will it succeed in closing the generation gap described above. It must learn to utilise the many possibilities of the Internet in a meaningful way, through systematic learning, which also includes constant feedback through evaluation, especially through continuous audience feedback. Many mistakes have been made in the last two decades. I also put forward this thesis because journalism had more or less come to a standstill for many decades. Particularly in the case of daily newspapers, which often had a local monopoly, meaning they felt no competitive pressure and therefore saw little need for reform. This seems to me to be a particular weakness of journalism compared to many other sectors. Few publishing houses invest in research and development - beyond their day-to-day business, which leaves little room for manoeuvre. What does that mean in concrete terms in the case of the Internet? It means, for example, that journalism can no longer think in mono-media terms. In the past, there were newspaper editorial offices that only worked for this print medium. Editorial offices must increasingly work cross-media. But they also have to start using a variety of channels, and this applies above all to Internet editorial teams. It is no longer enough to simply design a website; many social media channels must also be filled with content in parallel. The channels also need to be linked. We analysed this in an editorial survey in 2014 (Neuberger/Langenohl/Nuernbergk 2014). We wanted to know what Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube and blogs are used for journalistically. Firstly, most of these channels are actually used by editorial teams. This suggests that this multi-channel approach is already a reality. Apart from that, each of these channels can also do a lot, so they are multifunctional. Social media is not only used for publishing, but also for research, for audience interaction, for meta-communication, for example to advertise one's own services, or for monitoring, i.e. to observe one's own audience and the competition. In other words, we are dealing with a wide range of possibilities here, which raises the question: Is it already clear what these services can be used for? This is currently a major learning process in which performance profiles are crystallising. We have realised that Facebook and Twitter are used in a particularly wide variety of ways. They have become a kind of Swiss army knife of journalism. Facebook is used, for example, to discuss editorial articles, to involve the audience in the editorial production process, for softer research objectives, for example when it comes to recognising the mood of the population or observing the response to one's own reporting. As a fast medium with very short messages, Twitter is of course primarily used for real-time interaction, but also for short breaking news items, live reporting, contact with experts and celebrities and researching facts. Blogs and YouTube are more specialised offerings: Blogs are suitable for longer-term discussions, background information or even for writing columns, YouTube of course for distributing your own videos. As we can see, each of these channels has a very unique profile. Cross-connections are another challenge: How do you play a topic across the different channels? So we can see that the complexity of journalistic work has increased significantly due to the multichannel approach.

What is no longer sufficient in journalism is the production and selection of news alone. This corresponds to the traditional gatekeeper role. There are now new roles for journalism. One of these roles - and this is my third point on the future of journalism - is the moderator role. The opportunities for participation and interaction on the Internet have so far only been utilised to a limited extent in order to improve the formation of public opinion. It is very important for democracy that different opinions are presented in the public sphere and that, if you want to argue with Jürgen Habermas, a discourse should take place here that is free of domination, rational and respectful in its dealings. We know that this is often not the case. And the question is who will create the right framework conditions for deliberative discourse on the Internet - and I see journalism as the first choice. However, it would have to change its understanding of its role because it is not yet used to communicating with the audience at eye level. Unfortunately, there are few good examples of what this could look like. One example is the FAZ reading room on, which was opened in September 2015. It already existed a few years ago, but although it was highly praised at the time, it was cancelled due to low public response. Now there is a new start. The aim is to discuss a book with readers every week. Readers receive extracts from the book, a review by the editors and can comment on it paragraph by paragraph, so they can work through a book together with the editors. This is a sophisticated attempt to discuss books. However, this time the response is still minimal. Even among the FAZ readership, there is little willingness to participate in such a project.

Finally, there is the role of navigator. Social life is increasingly shifting to the Internet and, as we know, users are finding it difficult to find their way around, to cope with the avalanche of information that is rolling towards us. Here, too, I see journalism as having a duty: as a navigator - other terms are curator and gatewatcher - it should provide the public with orientation, be it through research, be it through links or be it through commentary on other websites.

Finally, the eighth and last point is the theoretical question of whether we need a broader concept of mediation in journalism research. We traditionally have a strong fixation on professional journalism. We are now discussing whether amateurs and algorithms can also take on journalistic tasks. In the area of media regulation, there is currently a lot of discussion about the role of intermediaries such as search engines and social media platforms like Google and Facebook. The question here is whether they don't have just as much of a public mediation role and therefore need to take on a social responsibility like journalism. Think, for example, of the hate comments on Facebook and the question of whether they should be deleted. Similarly, in the case of Google, the question arises as to what extent distortions in the content of search results could influence opinion-forming processes. Furthermore, it also seems important to me to not only always focus on journalism, but also on the other journalistic subsystems. These include counselling, education, entertainment and art. We are experiencing a blurring of these different sectors on the Internet, which are still quite clearly separated in the programmes of public broadcasters, for example. If you look at the Spiegel Online website, for example, you will find everything there: in addition to journalism, you will also find advice, education, entertainment and art. Apart from that, we find mediation not only in mass communication, but also in smaller publics and even personalised mediation services, for example through individual expert advice or on selective information markets, such as job and partner markets. I don't think we yet have a comprehensive, even theoretical idea of how diverse mediation processes are.

Further literature

    BITKOM/Forsa (2013): Demokratie 3.0. Die Bedeutung des Internets für die politische Meinungsbildung und Partizipation von Bürgern - Ergebnisse einer repräsentativen Befragung von Wahlberechtigten in Deutschland. In: BITKOM 7 August 2013. (accessed on 31 January 2016).
    Breunig, Christian/Engel, Bernhard (2015): Mass communication 2015: A comparison of media functions and images. Results of the ARD/ZDF long-term study. In: Media Perspectives. H. 7-8, PP. 323-341.
    Breunig, Christian/van Eimeren, Birgit (2015): 50 years of "mass communication": Trends in the use and evaluation of the media. Results of the ARD/ZDF long-term study 1964 to 2015. in: Media Perspektiven. H. 11, PP. 505-525.
    Fleischauer, Jan (2015): In the forest. Former "FAZ" editor Udo Ulfkotte settles accounts with his newspaper - and delivers a bestseller. Who is this man? In: Der Spiegel. H. 11, pp. 98-100. on 31 January 2016).
    Hasebrink, Uwe/Schmidt, Jan (2012): Information repertoires of the German population. Concept for a population-representative survey to be conducted regularly as part of the project "Erfassung und Darstellung der Medien- und Meinungsvielfalt in Deutschland". In collaboration with Suzan Rude, Mareike Scheler and Navra Tosbal. Hamburg: Hans Bredow Institute (= Working Papers of the Hans Bredow Institute 24). (accessed on 31 January 2016).
    Hölig, Sascha/Hasebrink, Uwe (2013): News consumption in converging media environments. International comparative findings based on the Reuters Institute Digital News Survey 2013. in: Media Perspektiven. H. 11, PP. 522-536.
    Hölig, Sascha/Hasebrink, Uwe (2014): News Usage in Transition: New Platforms, Devices and Access. International comparative findings based on the Reuters Institute Digital News Survey 2014. in: Media Perspektiven. H. 11, PP. 530-538.
    Neuberger, Christoph (2012): Journalism on the Internet from the user's perspective. Results of an online survey. In: Media Perspectives. H. 1, PP. 40-55.
    Neuberger, Christoph (2016): Social media and journalism. In: Schmidt, Jan-Hinrik/Taddicken, Monika (eds.): Handbuch Soziale Medien. Wiesbaden. Doi:10.1007/978-3-658-03895-3_6-1 (accessed on 31 January 2016).
    Neuberger, Christoph/Langenohl, Susanne/Nuernbergk, Christian (eds.) (2014): Social media and journalism. LfM Documentation, Volume 50, Düsseldorf.
    Reinemann, Carsten/Fawzi, Nayla (2016): A futile search for the lying press. Analysis of long-term data. In: 24.01.2016. (accessed on 31.01.2016).
    Schneller, Johannes (2015): On the way to new equilibria? Stability and dynamics in patterns of media use. In: AWA 2015. Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research. (accessed on 31 January 2016).
    Smith, Aaron (2014): Cellphones, Social Media and Campaign 2014. In: Pew Research Center, November, 2014.

Updated by: Giard