|Manchester lifestyle reviews|
Article by Dave Porter January 2011
Journalism – and print media in particular – is in freefall. For most other people and most other professions the internet and the digital age has been a boon, for journalism it has presented its biggest challenge in nearly half a century.
Bigger certainly than the switch from hot metal to on-screen page design heralded by Eddie Shah and Murdoch’s Wapping fortress. The main casualties in that scuffle were the compositors – or comps – who had been used to enjoying bigger wages than many of the journalists whose papers they were in charge of printing.
For the reader back then, they saw little difference in the papers delivered through their door, except perhaps that a free paper would now be pushed through the letter box to rival the paid one.
But the arrival of digital media has radically changed the landscape for journalist and reader alike – albeit in depressingly skewed ways. The traditional reader no longer exists and the print journalist is struggling to cling on to both their job and the idea of their profession as one which challenges power and scrutinises decision makers on behalf of the public.
Nowadays, that role is being unseated by the arrival of the citizen journalist who can use their blog, webpage or internet-based publication to pursue their own little corner of journalism. Suddenly, it has become a crowded place in the world of journalism.
The unavoidable and irreversible fact is that the flight of advertising revenues from traditional print media such as newspapers to the internet has crippled papers, whether local, evening or national. The three traditional money-spinners for papers in advertising terms were jobs, property and cars – and it was precisely these three which proved so attractive to the internet.
Why wait for your local paper to arrive to find out about the latest properties on the market when you have instant access on the internet? Where do you go to find a new job or buy a new car? The net is your first port of call in both cases.
The result has been a huge dent in advertising revenue, a steady decline in circulation for all papers, and a haemorrhaging of journalism jobs on a scale never seen before. Add to that strikes, closure of district offices and the creation of centralised sub-editing pools and you have an industry on the ropes.
And this was just the first wave of change which came rolling in with the internet. A further revolution in working practices was also on its way.
For papers themselves, a combination of complacency, a traditionally weak union and a lack of editorial clout at the top of the industry meant that by the time the wave hit it was already too late for many. It’s a sad fact that newspapers group are never run by journalists and always by MDs with a business or sales background, delivering high returns for shareholders and not much concerned with what goes on in the newsroom. They didn’t see the internet coming and are still playing catch-up today.
Manchester is a good prism to view the changes which befell the industry. The MEN Media stable includes both the MEN and a coterie of 14 or 15 weekly papers which stretch from Macclesfield in the south to Accrington in the north. As reading habits changed and no one was willing to wait until midday or later to find out from the paper what was happening, the MEN swiftly changed from an evening paper to a morning/midday one.
Like many papers it has excised its past and the tag of an evening paper. So we have the Bolton News where we used to have the Bolton Evening News and the Lancashire Telegraph where we used to have the Lancashire Evening Telegraph.
What took them so long, you might ask? And it’s a fair question. There is a whiff of Lowry and industrial decline in that ‘evening’ moniker which made it feel dated even before the arrival of the internet.
Evening papers are in a precarious position, wedged between weekly papers with a genuine, local community interest invested in their readership and national papers serving an entirely different purpose. They are finding it hard to justify their once unique position in people’s reading habits and have suffered calamitous erosions to their circulation.
Many newspaper groups saw convergence as the answer, weekly and evening newsdesks sharing stories, pictures, contacts and staff in a way that would have been inconceivable just 10 years ago. In Manchester, this was taken one stage further than any other newspaper group dared. Where many groups had chosen simply to centralise their subbing staff and leave district reporters to operate out of their own offices, MEN Media took convergence to its logical level and closed down all regional newspaper offices, moving editorial staff en masse to the MEN’s own offices in the heart of Manchester.
Staff were made redundant, titles merged, and reporters found themselves working across a range of titles and to different deadlines. Communities also found themselves without a local newspaper office to call into and voice their gripes in the time-honoured fashion.
Working practices have been similarly transformed. Journalists may still have one story to write but a multi-media platform to feed: the web, Twitter, radio, TV, blogs, Facebook – a constant demand for instant news which now sees reporters Tweeting during council meetings.
It’s a bewildering landscape for the journalist and one not guaranteed to bring in any extra revenue for newspaper groups: their websites make very little money and many are still desperately cling to old sources of revenue.
Does all this matter to anyone but journalists? It matters enough to have been raised by MPs in parliament, who worry that the threat of extinction to local papers will mean a lessening of democracy. Who will report on vital decisions taken by councils and other bodies? Who will challenge authority on behalf of communities and hold organisations to account? Traditionally, this has been your local paper, whether weekly or evening.
The citizen journalist does not have the legal training, the range of contacts, the access to decision-makers, or the backing of large organisations which journalists have traditionally enjoyed.
MPs expenses are a classic case in point. It is highly doubtful whether any of the information unearthed and which led to the scandal could have been carried out by anyone but professional journalists working for a national newspaper. For all their decline, daily papers carry an authority which websites have not yet acquired and are the easiest way to reach a mass audience (TV excepted – perhaps).
WikiLeaks is another good example why we need newspapers to flourish in a democracy. There is a reason why the US Embassy cables were leaked specifically to the Guardian: only its team of professional journalists were capable of absorbing, filtering and presenting the cables in a way that was literally going to make headlines around the world and achieve the greatest impact.
Although this process can work both ways. When faced with a morass of information on MPs expenses, certainly more than it alone could cope with, the Guardian called on readers to help it sift through and analyse a huge amount of data. Crowd surfing at its best and perhaps a model for the future.
And there’s the rub. There is no turning back the clock on the digital age and the internet. People will carry on visiting websites like the BBC’s for their daily quota of news and papers will continue to decline as readership slumps. Papers are obliged to have websites carrying news for free while print readers have to pay for the same privilege.
Newspaper groups have all toyed with the idea of pay walls but none has dared make the first move because they know that ‘readers’ would simply go elsewhere.
Rupert Murdoch for all his faults was right to suggest that it was a ludicrous economic model to employ professional journalists on large salaries to produce stories which were then effectively given away. The trouble is, of course, that web advertising alone will not provide newspaper groups with the funds they need to carry on providing such a public service.
The answer may be to subsidise local papers, as MPs have suggested, or it may be to simply sit tight and hope that the circulation slump and decline in ad revenues halts: a state of managed decline.
In a further twist, there have recently sprung up a number of community publishers seeking to plug the hole which they see as left by the departure of the big players. Low costs, run on a franchise basis and harking back to desktop publishing, these papers exist in a Janus-like state, hoping to replicate some of the glories of the past but with a foot in the future.
The sad truth is that no one in the industry has an answer to how journalism will survive its digital mangling – and it remains to be seen whether the public cares either way.
Editor's note: This raises some very important issues about the future of journalism in Manchester specifically, but also much wider afield. I welcome more contributions around the subject of developing critical journalism with a view to debating this subject in the March Salon discussion entitled 'Journalism, blogging and the future of publishing'.