Monday, July 20, 2009...8:00 am

Journalism: in whose interest?

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Some interesting points have been made in the comments to my post about Why Paid Journalism is in Trouble.

Crucially, they falls into the trap of conflating the interests of readers with those of journalists. It’s worth looking at this in a bit more depth. (Quite a bit more depth actually. Sorry if I ramble on a bit.)

It’s a familiar trap. Journalists often decry the loss of newspapers and journalism jobs as being against the interests of readers, when in fact it’s mainly against the interests of the journalists.

If readers were that bothered about falling newspaper circulation, they’d buy more newspapers. But they don’t.

Current news consumption

Here’s what a lot of people do to get their news.

  • They wake up to the headlines and a bit of comment on the radio (Today for one demographic, XFM for another and so on.)
  • They listen to the radio in the car on the way to work
  • They pick up a free paper to read, or skim, on the train or tube (Metro)
  • They may drop by the BBC news web site on a break at work. (If they’re really into news)
  • They pick up a free paper on the train or tube home (The London Paper or London Lite) to catch up on celebrity gossip.
  • They listen to a drive-time show on the radio in the car on the way home.
  • They watch a bit of the news on TV in the evening. Maybe.

And after all this, you think they should be buying newspapers? Or buying news magazines? Or tuning in to news analysis on the radio?

People don’t have the time or, largely, the desire.

And now they have a whole slew of other things to do that are more creative – Facebooking, YouTubing, Flickring. Not to mention blogging.

People now have opportunities to create as well as consume content, and their time is finite.

So what is journalism?

But journalists (which includes all interested parties, including academics) don’t think this counts as journalism. (And no, I don’t think YouTube videos of cute kitties do, either. But some of it does, especially long-form blogging and some microblogging.)

Why don’t they think it counts as journalism? Because it’s just not professional enough. Hmm. Yes – but perhaps in the sense of “not being paid a salary for”, rather than in the sense of “being illiterate and ill-informed”. Because illiterate and ill-informed can be found throughout the media, after all.

Journalists think they’re special though. And this is because, increasingly, they go through years of expensive degree-level education to prove it.

But journalism didn’t start that way. Journalism was about inquisitive people who liked a drink asking nosy questions. And then writing the answers down. It wasn’t a profession as such. It helped if you could write coherently. But mainly it helped that you could find things out. It’s the FleetStreetBlues argument in a nutshell: “Journalism is about finding stuff out and telling it to other people.” It also helped if you like a drink. Fleet Street was like that. As was politics.

Journalists are too self-important

But over the years, journalism has developed a very high opinion of itself. It thinks it’s vital to cover important events. It thinks it’s vital for a functioning democracy. It also thinks it’s vital to be provided by skilled professionals, a bit like doctors, or heating engineers, with qualifications and everything, to make sure it’s done right.

The argument seems to be that journalism is good for people, and they should consume it like medicine. Or bad things will happen. To, um, democracy. Like, er, the erosion of civil liberties and growing centralisation of government power. Like that hasn’t happened recently. Thanks to journalism. Yay.

Blame it on the readers

But what if people, ie readers and viewers, lose interest in that model of journalism? To the extent that it’s not viable anymore? And those highly qualified professional journalists have a problem paying the mortgage?

Do we say they are wrong? Do we say how stupid they are for losing interest in what we are offering? Or how short-sighted they are not to want to pay for it?

Well, yes. That is kind of what we are saying.

But if people don’t want what we have to offer, what does that say? That people are stupid? Or that what we offer isn’t as special as we thought?

To make this a little less painful, I’ll tread a middle way. People can be stupid, yes. Ten years of Big Brother proves that.

But not for rejecting what we in the media offer them. Not for believing that unpaid bloggers, say, can provide material as interesting as that of paid journalists. Or that YouTube offers just as viable a way to spend 15 minutes as an op-ed in the Times. And not even for being more interested in what their friends are doing than things happening in, say, Afghanistan.

A lot of journalists hate that, because they think there’s a moral imperative to appreciate foreign affairs, especially when there’s a war on. But actually it’s understandable. I’m often more interested in what my friends are doing than what’s happening in Afghanistan. I can’t help it. I’m a bad person.

The difference these days is that the web allows us to engage with people we know in creative ways online as well as down the pub. And that unfortunately eats into our other media time. And doesn’t help to pay our mortgage.

But is all this against the interests of readers? Not really.

What readers want

Readers have decided they want a minimal framework of news, however that’s provided, and to fill in the rest of their media time with a hybrid of online gossip and entertainment that doesn’t fit with the media’s idea of itself. That’s what interests them.

But even if they decided they wanted to engage with informed political and social reportage and comment, they wouldn’t have to go anywhere near traditional journalism.

Blogs can be journalism too

There’s a wealth of expertise in the blogosphere, from economics and politics to legal issues. Try Cafe Hayek or Knowledge Problem on the free market side, or Mother Jones on the left. For an insight into the ridiculous legal mess the US gets itself into, Overlawyered is your man.

But what about real, hard news, snarl the hard-bitten hacks who think blogging is just hot air (take a bow, Playing The Game).

Well, if you want to get the inside scoop on what’s happening in the NHS in the UK, for example, you could read NHS Blog Doctor [UPDATE: now discontinued (15 June 2011) it seems] or The Jobbing Doctor – insiders both. Or for the scoop on the police in the UK, go to the Nightjack blog, written by a serving police officer.

Oh, you can’t. Because it was shut down. Thanks to the Times.

Which is a great example of why readers need  professional journalists. Because professional journalists will do anything to get rid of the amateur competition, it seems. It’s in their interest…

8 Comments

  • Amen to every syllable of that.

    It blows my mind to see played out in newspapers the psycho-drama of the Titanic’s final hours. Most of the 15oo who drowned did so because they couldn’t believe – right up until the very last moment, and despite irrefutable visual evidence – that the ship would sink.

    I’m watching it all longing to scream: “For Christ’s sake, stop doing what you’re doing. It’s not working. Nobody wants it. DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT!”

    But it’s pointless, because they’re not listening. And they won’t start until the water is lapping around their waists.

  • Millions of newspapers are sold each week in England.

    Many people love to read newspapers.

    Every other person I know, pretty much, included.

    Simple economics, in’it?

    Through all your argument and comment, you don’t seem to be mentioning the shareholders.

    Maybe put a post on their influence on newspapers?

    Demanding profit margins above what a profitable newspaper already makes.

    For people who seek, encourage, enjoy the demise of the mass media, I would think very carefully about what exactly is being lost. You may think, oh just a load of tosh about country fares and facepainting (local news) or biased, political, elitist crap (national) – but ask yourselves: is there more to traditional media than that? Of course there is.

  • Out of interest, as the Cassandra of journalism, do you think the public will be poorer if we lose our ‘quality’ newspapers?

  • freelanceunbound
    July 20th, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Two points, in reverse order:

    [1] Shareholders. Actually, this is a very good point, and one I haven’t addressed (though others in the blogosphere have). Thanks for reminding me to dig out some links and research on this.

    Expecting a very high rate of return on newspaper shares and cutting resources to achieve it is stupid in the long term. It’s stupid in most businesses actually, which is why Marks & Spencer tanked so spectacularly in the late 1990s after posting record profits. The management had just forgotten to focus on the quality of the business. So, yes – the shareholders matter, and sweating the business is a factor in all this.

    It’s not everything, however:

    [2] The simple economics are a bit more complex. I have posted on this before on whether professional media standards matter.

    Crucially, if you drop below a certain threshold, you lose enough revenue to make your broadcast or publishing model fail – no matter that you still have many eager viewers or readers left.

    The problem is not that newspapers don’t have a market. It’s that the financial viability of newspapers is dependent both on that market being a certain size and on the attractiveness of that market to advertisers.

    Size matters because you need a certain critical mass of people buying the paper to make it viable to print. It’s also important because advertisers like to reach more people than fewer. A paper with a dwindling circulation is hardly attractive to media ad buyers.

    But, in addition, advertisers also like to know how successful their advertising is. And newspapers haven’t been very good at delivering this. The web, by contrast, is fantastically trackable. So advertisers are migrating online and taking a chunk of their budget with them. Which leaves less for newspapers.

    And while a newspaper’s web site may win some of that advertising money, the numbers don’t seem to stack up. Advertising revenue gets spread thinner, but has to pay for both a print edition and decent web content.

    So, while some people still like newspapers – even quite a lot of people – that may not be enough to keep that news model actually working.

    And that’s not even touching on the ability of brands and advertisers to reach consumers direct by creating tailored web content for them, bypassing newspapers and newspaper web sites entirely.

  • In a word: No.

    Thing is, this is not an exercise in futurology. Most folks have ‘lost’ our quality newspapers already. They’re not buying them, and they’re not reading them.

    For more and more Brits, at least (and I suspect, Americans too) the newspaper – online or offline – simply doesn’t exist. As you rightly say in your post, they’re getting their information, news and media fixes elsewhere.

    Are folks ‘poorer’ for this? Dunno, but they don’t appear to think so. I see no campaign anywhere to ‘Bring Back Real Newspapers’ or ‘Stop This Evil Lack-of-information Trade’.

    Instead, I see trad newspapers churning out much what they’ve always churned out, but at lower and lower quality (as they cut hacks and sweat the business), being read by fewer and fewer people.

    There’s something pathetic about it, in the truest sense. It’s like a once-great but fading Professor speaking to an emptying lecture hall. As students slip out one by one, he speaks with more slang, tries talking louder and/or using more props to keep their attention… but they keep leaving.

    The one thing that might persuade them to stay – the content of his lecture – he’s unable to change.

  • Interesting stuff but sorry, still unconvinced, it’s still about the content.

    NHS Blog Doctor or Nightjack are all very well for giving you a flavour of what’s going on in the NHS or the police, but they’re not going to pour over FOI responses or seek out wastage on a national scale or do anything approximating investigative journalism. They’re the people you turn to for informed comment, not the people who write the story.

    It may be that journalism as we know it is unsustainable – but we shouldn’t think it doesn’t matter if it dies out…

  • freelanceunbound
    July 21st, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Actually, informed bloggers do a lot more poring over statistics and FOI responses than a lot of journalists. It’s not getting out and death-knocking or anything, but this post questioning the source and veracity of some government tourism statistics is more like journalism than the newspaper report on the same information.

    [UPDATE: Paul Bradshaw has a nice list of blogging as real journalism here.]

    And, really, no one does much investigative journalism anymore. The Washington Post probably wouldn’t have been able to afford the Watergate investigation if it happened now. (Hey, I’m guessing. But still…)

    But I think a real issue in this debate is that we’re talking about two different things: what journalism should be, and what it actually can be under the circumstances.

  • Heard Harold Evans (Editor, Times, 1967 to 1981) on the radio the other day talking about precisely this.

    He argues, cogently, that the decline of newspapers started the day that shiny-faced MBAs arrived in the late 70s and started sweating the business to cut the journalism and maximise the ad revenues.

    In Evans’ day, he says, the economics were terribly, terribly simple: More big investigative news stories = bigger circulation = more ad revenue.

    So they spent a LOT on journalists and a LOT on investigative news-hunting. Of the real, ground-breaking, earth-shaking, government-rocking variety. And it paid.

    Then they reduced it. And the circulations started falling.

    There was something very honest and very compelling about this analysis. I feel sure in my heart of hearts it isn’t that simple.

    But maybe it is.