When I began this blog in 2010, at weekends I would occasionally do a post on a few pieces I’d read that I liked, good journalism well-written (and often contra-suggestive). These posts consistently received the lowest hit rates of anything I wrote.
I guess the reason was that people read blogs less at weekends, the posts didn’t contain strong opinion and you have to click links to see what I’m talking about (and you impatient lot don’t seem to like doing that). But I’m going to go back to doing it occasionally. Despite the endless threnodies for the End of Journalism As We Know It, there’s a lot of very good writing out there; sometimes I want to explain why in more than the 140 characters of a tweet.
The more writing there is being done, the harder it is to catch the good stuff. The quantity of words in circulation has increased by a colossal order of magnitude; the day is exactly the same length as it always was. The depth and quality that is present in the writing generated by the internet’s indiscriminate output is the subject of this excellent essay in optimism by Robert Cottrell, founder of thebrowser.com, who reads and selects long-form writing so that you don’t have to. He has better qualifications to judge the true noise-to-signal ratio of writing on the internet in English than most.
The instant speculation about why he was dumped tells you a good deal about the way journalists think about their business. Some, noting rightly that coverage of News International and phone-hacking had been good after an initial stumble, thought that this robust editing had annoyed News Corporation’s boss Rupert Murdoch. If this was any problem at all, it would have rated as an irritant. Likewise I can’t think that Harding’s failure to buy the CD containing details of MPs’ expenses, when offered it before the Daily Telegraph, would have done for him.
Journalists find it hard to confront the unpalatable truth that the present and the future cannot resemble the past. The reasons are economics and nothing to do with politics or proprietorial power. In a phase of rapid change driven by technology and money, a large part of an editor’s job now is to help to find a business model. The Times hasn’t got one.
In this, The Times is not alone: the Guardian searches for the same thing. When the Sunday Times made profits which covered the losses of The Times, the weak market position of the latter title didn’t matter much to a company making plenty of money from three of its (then) four papers. Around ten years ago, The Sunday Times stopped covering the losses of The Times. These financial agonies lie at the root of all that is happening.
With Lord Leveson’s inquiry into the British press now due to report on November 29th, Press Gazette has kindly posted a version of an argument I made to the inquiry and wherever else I’ve been able to find an outlet for it since.
If Leveson proposes a new form of independent regulation for the press founded in statute (something which all previous versions of self-regulation have avoided), there will be an almighty fuss. But the proposal is liable to founder not because of the volume of complaint but because of the problems intrinsic to the plan: issues of definition, compulsion and funding.
There’s a better way. Use law as an incentive towards transparency and self-regulation. Strengthen and clarify privacy law, build strong and consistent public interest defences into laws which impact journalism and allow courts to take editorial integrity and standards into account when cases come to court. Within that framework, self-regulation would be worth doing and worth doing well.
That’s a bald summary. I saw an ad in the Daily Mail today from the Free Speech Network objecting to the possibility of the press being “shackled”, showing six newspaper front pages and asking if these stories would have appeared under “state regulation”. (The stories shown are the Mail’s front pages on the men alleged to have killed Stephen Lawrence, A Telegraph splash on MPs’ expenses, The Sun front page on Andrew Mitchell calling policemen “plebs”, a Times investigation on celebrity tax avoiders, the Daily Mirror on John Prescott’s affair with his secretary and a Guardian front page on phone-hacking.)
It was the front page of The Times which made me snap. Yesterday the paper’s Political Editor was reporting the start of the Labour Party conference.
Ed Balls had called for the next mobile phone licence tax windfall to be spent on new houses. This call, the story went on, “risks fuelling Tory claims that, by prioritising more spending over reducing debt, Mr Balls has failed to learn the lessons of the past.” Put less archly and more plainly, the writer means that this claim will probably be made by Tories.
I’ve no reason to doubt it. But the over-use of the “risks fuelling” formula is starting to drive me nuts. It’s hardly the only tired and hackneyed phrase of its type in use in newspapers now. Cliché aren’t new.
It’s also unfair to single out The Times. For the simple reason that everyone is doing it, all over the world. People are fuelling risks every hour of the day. Just google the phrase if you don’t believe me. French magazines publishing cartoons of the Prophet, Norway’s oil development assistance, oil in Sudan, the Prime Minister and Barclays Bank – just now they were all risking fuelling something or other. That was just the first page of my search. Hardly surprising that oil often risks fuelling.
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, sinking in the polls and suffering the media persecution which goes with that, thinks that newspapers won’t be around when his children are grown up. He implies that because printed papers might vanish, journalists of the future won’t pick apart the performance of politicians. Or at least they’ll be nicer when doing it.
Less naive, but nevertheless mistaken is the idea floated by David Leigh of The Guardian (declaration: he’s also a colleague at City University) that the financial problems of newspapers could be solved by a £2 a month levy taken from internet service providers (ISPs). Journalism has always been cross-subsidised, so it’s the right question. But the wrong answer.
Taken together these fragments of the debate about what’s happening to journalism show that a stark idea, long discussed by those who study this stuff, has now gone mainstream. Change in newspapers will be transformative and not just adaptive. And it’s coming very soon.
Take a quick look at the recent print circulation figures of the five serious national dailies (FT, Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Independent). Taking the figures from June 2011 to June 2012 (i.e. excluding Olympic effects) year-on-year falls range between 8.52% (Telegraph) and 44.62% (Independent). Take the Independent out of the equation on the assumption that the figure is distorted by some statistical manoevre and the bracket is from 8.52% to 17.75% (Guardian). Now imagine the effect of those numbers on print advertisers (still probably at least two thirds of the income of these papers) and speculate about the tone and type of discussions that are going on inside the offices.
A significant marker in the rapid evolution of news media has just been passed – and it wasn’t the resignation of Rupert Murdoch from the boards of his UK newspaper companies or the charging of News of the World journalists.
The Daily Mail’s online edition, MailOnline, is reported to have just made its first operating profit. The site, driven by carefully-judged global celebrity coverage and a little sprinkling of soft porn, overtook the New York times some months ago to log the world’s largest user numbers for a news site. The NYT, for once sniffy for understandable reasons, said that they didn’t consider it competition.
So we have these developments to interpret: