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Adventures of a Girl Reporter, Asia, Journalism, Opinion, Social Media

Who broke the news and can we fix it?

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?

Further reading:

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

A great critique of paywalls by Howard Owens… and the article by David Simon he was rebutting.

© Sally Baxter 2012

About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter, blogging as Sally Baxter. Now I'm writing under my name at www.mariaspackman.com covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.


5 thoughts on “Who broke the news and can we fix it?

  1. I found this post while searching for articles on journalism. And being someone who’s interested in journalism as a career, I loved this post. Even I’ve noticed the way in which social media seems to be taking over some aspects of journalism, like, for instance, how people turn to tweets for latest news updates instead of other, more conventional options. But isn’t journalism something more profound and significant to be wiped out by these new trends? Anyway, great post. 🙂


    Posted by Roshni | June 10, 2012, 5:42 pm
  2. The Atlantic | The Huffington Post | Tallahassee Democrat | Reuters Roger Ailes told journalism students at the University of North Carolina “ I think you ought to change your major ” this past spring, and while that may be a bit apocalyptic, traditional journalism education is coming ever more under scrutiny. Emory University announced last week it would shutter its journalism program , because it was “pre-professional,” according to one account, and a lousy fit with the school’s other areas of excellence. CUNY prof and media gadfly Jeff Jarvis has recommended some changes to journalism education , as has Poynter’s Howard Finberg .


    Posted by gold price | October 1, 2012, 9:49 pm
    • My sincere apologies – your comment ended up in spam and I’ve only just spotted it.

      ‘Traditional journalism education’ is actually a relatively new beast and a cynic could suggest that its main purpose has been to shift the cost of training from the news organisation to the aspiring journalist. Unpaid internships just add to the sense that someone’s being exploited here, and it ain’t just the long-suffering readership.


      Posted by Sally Baxter | October 7, 2012, 6:37 am
  3. After Nixon had resigned, the staff at ‘The Washington Post’ commissioned a jeweller to make Katharine Graham a brooch in the shape of a wringer.

    If anyone was going to fix journalism, particularly the types of journalism that relies heavily upon official announcements (particularly political journalism), it would have been done by that generation of journalists – those who had witnessed the denials and the stonewalling of the Nixon Administration, and just before then, those who had witnessed similar ‘media management strategies’ during the Vietnam War briefings that became known as “the five o’clock follies”. They didn’t, they were left becalmed in their own smugness so that when the tech tsunami hit them they had nowhere to go.

    You can’t put your faith in individual journalists. When we talk about Bob Woodward, do we mean the guy who had a couple of good years in the ’70s, or the author of ‘Dan Quayle: The Man Who Would Be President’? When we talk about Carl Bernstein, are we talking about the schmuck who dumped Nora Ephron and inspired her to write ‘Heartburn’?

    Your points about ‘The Courier Mail’ are telling. Remember the downfall of the Bjelke-Petersen government was brought about not by intrepid Queenslanders at the coalface, but by southerners who’d been flown in. They had investigative skills that went beyond attending press conferences and reading press releases, skills that journalists today lack.


    Posted by Andrew Elder | September 22, 2013, 10:07 pm
  4. Thanks for the very wise comment Andrew. You’re right that we can’t put our faith in individual journalists but if not them, who? Certainly not their employers in the ‘legacy’ media – witness the coverage of the most recent Australian election. One problem for journalists is that our legendary and necessary cynicism too often is reduced to a cynicism about the readership – and why not? Publishers demonstrate again and again that any old crap will do, as long as it’s cheap and fills the space. Oh, and doesn’t upset the few remaining advertisers. “Follow the money.” It’s as true as it’s ever been – and the money’s moving elsewhere alas. Sometimes it feels all that’s left is Joh’s chickenfeed.


    Posted by Sally Baxter | September 23, 2013, 7:00 am

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Your Girl Reporter is now filing as Maria Spackman at www.mariaspackman.com Same great content, whole new website. I’m leaving Sally Baxter up, as I can’t quite bring myself to let her go completely, but it’s time to honour my family name – and use it. Hope you’ll join me for the Further Adventures of a Girl Reporter. It’ll be fun.

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