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Media’s blurred lines need some distinction

Terry beardI have been in the journalism business for 35 years. A hack reporter, sub-editor, leader writer, feature writer, news editor, page designer, industrial correspondent, deputy editor, editor, even a books and letter editor. There are few jobs I haven’t done, few events that have passed me by. I have had photos published, even drawn adverts. It has rewarded me, punished me and taken me to the brink of exasperation. But I’ve generally enjoyed the ride.

Over all those years I have witnessed considerable change. I came in at a time when “new technologies” were challenging the way newspapers were published. I have fond memories of the dying days of hot metal, and how the hammering and clattering from the print room at the York Evening Press reverberated around the building which shook when the presses were stirred into action. Those “inky” days have gone, never to return. So has the paper’s headquarters in the city centre where it once reigned from a pivotal point over those whose activities it covered in great detail.

As with The Scotsman and many other titles, economics and technology have been blamed for forcing newspapers to abandon their role as the beating heart of their communities to take occupancy in soulless  offices on the edge of town. It is no coincidence that they have also become peripheral to so many people’s daily lives.

The “press” is in danger of following the video shop and the coal mine into the history books of “former” industries. Yet the demise of local papers is a sadness tinged with self-inflicted wounds. It is said that newspapers have been abandoned by readers who have found better alternatives. This is only partly true. In fact the readers have been abandoned by the newspapers which, for years, took them for granted and then treated them with contempt. In truth, the newspaper industry has only itself to blame for its decline.

Consider the ways they operate. The old newsdesk editors spent hours poring over births, deaths and marriages columns looking for stories about local people; they ensured all the courts and council meetings were attended, and sent already weary staff to God-forsaken events at all hours and in all places to leave nothing that happened, however minor, unreported.  These days they barely send staff to attend events and functions, and rely instead on the client-tailored scripts issued by public relations agencies. No wonder the readers have become cynical towards them.

As for the economics, I can honestly say that over those 35 years, and despite holding a number of senior positions at various titles, I barely remember any market research being made available that I didn’t ask for. When it was suggested (while working as editor of a national Sunday title) I was firmly rebuked and told “if the readers don’t like it, then too bad”. No other industry would survive with this sort of attitude and I fear that it still pervades much of what newspapers like to think the public actually wants to read about.

While those who work in other industries are deluged with every conceivable detail about how many of their products are sold, to whom, when and where, few journalists working for newspapers have a clue who buys them. A conceit has existed in the industry for generations about who should decide the news agenda, and it’s not the reader. He or she may be the customer, but editors believe they alone should be the judge of what is delivered each day.

While the press was able to see off the challenge of television (too much show business), radio (too brief and lacking in visual appeal) it has found the internet a test too far.  The old “we know best” arrogance has finally caught up with it as readers decide for themselves that, actually, there are better ways of keeping up to date with the news agenda.

Daily Business rag of home pageDaily Business, which I launched in 2014, is proving this to be the case (and the analytics bear me out) as readers seek the sort of immediacy from news websites they once associated only with television and radio, but without the sometimes bland presentation and irrelevance that goes with broadcast news. Websites can specialise, they can operate more effectively, even with fewer people, and can rearrange and re-constitute the news almost to order, without the prescriptive agenda and layout restrictions of print. If a story isn’t working, ditch it and find another.

Yet even as the new generation of news websites find their feet a new challenge is emerging as journalism itself becomes a universal occupation and various media converge so that the distinction between journalism and other sources of communication becomes blurred.

It was said in a recent television documentary about the John Lewis department store that “everybody these days is a journalist”. The person saying it was referring to social media, another driving force which is allowing anyone to become a news gatherer, reporter or commentator. While news websites attempt to uphold the tradition of the “professional” journalist, posts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and similar sites are now the first line of attack and defence for any organisation monitoring what the “media” is saying. In many cases, these posts are more important than what appears in the “press”. They are certainly more immediate, and based more on personal experience, and they can therefore have greater impact.

One description I particularly liked about social media came from a manager at Network Rail who said it was “an early warning system”. In other words, if anything happened on the rail network, or if anyone had a complaint or any sort of comment to make it was most likely to appear first on Twitter or one of the other social media sites. It was the signal for action to be taken and also gave the company an opportunity to get its defence in first, and even resolve a situation, before the mainstream media even got wind of what was happening.

Beyond social media is the challenge from other professionals: the PR operatives who were once trusted to remain on their side of the battlefield but have strayed out of their trenches to start firing from the other side. Senior PR agents are now writing columns, either in the press or in blogs, as frequently as journalists and, in some cases, with bylines better known than the journalists.

So, who should the reader trust in this new media environment? Does the journalist still hold sway for his or her “impartiality” or at least his or her attempt at exploring all the angles before drawing a conclusion? Or are we now in a world in which the views of Joe Public and Mr and Mrs PR operator with his or her clients’ interests closest to their heart should take equal billing?

It would be arrogant of me to suggest that the views of the latter two are unworthy, and it is true to say that some PR operators, particularly those who formerly worked as journalists, are among the best and most astute writers around.

Even so, we are in danger of losing journalism’s valuable contribution to democracy and our ability to judge the facts without favour if it continues to suffer from a combination of corporate cost-cutting and a free-for-all that enables every man jack to push it further into the wilderness.

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