Monday, 12 November 2007
Dark future for reporters
On 25th October 2007 Guardian media blogger and former Daily Mirror editor Roy Greenslade decided to quit the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), because of the organisation's attitude towards new media. [NUJ is the trade union for journalists in Uk and Ireland]
Greenslade, who has been a member of the union for 42 years, announced his resignation on his blog and said it would be 'hypocritical' to remain a NUJ member 'when I am now so opposed to the union's central aims'.
Why I'm saying farewell to the NUJ
October 25, 2007 11:18 AM
I have stood back for too long from the digital debate raging within the National Union of Journalists. But postings by Jeff Jarvis and the Daily Telegraph's Shane Richmond cannot be ignored. They remind me of my tightrope walk as I try to maintain my allegiance to the NUJ, and especially to its Journalism Matters campaign, while I want every media outlet, and therefore every journalist, to embrace the online world.
I found myself in two minds when commenting in July on the Drogheda Independent house agreement, which allows reporters to take photographs. I concluded that "traditionalist NUJ members... have to come to terms with changed circumstances". It was a painful personal statement because I realised that I was on the way to saying, as I do now, that though journalism does indeed matter, journalists do not.
Gosh, I'd better qualify that right away. What I mean is that I still believe journalistic skills are essential. I also believe that there is a future for professional journalists - people employed by media outlets whose daily job involves them in reporting and transmitting text, photographic and video content. But I also recognise that the so-called profession of journalism has to adapt to vastly changed circumstances. In effect, every citizen is now a journalist.
Richmond rightly points to the NUJ's underlying assumption that the net is a threat to journalism when, of course, it is much more a threat to the union itself. Why? Because the union, as with the print unions of old, cannot possibly adapt to meet the revolutionary demands of a new technology.
There is a difference, of course. The skills of compositors and linotype operators were eradicated by computer setting and on-screen composition. Journalistic skills are not entirely wiped out in an online world, but they are eroded and, most importantly, they cannot be confined any longer to an exclusive élite group. Secondly, the union's internal demarcations - such as reporter-photographer, reporter-sub, reporter-camera operator - are now utterly irrelevant. All of us must be multi-media journos from now on.
Then we come to the preservation of jobs, which has been the union's 100-year raison d'être. I cannot, in conscience, go on supporting this crucial plank of NUJ policy when it is so obvious that online media outlets will require fewer staff. We are surely moving towards a situation in which relatively small "core" staffs will process material from freelances and/or citizen journalists, bloggers, whatever (and there are many who think this business of "processing" will itself gradually disappear too in an era of what we might call an unmediated media).
But that's only part of the problem. It is also clear that media outlets will never generate the kind of income enjoyed by printed newspapers: circulation revenue will vanish and advertising revenue will be much smaller than today. There just won't be the money to afford a large staff.
I certainly don't agree that current newspaper owners should be taking advantage of digitisation to fire people in order to maintain unacceptably high profit margins. I'm with the union there. I'm also concerned about the failure around the regions to cover courts and councils, and the habit of office-based reporters relying on PR handouts for their stories.
However, if we look at the larger picture, all media corporations are themselves trying to cope with a rapidly changing environment in which their own survival is far from assured. The top is crumbling and the bottom - individual citizens, but working together in loosely-knit collaborative communities - is rising.
So the logic of this argument has led me, inevitably, to an uncomfortable conclusion. Holding these views, which are completely divergent from the union's current policies, means that I should resign from the NUJ. After a membership stretching back 42 years, this is a painful decision. But I think it would be hypocritical to remain inside when I am now so opposed to the union's central aims.
I do believe, most sincerely, that journalism matters. I also think the act of journalism matters. But the brave new world opened up by the internet makes protectionist organised labour on the lines of the NUJ outdated.
Here we have the opinion of David Leigh:
Are reporters doomed?
Citizen journalism is here to stay. But in the rush to embrace new media we risk destroying the soul of traditional reporting
David Leigh (assistant editor of the Guardian, with special responsibility for investigative reporting)
I was dismayed to read Roy Greenslade 's recent blog about the rise of citizen journalists. "Journalistic skills are not entirely wiped out in an online world, but they are eroded and, most importantly, they cannot be confined any longer to an exclusive elite group ," he wrote.
As a result, media companies of the future will require fewer staff, and their job will be to process materials from freelances, bloggers and citizen journalists. He continued — and this is the scary part: "It is also clear that media outlets will never generate the kind of income enjoyed by printed newspapers: circulation revenue will vanish and advertising revenue will be
much smaller than today. There just won't be the money to afford a large staff." I am afraid Roy is right, that the journalistic future will be a future with less money around. That won't be good. Too much competition leads to a race to the bottom. And you can't report if you can't afford to eat.
Yet the old media are clearly on the way out. So are we reaching the end of the era of conventional reporting? Certainly, we must soon imagine a world without — at least — weekday printed papers. I believe we are going to see a new model of newspaper production in all the British nationals within the year. But my fear is that everyone is too obsessed with new platforms, and not enough people are talking about values.
The internet is an incredibly rich information resource, and a great tool
for worldwide sharing. But as well as overloading us with instantaneous terrors, it also degrades valuable principles — the idea of discrimination, that some voices are more credible than others, that a named source is better than an anonymous pamphleteer (that's what they used to call bloggers in the 18th century, when they published, for example, the politically dangerous Letters of Junius). The notion of authoritativeness is derided as a sort of "top-down" fascism.
I fear that these developments will endanger the role of the reporter. Of course, there will always be a need for news bunnies who can dash in front of a camera and breathlessly describe a lorry crash, or bash out a press release in 10 minutes. There will probably be a lot more news bunnies in the future. There will probably also be hyper-local sites — postcode journalism fuelled cheaply by neighbourhood bloggers. But not proper reporters.
I have just got back from the University of California, Berkeley, where I spoke to Lowell Bergman, a professor at the journalism school who is an investigative reporter with the New York Times and producer/correspondent for the PBS documentary series Frontline. I found him in a glum frame of mind. Reporting staffs are being cut all over the US, he said. Virtually no investigative journalism goes on any more. Millionaire donors are being courted to fund online reporting operations that will do the kind of things that the Wall Street Journal, newly taken over by Rupert Murdoch, is likely to abandon.
You might have heard a few of the old warhorses on Radio 4's Start the Week last month. Andrew Marr asked if all news organisations were cutting back. "Yes, indeed," said the BBC's veteran international correspondent John Simpson. "Reporters are under real threat. More than ever before. They [media owners] say, 'You're not needed — we just want people's opinions about what's happened, not the facts.' I'm becoming an endangered
species and people are less and less interested in the wider world." Max Hastings, ex-editor of the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard, said: "It's even more true in newspapers. All sorts of areas of the world are now thought to be too boring to keep a correspondent there. The commentariat has taken over."
There are several reasons for this. The mass media can shine a light. Or they can reflect back light. The Daily Mail and Fox News, for example, are highly profitable businesses that make their money out of telling people what they think they know already. They reflect back their audience's existing beliefs. They reassure them by hammering the world into a shape that suits their prejudices. This is less an information service than a form of cheap massage.
Too much interactivity, commentating and blogging can end up inadvertently doing the same thing. It is cheaper and excitingly faster, but it is not always
a source of light. People shout past each other. They enjoy the sound of their own voices and confirm their own prejudices through the delicious experience of self-publishing. Paradoxically, more becomes less.
I'm in favour of the future, of course. We all have to be. It is coming to get us, whether we like it or not. We have to come to terms with what is going on. More than come to terms — we have to embrace it. But we should spend less time fretting about platforms and more about the loss of honesty in our trade. There is yet to be a proper accounting for the disgraceful loss
of journalistic integrity on both sides of the Atlantic that cheer-led us into the Iraq war on a false prospectus.
You can get junk food on every high street. And you can get junk journalism almost as easily. But just as there is now a Slow Food movement, I should also like to see more Slow Journalism. Slow Journalism would show greater respect for the reporter as a patient assembler of facts. A skilled craftsman who is independent and professionally reputable. A disentangler of lies and weasel words. And who is paid the rate for the job. Aren't such people essential for probing the dodgy mechanisms of our imperfect democracy, and our very imperfect world?
But the power of reporting does not lie entirely — or even mostly — in the nobility of its practitioners, or their professional skills. Or their celebrity status. It also lies in the preservation of media outlets that are themselves powerful.
When I reflect on the investigations I have been involved in, I realise that the reporter does have influence. We have written about the scandal of tax-dodgers with private jets pretending to live in Monaco, but still working four days a week in a London office. The government now says it will close that loophole. We wrote some rather savage articles about plans to restrict use of the Freedom of Information Act. They dropped the plans. And Rob Evans and I have written scores of articles detailing the corrupting influence
of the defence ministry's arms sales department. The government now says it will shut the department.
There is only one reason why these stories have an effect. I like to think, of course, it is down to our own personal brilliance. But it is not. It is because a story on the front page of the Guardian carries clout. So do reports on the BBC, for example — that's why Andrew Gilligan's stories about alleged sexed-up dossiers caused such panic and rage in Downing Street. That is perhaps one of the biggest dangers of the media revolution. When the media fragment — as they will — and splinter into a thousand websites, a thousand
digital channels, all weak financially, then we will see a severe reduction in the power of each individual media outlet. The reporter will struggle to be heard over the cacophony of a thousand other voices.
Politicians will no longer fear us. And if that day comes, I'm afraid it really will be the end of the reporter.
This is an edited version of the Anthony Sampson lecture, which he gave at City University, London