Monday, January 12, 2009

Journalism: Rumours of its death are greatly exaggerated

Another day, another report of declining newspaper circulations. It's statistics like these that produce the endless flood of articles and books about the end of professional journalists, the informed citizen and, even, modern culture.

Cinema never died - it just went digital

I'm just old enough to remember when VHS video recorders became cheap. Likewise when computer consoles and wide-screen TVs became ubiquitous. The media were predicting the end of the cinema. Cinema is still alive and kicking because everyone forgot that people are social animals. They don't want to sit alone in their house all day surrounded by multimedia equipment if they can go for a drink and film with friends instead.

What has this got to do with journalism?

Journalists are, at heart, gossipmongers and storytellers. Anyone who believes there is a grand purpose to newspapers should be made to read 'The Truth' by Terry Pratchett. Ankh Morpork's first newspaper prints factually-correct stories that annoy the Establishment, but only when they're entertaining. Stories about amusingly-shaped fruit and vegetables also abound. 

Storytelling and gossip is as old as prostitution - it's not going to disappear. Neither is quality news since truth is always stranger than fiction. Furthermore, there is a group of people, mainly in business and finance, who need to know the truth because man-eating goldfish move markets.

Enter the doom-mongers

The doom-mongers believe that the internet will kill professional journalism. They argue that newspapers and magazines no longer have a business model since people can find information for free. Online advertising won't work because sites like craigslist mean editorial and classifieds needn't be bundled together. In addition, blogging software means professional journalists aren't required since everyone now has access to a 'printing press'.

They point to high-traffic blogs like Guido and Iain Dale, and the struggles faced by the major regional newspaper groups.

The doomsayers are wrong on several counts. Let me discuss each in turn.

Fisking Pollyanna

First, bloggers. Bloggers are mainly part-time pundits. They can be dilettantes, freelancers or people who pen a few words around their day job. Bloggers are going to kill most newspapers columns because columnists like Polly Toynbee have nothing to offer that a blogger can't provide.

Professional columnists are not necessarily factually accurate and not expert in the subject they're writing about. So why pay for something that an informed or equally ignorant blogger does for free?  The same goes for film, book, music and restaurant reviewers.

Maybe I'm kidding myself here, but even *I* think I can write a better column than Polly Toynbee. Certainly, I'm probably better value for money. As Julie Burchill says here:
I had done two years of my three-year contract and they let me off the last year. They still paid me the money to go. I had got a £300,000-a-year contract; I went for a footballer's contract. I was totally taking the piss.
Bloggers aren't going to kill newspapers because most bloggers are part-time pundits. They don't have the resources to do newsgathering journalism and, if they do, it's sparse and specialist. Guido may boast about breaking national news, but he can't match the 15 or so exclusives a local newspaper will find each week.

Bloggers normally lack skills that professional journalists use to do fast newsgathering, such as shorthand, which is essential in court where recording equipment isn't allowed. They normally don't know any media law either and don't have anyone to give them legal advice to short deadlines. 

Disasters and other major news stories will get photographed and covered by bloggers on the scene, but few people are lucky enough to be sitting in the middle of a major news story everyday. A blogger reporting on a major story in their street is a one-story wonder and is unlikely to have a large readership already. They will still rely on professional journalists to find their blog and disseminate their story more widely. The role of the blogger here is similar to any source or contact a journalist uses to find a story.

Information wants to be free

People are now used to finding information for free on the internet and classified adverts are increasingly hosted on their own sites.

This is, indeed, a threat to the traditional model of newspapers and magazines. This is why the media will look very different in 10 years to how it does today.

Online advertising is working in some places, for example, the trade press. Specialist equipment or services are not something you can necessarily find on eBay. If you are a manufacturer of laboratory equipment, for example, the biggest trade magazine in your sector is probably the best way of reaching your audience.

Content behind subscription walls is also working, but only where it is sufficiently high quality or specialist that people are willing to pay for it.

Onwards the future

These trends suggest journalism does have a future, but it's going to increasingly fragmented and specialist.

National newspapers

National newspapers will cut costs and focus on giving a political spin to stories from the Press Association and PR agencies, since people won't be willing to pay for information of general interest they can find for free elsewhere.  For example, the Metro free paper covers similar stories to the Daily Mail.

In addition, most people don't care whether what they're reading is true, provided it's entertaining. It's therefore cheaper to print a funny PR event than a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of investigative journalism.

I think the Mail and Guardian will survive best as newsgathering organisations because they understand their target readership. The Guardian will increasingly become the trade paper for the expanded public sector while the Mail will turn into a daily lifestyle rag for women who buy Chat.

Local newspapers

Local newspapers are specialists in local news and will survive where they provide that. Small, usually independent, papers that are deeply embedded in their community will survive as free papers and websites funded by ultra-local advertising.

The quality of newsgathering journalism will probably remain high since people who care about their community also feel duped if they see an obvious lie.

I'm not convinced that the large newspaper groups have the managerial culture to restructure as free, ultra-local news providers. If they collapse completely, however, they will eventually be replaced by a flurry of small news sheets in areas with a strong community identity.

Trade/B2B papers

I'm lumping the Financial Times with the B2B press because it's a newspaper for the City of London. This is why it has a reputation for high-quality journalism - businessmen and financiers need to know what's going on in the world.

The B2B press will survive and continue doing specialist newsgathering journalism. Online advertising aimed at a small audience works with trade magazines. In addition, people working in trades and professions have a real need-to-know about what is happening in their sector. They like to be entertained, but that's not their main reason for reading a B2B paper.

Wot, no vodcasts?

I think the current obsession about multimedia, mainly among journalism students and lecturers, is a red herring.

Multimedia is a tool for storytelling - getting excited about it is like raving about pens or writing for hours about how great your notepad is. 

If you have a stats-based story, use text and a Flash interactive. If you have a talking head, use a podcast - no one wants to see an ugly, middle-aged guy opening and closing his mouth for 30 minutes. If an explosion is happening in front of you, video it. That's it. Not very interesting, is it? 


Things will change, but it's not the end of the world!


  • At 8:41 am , Blogger Tristan said...


    The current establishment may be threatened (no bad thing in my opinion) but there is still a large place for professional journalism and punditry.


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