Saving newspapers – or journalism?

I was rather irritated the other day listening to BBC Radio 4’s Americana (available in the UK on iPlayer) when the presenter of the show, Kevin Connolly, made two anti-new media comments in the course of a six minute interview with Tina Brown, ex-Vanity Fair editor and now editor of online news site The Daily Beast.

He was lamenting the fact that the demise of newspapers would mean no more local court coverage (as an example of the community-based journalism) and no more scoops like Watergate. Fair enough, he was trying to act as devil’s advocate to counterbalance Tina Brown who was there to promote online news sites as the thing of the future, but even so his points annoyed me and had me shouting at the computer screen.

It seems to have passed Mr Connolly by that newspapers have long since stopped covering local courts. Few publications have been able to afford to do that for a decade or more. Most newspaper stories these days seem to be lifted directly from wire services, the television, the web – or from Twitter. I still remember how shocked I was when I was living in Las Vegas for a year and found that the local paper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was 90% wire stories and syndicated features. It had given up all pretense of covering even the local Vegas stories; and now that state of affairs has spread to all but the most famous bastions of news in the US, while many of the UK papers give up the idea of covering news and focus on celebrity stories instead.

And as for scoops – the Americana program seemed to have been recorded before either the Iran election aftermath (where the story was overlooked at first by the major international news players like CNN and BBC as it was a Sunday and most of their staff had been ejected from Iran after the elections were officially over), and even more strikingly after the death of Michael Jackson, where all TV and news outlets were forced to lead for hours with “TMZ website reports that …” because that low-budget entertainment news website had the complete inside line scoop on one of the biggest stories of the year.

But there’s also sites like The Smoking Gun, which has broken some big stories in the past with their obsessive collecting and analysing of often obscure documentary minutiae. And now there are full blown news sites like Brown’s own Daily Beast and the pioneering Huffington Post in the US. Yes, these are the exceptions and not the rule, but it’s very early days for journalism on the web, and to dismiss online media as being incapable of filling the place of newspapers would be like someone dismissing the original Gutenberg printing press after the first year because there were only one or two books in production. It does take time to stage a revolution.

Would newspapers have pulled out of the local news and investigative reporting if the money was still there? Well, probably not – if they could afford it, they would most likely still want to be doing it. But note the ‘probably’ there – the fact is that the commercialisation of the newspapers into big businesses run by businessmen who weren’t really interested in the news but in the money it could earn them if they created huge multinational newspaper chains means that the profits were being sucked away by shareholders anyway. Having to explain to those shareholders why millions were going into reporters sitting for hours in court rooms and local council chambers, or on a story about obscure political scandals instead of being paid out to them in dividends meant that the purse strings were being tightened and choking the life out of the newspaper business long before the Internet suddenly popped up on the radar.

But the Americana story does show the tendency of old media people to think that the collapse of newspapers means the end of journalism. It doesn’t – the two things are not the same and shouldn’t be confused. Newspapers are a particular business model and type of medium, but journalism – the art of news reporting – will live on. It will change, and may not be a profitable business in the same scale as decades past, but it will continue and indeed thrive.

I’ll be sad to see newspapers die. Until very recently I’ve felt that newspapers would live on in some form. But increasingly, as we watch newspaper owners lurch from indecision to disastrous action and then utter confusion, it’s clear that the current industry doesn’t have the wits to get itself out of the current situation. Sadly it seems as though the industry is determined to smash itself to pieces in order to clear the ground for whatever the 21st century journalism environment turns out to be.

It’s a shame. It’s going to be painful, a lot of blood will be spilled; but rather like the days of the unions and hot metal printing in the UK had to be destroyed in the 80s, so the newspaper and news industry as a whole must now be torn apart in order to allow itself to find anew ways forward.

I wish it weren’t the case – and would be happy if people found a nicer, easier way. But I’m not holding my breath, and the end of days for the news business is already upon us.

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