Wednesday, 6 July 2011

the true cost of news

UNTIL now, I can't remember a time I haven't felt proud of being a journalist. We can't all be heroes, of course, so for every Watergate, there's a million parish council reports: for every atrocity revealed to the world, a heck of a lot of diet book serialisations. But still, you could usually kid yourself you were part of something that mattered. Less easy now.
And that's about more than one's obvious revulsion over journalists hacking the phones of missing children, or eavesdropping on the grief of terrorist victims. It's about thinking that this kind of thing only happens in a dying industry.
I've worked in national newspapers for 15 years, 13 of them on staff first for the Daily Mail and then the Observer and now freelance for whoever. I've never hacked a phone - I can barely access my own voicemails, frankly - nor been asked or pressured to do something illegal for a story. So I'm one of the lucky ones. I got yelled at sometimes, sniped at sometimes, for missing stories, but I was never told - as some journalists (and doubtless their managers) across Fleet Street regularly are - that I'd be fired if I didn't beat X to a story, or shouldn't bother coming back to the office tomorrow if I didn't land Y scoop. I've never been bullied into choosing between mortgage and conscience. Hopefully I'd have chosen well, but luckily I never had to find out: thanks partly to the people I worked for and partly to writing about politics, where you can still get stories simply by talking to enough people and reading enough boring Hansard. And it's partly thanks to working in parts of journalism whose economic model wasn't totally bust.
Tabloids basically sell via scoops - those jaw-hits-floor, have-to-buy-the-paper-so-I-know-what-everyone's-talking-about stories nobody else has got - and juicy gossip. But scoops are labour-intensive, expensive: they mean letting a reporter spend months digging around before they can produce a single word, always with the risk that they'll find nothing much worth printing. The News of the World has done its share of these stories, in fairness - remember the 'fake sheikh' sting that caught out Sophie, Countess of Wessex? - but filling a paper every week like this takes very deep pockets in an industry suffering steadily falling sales and advertising (thanks to the growth of free news online).
And that's why almost nobody now does really serious long-term investigative journalism, except sometimes the Sunday Times (most recently on alleged corruption in football) and the Guardian (which broke the phone hacking story). The posh papers rely on features'n'fluff instead to drive sales - star columnists, lush magazine supplements, acre upon acre about what celebrities are wearing - which costs far less than months of undercover investigation and sells more reliably. And we now know that the less posh papers (for I would be amazed if it was only the News of the World: everyone's under the same commercial pressures) kept chasing jaw-dropping scoops but used cheap and dirty shortcuts to get them: hacking phones, paying police officers, rifling bins, who knows what else.
The features'n'fluff tactic is, of course, nothing like the moral equivalent of hacking: it's dumb but it's legal, and relatively harmless (although the relentless emphasis on celebrities' weight and looks has arguably had consequences for teenage girls especially). But they're both sides of the same financial coin.
So now what? If the outcome of this week's horrors is that newspapers are regulated out of using dirty tricks, then newspaper proprietors either have to pump money into proper scoop gathering again, or invent completely new ways of driving sales. And that's really why News International is fighting this so hard: it's not just protecting individuals like Rebekah Brooks, but a whole business model.
My guess is the longterm legacy could now be a quicker death for print newspapers (or at least tabloid ones): most News of the World readers won't stop buying it because of what it's done, but may well stop buying it if the juicy stories dry up, because the paper's no longer allowed to do what it used to do to get them.
What we're really seeing here is just how much it costs to produce ethical, but still interesting, newspapers. Just as we've had to learn that a £3 Tshirt may well be made by a seven-year-old in a sweatshop, or a dirt-cheap chicken probably had an utterly miserable life, we now know whose grief is exploited and whose privacy trampled to bring us cheap news. What's not clear is whether we're still willing to pay for old-fashioned, slow, labour-intensive journalism without the collateral damage.

5 comments:

  1. If "labour-intensive journalism" sounds too much like hard work than maybe those that consider real journalism hard work aren't fit for the job.

    News of the World is what gives real journalism, good investigative journalism a dirty name. I for one have never bought a tabloid paper in my life (I'm a Guardian/Independant reader) and I cringed and moaned at my dad for buying the Sun & NoTW as a teen. I had moral fibre from a young age and saw trash for what trash was... Trash!

    On a side note I'm vegan (that's a lifestyle choice not a diet). No £3 T-shirts here or miserable chickens thank you!

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  2. Maybe the gutter press has sounded its own death knell. Good riddance. Maybe society has moved beyond its pernicious presence and moved onto something better - free speech and news on the net. Well done The Guardian, I say.

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  3. Sorry, Gaby but this reads like an excuse; as though lying and cheating and ripping people's lives together is the only way newspaper people can afford to eat.

    No newspaper editor would allow a starving single mother who mugged a granny to get away with that, so why the hell should they? They have dug their own hole, they should bury themselves in it.

    Like you, I'm a journalist who used to be proud of my profession. It's not commercial pressure that has made the press as bad as it is but the subsuming of press freedom to chips in a power game. Corruption of the prinicples of press freedom by Murdoch, the Barclays, Rothermere etc has turned a noble profession into scum.

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  4. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Neville, it's in no way intended as an excuse: that's why I said I was revolted by the whole thing. But I think unless you understand why something's happened, you won't stop it happening in future, because you'll be pulling all the wrong levers. I'm not so sure that the problem is to do with some weird power game: I think it's driven by commercial motives (every time I've ever seen Rupert Murdoch try and intervene in politics, it's been about News Int commercial interests, with the exception of his particular aversion to the euro).
    And Foxy: of course the Guardian's done well. But 'news on the net' will be no better (indeed, arguably worse) than news on paper unless it's properly resourced & can afford to hire proper journalists: otherwise all you'll get is endless dubious gossip, pictures of celebrities on beaches, soft porn and troll-baiting shock jock columnists. Which is what drives web traffic.
    And Verity, most journalists don't consider 'labour-intensive journalism' too much like hard work. It's that editors don't want it. Nick Davies' book Flat Earth has some pretty basic flaws in it but it's good on that subject.

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  5. The latest episode in the phone hacking scandal is beyond belief. I hate the kind of cheap news peddled by tabloids and the dirty tricks used to obtain it. I'm all for a more ethical approach - we've had slow food and slow fashion, how about slow journalism?

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