At State of the Net 2018 in Trieste Hossein Derakshan (h0d3r on Twitter) talked about journalism and its future. Some of his statements stuck with me in the past weeks so yesterday I took time to watch the video of his presentation again.

In his talk he discussed the end of news. He says that discussions about the erosion of business models in the news business, quality of news, trust in sources and ethics are all side shows to a deeper shift. A shift that is both cultural and social. News is a two century old format, representative of the globalisation of communications with the birth of the telegraph. All of a sudden events from around the globe were within your perspective, and being informed made you “a man of the world”. News also served as a source of drama in our lives. “Did you hear,…”. These days those aspects of globalisation, time and drama have shifted.
Local, hyperlocal, has become more important again at the cost of global perspectives, which Hossein sees taking place in things like buying local, but also in Facebook to keep up with the lives of those around you. Similarly identity politics reduces the interest in other events to those pertaining to your group. Drama shifted away from news to performances and other media (Trumps tweets, memes, our representation on social media platforms). News and time got disentangled. Notifications and updates come at any time from any source, and deeper digging content is no longer tied to the news cycle. Journalism like the Panama Papers takes a long time to produce, but can also be published at any time without that having an impact on its value or reception.

News and journalism have become decoupled. News has become a much less compelling format, and in the words of Derakshan is dying if not dead already. With the demise of text and reason and the rise of imagery and emtions, the mess that journalism is in, what formats can journalism take to be all it can be?

Derakshan points to James Carey who said Democracy and Journalism are the same thing, as they are both defined as public conversation. Hossein sees two formats in which journalism can continue. One is literature, long-form non-fiction. This can survive away from newspapers and magazines, both online and in the form of e.g. books. Another is cinema. There’s a rise in documentaries as a way to bring more complex stories to audiences, which also allows for conveying of drama. It’s the notion of journalism as literature that stuck with me most at State of the Net.

For a number of years I’ve said that I don’t want to pay for news, but do want to pay for (investigative) journalism, and often people would respond news and journalism are the same thing. Maybe I now finally have the vocabulary to better explain the difference I perceive.

I agree that the notion of public conversation is of prime importance. Not the screaming at each-other on forums, twitter or facebook. But the way that distributed conversations can create learning, development and action, as a democratic act. Distributed conversations, like the salons of old, as a source of momentum, of emergent collective action (2013). Similarly, I position Networked Agency as a path away from despair of being powerless in the face of change, and therefore as an alternative to falling for populist oversimplification. Networked agency in that sense is very much a democratising thing.

Last month 27 year old Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak was murdered, together with his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. As an investigative journalist, collaborating with the OCCRP, he regularly submits freedom of information requests (FOI). Recent work concerned organized crime and corruption, specifically Italian organised crime infiltrating Slovak society. His colleagues now suspect that his name and details of what he was researching have been leaked to those he was researching by way of his FOI requests, and that that made him a target. The murder of Kuciak has led to protests in Slovakia, and the Interior Minister resigned last week because of it, and [update] this afternoon the Slovakian Prime Minister resigned as well. (The PM late 2016 referred to journalists as ‘dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes‘ in the context of anti-corruption journalism and activism)

There is no EU, or wider European, standard approach to FOI. The EU regulations for re-use of government information (open data) for instance merely say they build on the local FOI regime. In some countries stating your name and stating your interest (the reason you’re asking) is mandatory, in others one or both aren’t. In the Netherlands it isn’t necessary to state an interest, and not mandatory to disclose who you are (although for obvious reasons you do need to provide contact details to receive an answer). In practice it can be helpful, in order to get a positive decision more quickly to do state your own name and explain why you’re after certain information. That also seems to be what Jan Kuciak did. Which may have allowed his investigative targets to find out about him. In various instances, especially where a FOI request concerns someone else, those others may be contacted to get consent for publication. Dutch FOI law contains such a provision, as does e.g. Serbian law concerning the anticorruption agency. Norway has a tit-for-tat mechanism built in their public income and tax database. You can find out the income and tax of any Norwegian but only by allowing your interest being disclosed to the person whose tax filings you’re looking at.

I agree with Helen Darbishire who heads Access Info Europe who says the EU should set a standard that prevents requesters being forced to disclose their identity as it potentially undermines a fundamental right, and that requester’s identities are safeguarded by governments processing those requests. Access Info called upon European Parliament to act, in an open letter signed by many other organisations.