Editorial 2/2020 Crisis management

It was not planned, but an undoubted consequence of the precarious situation in which the profession of journalism now finds itself: The papers in this edition revolve more or less directly around questions of how to tackle the economic and professional hazards caused by digitalization and how to boost journalistic quality and diversity.

Taking Austria as their example, Konstantin Schätz and Susanne Kirchhoff examine how professional journalism training is reacting to the digital transformation. Their analysis of the increasing number of advanced training programs at traditional universities, universities of applied sciences, and private academies shows that the vast majority of courses at all types of institution are highly application based. Professional journalistic training today emphasizes its links to practice and has arrived in the digital media age. Yet the teaching staff surveyed also warned that teaching technical skills must not come at the expense of the foundations of the profession. Teaching understanding of the role of journalism in society, sensitizing students to the rules of professional ethics, and communicating basic knowledge of working methods such as research and forms of presentation, are all part of the role of promoting the development of a professional attitude. The fact that only a handful of those responsible for professional journalism training have hit upon the idea that their activities could provide inspiration for journalism is a cause for concern, however. One possible reason for this hesitance could be that acceptance of academic initial and advanced training is still too low at media companies. There is untapped potential for innovation here, which could be vital for the transformation of the profession that has become necessary as a result of the crisis.

Hendrik Michael’s historic paper on the muckraker Lincoln Steffens and the New York paper Commercial Advertiser at the turn of the 20th Century shows how even endangered media can produce creative journalistic work. Then, as now, strengthening local reporting and deliberately focusing on audiences with limited access to information – e.g. migrants both then in the USA and today in Europe – promises success from both a journalistic and an economic point of view. However, it also demands a sufficient number of staff from these groups in editorial offices. Other options include immersive research methods in which reporters become fully involved in day-to-day lives, and literary-inspired storytelling as a way to approach the feelings and interests of the audience. Literature on American journalism often overlooks this tradition – but it is well worth remembering given the flood of extremely brief and urgent news stories that unavoidably rains down on recipients in the digital media world and from which it is increasingly difficult for the journalism profession to live. This paper is an excellent demonstration of how the past can provide inspiration for the present.

The clearest example of this issue’s aforementioned key questions is Christian-Mathias Wellbrock’s analysis of potential ways to organize a shared streaming service for journalistic products online. He prescribes a structure under public law, with equal access for everyone, especially local and regional media, in the same way as the German press wholesaler – preferring this to digital platforms run by consortia of publishing houses and certainly to globally active technology giants along the lines of Spotify for music. Although, this preference is based on economic factors, a concern for journalistic quality and the associated greater good can be seen. A digital press wholesaler would protect diversity of information – a virtue that was already under threat before digitalization. After all, the clutter of unprofessional and semiprofessional information available on the internet merely masks the ongoing process of press concentration. With the interested parties behind the less-suitable alternatives already chomping at the bit, however, the political decision needed is somewhat urgent.

Much of this edition is about dangers and how they can be dealt with. Both the essay and the debate are linked to a very topical subject: journalism during the corona crisis. Nina Horaczek provides an international overview of right-wing populist activity, much of it online, against which professional independence and objectivity needed to be defended even before corona. Global platforms simply offer unprecedented opportunities for dishonest and brutal propaganda.

It will only be possible to answer the question debated by Timo Rieg and Tanjev Schultz on the quality of reporting on coronavirus academically once there has been sufficient time for thorough data collection and theory-based analysis. (The spontaneous, fierce criticism from numerous media scholars has done nothing to increase acceptance of the subject in its field of application, as the reaction of the former FAZ publisher and Journalism Research author Werner D’Inka shows.)[1] Even today, however, we already know that sustainable media critique including from outside the sector is important if journalism as a profession is to overcome this crisis. After all, it needs to work through the consequences of the media transformation in a wide range of social, economic, and cultural fields, without losing sight of its core role of providing transparency.

Perhaps you have a different opinion? Something to add? You can leave a comment directly under the papers, the essay, and the debate pieces. Or send us an email at redaktion@journalistik.online. We would also be delighted to receive suggestions for topics and, of course, offers of manuscripts.

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Horst Pöttker, July 2020

Translation: Sophie Costella


1 Cf. D’Inka, Werner: Corona und die Medien: Sind alle Journalisten Versager? In: faz.net, 18.4.2020. https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/medien/wie-medienforschung-sich-laecherlich-macht-16729555.html (19.7.2020)