The newspaper of today bears little resemblance to that of its pre-digital predecessor. Besides the periodical evolution of design, formatting and size, the most drastic changes can be found once you navigate the respective publication’s sensational opening pages. It won’t take long before your news of the day – once the primary weapon in every media publication’s arsenal – merges seamlessly into a virtuoso ‘comment’ section, offering profound yet provocative opinion on all manner of issues burning at the heart of broken Britain.
The reasons for change don’t require the shrewd media mind of Roy Greenslade to decipher. The modern world operates in an era set to be defined as the Information Age, a time in which the wealth and variety of available content was only surpassed by the fibre-optic-fuelled rapidity by which it disseminated across the globe. While newspapers were once the don of news deliverance, today’s front-page headlines on the morning newsstand have invariably received extensive coverage on TV, radio and the internet prior to their proliferation to print.
Subsequently, newspapers now seek differentiation, primarily through reaction and reflection from individuals whose opinion is deemed more relevant than that belonging to the man on the street. Herein lies the conflict; although there will always be value to thoughtful, insightful and sometimes inspired opinion, a newspaper’s function as a fourth estate draws more heavily on the accurate reporting of issues that hold the powerful to account. Certainly, while the purposeful prose of literary titans such as Polly Toynbee, Peter Oborne and David Aaronovitch provide ample stimulation over the morning’s Special K (I’m trying to drop a jean size), their musings are merely comment on facts already known. Unfortunately, this is not news, the central commodity to journalistic practice; it is little wonder then that in a climate where reporting has been superseded by reflecting, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism was established two years ago in order to address the dearth of rigorous investigative reporting.
Furthermore, it is now often the case that the best newsgathering originates from the new, romantic phenomenon of citizen journalists. Armed with nothing but a cause and a camera phone, a wave of disillusioned graduates have brought anarchy to the Middle East with their frontline coverage of the Arab Spring, making truly revolutionary use of social media and broadcasting their message just as effectively as any of our country’s supposedly world-leading media innovators.
Yet citizen journalism is not just confined to those areas undergoing massive political upheaval. In Sweden, they are trialling an ‘online open newsroom’ format where journalists and editors interact with readers online throughout the day in order to gauge opinion about what stories they’d most want to read about in the next day’s paper. In America, John Paton – recently appointed executive of America’s second-largest media group by circulation, MediaGroup – has outlined a business model for newspapers that requires professional journalists to contribute just one third of editorial copy, with the remaining two thirds acquired from a combination of aggregated sources and citizen journalism. Paton is not a man spouting delusionary solutions; in his previous role, as head of smaller newspaper company Journal Register, he guided them through bankruptcy and increased digital revenue by 200 percent – what this country’s media moguls would give for such profitability.
There are also signs of this community spirit infiltrating these particularly stubborn shores. The Guardian, an unequivocal standard bearer for the cutting edge, has recently launched the Guardian Sport Network, partnering with various specialist sports blogs from around the web in order to “diversify content”. Archant – one of the country’s largest owners of local titles – has introduced the ‘iWitness24’ website, where residents within its newspapers’ catchment area can upload and discuss stories in a far more professional and interactive environment than the old-fashioned manner of ‘call the news desk now’. While this may be seen as a triumph for innovation, the vitriolic reaction it received from professionals on the Press Gazette website only serves to highlight the growing suspicion from within the industry that their art is increasingly transferring to the amateurs.
There has long been cynicism around the supposed professionalism of journalists and the nature of their relationship with bloggers, opportunistic photographers and anyone else seizing the chance to tell a story to a wider audience, and this relationship has become even more blurred in the midst of the aforementioned Information Age we have all had the pleasure of growing up in. Undoubtedly, Rupert Neate’s sterling work on uncovering Liam Fox and Adam Werrity’s shenanigans was an example of outstanding professional journalism, as was Nick Davies’ investigation into phone hacking and Andrew Jennings’ relentless pursuit of those astronomically-corrupt bigwigs at FIFA.
Equally, though, the internet has offered canvas for all manner of media, produced purely by amateurs, that wouldn’t look out of place in the professional environment of newspapers. You need only scour some of the exceptional student journalism around to see evidence of such work. I was recently taken aback by the depth and quality of First Thought, a comprehensive youth newspaper with contributors from across the country that was initially created by mere 15-year-old James Lorenzo, a fact I’m sure will make you feel as similarly old and incompetent as I did when I first stumbled upon it. Yet this is just a minute selection of the hidden gems scattered around the internet’s vast digital landscape, and I’m sure every reader of this article could tell comparable tales of brilliant but undiscovered sources of interesting and engaging media.
As the British workforce has become better educated, so journalism has enjoyed almost unparalleled allure, with young wordsmiths – all desperate to secure their dream Guardian column – teaming their provocative personal blogs alongside the almost infinite hordes of recognised journalistic qualifications. UCAS alone lists 533 undergraduate courses under the banner of journalism. That is without even considering the many other prospective hacks armed with degrees in other disciplines, those studying commercial journalism courses (Press Association, News Associates, CTJT – the list is virtually endless) or those following the now popular route of postgraduate journalism study, especially at the journalistic juggernaut that is City University. There’s the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), the Broadcast Journalism Training Council (BJTC), the Periodicals Training Council (PPA) plus more, exotic organisations such as the European Journalism Training Association (EJTA) and Trust Media; the term ‘plethora of options’ doesn’t really do the situation justice.
Yet this explosion of academic journalistic opportunity does not necessarily translate to a burgeoning profession. Although recent revelations from the Leveson Inquiry certainly call into the question the moral standards within news coverage, the wider contextual issue is that the market for professional journalism has probably reached saturation, regardless of the ever-increasing number of bright minds progressing out of journalism schools. Though there is always appetite for innovative and thought-provoking content, making people pay for it is another matter: why bother when there are vast quantities of information available for free? Unfortunately for the thousands of budding reporters out there, journalism does not translate as easily to market forces, is not as concerned with maximising financial gain or growth into new markets. There is, essentially, a limit to the amount of information that people are willing to pay for, and thus a limit to the number of professional journalists it is financially viable to pay.
Furthermore, the role of professional journalist does not offer the financial rewards of other graduate professions – the new graduates at the Daily Mail, the country’s second-biggest selling newspaper, can expect to earn £18,000 – requires unreasonable hours and is, perhaps most worryingly of all, culling staff at an unprecedented rate. Yet ever-eager young journalists continue to flood the job market, buoyed by a reasonably successful blog and their role as chief features sub-editor on the student newspaper. Proof of such keenness can be found from last year’s Sun graduate scheme, where the four successful applicants had to fight off competition from over 700 others.
For all its faults, journalism remains intrinsically a labour of love, an undeniably attractive practice with the potential to showcase your words and wonderings to an awesome and adoring audience. Such a romantic notion, fuelled by tales of George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s voyages into print media, is why thousands of bright youngsters tailor their education towards a career in journalism, why the lucrative business of journalism training appears to be recession-proof and why amateur avenues of journalism such as blogging and student media remain on an upward trajectory.
With citizen journalism on the rise, newspapers suffering rapid declines in revenue must do more to embrace this new wave of enthusiasm, regardless of the stigma still present within a profession clinging to aloof attitudes of its 1980’s heyday. There is no longer the hierarchical reign of professionals over amateurs; editors across the media must harness those gifted individuals to who journalism remains a mere hobby, and provide platform for the significant amounts of outstanding amateur and citizen journalism to reach as vast and varied an audience as possible. While such a shift may reek of cost-cutting, it is primarily fuelled by the wider sociological swing towards greater numbers of people having the technology and the talent to articulately air their views.
Professional journalism will of course live on, although perhaps in a more streamlined model befitting the rise of amateur content. A shrinking industry with fierce competition for securing permanent jobs is not necessarily a bad thing, though, and may go some way to ridding journalism of the foul stench of corruption that lingers in national newsrooms amidst the fallout from phone hacking. Crucially, those true leaders of journalism’s next generation must be skilled in a manner that defies testing within the confines of journo-school classrooms. Investigative reporting remains the pinnacle of good journalism, and it is those individuals blessed with greater dynamism for detection than Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock who will ascend above the many talented writers capable of exceptional intelligence but underwhelming intrigue.