European and North American newspapers have been in decline for decades. Slowly but surely, all indicators of a more or less healthy product – circulation, audience penetration, advertising effectiveness, credibility and trust – have been eroding to the point where, today, they are in freefall. None of this is surprising given the historical trend, but it still features in feverish debates online and offline as to what the future of democracy is without newspapers.
The link between newspapers and democracy is tenuous, and also rather uninspiring as a basis for debate – as one can find similar discussions in the professional and academic literature in the 1920s (economic depression, general distrust of media as vehicles for wartime propaganda, rise of radio as a mass medium), the 1980s (TV news trumps print news, increased media concentration, decline of political and other forms of civic participation), and the early 1990s.
What seems to be lacking from the current debate – about the end of an era for local newspapers in the UK, or the demise of one or more national newspapers in The Netherlands, and the shutting down of at least 10 or more prestigious newspapers in the US – is a critical awareness of the workforce restructuring of journalism that runs parallel to this process. This process shifts the economy from one based on the production of commodities (such as news) at specific places (as in the office buildings of news organizations) using the skills of specific employees. It is perhaps useful to interpret the demise of newspapers as an important step towards the liquefaction of all these categories.
Economists for years have been predicting or advocating the emergence of a global weightless economy, where ideas are the primary form of capital (rather than, say, machines). Such a weightless economy centered on information and communications technology (ICT), the Internet, and (copyright-protected, trademarked) intellectual assets, in turn produced by immaterial labor. Immaterial labor produces the informational and cultural content of a commodity, which content is valued on the basis of impermanent, unstable, and generally unpredictable categories: creative norms, user preferences, consumer taste, seasonal fashions, and so on.
I would argue that another element defining the “weight” of a weightless economy – next to factories and machines – are people, as in: employees. People that are owned – and taken responsibility for through contracts and other formal social arrangements – by companies. The majority of journalists in countries all over the world has always been employed by newspapers. The newsroom sizes of newspapers can run into the hundreds of reporters and editors, whereas broadcast and online teams tend to be just a fraction of this.
Another difference has been that newspaper staffers generally have had the most stable kind of employment arrangements, often working in fulltime, open-ended contractual capacity. This compared to their colleagues in online, magazine, and broadcast news, which operations are more often than not staffed with contingent workers (parttime, temporary, freelance) in “atypical” or otherwise casualized labor conditions – often even working without a contract. Interestingly, in these areas of the profession the gender balance tends to be almost neutral, whereas in newspapers men dominate the workforce in countries such as The Netherlands, the UK, Germany, Australia, and the US – often by a margin of up to 80%.
At the heart of the demise of newspapers and the restructuring of a global weightless economy is the permanent uprooting and letting go of the majority of employed, contractual workforce in the news industry, and the overall casualization of labor.
Journalism is losing weight. Its weight is its workforce, and with that the remaining labor protections that still governed the profession. That is the real tragedy of the end of newspapers.