Last week was, Stephen Glover writes in The Independent, ‘as bad as could be’ for the newspaper industry. Falling circulations, plummeting advertising, and large scale redundancies. The Independent announced 90 jobs would go. The Daily Mail and General Trust said 400 would lose their jobs. Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press continued to drop ever further in value.
What effect will this economic crisis have on the provision of news? Right now the debate seems polarised between doom saying pessimists and idealistic optimists. The pessimists see spiralling structural decline of the news industry, and with it all the democratic benefits of good journalism we’ve taken for granted the last 60 plus years (read Andrew Keen for the arch-pessimist view). The optimists separate journalists from journalism and suggest the later is alive, well and flourishing – buoyed by the creative opportunities released by new media (Jeff Jarvis does a good line on the positive outlook for journalism and Rupert Murdoch has recently suggested that “newspapers will reach new heights in the 21st century”).
What this debate is missing is evidence. To date, very few people (in the UK at least) have taken the time to work out what is actually happening to news provision. In other words, what is not being reported that we think, as a democratic society, should be.
If we agree that it is the job of the press to report on local councils, for example, we should find out which local councils are being covered and which aren’t. If we think the press should tell people what is happening at local schools and hospitals, then we should measure what coverage there is right now, and where, so we can work out what’s missing. Same with transport, crime, prisons, etc.
Government and industry are already starting to talk about redistributing the BBC’s income, giving further funding to Channel 4 and considering various other interventions, without really knowing what the problem is. Lord Carter, the Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting, said over the weekend that the BBC’s License Fee may well be used to fund other media outlets. Alan Rusbridger has argued that local newspapers should be ‘in with a shout’ for any government money used for provision of news.
But how can the government intervene effectively if it doesn’t know what it is trying to achieve by its intervention? How beneficial is it to the public if the State is just intervening to prop up existing media institutions?
If, as a society, we think we need a ‘Fourth Estate’ (and I think we do), then we need to be a lot more conscious of its benefits before working out how to save it. We have to to examine whether the doom laden claims of the pessimists have substance, and work out if the excitement of the optimists is justified. And that means we have to start counting.
New research from Cardiff will show that 4% of news website readers contribute online – i.e. leave comments, keep blogs, send in photos etc. – according to an academic at Wednesday’s journalism and democracy conference
at the British Academy (whose name I did not catch – if the person who said it reads this please let me know).
Though this was prefaced – by the Cardiff academic who made the comment - with an ‘only’, 4% is still four times higher than a couple of years ago.
Back in 2006 we were told that only 1% of the audience actually contributed to sites (e.g. see Paul Skidmore on the ’1% solution’
in Prospect in December 2006), while the other 99% simply read, viewed, listened.
In this context 4% sounds like a pretty significant increase. Especially when you look at what that 4% is able to produce. The number of comments on the BBC’s Russell Brand / Jonathan Ross Have Your Say, for example, reached 52,681 before they closed the forum. A healthy 10,699 have so far commented on whether John Sergeant was right to quit Strictly Come Dancing. And 2,200 people have made their views known on the MySun debate ‘Should smacking your children be banned?
Imagine if, in another 2 years, the number participating quadruples again. In the BBC’s case this would equate to hundreds of thousands of comments a day, thousands of photographs, and hundreds of citizen journalism videos. The equivalent of a few truck-loads full of post.
How are they going to cope with this? With considerable difficulty. Anne Spackman - comment editor at The Times – told the conference that it is already costing the paper hundreds of thousands of pounds to moderate comments, take in user generated content, and create systems to allow for engagement with readers.
So what should news organisations do? Well, they could start by thinking alot harder than they do about the sort of relationship they want with their audience and then work out the best way to develop that. Right now most news sites still work very much on the broadcast model. In other words, they’ll tell you what they think and when they feel like it they’ll let you comment.
This means their attitude to involving their audience often comes across as patronizing or parasitic – or both. Patronizing because just being asked to leave a comment is like being told you can ask questions after the speaker has already left the room. Or being given a space to shout without any indication whether there will be anyone around to listen. Parasitic because simply asking for content from the public (‘send us your photos and your videos’) makes you look like a wanton freeloader.
News organisations could learn a lot from social networking sites, particularly in terms of how people want to relate to one another, communicate and use information. Mind you, they’ll need to learn quickly if, by the end of 2009, 4% becomes 8%.
A new chair of the Press Complaints Commission was announced on Friday. I say announced, though perhaps whispered would be a better description.
The Financial Times reported the news that Baroness Buscombe is to take over after Sir Christopher Meyer steps down at 17.03 on Friday. The Media Guardian followed this up with a piece at 18.35 – about half an hour after most people have turned off their PC’s and have headed off to enjoy their weekend.
The following morning the Press Complaints Commission added the news to its website (though the press release is dated 14th November). The FT ran another hundred words on Saturday. The Times buried it in the Business section’s ‘Need to Know‘. There was no mention of it in today’s media sections and, most curiously of all, the PCC did not even notify the people on its mailing list (including me).
Why such limited coverage? Baroness Buscombe will be the first woman to run the industry body, and will take over from the controversial Meyer after two full terms in office. She will have responsibility for press self-regulation at a time when it is very unclear about its future, and under threat from State regulation (via the internet), legal precedent (particularly with regards privacy law), and the economic crisis in the news industry. Even Sir Christopher Meyer said last week that the PCC may not survive if the industry chooses to go ahead with ‘swingeing budget cuts‘.
Wouldn’t it be helpful to know more about her, about how and why she was chosen, and about the issues she will face when she takes up her new position?
Instead, the most detail provided by the press comes from Media Monkey, which tells us:
‘She is a Tory peer, and has been a frontbench spokeswoman in the Lords, which some may find little surprising (her most-admired politician is Oliver Letwin); favourite TV is Scrubs; her hidden talent is being “a bit of an actress”; her desert island objects, also according to Campaign magazine’s helpful guide, the A-List, are “Green & Blacks chocolate, an iPod and Mitsouko by Guerlain”; and the blue baroness reckons Meryl Streep should play her in the film of her life’
The Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Mail was right to call for a public debate about privacy. He was not right to do it through such an astonishingly personal attack on Mr Justice Eady (who is not in a position to respond). Nor was he right when he said the judge was creating a ‘back door’ privacy law in the UK (we have had a privacy law since Article 8 of the Human Rights Act was incorporated to British law in 2000). But he was right that this issue is of significance and should be discussed publicly and openly.
Not least because it fully illustrates the inadequacy of the current system of press self-regulation. If the existing Press Complaints Commission were not so opaque, so riven with conflicts of interest, and so unaccountable, then fewer people would resort to legal action and the risk of a privacy law restraining the press would recede.