Wednesday, February 22, 2006

We're All Doomed

We’re all doomed. There is a real sense of seasonal foreboding in the Scottish media this New Year, what with redundancies, takeovers and job losses almost everywhere. Circulations are falling and there are intimations of mortality on the web. Many newspapers are living in fear of their classified advertising migrating to the internet.

So, should we hacks all just give up now and become bloggers and day traders? Certainly not. Spend a few minutes on blogspot and you can see why. The blogosphere is a great place for eccentrics, conspiracy theorists, crooks, obsessives and exhibitionists – but for understanding the world, forget it

The BBC news on the web is, of course, reliable and authoritative, but most of it isn’t really news since it comes second hand from newspapers. Think of a story like extraordinary rendition. Long before that appeared on the BBC hundreds of hours were put in by newspaper journalists to break the story of the secret CIA flights. The BBC is a great institution, but it rarely goes in for that kind of newsgathering post Hutton. You still have to go to newspapers for pungent and polemical commentary on current events. The agendas of BBC programmes like Question Time are set by the issues being debated in the press.

We need an independent and critical media today more than ever, precisely because the internet is debasing the currency of journalism. We need organisations that pay people to find things out, report them correctly and engage in a dialogue with the powerful.

There is understandable animosity in newspaper boardrooms at the BBC’s website becoming the electronic “newspaper” of record, where people turn first on the web. The BBC is financed by the license payer, whereas newspapers need to survive on cover price and advertising revenue. But that isn’t going to change and it needn’t kill off the press. In the 1950’s people said BBC news would kill newspapers, but it didn’t. Nor did the coming of ITN, local radio, 24-hour rolling news..

Over the last couple of centuries newspapers like the Herald – one of the oldest continuously published newspapers in the world which reported the peace treaty that ended the American Wars of Indepedence - have acquired the disciplines and culture of accuracy, independence and analytical rigour which are essential to a functioning democracy. These things didn’t just happen. They had to be fought for against governments and special interests groups which thrived on ignorance and absence of scrutiny. They may have to be fought for again on the web

So instead of sitting around moaning, we hacks should start getting our electronic act together. The press is in danger of creating a sense of crisis when there isn’t one. It’s time to accentuate the positive.

First of all, newspapers are not losing money. They remain one of the most profitable areas of the economy. Ask yourself why the commercially astute Johnston Press paid £160 million for the Scotsman group – twice what the Barclays bought it for in 1995. Johnstone, with its string of lean and mean regional papers, doesn’t throw money around.

But there are challenges ahead. Everyone realises that the days of cutting down trees are drawing to a close; that in a year or two Apple, or someone, will produce an iRead device which makes it possible to read electronic text comfortably on the move. The dispute between broadsheet, tabloid and Berliner could be resolved by the death of all three.

However, the advantage for newspapers is that their publications will become very much cheaper because there will no longer be any need for expensive printing presses and distribution networks. There are problems getting people to pay for newspapers on the web, and this gets more difficult the longer people get used to getting their news for nothing. But this is essentially a technical and marketing issue. If people want something enough, they’ll pay for it - look at music down-loads on the internet.

Of course, newspapers rely more on advertising than cover price for revenue. But you can tailor advertising on the web, not just to the individual publication, but to individual articles, so that readers are only offered products they might actually be interested in buying and advertisers don’t waste money pushing things at the wrong markets. The algorithms are already there. As for classified – the newspapers invented it; they can reinvent it on the internet..

The printed word isn’t dead; more people are reading books than ever. Proprietors should be getting together with Apple to help devise a smart electronic reading device which is suitable for the dissemination of serious news and comment; one that can translate the design and layout skills of newspapers onto web pages.

The press could also fight back by invading the broadcasters’ own turf. Newspapers should be using their own websites as broadcasting platforms. Pod casting and other technologies have massively lowered the entry cost of broadcasting. The BBC depends on the press for most of its commentators anyway, so why not turn these publications into multi-media portals exploiting their own collective expertise and producing programmes of their own?.The Economist magazine has shown the way by posting on its website interviews with global figures like Paul Wolfowitz for its preview of the world 2006. You can also make television on the web very cheaply with new technology which is simple to use.

So there are opportunities as well as risks. However, there is something else that the press will have to address in addition to the new technology – the integrity gap. People read the BBC site because it is free, but also because they trust it. Newspapers have been their own worst enemies in recent years, undermining their own credibility by crude sensationalism, distortion and plain lies. Think of Lord Black, Rupert Murdoch, Kelvin McKenzie, Piers Morgan and what do you feel? Exactly

Most “news” in the popular press is generated by PR people hyping their celebrity clients; much of the rest is invention. People are turning away from newspapers because, with the exception of broadsheet publications like the Herald, they have become nasty – just like the Tory Party of old. Notice how journalists are now portrayed in films like Harry Potter, or War of the Worlds – selfish, shallow, unreliable, unpleasant low life. When I first entered the business, journalists were popular heroes.

So we need to clean up our act. Like Google – do nothing evil. What better New Year resolution for the Street of Shame.


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