Hit the headphone, Jack

A world that is ready to live without all those iPhone plugs is a world prepared to live without journalism (despite Bon Jovi's poignant epiphany)

At this point it’s impossible to determine whether Apple is very good at getting rid of “unnecessary features or if it ingeniously made us believe it is. A brief retrospective would recall the floppy disk drive, the CD drive and all USB-A ports on Macs, and the headphone jack, the Touch ID and the Lightning port on iPhones. “The charging plug?” you might be wondering. Yes, sorry for the spoiler, but the next generation of iPhones will probably kill it for good. As this CNN article describes it so flawlessly, Apple has a history of removing these technologies from its gadgets “before people think they’re ready to give them up.”

Note that the key concept is not “removing,” but “before they’re ready.” All these years, the company has been taking action to substitute a feature before customers ask for it, before they complain about it, before they start to think it’s out-of-date.

This is not a run-of-the-mill trial and error to estimate the gap between present and future. It is effortful, very time-consuming, and relies on a myriad of reasons that resemble the strategy of chess, which seeks to anticipate as many moves as possible. In the end, it all comes down to one thing: translating and materializing consumer desires (especially those he doesn’t know he has).

Over the years, I’ve done some public speaking — to audiences ranging from 13 to 1,300 people (I never expected that either… yet here we are). No matter the origin of the audience, the size of the event, or whether the presentation is in person or online, the question I always get at these things is: will print media come to an end?

To be honest, I have never understood the nature of this question. First of all, the answer is kind of obvious: of course it will. And secondly, there’s some type of sneaky sadism when they go like: “Really? When?” I don’t know, man, if print media was an Apple “feature,” for example, I’d say it had been buried in 1999.

That was always my go-to answer until very recently, when a more provocative, more Apple-like, and (I’m sorry to inform) more accurate approach to this issue crossed my sleepless mind. Forget print media. Go all-in on your question. What about news in general? Print, digital, television, radio, all of them… journalism on any medium. Will it come to an end soon?

Let’s consider it as a fanciful scenario: if journalism were a “feature” that all media companies decided to shut it down in 2021 — dear customers, from now on you only get crossword, cooking, memes, and quizzes — would there be a popular revolt taking over the streets? That’s not an irony, it’s a valid question (and no, you can not count unemployed journalists “taking over” the streets simply because there are not enough of them to effectively do that). Seriously, would society miss journalism or be content with crossword, cooking, memes and quizzes?

"When you can't do what you do, you do what you can": in Bon Jovi's case is reading the news

First thought on most people’s minds is: what do you mean? How can you even consider challenging that? We’ve just been through a strenuous 2020, and journalism proved itself as indispensable as ever, right? “Subscribe now,” “truth is essential,” the whole paraphernalia… Even Jon Bon Jovi (yes, that one), with the weight of his 59 years old, started to read the news during the pandemic. “Because the world had stopped and we were all home (…), I personally found myself slowing down, reading the paper, watching the news,” he told Rolling Stone.

So, if even Bon Jovi himself had discovered this exotic leisure activity called “the news” in 2020, how can I give journalism a bad name?

Fair enough, so let me rephrase that theoretical question then: will “some” journalism come to an end in the near future? And, in the same line, will it be missed?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m one of those who miss the headphone jack and — to stay true to the analogy — good journalism, but that’s irrelevant. It is highly unlikely that the generation that is now in their 20’s will miss it at some point in life — the jack, I mean.

The question of a possible end to journalism is not a cheap shot, it’s a matter of translating consumer desires (especially those he doesn’t know he has).

First, there is an objective premise: the world has fewer news outlets and fewer news professionals than 20 years ago. Secondly, it looks to me that we have been living without “some” forms of journalisms long before the pandemic. But, apart from that, doesn’t it also seem that the number of great headlines has shriveled, the stories have much less depth, and the storytelling has been irreparably neglected? Doesn’t it seem that the way the journalistic product is presented is stuck in time, and the technological revolution of the last 25 years only emphasizes this by the day, by the hour? And, finally, doesn’t it seem like we have been experiencing, for quite some time, a journalism reduced to comments, statements, and then comments about those statements?

All of these questions stem from that original premise: will print media come to an end? Yes, it will. It should have been dumped a long, long time ago. Of all the different types of mass media, newspapers and magazines were, by far, the most poorly managed and the ones which adapted the worst to the end of the analogue era. Will journalism, in general, come to an end? I honestly hope not. But I don’t think it’s such an absurd hypothesis — even after the much-lauded 2020, when even Bon Jovi became a “woke” rock star because of the news.

When it removes some technologies “before people think they’re ready to give them up,” Apple is not simply depriving customers of such features, it is offering an alternative that it considers more inventive, that hopefully will add value to the product. That doesn’t mean they will get it right every single time, but among many advantages, this philosophy is Apple’s trick to stay concretely relevant and ideologically disruptive.

The case of journalism is the opposite. It has eliminated — or considerably reduced — some of their good features and replaced them with suboptimal alternatives. Some go by the name of clickbait, memes and quizzes, others go by “commentarism,” “statementrism,” and “twitterism” — all of them as exciting as a hypothetical comeback from the 30-pin charging port.

And that’s the thing about translating and materializing consumer desires: it’s a hell of a trick but it may eventually backfire.

Not to mention that when news companies fall short on offering journalism as a premium product, they’re also paving unwelcome roads to shoddy and shady “alternative sources” of “news” — not coincidentally, places full of clickbait, memes, “commentarism” and “twitterism.” Guess who is also to blame when the consumer decides to hit that road?

Ultimately, as eerie as it may seem, Apple and news media companies are using the same modus operandi, but in opposite directions: they have been removing some “technologies” from their products before people think they’re ready to give them up. The problem with the latter is that journalism’s scheme is prompting people to actually give it up. All of it.

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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