On the death of newspapers

A few days ago, this story was doing the rounds – namely that the Daily Mail group was being forced to cut 1,000 jobs from its regional newspaper arm, and was implementing stringent ‘efficiency measures’ at the main paper.  My reaction, to be honest, was mixed.  On the one hand, any loss of jobs is a bad thing, obviously, for the people losing their jobs, but it’s also a problem for their wider communities.  On the other hand, these are people who have dedicated their working lives to serving an organisation that demonises the unemployed and campaigns for ever more brutal treatment of the socially marginalised.  The idea of these sorts of people getting a taste of their own medicine isn’t one that fills me with dismay.

The slow death of the print media has been underway for at least a decade now, as newspapers have been finding it harder and harder to get advertising revenue, but the implosion of advertising budgets caused by the recession seems to be bringing things to an abrupt crisis point.  That irritating Victorian windbag Tennyson wrote a famous line of poetry – ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw‘ – about evolution, and in doing so demonstrated that his understanding of the subject was highly coloured by inappropriate emotion.  But, suitably adapted, the line does apply in a recession – ‘Capitalism, red in tooth and claw’.  The way business operates in a recession is as savagely cruel as even the most nihilistic interpreter of natural selection could wish for.  In a recession, weak businesses fail – and a lot of the print media are weak indeed.

The recent job losses would suggest that we may be rid of the daily outpourings of venomous hatred, muck-raking scandal, and ill-informed ranting provided by the press sooner than we had hoped.  This is not a state of affairs that would ordinarily move me to tears, but the issue is perhaps not as one-sided as I’m inclined to see it.  Johann Hari (the only print media commentator I respect enough to link to in my ‘blogroll’) makes a best-case defence of the newspaper industry here, but, persuasive though his argument is, it doesn’t convince me.

Part of Johann Hari’s argument is to counter the assertion that newspapers have been made obsolete by blogs.  Hari argues that, while bloggers may be able to offer interesting personal perspectives on stories, and may be able to replicate some of the editorials and comment pieces that appear in papers, they are not able, usually, to dedicate the time and resources that a professional journalist can to investigating and reporting news stories in the first place.  He also makes the point that original reporting – as distinct from relaying and commenting on an existing story – is an expensive activity.  This is most obviously the case with foreign journalists, especially those who are in violent or war-torn areas and need to make extensive arrangements for their own safety, but it also applies to domestic reporting as well.  Complex stories can take a long time to investigate, and may involve gathering information from a disparate array of sources and contacts that an individual blogger would struggle to replicate.  If we take the view that the definition of news is anything that somebody doesn’t want us to know, then detailed investigative reporting certainly would seem like a good idea.  This is a point that Hari makes forcefully, marshalling evidence from The Journal of Law, Economics and Organization which suggests that the lower the rate of newspaper circulation within a country, the greater the likelihood of political corruption.

I’ll come on to some more substantive objections to Johann Hari’s position in due course, but I wanted to pause here to point out one of the key differences between bloggers and traditional journalists.  As a blogger, it’s pretty much second nature for me to link to sources of information I’ve used in writing a post, and to provide links to evidence that illustrates my points.  Ben Goldacre of Bad Science fame has made the point that this habitual way of working is part of what helps to make blogs a more overtly reliable source of information than print media.  Simply by following the links a blogger provides it’s possible to get a sense of whether they have based their ideas and opinions on good quality sources, and whether they have misunderstood or misrepresented those sources.  Print journalists, because of the technological limitations of the medium they write for – ink and paper can’t do hyperlinks – aren’t in the habit of doing this.

So, when Mr Hari wanted to make his point about the relationship between newspaper circulation and corruption he simply referred to ‘a recent study’ in The Journal of Law, Economics and Organization.  Armed with the title of the journal and the subject area of the research it was possible for me, with a little difficulty, to track down the research Hari was referring to.  But none of this legwork would have been necessary if Mr Hari had been writing for a blog – I would have been able simply to follow the link he would, as a matter of course, have provided.

Anyway, it turns out the research was published in October 2003 (which seems to be slightly stretching the definition of the word ‘recent’), and that it did not in fact directly investigate the relationship between newspaper circulation and corruption: the title of the journal article is ‘Are You Being Served?  Political Accountability and Quality of Government’.  The article’s authors draw two main conclusions (both of which, frankly, seem to fall into the ‘they had to do research to work this out?’ category): that there needs to be some mechanism by which the public can ‘discipline’ corrupt or inefficient governments (such as free and fair elections, for example); and that there needs to be a good level of ‘public information’, so that the public knows when governments need disciplining.

In other words, this research establishes the need for good quality, independent analysis of government activity.  It does not establish any need for widely distributed newspapers (although the researchers have used newspaper circulation as a readily verifiable marker of how informed the public are).  The independent analysis could just as easily be provided by frequent and thorough auditing of all aspects of government, with this information then being disseminated to the public via free websites, billboard advertising etc, rather than a newspaper industry.  In fact, it would be possible to argue that this method would be more effective than newspapers.  The media spectacularly failed to report the dangers of the ‘light-touch’ economic regulation being pursued by the Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown governments, after all, and possibly because they had a vested financial interest.  Every single newspaper (except, probably, The Morning Star) carried adverts for the ‘irresponsible’ financial institutions they’re now decrying.

I wouldn’t want to make the accusation that Johann Hari has deliberately misrepresented this study.  I think it would be more accurate to say that he perhaps approached the study with an unconscious bias in favour of newspapers, and for that reason perhaps failed to recognise that there might be other methods of ensuring that the public were kept informed.  I think this unconscious bias can maybe be detected in other aspects of Mr Hari’s article, especially in the rather romantic view he seems to have of journalism.

Hari’s account of the way journalists hold governments to account seems to owe a lot to All The President’s Men, the 1976 film about the US newspaper reporters whose investigations into the Watergate scandal led to the resignation of President Nixon.  The trouble with this romantic vision is that so little of contemporary print journalism is like this.  It seems to me that only a very small percentage of the material in our newspapers is genuinely fresh investigative reporting.  A sizable chunk is made up of ‘celebrity’ chit-chat.  Another hefty slice is made up of ‘political’ stories in which politicians take up precisely the positions we all knew in advance they would take – the sum total of knowledge is not pushed forward one iota by these stories.  Then there are the large sections of the paper given over to witless comment and analysis written by people with fixed and entrenched views who are unwilling or unable to hold a nuanced, subtle or even just unusual position on any subject.  Yet more of the paper is given over to lifestyle pages, and arts and culture reporting, and sport, and ‘exclusive reader offers’.  Oh, and depending on which paper you’re ‘reading’, there might be a pair of tits too.  All of this might be very interesting, it might be popular – but you can’t claim that it’s a noble and democratically essential activity.

Even where there are actual, substantive articles, it’s rare that these are the result of a reporter going out in the field (or even making phone calls) themselves.  Almost always they are rewrites of press releases, or of stories lifted from other news sources.  Often the only input a journalist will have will be to massage the story so that it fits the political master-story peddled by that particular newspaper.  Nick Davies has described this as ‘churnalism’, and it seems to me it’s a persuasive argument.  It seems to explain why newspapers so blatantly hunt in packs – do a search and you’ll find all the papers reporting the same stories in almost the same terms at more or less the same time.  Even where the stories themselves seem to be different, the quotes from individuals are almost always identical, which is a sure indication that the different journalists have got their basic information from the same source.  It seems to me that this ‘churnalism’ is very similar to what Hari rightly criticises large parts of the blogosphere for doing – rehashing the same few facts in an ongoing round of ill-informed ranting.

The truth is that newspapers of all political perspectives have been playing fast and loose with the truth they claim to neutrally report for years.  When facts crop up that don’t fit with their world view they try to ignore them, or if they can’t be ignored they downplay them, or if they can’t downplay them they shift the goalposts of their rhetoric enough to pretend that they had always been predicting the new facts.  But this is a really stupid thing to do.  Even though readers may not pick up on each individual nuance of a newspaper’s shifting stance, the impression of unreliability sticks.  Survey after survey has shown that the majority of people no longer trust newspapers to tell them the truth.

I am convinced it’s this, as much as anything, that is contributing to the demise of the print media.  It’s the newspapers themselves who have backed themselves into this corner where the only thing they can do is shout shrilly to themselves about how they were right all along, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  It’s the newspapers who have chosen to spend their money on giving away free DVDs and CDs and cinema tickets instead of paying for journalists to carry out the sort of detailed work that occasionally – once in a blue moon – leads to a story of the magnitude of Watergate.  It’s the newspapers who wanted to believe that they could endlessly report unsubstantiated opinion as fact and no-one would ever recognise it, or get bored by the endless hysterical lying.

Newspapers have, for years now, been treating their readers with thinly-veiled contempt.  They’ve seen them as passive automatons who aren’t worried about facts, or reality, or truth.  They’ve seen them as a shapeless mass who will leap up in conservative anger, or wail with liberal angst, at whatever target is dangled in front of them.  For decades – centuries – newspapers had a stranglehold on knowledge, and they used that stranglehold to become bloated, and lazy, and arrogant.  And now the internet has made it possible for people to get the facts and information they want in a different way.  The internet, as a many-to-many medium, has exposed the extent to which newspaper proprietors and editors were abusing the power their one-to-many medium gave them.

The transition from print to online would always have been tricky for newspapers to negotiate, but the reason so many people are discarding papers altogether is because newspapers aren’t providing them with what they want.  If newspapers were relevant, if they were providing detailed investigative reporting of the type Johann Hari discusses, if we could all see the way they were defending and enhancing our democratic freedoms, then newspapers would have a future.  Printed books offer something people actually want, and sales are booming.  Printed newspapers are offering nothing that anyone could want, and sales are crashing.

Some defenders of the print media argue that all their difficulties stem from the fact that people these days want everything for free.  That’s not true – their difficulties stem from the fact that people these days people have the option not to pay for something that was never worth buying in the first place.

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6 Responses to On the death of newspapers

  1. Lucy McGough says:

    I agree with you. Only today I was disappointed by lazy second-hand reporting in my daily newspaper. (Richard Dawkins is a tit, but ‘Dawkins doesn’t like the Pope’ is NOT NEWS. And they could at least have bothered to go to the press conference themselves, instead of copying the report from the press agency.)

    You can’t trust any of them.

  2. Super post. One other thing that I think is relevant: you said earlier that: “he perhaps approached the study with an unconscious bias in favour of newspapers”. I quite agree, but beyond this, and far more pernicious is the bias most mainstream journalists have for Power. If they don’t repeat the line, they don’t get fed their semi-off-the-record tidbits. Unfortunately discrimination and thought get dropped a long time before they get this nasty habit ingrained.

    Keep ’em coming!

  3. NiroZ says:

    I think your overstating the issue. Newspapers have not all gone tabloid, and the enouragement to take the press release and stick to the line has increased as the internet expands, and they become more desperate for readers. Foreign correspondance is still something that is hard to replicate, IMHO. Then again, leaks usually spawn from whisleblowers, thus in the age of blogs it is easy to report anonymusly.

    I do agree that it needs to transform, but I don’t think it should die.

  4. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Lucy – pleased you agree. :o) I would concur that information about the disagreement between the pope and Richard Dawkins is hardly a revalation, although i would qualify your statment by saying that Dawkins, whatever his tit-like tendencies, is, in my opinion, rather less of a tit than the religious fundamentalists he opposes.

    abysmal musings – you’re right, that is one of the big problems, especially with political reporting. That said, the bulk of the British press could not currently be accused of showing exaggerated respect for the present government. They do, however, have a very strong bias in favour of the institutions of power, like the police etc. Thanks for the nice compliments. :o)

    NiroZ – you know, it’s a remarkable thing, you seem to have an extraordinary knack for winding me up, even though i don’t think you’re intending to. Anyway, apologies if i come across as a little aggressive in my response to you. :o)

    I think your overstating the issue. Newspapers have not all gone tabloid

    Can you point out where in my post i said that they had all gone tabloid? It certainly wasn’t my intention to say that they had – i think there are systemic journalistic failures across the board. In the UK, certainly, all of the different types of space filler i identified (celebrity chit-chat, witless political stories, unimaginative comment and analysis, lifestyle stories, sports stories, arts stories) are as much a feature of the ‘high-brow’ papers like the Times, Telegraph, Independent and Guardian as they are the Mail, Express, Sun and Mirror.

    the enouragement to take the press release and stick to the line has increased as the internet expands, and they become more desperate for readers

    No. The way to attract readers to your newspaper is to make it stand out from the competition. The pressure has been all the other way, but papers had become so lazy and arrogant the possibility of an actual need to do something that would justify their existence didn’t occur to them.

    Foreign news reports are certainly expensive, but very few are based on a report sent by a newspaper’s own journalist in the field. Almost all are based on ‘wire’ reports, and thus fit into the category of ‘rewrites […] lifted from other news sources’, as i put it in my post.

    I think, actually, i may have put my finger on what tends to wind me up about your comments – it’s that you take issue with me on the basis of things i haven’t actually said. I really am happy to have comments from any- and every-one, and i absolutely include people who disagree with me in that. But i will admit to a preference for comments that engage with what i’ve actually said, not with things that commenters only think i have.

  5. Lucy McGough says:

    Aethelread – yeah, but Professor Dawkins is clever enough to know better ;-)

  6. Pingback: How stupid do they think we are? « Aethelread the Unread

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