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Rent A Story, Anyone?

Will they do away with journalists next to cut costs?

Rent A Story, Anyone?
Rent A Story, Anyone?
Fifty years ago when I first came to Fleet Street, that Mecca of journalism, there was a well-founded belief that to own a newspaper was a licence to print money.

Not any more. Newspapers all over the Western world are under intense financial pressure; circulations are falling; people are getting out of the habit of buying and reading a paper and are turning to other sources for their news. Those newspapers which survive do so by slashing editorial staff to the bone and spending the money saved on promotion, the success of which can be measured. "Give away a free dvd on Saturday and you know by Monday exactly how many extra copies you’ve sold," one newspaper executive told me. "Take on a couple of extra journalists and who knows what difference, if any, that makes, and when, if ever, you’ll notice it." This is what has changed between then and now. Then newspapers were about journalists. They were the business. Readers had their favourites and trusted them.

When the Daily Express reporter O.D. Gallagher secured an interview with the recently deposed leader of Abyssinia, Haile Selassie, the Express headlined his story ‘O.D. GALLAGHER INTERVIEWS EMPEROR’. No major city in the world was without a corps of correspondents from Fleet Street. Some papers maintained a bureau of three or four reporters. This was in addition to "firemen" correspondents, reporters based in London who were on continuous standby, who carried their passport everywhere, along with a money belt stuffed with traveller’s cheques, or preferably gold coins, and who were ready to leave instantly for a trouble spot anywhere in the world. Gallagher, who was one of them, recalled, "You could be interviewing a talking dog in Croydon in the morning and be on your way to Shanghai that afternoon."

The new technology put an end to all that. Journalists welcomed the end of the old-fashioned hot metal method of producing newspapers. They failed to see the dangers. Before, the major single expense in the newspaper business was production, typically about 40 per cent of the paper’s total costs. Editorial costs hovered around 12 per cent. The cheapness of the new technology drew attention to the editorial budget. The faceless bureaucrats who run newspapers today, mostly accountants, saw what they believed to be amazing opportunities for slashing expenditure and increasing profits.

Why, for example, did a newspaper need resident foreign correspondents? If a big story broke overseas, a reporter from head office could be there in a matter of hours. In the meantime the news agencies could cover it. Why should the editorial department have a budget anyway for something as amorphous as collecting news? "Never give journalists a budget," the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch once said. "If you do, the bastards will spend the lot." So he introduced into his empire the concept of "zero budgeting" under which journalists have to justify to an accountant the expense of the assignment they are about to undertake. Some newspapers now even keep files analysing journalists’ performance—how much did they spend on an assignment divided by how many words finally appeared in the paper. The answer could later influence which journalist was sent on a story, a five-cents-a-word reporter being more likely to go than a twenty-cents-a-word one. The quality of the words, if there is such a category, is considered irrelevant.

This financial imperative hit one category of journalism so hard as to virtually eliminate it: investigative reporting. Imagine an editor pleading his case before management. "I want to put a team of top reporters on to a scandal involving a pharmaceutical company. The company appears to have marketed a drug that has deformed thousands of babies and is trying to wriggle out of paying proper compensation. The investigation could take up to a year. We’ll need a top legal team to work with us because we’ll probably end up in court anyway. In the end, we may be barred from publishing and, by the way, the advertising manager tells me that the company is one of our biggest advertisers and spends hundreds of thousands a year with us." What management today would reply, "Sure, go ahead. We’ll back you all the way."

Yet this is not a fictional case. The Insight team of the London Sunday Times in the 1970s investigated the drug Thalidomide, which was marketed by a subsidiary of the giant Distillers Group as safe for pregnant women, but which caused children to be born with shocking deformities. The newspaper fought its case for publication all the way to the European Court of Human Rights and won. The company agreed to pay adequate compensation. But the newspaper ended up having to spend almost £1 million on legal costs alone.

In today’s costs-conscious era is it any wonder that management want to do without investigative journalists? In fact, some want to do without journalists altogether. Richard Desmond, former owner of soft-porn magazines (Asian Babes, among others) who is now proprietor of the Daily Express, told his editorial staff recently that they should be careful because if necessary he could produce his paper without them. All he would need would be a core of short-term contract journalists. The rest of the news he would "buy in". The savings he would spend on marketing, a more effective way, he said, of selling newspapers. So effective, in fact, that it has allowed Mr Desmond to pay himself £1 million a week.

In its way this shift of emphasis in the selling of newspapers is a sea-change as profound as the arrival of the new technology. It represents a loss of confidence among newspaper proprietors and many editors. Their thinking goes like this. The expansion of TV and radio news and the 24 hours a day news cycle means that virtually every reader comes to his or her newspaper already fully apprised of the main news of the day, having seen or heard it endlessly repeated. This means, they argue, that they have to find other editorial means of attracting and holding readers. What could they be? The evidence is that most newspapers have decided that the answers are entertainment, lifestyle features and celebrities (either columns written by them, or gossip and scandal stories about them). This is an interesting theory but it clearly hasn’t worked. Circulations have continued to decline and the middle classes, the very lifeblood of newspapers, are getting out of the habit of buying them. And this is not just in the English-speaking world. In France, Le Monde, Le Figaro and Liberation are in crisis. Editors talk of "seismic shocks" to the industry. There, as in Britain, there have been redesigns, relaunches and changes in newspaper sizes to make them easier to handle. Whether this will reverse what could be the beginning of the last act for newspapers is anybody’s guess. Yet I believe that the answer has been staring editors in the face, right there in their own newspapers. They should seek salvation from their sports pages, the one section of newspapers that go from strength to strength. The point is this: most readers of a report on a sports event not only already know the result but have probably seen it on TV. Yet they still turn eagerly to the sports pages to read about it. Take the recent Ashes cricket series between Australia and England. Millions followed the matches ball by ball. Yet newspapers in Britain and Australia were forced by reader demand to expand their coverage of the games. On some days cricket moved to the front pages and on the sports pages it took over from football. This demolishes the theory that since readers already know the news from TV and radio they do not want to read about it again in their newspaper. They do. But not just the facts. They want to know not just what happened, but why it happened now, what led up to it and where do we go from here. I believe that out there in the reading world there is an enormous hunger for serious journalism written by educated, responsible and dedicated journalists who want to explore and explain the human condition at the start of the 21st century. I believe that readers know the difference between this sort of reporting and the trash they frequently receive and that they will reward newspapers which offer good journalism with their support and loyalty.

What about "objectivity"? Journalists are human and bring to their writing all the cultural baggage they have collected over the years. Providing they do not pretend otherwise, readers will not demand from them total objectivity and will forgive them their prejudices. They will also forgive them when they sometimes get things wrong, providing they admit it quickly and graciously. More and more newspapers realise the need for this and now have a readers’ editor whose job it is to mediate between reader and reporter to arrange publication of corrections.

There are two other important changes that the journalists of tomorrow need to make. They should consider the role they play in reporting conflict. The 20th century, the century of "the wolf hound", produced the glamorous "war correspondent" who died in their hundreds reporting wars. Is it not now time for the rise of the "anti-war correspondent" whose reporting will take the glamour out of war and help promote peaceful solutions to the world’s problems? Linked to that thought, journalists should ask themselves—"What role will what I am about to write play in what happens next?"

In Britain, recently a tabloid journalist wrote a story saying that shortages of petrol had been predicted and that panic buying had started. It had not. But of course, next day it did, as the original story became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I see the years ahead as an exciting challenge for serious journalism. How to write about the apparently never-ending war on terrorism will be one of the toughest tasks. It poses a dilemma that is probably unsolvable. Journalists can hardly ignore terrorist acts, even though to do so would defeat one of the terrorists’ main aims—publicity for their cause and an advertisement for new recruits. But the way some journalists present terrorism—as a drama with each episode crafted like a thriller, with no attempt to understand the terrorists’ motivation and with no proper assessment of the real risk—causes alarm, concern and faulty perceptions.

I am occasionally asked to address classes of budding journalists. I end by telling them: "Remember, you’re not just a reporter, a stenographer who writes down uncritically what people say. What you write will influence what happens next. So you’re a participant, a player with all the responsibility this involves. Think hard and then embrace that responsibility."

(Phillip Knightley’s memoirs, A Hack’s Progress, have just been released in India.)

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