Is online journalism good or bad

The end of the journalistic gut feeling

Journalists * have to relearn - and alliance with the business side of the publisher, says Alexandra Borchardt. (Photo: Jacobia Dahm)

There they were again, the two souls in my chest, and they were wrestling violently with each other. When the American constitutional judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg lost her fight against cancer in September, the reader's soul wanted to bow in deep respect for the lawyer who had become an icon. Until recently, RBG, as it was almost affectionately called by its fans, had fought at the Supreme Court for equal treatment of women and men and for the rights of the weak. In the face of the death of this great personality, the editors should have paused, the reader thought. For at least a few hours they could have paid tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg on their own.


The journalist soul in me, on the other hand, understood the reflex that swept through practically every headline. Keep turning, is that in industry jargon, showing what you can do in terms of analytical sharpness and political understanding, not stopping at the event, but illuminating the consequences. Bader Ginsburg will have guessed that President Donald Trump, whom she had faced at the age of 87 and seriously ill, would even dominate the news about the end of her life.


Journalism also means breathlessness. Being faster than others, better than the competition, thinking further, commenting more pointedly - sometimes the editors, reporters and commentators don't really know who they are trying to impress: really the audience? Or maybe the head of department, the editor-in-chief, the colleagues in a crisis-ridden industry? Or just yourself? After all, that's how you learned it. It's important to be first, and if you're second, at least you have to be better. "Better right than first" is a common tenet in many editorial offices, which of course still do everything possible to be "first".


Do the readers appreciate the pace?


But how do those for whom all this effort should actually be made see it: the readers, listeners, viewers and users? Do you appreciate the pace? If you ask them, the verdict is quite benevolent. Around two-thirds of online users agreed, according to the 2019 Digital News Report, that the media are good at keeping them up to date with current events. So all the push notifications and messages that are hastily pieced together are paying off, one might think. That would be gratifying if the assessment of other journalistic qualities did not drop somewhat steeply in comparison. Just once every second online user said that the editorial team was able to adequately explain the news of the day. Even fewer study participants were of the opinion that journalists do a good job keeping a watchful eye on those in power. The media performed particularly poorly in two categories. Not even one in three found that the selected topics were relevant to their daily life. And just 16 percent of those questioned agreed with the statement that the media choose the right tone for reporting. The most common accusation: You are too negative.


"The biggest challenge of the digital transformation is not the technology, but the cultural change."


You can now dismiss that on the grounds that this is just a survey. You can even counter that you can show much more pleasing numbers yourself, as the director of a German public broadcaster once did in a small group. But you can also think about it. At the Digital News Report After all, it is the world's largest ongoing online survey of media consumption. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism the University of Oxford publishes the study annually in June. In the current year, more than 80,000 users from 40 countries took part, in 2019 it was only slightly fewer. And even if averages in surveys never tell the full story, the tendency is clear: In the opinion of the public, journalism is topical, but sometimes not particularly relevant. In addition, it is so negative and often overwhelming in terms of the amount that about a third of readers * at least temporarily become news refusers.


Yes but ...


If you avoid journalism because it annoys you, overwhelms you or offers you no added value, you are not only lost as a paying customer. He or she does not even appear in the user data, which is supposed to map preferences and from which editors draw conclusions about what is “going” in terms of content. What matters even more, however, is that those who refuse to journalism are likely to find false reports more quickly and are generally less able to make informed decisions than citizens. The proximity of the journalistic offer to the public is in direct proportion to the quality of democracy.


Journalists often respond to such food for thought with a courageous "yes, but". But the readers devour everything that has catastrophe, quarrel, drama and misfortune in the subline. The user data proved this. Investigative reporters disagree even more vehemently. After all, it's their job to put the audience in a bad mood. Only when you uncover grievances does something change for the better, they argue. Both are true. The only question is: does journalism find the right balance? After all, it's about captivating the largest possible audience. Those who take the job description "fourth estate" seriously should not be satisfied with being read, especially in political operations or by the competition. "Why did they have that and we didn't?" This question is probably asked more emphatically in most editorial conferences than: "Why are people not interested in this material and how can we change that?"


An increasingly important question for the democratic effectiveness of journalism is also who it (still) reaches at all. To be honest, this rate has never been so great. At least not if you take the whole of society as a basis. For example, it has always been much more difficult for the quality media to win over readers - in this case deliberately in the feminine form. In the case of business publications in particular, around 80 percent of the readership was (and is) male. This is not because women are not interested in business or politics, on the contrary. Many of them just don't feel addressed by a journalism that revolves up and down in tone and content about competition, victory and defeat, heroes and fallen heroes. Readers tend to be more enthusiastic about the effects of politics on everyday life, personal stories that also give hope because they show ways out of crises. They find reading about constant exchanges of blows tiring and a waste of their already limited time.


Young people particularly criticize the media for being in a bad mood. They also find it difficult to cope with sarcasm and irony, which one in editorial offices is often so proud of. They want journalism to have more utility for their lives, better explanations and a little fun too - but not those who, with a certain arrogance, are at the expense of others. In personal conversations with students from various disciplines, this shines through again and again. The qualitative study How Young People Consume News by Nic Newman from the Reuters Institute shows a corresponding user behavior. Editorial offices must take these needs seriously. After all, there is hardly a media company that is not worried about losing the next generation to YouTube or Instagram heroes or even completely to Netflix.


From the perspective of democracy, journalists should especially ensure that the digital divide in media use becomes deeper. Those who are highly educated and well versed in dealing with online offers will find much better, i.e. more diverse, higher quality and more factual offers in the digital information and media world than in the time before search engines and social networks. On the other hand, many of those who used to pick up the newspaper now and then, turn on the TV news or leave the radio on - even if it was out of boredom - now have so many opportunities to distract and pass the time that they are less and less likely to come into contact with journalism come. Research proves that.


"In the opinion of the public, journalism is topical, but sometimes not particularly relevant."


So journalism has a huge debt. The aim is to pick up the audience in all their diversity where they are: on the platforms they use, at the times they are there, with formats that they like. The prerequisite, however, is that editorial offices first recognize this diversity. The more similar their colleagues are, the more difficult it is for them, regardless of whether it relates to training, gender, age, social or ethnic origin.


A big and common misconception is that once the digital transformation has been mastered, diversity can still be taken care of. No, diversity is at the core of the change towards an offer that thinks the products from the audience. In other words: the greatest challenge of digital transformation is not technology, but cultural change. Diversity not only has to be created, but also valued and lived.


For journalists in particular, this means relearning. It's not just about new skills that you can acquire in a few courses. Digitization has at least shaken the balance of power between users and producers, if not the other way around. There used to be books like Read and use the business section of the newspaper correctly. Even those who have been well trained should still make a little effort. The media educated their audience, whoever couldn't follow was out. The money came from somewhere else anyway: from the advertisers, who were primarily interested in the wealthy, educated audience.


Today publishers are dependent on every paying user. But nobody reads instructions for use anymore. Anyone who does not intuitively understand why something is important, how to use it and what is important, turns away. Another offer is already waiting. So the new task is to make messages so clear that they reach as many people as possible, who understand them, can use them and do not get bored.


Side by side with developers


The good thing is that there are more platforms and ways to do this than ever before. The Instagram post, the TikTok video, the podcast, the interactive infographic, virtual reality, a video game, the email newsletter - you can try out what is suitable for which materials and purposes. Unlike in the past, luckily, thanks to the new wealth of data, we now know pretty much exactly what is working. Those who do not always know exactly are the editors and reporters, who have trained their gut instinct throughout their professional lives. That still leads to some scoops. But in the interplay of the various functions in the publishing houses, the defining power of journalists is waning. Products that excite the audience can only be invented, built and tested side by side with developers, data and marketing specialists.


The gut feeling can be wrong


And it gets worse if you want to put it that way. "The team must always be led by someone from the business side," says Anna Aberg, head of digital at the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, which is characterized by a special enthusiasm for innovation and is growing rapidly with digital subscriptions. For some journalists this is difficult to bear. It deeply scratches the self-image of a profession in which large parts of it are still trained and managed as they were 20 years ago. It is a profession that has every right to be proud of what reporters do, risk and fight through on a daily basis, but whose pride is all too often accompanied by a feeling of superiority - towards the audience and also towards their own colleagues. With a great deal of self-image, journalists saw their colleagues from marketing, infographics or the IT department merely as support staff. Teamwork works differently, so does customer orientation.


Fortunately, a new generation is growing up in the publishing industry that takes leadership seriously and understands it as constant learning. Incidentally, this also includes those older semesters who have never liked the fact that you can justify every sloppy, unjust or nonsensical decision with your own “gut instinct”. This could not only change the tone in the editorial conferences, but possibly also that of the products that users should be enthusiastic about.


Journalists do a lot for democracy. Some risk their health for it, some even their life. Nevertheless, journalism is only legitimized through its audience, like Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institutes in Oxford, used to say. Journalism is sometimes an art, but more often a service. His basic attitude is courage. But above all it should be humility.


Alexandra Borchardt is the journalistic director of the Digital Journalism Fellowship, a scholarship program of the Hamburg Media School sponsored by Facebook. She is also a Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford. She worked for a long time in daily journalism, most recently as head of the service of the Süddeutsche Zeitung. She also developed and was responsible for the SZ business magazine Plan W - Women change the economy.


Published so far:


Part 1: Daniel Drepper, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed Germany


Part 2: Carline Mohr, social media expert


Part 3: Georg Mascolo, head of the WDR / NDR / SZ research network


Part 4: Hannah Suppa, editor-in-chief Märkische Allgemeine


Part 5: Florian Harms, editor-in-chief of


Part 6: Georg Löwisch, taz editor-in-chief


Part 7: Stephan Weichert, media scientist


Part 8: Julia Bönisch, editor-in-chief of


Part 9: Ellen Ehni, WDR editor-in-chief


Part 10: Barbara Hans, Spiegel editor-in-chief


Part 11: Sascha Borowski, digital manager Augsburger Allgemeine


Part 12: Richard Gutjahr, freelance journalist, start-up founder and consultant


Part 13: Benjamin Piel, Editor-in-Chief Mindener Tageblatt


Part 14: Josef Zens, German Research Center for Geosciences


Part 15: Christian Lindner, consultant "for media and public work"


Part 16: Nicole Diekmann, ZDF capital journalist


Part 17: Carsten Fiedler, editor-in-chief of Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger


Part 18: Stella Männer, freelance journalist


Part 19: Ingrid Brodnig, journalist and book author


Part 20: Sophie Burkhardt, Funk Program Manager


Part 21: Ronja von Wurmb-Seibel, author, filmmaker, journalist


Part 22: Tanja Krämer, science journalist


Part 23: Marianna Deinyan, freelance journalist and radio host


Part 24: Alexandra Borchardt, journalist and lecturer


Part 25: Stephan Anpalagan, graduate theologian, journalist, management consultant


To overview:My view of journalism