Times were that a cloud of romantic mystery encircled the process of journalism. It was rather nice, actually. We got to think we were artists, of a sort – particularly columnists, who are paid vast sums to spend six days reading, gossiping, thinking and going to fancy dinner parties and book launches and about one day a week turning out a thousand words of ego-driven prose.
Reporters, too, enjoyed privileged status. More so than the comment desk, in fact, because it’s those who break the news who get the real glory, particularly from colleagues. And part of the wonder and mystery of investigative journalism was in the anticipation: newspapers trailed big stories, but it wasn’t until D-Day and the front page splash that you’d finally get to see what all those hours poring over leaked documents had revealed.
Truth be told, I only just remember those idyllic days. My career in journalism started to take off some time in 2008, as Twitter was beginning to infiltrate the media and tech industries. But I do remember a sort of hushed reverence for investigative hacks like the fearsome Gordon Rayner. “That’s the one phone call you never want to get,” a Telegraph colleague once remarked to me.
How things have changed. Every news report, every blog post and every column is now assaulted on social media by a wave of hatred, insinuation, allegations and death threats. Journalists have become the enemies of truth, instead of its messengers: now, we are arrogant gatekeepers to knowledge with deservedly crumbling business models. Pundits like Jeff Jarvis seem, rather creepily, to be practically gleeful at the industry’s decline.
The truth is that there are plenty of papers and media companies making money. Telegraph Media Group continues to turn a profit. The Mail and the Sun are both commercially successful. Print and online subscriptions are going up for publications that have not compromised on quality in difficult times, such as the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. The Guardian, while insolvent, has a parent organisation whose investment activities and tax-dodging will keep it alive for another few years. But something has been lost: the trust and the respect of readers.
There are many reasons for this breakdown in trust. The Leveson Inquiry and the toxic mess around News International is the latest flashpoint. The declining quality of many national products, the consequence of a foolish decision to chase advertising spend and pageviews rather than focus on building a quality publication, is also a factor. But, really, we need to look at the public’s increasing mistrust of authority structures to understand what’s going on. And we need, I’m afraid to say, to look at Twitter.
To be blunt, it makes me sad to see professional journalists pathetically tweeting their needs for every soporific six-paragraph story about Facebook or Apple. What on earth did these people do before #journorequest? I say this not because I’m an elitist networking snob with a bulging contacts book, but rather because I see what damage is being done to the image of reporters when every moron with a laptop and an internet connection now thinks they can produce “journalism”, taking the tools of our trade to be Twitter and WordPress, rather than rigour, intelligence, knowledge of your beat and experience in breaking news within the confines of the law.
(As an aside, don’t be fooled by the fallacy that it’s blogs and social media that “break news”. News has always broken outside of newsrooms. It’s just that now, more people see it before it hits the papers. It does, however, reach the most people, in the most responsible way, via traditional media. Newspapers aren’t perfect, but they get a lot less wrong a lot less often than crowd-driven and hysterical social media services.)
As an industry we have debased ourselves and relinquished our claim to authority by removing the critical distance between ourselves and our readers. You see it best in the hilariously touchy and insecure manner of tech bloggers, who seem to alter their posts after every critical tweet. They’re partly right to be insecure – most of them are hopeless at their jobs – but they contribute to a general impression of incompetence that does our colleagues no credit.
Further up the food chain, even writers for such esteemed media groups as Condé Nast now find themselves “crowdsourcing” article ideas and cultivating a friendly online persona to insulate themselves against the worst criticism and to maximise their pageviews. You see in their reporting signs that they’d be bolder, if only there weren’t a comment section or Twitter to deal with afterwards. The only “brave” writers in the mainstream seem to be people like Samantha Brick.
Obviously, it’s important that journalists acknowledge and correct their mistakes. That’s why we’ve developed concepts like “due prominence”, which protect against serious errors being buried. But when every article is met with the full force of the internet’s obsession with nitpicking and the wacky hatred of the 5 percent of readers (and 75 percent of commenters) who are simply unhinged, it’s inevitable that our writing will suffer. So will the public, then, as journalists who ought to be holding their subjects to account take softer routes.
Perhaps the best example of the market failure we’re talking about is the aforementioned technology industry: so vapid and obsequious is the reporting that one wonders if any tech writer working in Europe today has ever even heard the great dictum, attributed, variously, to George Orwell, Lord Northcliffe and Rupert Murdoch: “News is something someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising.” How many technology hacks, recycling press releases and smooching the venture capitalists they ought to be holding to account, can be said to succeed by that metric?
Journalism is a disease you’re born with: you need patience, attention to detail, disdain for authority, a desire to see wrongs righted and, perhaps above all, a healthy sense of mischief. It also, for most people, requires education and training, not necessarily on a journalism course, but mentorship of some kind – even if it’s just to make sure you don’t get yourself sued too often. Yet I see in my contemporaries senses sharpened by training being dampened by Twitter hate mobs.
Stories are still constructed in largely the same way by newspapers, albeit on an accelerated timescale. But now the process is open to inspection, it has acquired imitators and fierce but uninformed critics. That makes the product worthless: too many people are churning out too much substandard guff, while the quality outlets are racing to pump out more content, while acting unforgivably timidly. Thus we are locked in an unnecessary and entirely avoidable death spiral, brought about by a lack of confidence.
If you think the so-called “democratisation” of news is a good thing, ask yourself three questions. What other profession has opened its inner workings, laid bare its methods for public scrutiny and prostituted itself before its customers… and survived, commercially? What other profession is so crucial to the workings of a healthy democracy? And how much would be lost if all you had to go on was Twitter for your news?
On that last point, be careful with your answer. Remember that news isn’t a camera phone snap of Boris Johnson’s latest gaffe: it’s painstaking and expensive reporting on financial mismanagement, corruption and wrongdoing. The good news is that readers reward the very best of it with loyalty and with their hard-earned cash.
It’s clear that the future of sustainable, profitable journalism is high-quality news, comment and analysis about relatively narrow beats from experts: the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, the Spectator and Private Eye being great examples. I’m trying to do something similar here at The Kernel. So newspapers will need to narrow their field of vision considerably. For example, it seems to me that the Telegraph should concentrate on politics, sport and business, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
But we now find ourselves in an unhappy catch-22. The user-generated content revolution is over – it’s clear that no one will pay for UGC journalism in prose, audio or video, and that it can’t support itself through advertising – and consumers are flocking back to the safety of quality media with their credit cards in their hands. Look at the success of the iTunes Store versus YouTube’s continuing failure to achieve profitability and you’ll understand what I mean here. In a recession, particularly, people return to the familiar.
British journalism has never been an explicit part of the establishment in the way that American newspapers are. There’s no White House Correspondents’ Dinner here. Perhaps there ought to be; perhaps it would have saved our politicians from nuzzling so closely in private to certain media groups. But journalists, while acting as gadflies, were at least revered and respected in the days before Twitter. They’re not now. That’s a disaster for democracy and, crucially, will lead to a horrible narrowing of consumer choice in the years ahead.
That’s where I’ve been going with all of this. The supposed decentralisation and flattening of knowledge, the breaking down of news “monopolies”, is actually leading to homogenisation, because the editorial power of the newspapers is not declining with their financial woes. If anything, the reverse is happening. When a newspaper falls, as the News of the World tragically fell, we all suffer. A blow is dealt to the healthy pluralism we currently enjoy.
How many of those bloggers, tweeters, new media obsessives and Guardianistas so gleefully welcoming this new age are really comfortable with the media landscape as it will almost certainly look in ten years, when the Guardian and the Mirror are gone and the only private sector news organisations left are the Telegraph, the Sun and the Mail? Not many, I’ll wager. Perhaps it’s time to give journalists – who are on the public’s side, after all – some room to breathe.