It’s the newsagents I’ll miss the most. There are few more reassuring signs of civilisation than a well-stocked newsagent.
The tiny shop next to my local London underground station lays out a trestle table every morning, upon which sits a vast range of papers; the UK nationals, of course, and the local north London papers. And then Irish local and regional papers. The Kerryman, the Anglo-Celt, the Roscommon Herald, the Kilkenny People, the Kildare Nationalist, like Patrick Kavanagh’s barge “bringing from Athy/ And other far-flung towns mythologies.”
Newspapers are enthralling, odd things. The idea that every day a short novel’s worth of text is somehow corralled into print is strange and brilliant. And yet, gather more than two print journalists, even from still-profitable publications, in a room, and talk will soon turn to managed decline of the newspaper industry in Europe and the United States, and how the industry must be more like Buzzfeed, or less like Buzzfeed (it is mandatory to have an opinion on Buzzfeed).
This week, a group journalists gathered in the House of St Barnabas in London’s Soho, to discuss whether or not Britain gets the press it “deserves”. The panel, chaired by Miranda Sawyer of the Bug Consultancy, featured journalists Sophie Heawood and Matt Kelly, and media analyst Douglas McCabe. Heawood, who recently took up the dream gig of The Guardian newspaper’s weekend magazine main column, spoke interestingly about her path into broadsheet journalism via music writing (proving the truth in the advice given to all aspiring writers, Heawood spotted the gap in The Guardian’s coverage of the London grime music scene and inserted herself in it). Heawood, who gave up a column with Vice for her current Guardian slot, pointed out the irony that while we all seem to be grieving for newspapers, she still saw it as a move up in the world to go from new media to old.
McCabe pointed out that while we grieve, lots of people are still going out every day to buy a newspaper. Eventually they may not, but this decline may not happen as soon as we think.
The venue, a candlelit chapel, lent the night a funereal air. Certainly the short speech given by former Daily Mirror features editor Kelly felt a little like a eulogy. Kelly talked about his time as an indentured apprentice on a small Merseyside paper 25 years ago, earning £4,000 a year, of learning the ropes of court reporting, local government, all the dull but necessary things vital to local journalism. He moved to the Liverpool Echo and then the Daily Mirror, where he started on a salary of £42,000 in 1996 (a number that drew gasps from the young audience, which, one suspected, contained quite a few people who were in the apparently common position of being “full-time journalists” who don’t really get paid).
The Scouse journalist recalled glorious times of fully-staffed newsroom where “the budget” was only something politicians needed to manage. He claimed to have had no idea how much money he spent on journalism over the years, but he had spent thousands on keeping undercover reporter Ryan Parry in Buckingham Palace for two months in 2003, a story which sticks in the brain mainly because it’s when we first found out that the Queen keeps her cornflakes in Tupperware. The story was a success: Daily Mirror circulation spiked by 25% for three days after initial publication.
This, Kelly suggested, does not happen anymore: once your story goes out on the web, it’s everywhere. That bounce is lost. But that was not the real concern, he suggested: the real concern was that the route through journalism he took was dead as a model, that young reporters were not learning the basics, and that the metric-measuring web would always lead people to favour clickbait over difficult stories. So do we get the press we deserve? No, suggested Kelly. We get a significantly better press than we deserve. Analytics appeared to show that people only really wanted to read titillation, and for years journalists and editors had kidded themselves that people admired them for their hard-hitting journalism.
This led Kelly to his conclusion: the public doesn’t even deserve the British press. Hacks work hard on genuine stories, and the public doesn’t read them.
It’s a humbling, sobering thought for a trade not known for humility or sobriety. All that work and there you are, utterly unappreciated. Ask the average person not engaged in the media to name a great scoop. They will say Watergate. Ask them for another, and they might say MPs expenses. Ask what papers, or even what journalists were responsible for them, and the people who have seen All The President’s Men might be able to answer.
For most people, journalism and the media are kind of nebulous background noise. In the past, you had some kind of reason why you bought a particular newspaper, even if that reason was just that you always bought that newspaper. Increasingly though, people are barely aware of what publication they’re reading. Ask a recent graduate what site they read every day, or what their preferred news source is, and they will say be more likely to say Twitter than The Guardian. Which is why that publication and others are scrabbling to find new ways to bond with people beyond encouraging the reader going to a shop and buying a newspaper.
This fragmentation brings up the question of whether newspapers will maintain their influential position in society (be that good or bad) and if not, whether this will affect arguments for press freedom as distinguishable from everyday rights and liberties. We witness versions of this question from time to time: when local bloggers are excluded from council meetings because they are not accredited press, even if they are the only people in the area willing and able to cover the proceedings, for example. In the past, papers have been defensive of their position (many journalists can still get a scarcely believable amount of contempt into the word “blogger”) but in the post-Leveson world, in Life After Brian, it’s apparent that there is an interest in ensuring that press freedom and free speech are universal.
Explore the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine for discussion on the Seeing the future of journalism: Will the public know more? In print, online or on your iPad.