The bell is tolling for traditional journalism. The behemoths of yesteryear are trying to revitalise their business model but nothing seems to be working.
As ever, the cuts fall on the people who are good at producing news but historically terrible at making the financial case for what they do.
It has been that way as long as I’ve been in journalism and no doubt was that way long before that.
But one thing which has changed is the power balance between Editor and proprietor. Technically, the proprietor always wins but much depends upon the personalities and values each holds dear.
The best and noblest examples we have of great journalism arose because a bold proprietor backed fearless reporting.
William Howard Russell’s ground-breaking despatches from the Crimean War would never have seen the light of day if the owner of The Times, Lord Thomson, had been sucking up to the army or the government in return for favours, for example.
“Shall I report the true horrors of what I have seen?” Russell is said to have asked. And the reply, “You write, I’ll publish,” stands as a watchword for the relationship at its best.
Woodward and Bernstein similarly had the backing of a brave publisher, Katherine Graham of the Washington Post, when they doggedly pursued the Watergate story. Read her own account here.
Nixon’s attorney-general John Mitchell said, “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.”
Published it was, Ms Graham’s breast remained unmolested and Mitchell went to jail.
Of course, the appointment of Editor is always in the gift of the proprietor and in a tussle between the two, it’s the proprietor who will win out. At The Times, Harold Evans never stood a chance against the might of Murdoch.
In good times, a proprietor can afford to run his Editor on a long leash. In bad times, he’s a convenient whipping dog.
These are not good times.
Revenues are no longer in decline, they’re collapsing. The traditional news publishing model is over and there’s a real possibility that journalism as a paid profession could largely disappear.
No one knows what journalism will look like in five years time but it’s clear that it will be increasingly shaped by social media.
It’s no wonder that journalists are in a bit of a quandary, with some even questioning the very nature of our profession.
Our job is to get the news out accurately to as many people as possible in the shortest possible time.
That makes social media the most exciting thing to happen to our profession since Mr Reuter took his pigeons over to France in the First World War.
At the same time, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if we’re all going to have to get proper jobs now.
This latest challenge comes after at least two decades of continuous assault from the very people who employ us.
Back in the early 1990s I saw local newspapers – once the training bedrock of British journalism – bring in ‘editorial assistants,’ people with no journalism training to do the weddings, obits and other bread and butter work of the newsroom.
That left the higher paid trainees to do the ‘real’ stories but it deprived them of the traditional means of instilling accuracy and attention to detail. And it didn’t save their jobs.
One newspaper I worked on sacked three journalists and a photographer after a bean-counter at the other end of the country decreed the correct staff-page ratio was one to five.
There was no consideration of the size of the district, the numbers of courts and councils which needed to be covered, no consideration of the quality of the product.
Soon afterwards, the reporters covering the furthest reaches of the district had their cars taken away and were advised to get to stories by bicycle.
Proofreaders had already disappeared and now the sub-editors were under attack.
Another newspaper I worked for got rid of all its casual subs in the same week the finance director’s shiny new Aston Martin turned up in the carpark.
On that same paper the Editor was removed from the newsroom one week in every four to work on the company’s Vision, which translated as agreeing to ways of making money out of editorial.
One popular wheeze was running as many pictures of kids as possible. Not only would parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and third cousins all buy the paper, went the reasoning, we could sell them prints as well.
Such considerations started to drive the news agenda away from the traditional responsibilities of journalism.
The transformative power of technology was seen, not as a way to improve our news gathering, but as a way to save money on journalists.
“Do more with less,” we were instructed as we struggled to do too much with too few and the profession descended into what Nick Davies so accurately termed ‘churnalism.’
Suddenly, our productivity could be measured and it quickly got about that tallies were being kept of our word counts.
We were discouraged from spending so much time out of the office. Why spend an hour going out to interview someone for one story when you can churn out five with a bit of phone work and a few press releases?
And there were more pages to fill, as proprietors churned out advertising-led freesheets on a shoestring while at the same time cutting editorial staff.
Today sub-editors are no longer seen as senior journalists, keepers of the soul, if you like, of a newspaper. They churn copy in the same anxious state as the reporters whose work they’re supposed to be overseeing.
Increasingly they’re graduates who have never worked as reporters, something which would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Or they’re outsourced, so removed from the newsroom they may even be in another country.
It’s no wonder there has been a steady decline in standards.
And now the question is getting urgent. What is the future of journalism?
Flat Earth News by Nick Davies