The year is 2014. The press as we know it no longer exists. Traditional reporting has collapsed. News is churned out by the media giant Googlezon. (Google has taken over many companies and joined forces with Amazon.)
The news consists of blogs, attitudes, discoveries, preferences, claims and random thoughts, gathered and shaped by computers and a few human editors, then fed back to ordinary people who produce the continuing conversation.
The New York Times is off the Internet. It still publishes, but the newspaper has become a newsletter read only by the elite and the elderly.
This is the finding of a clever, eight-minute mock documentary, “EPIC 2014,” produced by the fictional Museum of Media History (in reality, journalists Matt Thompson of the Fresno Bee and Robin Sloan of Current, a new cable news channel in San Francisco). Messrs. Thompson and Sloan recently added a short section taking the story up to 2015.
The mockumentary is starting to reach a mass audience at a time of unusually high anxiety for the news industry. The news business has been hobbled by a string of scandals and credibility problems. Skirmishes between reporters and bloggers seem like the beginning of a long war between old media and new. Newspaper publishers are nervous — some would say paralyzed with fright — over polls showing young adults are not reading papers. Their audience is dying off. Many young people say they get their news from a brief look at headline news or from late-night comedians.
Rupert Murdoch, speaking at the recent convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, advised members to encourage their readers to use the Internet more as a supplement to print coverage. Newspapers, he warned, risk being “relegated to the status of also-rans” if they don’t make use of the Internet.
Columnist Richard Brookhiser had a blunt comment in the New York Observer: Mr. Murdoch was just being polite — what he meant is newspapers are dead. The older electronic media are nervous, too. According to Advertising Age, Google and Yahoo will take in as much ad money this year as the prime-time revenues of the three major networks combined.
Another sign of the times: Bloggers now try to set up a consortium to draw heavy advertising themselves. In the mockumentary, the new electronic media basically blow away the old by paying attention to what people want, most of which would be called soft news or non-news today.
In 2006, the mockumentary reports, Google combines its services — including Gmail, Blogger and Google News — into the Google Grid, which provides limitless storage space and bandwidth for storing and sharing media. In 2010, Google defeats Microsoft in the news wars (no actual news organizations are involved in the conflict).
In March 2014, Googlezon produces EPIC, the Evolving Personalized Information Construct. “Everyone contributes now — from blog entries to phone-cam images, to video reports, to full investigations,” the video says. Everyone is a news producer as well as a news consumer. Computers strip and splice items, adjusting for each user’s needs and preferences. News is prioritized according to how many users read each item. There are no gatekeepers who decide what we should see and which items are more important than others.
The video seems an unusually dry satire, but taken at face value, most of it is plausible — and scary.
Without gatekeepers, no one stands ready to verify reports as accurate, so there’s no difference between real news and agreed-upon gossip or low-level fluff. Issues debated today — Are bloggers real journalists? Is there a clear line between news and entertainment? — would be irrelevant. Everyone would be a journalist. And though some contributors would be paid, it isn’t clear the flow of money would be enough to fund complicated reports and investigations. Reporters would be paid according to the popularity of their stories. Good luck if your job is to cover Rwanda or global warming.
In pointedly ponderous tones, the mockumentary breaks into one of those on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand analyses we all love to hate. At best, we are told, EPIC is deeper, broader and more nuanced than anything seen before. On the other hand, a lot of EPIC is shallow, trivial and untrue. “But EPIC is what we wanted, it is what we chose, and its commercial success pre-empted any discussions of media and democracy or journalistic ethics.” “EPIC 2014” is a very sharp bit of media analysis. Check it out at www.robinsloan.com/epic.
John Leo is a contributing editor and columnist with U.S.News & World Report and is nationally syndicated.