It was unfair of me to say yesterday that much newspapers’ content is space-filling, sensationalist, inaccurate and irrelevant nonsense. It’s unfair not because I was wrong, but because I neglected to mention that TV and radio news also suffer from the same problem.
I should be clear that I’m not writing as someone who reads, watches and listens to vast amounts of news coverage. I’m writing as someone frustrated that I can’t find any news sources that speak to me. I’m writing as someone whose consumption of news has dwindled over the years as I’ve turned away from one source after another, and has currently reached the point where I hear a couple of minutes of the Today programme most mornings and read the Guardian on Saturday. And even those morsels leave me fuming.
I’m not saying all TV and radio news is crap. Just as decent newspapers contain good and valuable reporting, so there are excellent people doing great work in all media. But it only takes one or two or a few examples of shoddy, worthless, clueless reporting or interviewing for me to write off the entire programme.
None of my frustrations are new. People have been analysing the problems with TV news for years: Glasgow Media Group, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Newswipe, etc. But the longer these problems continue, the more frustrating it is.
I can barely watch TV news any more. It’s full of dumb attention-grabbing gizmos, pointless outside broadcasts giving the impression of “live” news when there is none, point-scoring interviewing, complex stories reduced to soundbites, etc. etc.
And the only radio news I ever hear is Today, under the possibly false impression that this is as good as it gets. While often clueful reporters will file a story on their specialist subject, studio interviews are conducted by presenters who often sound like they’re actively trying to be stupid. Couple this with the lengthy non-news space-fillers — yesterday’s example of a reporter panting round Canary Wharf with a microphone asking joggers “Why do you like running?”, with the justification that Sarkozy collapsed while jogging, was particularly fine — and it genuinely saddens me that Today is considered a flagship news programme by the UK’s premier national broadcaster.
I expect commercial TV and radio news is under financial threat in these days of dwindling ad revenue but, as far as I know, they’re not suffering quite as much as newspapers so far. I imagine this is partly because the economics of a news show that’s part of a much larger broadcasting organisation are entirely different to newspapers.
But also, one reason newspapers are particularly in trouble, and one reason hiding behind online paywalls won’t work for them, is that it’s easy to copy and to rewrite text.
A blog/site run on a shoestring, or less, can legitimately copy several paragraphs from newspapers and give a good overview of what’s happening in the world. A blogger can read a few news stories and write their own new version, synthesising and quoting and providing in depth coverage for nothing more than a couple of hours work. It’s the kind of basic English (or whatever) comprehension that everyone does at school.
If you can write competently you can, given enough time, write your own online newspaper. It won’t contain much, if any, original investigation, but it will do the job of informing readers.
(Newspapers probably hate this idea, and think of it as cheating and copying the hard work of their trained professionals. They’re right, it is. But they’re also happy to do this themselves. See, for example, the way most newspapers reported the MPs’ expenses scandal recently, regurgitating whatever the Telegraph fed to the world.)
TV and radio don’t, yet, need to fear this threat so much. Even with YouTube and cheap cameras and decent microphones, it’s much harder to make your own competent version of TV and radio news. It’s more work, it’s harder to do well. Not only do you have to write (or rewrite, in the case of our imaginary plagiarist) everything, you have to find someone who can read it well (not that easy), get the technical aspects looking and sounding good, edit everything, and find a way to distribute it effectively. None of these are insurmountable, but they’re greater barriers to entry. And, while it’s not too hard to write competent text, it’s harder to meet the standards of people used to watching slick, well-produced TV.
All of which is to say, newspapers are in trouble and it would be wonderful if this crisis — the threats and opportunities of the internet — made them better and braver, and forced them to shed all the superfluous, pointless nonsense that’s distracting them from their job of finding and reporting the news. Unfortunately, TV and radio news are just as bad but they’re not yet in as much trouble as newspapers and so I fear nothing will change them for the better for some time.