Anyone can write this crap

All the talk about online newspapers starting to charge for access became louder recently when David Simon, creator of The Wire wrote an essay about how the New York Times and Washington Post should both value their content and start charging simultaneously. (See, for example, John Gruber’s and Dave Winer’s responses.) I sympathise with Simon and would love to share his vision of a press worth saving but, as a reader, his vision is of a fantasy world.

Of course, as he says, there are valuable things newspapers do. The day-to-day detailed reporting of what’s going on is useful and the occasional original investigative work probably rights some wrongs. But does this make up for everything else?

Is it worth the sensationalism and scaremongering? The endlessly inaccurate and dangerous science reporting? The pointless and news-free lifestyle articles? Do newspapers that prioritise stories based on celebrities and spectacle rather than importance to the world deserve to exist?

Simon isn’t alone of course. Journalists often seem to be banging on about how the mighty press should be saved. I recently went to an interesting talk by Manuel Castells and one of the people asking a question (or, rather, making their own laboured point) at the end was a journalist who was worried about the threat of bloggers and onlinecitizen journalists, etc.

They’re not a threat. Stop worrying about them. There are few, if any, people doing real journalism off their own back and publishing it unpaid on their own sites. Good journalism is, I imagine, often dull, laborious, unglamorous and time-consuming. There are new ways that journalism is happening online — churning through datasets and utilising the collected knowledge of thousands of people — but this is something new and extra, it’s not individuals taking over the jobs of journalists.

That is, they’re not taking over the jobs of real journalists, those who do the good and important work. If you’re a “journalist” who writes ill-researched articles on things you don’t understand, or content-free celebrity puff-pieces, or worthless lifestyle articles based on a few of your friends, then you should be worrying. Anyone can do that crap, and they’ll do it for free. But no, if you’re a hard-working, serious journalist who’s doing the difficult unglamorous stuff, bloggers probably aren’t your biggest threat.

The threat to real journalists and their precious newspapers are these other “journalists” and much of the content of the same newspapers. For every exposé of governmental misdeeds and investigation of corporate wrongdoing and expensive international story filed by an experienced reporter there are inaccurate, unimportant, trivial, overblown and worthless articles written by people who reduce the perceived value of newspapers to close to zero. Again, anyone can write this crap, and padding out your newspapers with it makes them seem less valuable, not more.

I expect Simon would put the blame for this lack of quality at the door of bosses cutting costs and trimming staff. But, really? Maybe things are worse now than they used to be, but have they ever been good? Was there ever a time when newspapers — even the “quality” press — were full of nothing but accurate, informative and important articles?

My memory doesn’t go far back, but I first noticed how dangerous and wrong newspapers could be in 1996 when the Observer declared the owner of a UK ISP to be virtually a pedophile for supplying a Usenet feed to customers. It was the first time I, apparently, knew more about a subject (the Internet!) than a journalist. If I know they’re wrong about this, I thought, what about all the articles on other subjects that I take at face value? Since then stories about the net that have made it into the main news sections have done little to reassure me.

It feels like newspapers have had their chance. I’m not convinced they were ever as good as Simon and journalists think they were or are. Just like peoples’ feelings that music and TV were always better when they were young, only the good stuff sticks in our memories.

Maybe newspapers are even worse now than they once were. Will they get better? It seems unlikely. The good and unique stuff — investigative reporting, international news — is expensive and advertising revenue falling and an audience unwilling to pay isn’t going to help. Maybe there’s a small but dedicated market for a streamlined, focused, serious newspaper that only does the good stuff, for a high cover price. But I can’t see newspapers generally ever being as good as Simon wants them to be or thinks they once were.

Comments

  • You might like to read Flat Earth News by Nick Davies, which I knew I was thinking of when I read this, but couldn’t remember until I systematically scoured the London Review Of Books and found John Lanchester’s review:

    Davies chooses to focus on the fact that of the millions of words written about the [millennium] bug, all of them were written by journalists who had no idea whether what they were writing was true. They simply didn’t know. Flat Earth News makes a great deal of this. The most basic function of journalism, in Davies’s view, is to check facts. Journalists don’t just pass on what they’re told without making an effort to check it first. At least, in theory they don’t. In practice, contemporary journalism has been corrupted by an endemic failure to verify facts and stories in a manner so fundamental that it almost defies belief.

    More generally: good post.

  • An excellent post and one which reminds me of Why journalists deserve low pay - complete with similarly sensationalist headline ;-)

  • Thanks Paul. Yes, ‘Flat Earth News’ is on my list to read, although not sure when I’ll get round to it unfortunately. With all this not reading newspapers you’d think I’d find more time to read books.

  • Good post. Web 2.0 reveals journalism’s relative failings rather than creates them.
    I agree with your general thrust although I approach it from a journalist’s point of view. May I suggest another book for you not to read?
    SuperMedia (Blackwell 2008)
    cheers
    Charlie Beckett

  • I am not sure I buy into this idea that “real” journalism is better than other kinds of journalism.
    Let’s not kid ourselves that journalism is some noble calling full of eager people determined to uncover truths, right wrongs, and fight for justice. It isn’t. Or rather very, very little of it is, what you call “real” journalism. Most of it - and I speak as someone who did it for 17 years on what would be called the “quality” (I use that term in its most extended sense) press, is nothing of the sort.
    And the reason for this is simple. Readers don’t want it. Do you want to read about endogenous growth theory, or the possibility that Kirstie Allsopp has some upper-lip hair?
    Or put it another way, which has more readers: Heat or The Economist?
    As this is a UK blog, be careful of making the mistake of comparing our media with the US. Our press is a very, very different beast indeed.

    “Anyone can do that crap, and they’ll do it for free.”
    Actually, they can’t. Lots of people think they can do that crap, but few can, which explains the simply execrable copy on so many blogs.
    Much as I despise The Daily Mail - the doyenne of empty lifestyle features - and all it stands for (the ugly offspring of a coitus between vacuous celeb crap and small-minded evil) it has an audience to which the newspaper very successfully delivers the hate-filled bile on which that audience feeds.
    Newspapers are in the entertainment business - if they fail to entertain, they fail. And that old PT Barnum quote was never more apposite.
    Have newspapers changed over time? No. A newspaper, or the media in general, is simply a mirror of the society in which it exists - albeit like one of those Victorian amusement arcade Hall of Mirrors which grotesquely over-emphasises your least attractive feature. The society may change, but the newspaper’s function remains the same.
    Does this mean that newspapers have a future? Yes they do - delivering to readers the things they want. That future may not involve battalions of 14yo school children on bicycles getting up early, but they certainly have a future.

  • Great post, Phil, and I agree with a lot of what you say in terms of the 90% of rubbish newspaper writing—-let’s not call it journalism—-that blogs can quite happily replace.

    Just to follow up on Paul’s comment, Flat Earth News should give you a good idea of the history too, and shows that in some ways it is a recent development. I’ve not read the book but I’ve been to see Nick Davies speak and he’s an inspirational journalist. The ownership of newspapers has indeed gradually moved from semi-benevolent (if occasionally they didn’t look like that to a wishy-washy liberal like me) press-interested individuals to share-owned companies, and there’s certainly a lot of correlation between that and the decline in journalistic quality, and a lot of convincing explanation as to why there’s causation too. While some news outlets are still making a great deal of profit—-Newsquest Oxfordshire springs to mind—-they’re still announcing redundancies and skimming the profits off to the parent company—-in this case Gannett, I think.

    Good journalism is a lot more than what a lot of blogs—-even quite assiduous blogs—-think they’re doing. It’s about consuming McNae’s legal pages, and not just to pass the NCTJ but keeping up to date with changes; it’s about knowing the procedures for fact-checking and how “common-sense” investigative practices can actually land you in trouble; it’s about knowing in advance, not just from some emergency Googling, how local government, charities, NGOs, corporations and limited companies work and tesselate.

    That isn’t to say that a good journalist-blogger can’t know that without going through precisely what journalists go through. That’s sort of a simplified version of one of Davies’ arguments: I hope he’ll forgive me for the simplification, but I think that’s why a lot of existing journalists will never trust a new medium like the blog in the same way as people have always distrusted other new media when it came along, like TV. But the requirements of journalism (as opposed to writing about stuff you heard about) do mean that a lot of bloggers, like a lot of people who can spell properly, or a lot of people who can read words, fall short of quality journalism. To expect anything more is to think that blogging, like the printing press, is a panacea rather than a revolution.

  • Ben, I’m not sure what or who you’re disagreeing with.

    My point was, as you say, that very little journalism is “real” journalism. People like David Simon are protesting against the loss of newspapers as if they were filled with nothing but important and valuable work. I, and you, both say that most of it is trash.

    Yes, as you say, most people don’t want “quality” or difficult writing. That’s why tabloids and celebrity-filled magazines sell well. But my point is that the good and difficult journalism is worth saving — no, not everyone reads it but that doesn’t mean we should get rid of it.

    And, for the record, I would much rather learn what endogenous growth theory is than read anything about Kirstie Allsopp, despite having watched some of her programmes. And the Economist has a much larger circulation than Heat (approximately 1.3 million compared to 0.5 million), although the latter’s sales are restricted to the UK.

  • I’m beginning to wonder if the funding argument for (many kinds) of investigative journalism is dead too. That can be done by many driven amateurs and freelancers, rather than few professionals. e.g. I bet this doesn’t hit the press for about 6 months.

  • Great analysis. I worked in newspapers in the early 90s, and the medium was in crisis then, with falling readership and an advertising recession. Only difference was that we didn’t have the web or bloggers to blame for our failings. We need to be careful, though, not to partition the worthy but dull from the frivolous but engaging. Great newspapers have always known how to balance the two. And if we’re honest with ourselves, so do we as web users. Show me the campaigner for digital freedoms and I’ll show you the LOLcat afficionado :) Matt

  • It is the dichotomy between “real” journalism and other journalism with which I disagree and by extension that one is worth saving while the other isn’t. The Mail - my personal bête noire - is a loathsome publication but boy does it sell, so clearly there is a demand for that kind of journalism. Does that make it any less real?
    There is an implicit intellectual snobbery going on here; that endogenous growth theory is worth saving, while madge’s odd muscles are not. Well if you put that out to the general public you can bet on what people would chose to read. Which then merits the term “good” journalism?
    The problem with a lot of the commentary I have read on this subject (and there is nothing the media likes doing more than talking about the media) is that it is all made by people (like me) who read The Independent, Guardian etc who value this artificial construct of “real” journalism. Much as it pains me, the rest of the country does not share my bleeding-heart liberal values. The world would be a better place if they did.
    But clearly if you compare the circulation of the graun with that of the Mail, well draw your own conclusions for what people are prepared to pay (and looking at the latest online figures, for what people are prepared to click the mouse).

    And as we are getting everything on the record - I would rather learn about endogenous (and indeed non-endogenous) growth theory, would rather read The Economist than Heat and have never watched (nor read about) Kirstie Allsopp.

  • Sorry, I’m still struggling to work out what you’re arguing about :)

    I’m saying that worthy, serious journalism (forget the “real” tag, as that’s obviously going to confuse things) isn’t as good as David Simon et al make it out to be, or as good as I wish it was. I’m saying that serious newspapers, like the ones you and I read, are increasingly full of the kind of populist, human interest, celebrity-driven stuff that the Mail etc thrive on, and this isn’t doing the world of serious journalism any favours.

    I’m not saying populist celebrity journalism isn’t worth saving generally. This isn’t an issue: it thrives in newspapers and magazines. And it thrives because it’s easier to do (by umpteen trashy mags and bazillions of websites) than expensive, investigative journalism about serious subjects.

  • And one of the reasons for the decrease in quality, is the speed at which a news media is required to update, which is a function of how fast other media update - which is turn is controlled by the market!

    …Troels

  • One of the primary reasons that very few newspapers are worth saving is that their editorial policies are increasingly dictated by the interests of the owners. I won’t buy Murdock’s papers, because I know I won’t read anything that he doesn’t vet. Why would I want to pay for the words his minions shovel out online?

  • ‘The threat to real journalists and their precious newspapers are these other “journalists” and much of the content of the same newspapers. For every exposé of governmental misdeeds and investigation of corporate wrongdoing and expensive international story filed by an experienced reporter there are inaccurate, unimportant, trivial, overblown and worthless articles written by people who reduce the perceived value of newspapers to close to zero.’

    I was with you until this point but the last paragraph is nonsense. Its the crap that funds the ‘important stuff’ because its the crap that most people (not you) buy newspapers for.

    Newspapers are still popular, its just that people aren’t so keen to pay hand over fist to advertise in them.

    Of course the model of giving something away for free, and then later charging people for it works really, really, really well but only if you’re selling crack. But since its the crap in the newspapers that people really like to read, and the the Internet is chock filled with crap, then I can’t see many people paying for the content.

    Oh dear all those self important columnists out of a job …

  • Duckrabbit, your comment has made it apparent to me that I’ve been confused and confusing about an aspect of this. In places I’ve conflated two types of article that I dislike: First, stuff like celebrity-oriented or lifestyle articles. Second, poorly written, sensationalist and/or inaccurate “news”.

    I realise that the former are very popular with many people. I wish they weren’t but there we go. I also wish there was at least one newspaper that had different priorities to the others and completely ignored this stuff.

    The latter type of article is just as much of a problem. Again, some people are going to buy newspapers because of it — a sensationalist and inaccurate headline is going to attract more readers than a truthful and less dramatic one — but I think there is even less defence for printing this stuff.

    Again, thanks for helping me clarify a confusion in my thinking here.

  • I’ve just posted a clarification of these two issues I’ve conflated in this article.

  • It is a very big shame that people especially in the news area (so called journalist) cannot actually publish, depict or talk about the actual truth instead of embellishing lies to sell a piece of paper

28 Jul 2009 at Twitter

  • 07:28am: These days I only hear 5 mins of the Today prog but it's enough to send me into a fury. Interviewing joggers about why jogging's good? News?
  • 09:15am: A day off from getting things done in the real world in order to get things done in XBox world.
  • 10:48am: Weird, lost both broadband and mobile internet for a while there... O2 having problems?
  • 05:48pm: Finally finished split-screen Gears of War 2. An anticlimax; no idea what was happening at the end. Glad I won't hear that dialogue any more
  • 06:00pm: @mik3yb The end was insane, but we had *no* idea what we were doing and just stormed through it. Made no sense and it was a bit "that's it?"
  • 09:25pm: @mik3yb Oh we did enjoy the whole thing, much fun. Just found the ending sudden and the dialog pants. Otherwise, fab. Now, what's next?

On this day I was reading