Thirty years ago, having just scraped a jammy first class degree from an obscure provincial university, I decided to take a year out before starting my MA. After various odd jobs, from selling advertising space to working in a children’s theatre, I stumbled into journalism. Compared to working for a living (or even studying) it looked relatively easy. Like most attempts to get something for nothing, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Thirty years later I still haven’t got around to starting that MA, and that wide-eyed twentysomething graduate is now a jaded fiftysomething freelance hack. Do I wish I’d done that MA straight away, and never drifted into journalism? Hell, yes. I’ve written for most of the national newspapers and I’ve written half a dozen books – but all of this is transitory, with none of the enduring value of academia. ‘Tomorrow’s chip paper,’ people used to say, about the ephemeral nature of newspaper journalism. People no longer wrap fish and chips in newspapers, but that old saying still holds true.
Yet as I looked back on my frivolous career - full of adventure but not much substance - I realised something significant has happened during that thirty year sabbatical, after all. While I was busy chasing inconsequential scoops, the industry I entered has been transformed - as dramatically and fundamentally as steam power changed manufacturing. Like the industrial revolution, this information revolution has changed the world and, thanks to my indecision about whether to take a taught or untaught MA, I’ve seen this revolution at first hand. I haven’t written a single word of it but, at long last, the field research for my Media Studies MA is finally complete.
Now is the best and worst of times for what used to be called print journalism. For anyone who wants to write, there are more outlets than ever – yet less and less money is changing hands. My own career bears this out. I’m busier than ever, more people read my stuff than ever, yet I’m now earning about the same as I was twenty years ago – a lot less, in real terms.
How has this happened? Why are readership figures going up and up, while sales figures go down and down? The reason is that journalism has changed, in the course of my career, from a mechanical industry to a computerised industry and now into an online industry. And in the course of that transition, the economic model that sustained it – namely newsstand sales and display advertising - has been broken, quite possibly beyond all repair.
As a result of this sea-change, journalism occupies an unusual position in today’s marketplace. Most businesses go bust because customers no longer want to consume their product. Journalism is going bust not because its customers have stopped consuming journalism – quite the opposite, in fact - but because they’ve found a way to consume it without paying for it. Today we’re consuming more journalism than ever, but we’re consuming it online. Journalism has migrated, from printed page to computer screen.
Back in the 1990s, when people still read newspapers made out of paper, rather than gazing at them on laptops and smartphones, I was contracted to the Daily Mail and then The Guardian. Today, both these newspapers are free to read online. Hence it’s really no surprise that their online circulations are soaring, while their print circulations are in rapid decline. Why buy a printed paper when you can read it for free online? Both papers make some money from online advertising, but it’s a fraction of the sums they used to make from print advertising. Other papers have introduced paywalls, the internet equivalent of newsstand sales. Yet likewise, these online gains are minuscule compared to the print revenue that’s been lost along the way.
So is there a future for newspapers in this brave new world? We’ll come to that. But first, as an illustration of how much things have changed in a relatively short time, I’d like to give you a brief summary of how my career in print journalism has been shaped by these technological changes. Like the story of the Luddites and their futile battle against the Spinning Jenny, it’s a good example of how, in the end, we’re all slaves to the machine.
The first newspaper I wrote for, in the late Eighties, was The Scotsman, Scotland’s national newspaper. Its premises, in Edinburgh, were both squalid and palatial, rather like a medieval castle. It even looked a lot like a castle, complete with turrets and battlements, though it was actually built in 1905 - the height of the British Empire, and the height of the newspaper age. Yet the most impressive thing about it was its spectacular location, perched on a corner of North Bridge, towering over Waverley station.
The proximity of Scotland’s national newspaper to the main train station of Scotland’s capital was no coincidence, for newspapers and railways have always been intimately, almost inexorably, linked. Some British newspapers preceded the advent of the railways (The Times and The Observer are two examples) but their circulations were modest and their distribution was sorely limited by the restrictions of horse-drawn transportation. Two hundred years ago, news could travel no faster than the speed of a man on horseback, no faster than it had travelled two thousand years before.
It was railways which enabled daily newspapers to be distributed nationwide. In 1830, Britain had less than 100 miles of railway track. Thirty years later, in 1860, it had over 10,000 miles – a hundredfold increase. Newspapers like The Daily Telegraph, founded in 1855, were the beneficiaries of this transportation revolution. Rolls of paper came in by rail and bundles of newspapers went out by rail, carried across the country on night trains with the milk and mail. These newspaper offices were no different from the mills and factories of the Victorian era, turning raw materials into finished products. The raw materials were ink and paper. The finished product was news.
Railways and daily newspapers were made for each other. Trains transported newspapers from the city centres to the new suburbs where the new clerical classes lived. These commuters bought these newspapers at their suburban corner shops and railway stations, and read them on their daily journey into their city centre offices, by train. By the start of the First World War, Britons were making over a billion railway journeys every year.
For newspaper proprietors, this was a capitalist nirvana. Wider distribution meant bigger circulation, and bigger circulation meant bigger profits. Bigger profits meant cheaper cover prices, which boosted circulation even more. The Daily Mail, founded in 1896, cost a halfpenny (rather than a penny, like The Times), making it affordable for the newly literate working classes. The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, called it a paper ‘produced by office boys for office boys,’ but these office boys didn’t care. Within a few years of its foundation, the Mail was selling more than a million copies every day.
Mechanised newspaper production reached its zenith a hundred years ago, yet when I wandered into journalism, thirty years ago, hardly anything had changed. An industrial process which began with the invention of the steam engine was still much the same in the jet age. And the means of production was even more archaic than the means of distribution. British newspapers were still being produced in a manner which Johannes Gutenberg would have recognised, five hundred years before.
Computer technology had already been introduced in America, Australia and Continental Europe, rendering this artisanal system obsolete. However in Britain, powerful print unions had resisted this new development, and so up until the late Eighties newspapers were still being produced in this antiquated fashion. When The Times tried to introduce new technology, in 1978, the printers went on strike and closed the paper for eleven months. By the 1980s, most British newspapers had arrived at a clumsy compromise, whereby the papers were edited on new computers, then printed in the old ‘hot metal’ style.
It was the Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who broke this impasse, by bringing in legislation which enabled employers to hire non-unionised staff. Mancunian entrepreneur Eddy Shah led the way in 1986 with Today, a new national newspaper which was produced entirely on computers (and, in the process, becoming the first British newspaper to publish colour photographs). Australian mogul Rupert Murdoch followed suit when he moved his News International group of newspapers into new premises in Wapping, where his papers were edited and printed on computers. The gates of Wapping became a battleground, more like a warzone than a printing works, as mass pickets fought to stop the lorries full of newspapers coming out. When I pitched up there, fresh from university, looking for freelance work, it felt like entering an army base or a prison camp.
Why was I able to hustle for work at Britain’s national newspaper of record, rather than working my way up through the regional press, as generations of journalists had been forced to do before? Because Thatcher’s anti-union legislation applied to journalists, as well as printers. In the good old days, or the bad old days (depending on your politics) the only way to get a job on a national newspaper was to spend two years as an apprentice on a local paper, and become a member of the NUJ. It was a lot like a medieval guild (again, something Gutenberg would have recognised) and like most guilds, then and now, it kept out the best and worst. Some talented writers were excluded, but so were a lot of charlatans. For those apprentices who stayed the course, there was a lot to be said for the old system. In small towns, far from London, they learnt the nuts and bolts of journalism. By the time they landed a job on a national paper, they were already seasoned pros.
Margaret Thatcher changed all that, and I was one of the first beneficiaries – or one of the first suckers, if you prefer. Now there were no more closed shops, so national newspapers could hire anyone they wanted, and pay them anything they wanted. You no longer needed any training. Now you could learn on the job. Was this liberation or exploitation? Again, that’s a matter of political opinion, depending on whether you lean left or right. Either way, for better or worse (better in the short term, worse in the long term) by relinquishing pension, sick pay, and any form of job security, I was able to spend my misspent youth writing for the national press, albeit for bum rates. Since writers were now free to do deals with editors, without going through a trade union, writers had the power to negotiate their own fees. In theory, this meant writers could hold out for better salaries, but in practice this only applied to a handful of star writers, who were already earning decent wages, and had the power to demand even more. For the vast majority of freelance hacks, it was a case of ‘take it or leave it,’ and most of us had no option but to take it. As Karl Marx could have told us, if any of us had been wise enough to listen, when an impoverished individual comes up against a powerful institution there’s no such thing as a level playing field.
At the time, the deregulation of newspaper journalism got a lot less media attention than the deregulation of newspaper production, probably because the printers were a lot better at organising a decent picket line. However the consequences of deregulating journalism were ultimately far more profound. Journalism is now deregulated in the widest sense you can imagine. Who wrote that article you just read online? What are their credentials? And who paid them to write it? No-one really knows. I didn’t see it at the time, but the freelance life that I embraced was the beginning of Fake News. Back then, however, none of this seemed to matter. For anyone starting out in journalism at the tail end of Thatcherism, it seemed like a golden age.
Sure, some of the old romance was forsaken. When I started writing for The Scotsman, the paper was still printed in the basement. When the presses began to roll, you could feel the vibration throughout the building. It was like being on an ocean liner, hearing the hum of the engines down below. Now the paper was printed miles away, on some remote industrial estate. The Scotsman’s city centre location, right beside the train station, no longer made economic sense, and sure enough it soon relocated to more modern premises further out of town. That grand old Edwardian building, where I started out, is now a luxury hotel. A few years ago, I spent a night there, to write a story for a travel magazine. It felt like a requiem for a lost age.
Yet these sentimental sacrifices felt like a small price to pay for the bull market that journalism now enjoyed. Printing newspapers on hot metal presses had always been an expensive, painstaking process, and powerful print unions had made it even more so. Consequently, newspapers had been flimsy affairs – often as little as a dozen pages: a few pages of domestic news, a few pages of foreign news, a page of arts, a page of sport... Only the most mainstream events received any coverage, and this coverage was perfunctory by modern standards – a few hundred words, with little room for any comment or analysis. With computerisation, that all changed. Now it was cheap and easy to produce fresh pages, newspapers grew and grew. New sections and subsections emerged, on what seemed like a weekly basis. The Guardian’s G2 supplement led the way, a tabloid full of feature length articles within the broadsheet paper. Other broadsheets followed suit. The Sunday Times became a behemoth, with more supplements than you could count, straining the backs of paper boys (yes, most of us still got our Sunday papers delivered by boys on bicycles in those days).
These bigger papers received a welcome boost in circulation, but the biggest boom was advertising. Advertisers had always been keen on newspapers, but before computerisation there simply wasn’t much room to advertise: a page or two of classified ads, plus a few display ads on the features pages. Now there were whole sections targeted at specific markets: motoring, gardening, books, travel… Advertisers piled in, and so the newspapers kept on growing. Editors needed fresh copy to fill the space, and an army of freelancers to supply it. Now all sorts of fringe subjects, which never would have made the national press before, were suddenly on the radar. I’d started writing about stand-up comedy in the late Eighties, for a London listings magazine called City Limits (before the internet, if you lived in London and wanted to see a show, or go to a gallery, or watch a film, a listings mag like City Limits or Time Out was virtually the only way to find out what was going on). The papers covered the big West End shows, but listings mags were the only place to read about what was happening in smaller venues. Now that newspapers were expanding, there was far more room on their arts pages, and so I began writing about stand-up comedy for The Guardian, and other national papers too.
Of course a lot of this new content was crap, shameless filler for all those new ads, but in amongst the dross was some remarkably good writing - long-form features you rarely would have seen in a daily newspaper before. Before computerisation, when each page of a newspaper was made on a metal plate by hand, it was difficult to lay out an article of more than a few hundred words - and with daily newspapers confined to barely a dozen broadsheet pages, there simply wasn’t space for more. Now there was room for longer articles, and making the page onscreen made bigger lay-outs easy. Lead articles now often ran to several thousand words. This new format generated new genres, as new formats always do, attracting star writers in the process. In the hot metal days, graduates had been a rarity in journalism. Now, within a generation, graduate journalists had become the norm.
The bigger papers of the computer age attracted a new breed of writers – more creative, with a wider range of interests, yet often less astute about the practices and pitfalls of newspaper reportage. The journalist’s role changed, from anonymous cypher to supporting player. For better or worse (a bit better with the better writers; a lot worse with the worst ones) the journalist became part of the story. This shift in emphasis was reflected in the presentation. When I started out, journalistic bylines were still a rarity. Now, for feature writers, cheesy picture bylines have become commonplace.
This change in journalistic practice, from writing in the third person to writing in the first person, was driven by several interlocking factors: new technology, de-unionisation, and growing numbers of arts graduates turned freelance journalists, who’d acquired an appetite for writing long-form non-fiction at university, and now discovered that steady jobs in the creative industries were in desperately short supply. As publishing became more Thatcherite, and more mindful of the bottom line, opportunities for aspiring novelists became more finite. Inspired by the New Journalism of American writers like Tom Wolfe, and its British equivalents like Martin Amis, non-fiction became a natural outlet for graduates who aspired to write, and the expansive features pages became their home from home.
This shift in writing practice was aided and abetted by new technology, not only in the new way that papers were produced, but in the new way that news was gathered. Reporters used to rely on shorthand, which they learnt during their training on provincial papers. Now a new breed of graduate journalists bounced straight into national journalism, with no shorthand and only a cassette recorder to rely on. This handicap became an asset. Shorthand was effective for recording basic information – the who, when and where of prosaic news reporting. However for longer, in-depth interviews, the tape recorder provided nuance, recording the tone and rhythm of the speaker’s voice and capturing every detail. Now journalists could convey the how and why – the way interviewees really spoke and what this revealed about their personalities, and the extra space freed up by computerisation gave these interviewers room to paint a proper portrait. A few years out of university, I was writing 2000 word celebrity interviews for The Scotsman – what would have been considered a huge length a few years before.
For the first time in half a century newspapers were profitable again, and production costs were now so cheap that journalists were able to start their own publications, rather than relying on press barons. Marx & Engels wold have loved it. The workers were seizing the means of production, and it was all thanks to the economies of computerisation – or so it seemed. When Time Out decided to stop paying everyone on that magazine the same rates, a bunch of journalists walked out and started City Limits.
A few years later, three journalists on the Daily Telegraph decided to set up a national newspaper. A weekly listings mag like City Limits was one thing, a daily paper was quite another, but remarkably Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symmonds pulled it off. Their Independent was an instant hit, rivalling The Times and The Guardian. I started writing for The Independent in 1989, covering fringe theatre, and the attitude at the paper was wonderfully informal and inclusive. Everyone seemed to know everyone. Edited in a compact building on the edge of London’s East End, it felt like the future of print journalism – liberal, open-minded and internationalist, free from the prejudices and vested interests of left or right.
Three years after I left university, virtually to the day, I went back to Scotland with The Independent, to cover the Edinburgh Festival. The paper devoted a whole page to the Festival – a new commitment to arts and culture. The next summer I returned to Edinburgh to write about comedy for The Guardian. They matched The Independent’s broadsheet page. The following year, The Guardian produced an entire Festival supplement, published every day. This was uncharted territory. Was there any end to this booming market? Little did we know it, but the wheels had already come off the bus.
In 1989, the same year that I started writing for The Scotsman and The Independent, a British boffin called Tim Berners-Lee invented an obscure new gizmo we now call the internet. For the next ten years, it had little effect on journalism, but from the moment he invented it, the fate of paid-for news-papers was sealed. What we thought was a new dawn was merely an Indian Summer, a final spell of warm weather before winter set in.
Ever since the end of the First World War, when the Labour movement began demanding decent wages, journalism had ceased to be a profitable business. Press barons ran their newspapers at a loss for the prestige and influence it gave them, in much the same way that modern billionaires bankroll Premier League football clubs. A few journalists (and a good many printers) made a decent living but the newspaper business as a whole lost money – until computerisation came along. However that bull market of the 1990s was merely a transitional phase, and it remains the only time in the last century when newspapers were truly profitable. The reason for this was simple – the computer revolution was incomplete, the internet was confined to academia, and the computer systems required to publish a daily newspaper were still beyond the reach of ordinary individuals – for the time being.
During this transitional phase, newspapers enjoyed an effective monopoly: computerisation had advanced far enough for them to publish newspapers relatively cheaply but it hadn’t yet advanced far enough to allow anyone else to have a go. It’s sobering to reflect that this is probably the only time I could have got a start in national newspapers. Any earlier and there simply wouldn’t have been enough demand for freelance contributions. Any later and there simply wouldn’t have been enough money.
Looking back, it seems obvious that this monopoly would be transitory, and that newspaper revenues would be decimated once the technology evolved. All I can say in my defence is, it didn’t seem quite so clear-cut at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, the history of computerisation looks a lot like the history of the combustion engine: the first models were prohibitively expensive, but pretty soon everyone could afford one. At the time, it looked a lot more like the history of the locomotive: a complex innovation that could only ever be owned and managed by a big corporation.
My first summer as a freelance journalist was spent reviewing fringe theatre for a Scottish listings magazine. We wrote up our reviews in the magazine’s offices, on Amstrad computers. They were big, slow and clunky, yet at the time they seemed state-of-the-art and I was right to be excited. This was the first affordable home computer, the computing equivalent of the Model T Ford. Suitably inspired, I bought my own Amstrad that autumn. It cost £500 - more like £1000 in today’s money, about the price as a top-of-the range laptop nowadays - and it was only any good for basic word processing, but I loved it. The fact that I could afford the same computer as my boss was revolutionary. On the upside it meant I could work from home, and simply take my finished work into the office. On the downside it meant newspapers and magazines no longer needed to provide office space (or any of the attendant benefits) for penny-a-line hacks like me. At the time if felt like emancipation. Little did I realise that I was actually signing my own death warrant. Yet for the time being, the effects of home computers were finite. It transformed the writing process, and it meant newspapers could save money on office space, but until the internet kicked in large scale publishing and distribution remained the exclusive preserve of established newspapers and magazines.
In the meantime it’s remarkable how rudimentary things remained. Home-bound hacks like me were now writing copy on home computers, but without any internet connection the means of delivery was still the same. On a national newspaper, the most common method was to ‘phone it in.’ You dialled a freephone number, which put you through to the newspaper’s copytakers, who’d type your article into the office mainframe as you dictated it down the line. This wasn’t too bad for shorter articles but for longer features it was extremely time consuming, and unless your story was for tomorrow’s paper, it was usually better to deliver a hard copy by hand.
Today this sounds absurd yet that system had distinct advantages. You used to have to print off a hard copy, trek across town and delivery it to your editor. Now you simply paste it into an email and press send. A process that used to take up hours now only takes a few seconds. Think of all the time you’ve saved! Yet what are you going to do with that free time? Sit and stare at your computer? In the bad old days you’d be in the office, handing in your copy to your editor. You’d get an opportunity to discuss story ideas in person, rather than simply pitching them via email. More often than not, you’d come away with a couple of new commissions. In an open plan office, you’d often bump into a few other editors while you were there. You’d go in with a story for next week’s paper, and come out with a book review, a travel feature or a celebrity interview. Due to the inefficiencies of the old system, those meetings used to happen every week. Now you’d be lucky to meet up with an editor once a year. Thanks to email I’ve covered stories on several continents for editors I’ve never even spoken to. It may be more efficient, but it’s terribly isolating. At its best, journalism has always been a collegiate activity. Human beings – least of all journalists – aren’t built to be alone.
Remote working isn’t just bad for journalists. It’s also bad for journalism. A good newspaper should feel like a good dinner party, full of irreverent debate. How can journalists generate that sense of mischief if they never get together, face to face? When I went up to Edinburgh, to cover the Edinburgh Festival for The Independent, I wrote a daily arts diary for the paper (in newspaper parlance, diary doesn’t mean diary – it actually means gossip column). It was irreverent and irresponsible, and my editor absolutely loved it. When I got back to London he asked me to do a diary about London Theatreland. I had a go (I needed the money) but it proved impossible. I never got beyond first base. In Edinburgh I’d been in a busy office full of tittle-tattle. I was picking up loads of half-baked stories from my colleagues. Now I was sat in my spare bedroom in suburbia, staring at the wall.
The other thing that made that Edinburgh gossip column so easy was that I was meeting all my contacts face to face. You’d arrange to meet someone in the pub, and while you were waiting for them to show up you’d meet a load of other people. People would tell you all sorts of stuff over a drink that they’d never tell you over the phone. In a way, it was like a throwback to the good old days of showbiz journalism, when the luvvies all met up in the sidestreet pubs off Shaftesbury Avenue, where most of London’s West End theatres were located, and the hacks all met up in the sidestreet pubs off Fleet Street, where most of the national newspapers had their offices. The luvvies were still in Shaftesbury Avenue, but the newspapers had all left Fleet Street. Their offices had been scattered around the city and something precious had been lost. At least The Independent’s offices, in City Road, were compact and sociable – handy for the East End and the City of London. When the Indy moved to Canary Wharf, the paper became more remote and impersonal, like its location. You could no longer nip out and meet a contact. And with that withdrawal of close access, something in the paper died.
My grandfather was a journalist, a proper Fleet Street journalist. He won his spurs covering the Spanish Civil War, and ended up as the Picture Editor of the Daily Express, back in the days when the Express printed half a dozen editions every day, and had reporters on retainers in dozens of countries across the globe. When I was a child, he took me into the Express offices on Fleet Street. For a starstruck kid like me it was love at first sight, and what I loved most was the noise. Reporters were rushing in and out, racing towards impending deadlines, and the constant hubbub was accompanied by the percussive rattle of typewriters, which beat out the passing time like the rhythm section of a hyperactive jazz band. It was frantic and stressful, but above all it was sociable. Today, newspaper offices are like libraries. Silent editors sit in front of computer screens, and the reporters are nowhere to be seen. One of the main things that attracted me to journalism, over academia, was that journalism was so much more convivial. Academia seemed solitary by comparison. Now it’s the other way around.
Another thing that’s changed is the methods of research. It sounds ridiculous today, but right up until the millennium, journalistic research on national newspapers was largely confined to cuttings libraries. Every morning a small army of librarians would plough through all the national newspapers, and cut out every article, however large or small. And when I say ‘cut out’ I mean with real scissors, not computer cut and paste. Each article would then be filed away in a grubby brown paper envelope, along with every previous article about that subject. There were files on every subject you could imagine – and quite a few you couldn’t. No topic was too esoteric or obscure.
Then, when an editor yelled at you to produce X hundred words about Y or Z by five o’clock that evening, you ran down to the cuttings library and asked for the relevant file. The possibility that your research might stretch beyond this narrow range of information was virtually inconceivable. You were a newspaper reporter. Other newspapers were the competition. What other newspapers had written about this topic was your sole concern.
For any reporter, on any story, the cuttings library was indispensable. It might be just a ‘cuttings job’ – a quick reaction piece cobbled together from previous articles, in response to a breaking news story. It might be background for a ‘think piece’ – another deskbound article, but with a bit of comment thrown in. It might be preparation for an interview. Whatever the assignment, the relevant cuttings file was essential. Yet since the advent of the internet, the cuttings libraries, and all those cuttings files, have disappeared.
Of course this method was terribly restrictive, but it also had distinct advantages. Every newspaper would ‘cut’ all the other national papers, and so every paper, left or right, highbrow or lowbrow, was drawing on a wide range of material, from right across the political spectrum. In our brave new online world, who can say the same? In theory, the internet offers journalists an infinite amount of research material. In practice, hacks tend to gravitate to the same few sources - remaining in their own echo chamber, shutting out anything which doesn’t correspond with their own worldview.
Paradoxically, the limited nature of the old cuttings system also encouraged proper reporting. Inevitably there’d be big gaps in the file, things you needed for your story, and these gaps prompted journalists to do what journalist ought to do: get on the phone and ask impertinent questions, or, even better, get out of the office and ask those questions face to face.
Journalism is all about primary sources - or at least it ought to be: from the war reporter who was there on the battlefield to the theatre critic who was there on the first night. If you weren’t there, you need to find someone who was there, and ask them what they saw. Now, with an endless supply of secondary sources to draw on, it’s all too easy to construct an entire story from second-hand, second-rate material, without doing any original research at all. This, more than anything, is the biggest challenge facing journalism – the decline of reporting and the rise of the opinion piece.
For a diligent, resourceful journalist, proper reporting is surprisingly easy. If you can’t see the thing you’re writing about first hand it usually doesn’t take too much trouble to track down someone who was there, and persuade them to tell you what they saw, either on or off the record. However this process is time consuming, and often costly. And as papers cut their costs, to survive in an era of shrinking revenues, reporting is often the first casualty. There are far fewer staff reporters, and the few that have survived are often too busy to devote several days to an original story that might not stand up. Far easier to simply rewrite the agency copy that comes in off the wire.
Freelance reporters have a bit more latitude, but only if you’re prepared to subside these penny-pinching newspapers out of your own pocket. Papers are increasingly reluctant to reimburse expenses, and reporting eats up time and money. If you’re on a flat rate of 20p a word for a 1000 word story, going out and meeting sources can have a ruinous effect on your daily rate. Hence the remorseless rise of the desk-bound Google-researched think-piece. They’re quick to write, easy to edit, and they don’t incur expenses.
Reporting is an educative process – not just for the reader, but also for the journalist. You start off thinking one thing and end up thinking something else. The story is about what happened that made you change your mind -from the moment when you set out to meet your first contact, to when you got back to the office and sat down to write it up.
It’s easy to maintain a simplistic stance if you never leave your desk. Google will reaffirm what you already know – or think you know. However if you take the time and trouble to go out and meet the people who are living through the things you’re reporting, and ask them what they think, you’ll soon find your opinions are tempered by reality. Real life is complex and contradictory. Successful columnists are often dogmatists, but good reporters are pragmatists. Regular contact with the folk they write about has taught them that life, and news, is rarely black and white.
We are living in an age where extremism is on the rise, where the centre ground is shrinking, and either side is less and less willing to consider any other point of view. Of course there’s more to Trump and Brexit (and Orban and Erdogan) than the decline of the print media, but I do think it’s played a part. Think what a different experience it is buying a printed newspaper to reading it online. If you buy a printed paper you have to flick through every page to get to the bits that interest you. Along the way you might well find something you hadn’t thought about before. With an online paper you hone in on what you want to read, and disregard the rest.
So what does the future hold for newspapers and magazines, on print and online? Is there a viable future for either product? Or will they simply fade away? Right now, the jury is still out. Online newspapers are attracting huge readerships and conventional wisdom supposes that there must be some way to monetise this enormous audience. However conventional wisdom has been proven wrong plenty of times before. Since the middle of the 19th Century, railways have been an essential feature of virtually every developed nation. Governments need them, people need them, industry needs them, the army needs them, yet no nation has yet found an effective way to make railways pay. With the notable exception of a few cyberspace goliaths like Facebook and Amazon, I think the internet may well turn out the same way. The Times seems to be making some progress with its paywall, while The Guardian and The Daily Mail seem to be making some money from on-line advertising. However this income seems comparatively modest, and I suspect it will remain so. These newspapers are still powerful brands, with established reputations, but the big difference is that their printed versions enjoyed a virtual monopoly, whereas their internet versions must fight for revenue in an increasingly crowded online marketplace. My own experience bears this out. The only decent money I’ve made online comes from writing for the BBC – a state-run corporation funded by a mandatory licence fee.
And what about printed newspapers? Since the advent of the internet their circulations have fallen steeply, but I believe there is a core audience which will sustain the strongest titles, on a smaller, more specialist scale - in much the same way that vinyl has survived in the age of Spotify, as a niche product for the cognoscenti. The example of the news magazines is instructive. The Spectator, for which I write fairly regularly, is now enjoying the highest print circulation in its 200 year history – 70,000 print sales per issue, alongside an online readership of around half a million per week. The New Statesman, its left wing counterpart, which seemed to be on its last legs in the 1990s, is now doing better than it has done in many years. Two monthly news magazines, Prospect and Standpoint, were both founded in the internet age, as was The Oldie, a monthly magazine for older readers with a minimal online presence, which sells a healthy 50,000 printed copies every month.
Contrary to all predictions, it seems there is market for well-produced, well-edited magazines full of longer articles about politics and culture. Their five figure circulations are tiny compared to the seven figure newspaper circulations of the postwar era, but it’s just about enough to run a sustainable business, and these days that’s a blessing. These mags cost several pounds apiece, but there are sufficient readers to sustain them, despite the infinite amount of free journalism available online. What do these titles have in common? They’re all relatively highbrow, but above all they’ve all become clubs. The Oldie and The Spectator sell all sorts of branded products to their readers, from literary lunches to package holidays, and the smarter papers are following suit. The Guardian even runs a dating site.
As newsstand sales dwindle and advertising sales fall accordingly, journalism and marketing have begun to merge. Commercial firms have been publishing their own magazines for ages, but these always used to be pretty tawdry – full of puff pieces about their own products. Not anymore. Red Bull’s adventure magazine bears no relationship to advertorial. Christie’s magazine (for which I sometimes write) runs all sorts of articles which have nothing to do with its auction sales. What’s in it for them? It’s a way to build the brand. Journalists used to regard marketing and advertising as adversaries. Not anymore. We can’t afford to. There’s simply not enough money to go round. Even The Guardian is getting in on the act, with its so-called ‘sponsored features.’ Does that mean we have to sell our souls? Not necessarily. My writing for Christie’s is no different from my writing for The Independent. My writing for Guardian Labs (which manages the paper’s sponsored features) is really no different from my writing for the main paper.
As the internet reshapes the mass media, the means of delivery is changing too. I currently write for half a dozen publications, all of which have migrated, to a greater or lesser extent, from the old conventional news-stand model. The Spectator has a growing online presence, which compliments the print edition. The Independent has abandoned print, and now exists solely online. Christie’s magazine isn’t even available on newsstands. Instead it’s Fed-Exed free to Christie’s customers – 15,000 subscribers, worldwide. The money I make from The Oldie comes from three separate income streams: print, online and, increasingly, teaching – delivering courses for aspiring journalists. Thanks to the internet, we’re all journalists now.
Back in 2010 I compiled a biographical anthology of the work of Auberon Waugh, who died in 2001. In a way, you could say he was the last of the old Grubb Street journalists, a disreputable yet vibrant tradition that stretches all the way back to Samuel Johnson. Waugh shunned the internet. He wrote his articles longhand, with a fountain pen. He probably would have been even happier writing with a sharpened quill dipped in venom, which is how the great illustrator Gerald Scarfe depicted him on the book’s cover. Waugh predicted that good writing would not die, but that it would wither into a niche pursuit, an obscure hobby like budgerigar fancying. I agree. ‘Auberon Waugh lived and worked through a golden age of journalism,’ I wrote, in the book’s introduction. ‘Like all great writers, he gravitated towards the most vibrant medium of his age. His career marks newsprint’s last hurrah before the Internet explosion, which has fragmented newspaper readerships and driven down circulation figures. Cyberspace is universal and anonymous. The new media will produce its own stars but they will be less literary and distinctive. Ten years on Waugh’s death looks like the end of an era. A voice like his will not be heard in our brave new virtual world.’
So is the democratisation of journalism a good thing or a bad thing? Should we mourn or celebrate the passing of the print age? Like all revolutions, it’s both good and bad. Thanks to the internet, we can all be broadcasters and publishers, if we want to. Anyone in here with a smartphone can share their opinion of this lecture with the world, before any of us have left this room. It’s difficult for democrats to complain about democratisation, and yet the biggest beneficiaries of this information revolution haven’t been you and me, or even Facebook and Amazon, but Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. We all know how Trump has harnessed Twitter to broadcast his own version of the news. But did you know Putin’s Russia is using the internet to destabilise the Baltic States, spreading Fake News about Nato troops raping local women? Many of these stories are written by trolls, anonymous bloggers in the pay of Russia. A good many are written by bots – computers, rather than humans. In ten years’ time, this lecture won’t be about the battle between print and the internet. It’ll be about the battle between computers and human beings.
Against all the odds, I remain optimistic that print journalism will survive, albeit on a much smaller scale, like record shops in the age of iTunes. I believe there will always be a market for good writing, by real writers rather than anonymous bloggers, whose motives and funding remain undisclosed. Yet the least that we can do is to admit that we have no idea where this media revolution is heading, or what unforeseen consequences will ensue. I fear the rabid populism the internet is fuelling, from Trump’s America to Britain’s Brexit impasse, to the far-right insurgencies in Central and Eastern Europe are just the start of it. In the 15th Century Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type. In the 16th Century Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible was distributed throughout Europe, initiating the Reformation and sparking a century of bloody religious wars. People like us, who enjoy reading thousand word essays rather than ten word tweets, will always be members of a select minority, and that minority is shrinking by the day. But happily there are still enough of us to enjoy a decent conversation about the madding world around us, and scrutinise the descent into superstition and chaos.
A few years ago I wrote an article which seemed to sum up where we stand today, though I didn’t know it at the time. It was an article about Lake Constance, that huge stretch of water, fed by the River Rhine, which forms the ancient border between Germany, Austria and Switzerland. On this lake there is an island and on that island there is a monastery, and in that monastery, for about five hundred years, throughout what we now call the Dark Ages, a few hundred monks safeguarded around half the surviving texts of the Greek and Roman world. The wider world had no interest in these Classical texts. For these monks, it must have seemed inconceivable that the wider world would ever be interested in these texts again. And yet they cherished them and cared for them, for several centuries, until the wider world resumed its interest. You could say they were elitists, indifferent to democracy. Most people beyond that lake would have far rather used them for kindling. This university, and others like it, is a lot like that island on Lake Constance. Thirty years of Grubb Street journalism has taught me that print still matters, and that the internet is no substitute. Most of what I’ve written is not worth keeping, but what other journalists have written, and are still writing, remains an important part of our national and international discourse. The best place for it is in newspapers and like those monks it is your task to ensure that newspapers survive.