Old-school journalism, old-school writers

I was interested to read an article titled “The Golden Age of Fleet Street“.  The author reminisces about his career in journalism, and how, in the old days, reporters had to “climb the career ladder” from local, to provincial, to national newspapers, and “earn their stripes” the hard way.  He points out that the current model is radically different.

Now is the best and worst of times for what used to be called print journalism. For anyone who wants to write, there are more outlets than ever – yet less and less money is changing hands. My own career bears this out. I’m busier than ever, more people read my stuff than ever, yet I’m now earning about the same as I was twenty years ago – a lot less, in real terms.

How has this happened? Why are readership figures going up and up, while sales figures go down and down? The reason is that journalism has changed, in the course of my career, from a mechanical industry to a computerised industry and now into an online industry. And in the course of that transition, the economic model that sustained it – namely newsstand sales and display advertising – has been broken, quite possibly beyond all repair.

As a result of this sea-change, journalism occupies an unusual position in today’s marketplace. Most businesses go bust because customers no longer want to consume their product. Journalism is going bust not because its customers have stopped consuming journalism – quite the opposite, in fact – but because they’ve found a way to consume it without paying for it. Today we’re consuming more journalism than ever, but we’re consuming it online. Journalism has migrated, from printed page to computer screen.

He also points out that in an age when anyone can contribute an article to any outlet, the title of “journalist” has been degraded almost out of recognition.

Journalism is now deregulated in the widest sense you can imagine. Who wrote that article you just read online? What are their credentials? And who paid them to write it? No-one really knows. I didn’t see it at the time, but the freelance life that I embraced was the beginning of Fake News.

The lack of background research and preparation on the part of journalists also gets its share of attention.  I’ve often bemoaned this when reading the output of independent authors.  So many of them simply don’t know what they’re talking about (particularly in specialized fields like militaria, combat, etc.), and it shows!

Journalism is all about primary sources – or at least it ought to be: from the war reporter who was there on the battlefield to the theatre critic who was there on the first night. If you weren’t there, you need to find someone who was there, and ask them what they saw. Now, with an endless supply of secondary sources to draw on, it’s all too easy to construct an entire story from second-hand, second-rate material, without doing any original research at all. This, more than anything, is the biggest challenge facing journalism – the decline of reporting and the rise of the opinion piece.

The article is, of course, about journalism rather than writing a novel or short story;  but I found a great deal of food for thought in it concerning our approach to writing, and how the advent of computers and the Internet has changed that.  In many ways, they’ve made a positive contribution:  but they’ve also made us more solitary, more isolated from one another.  Social media is no substitute for sharing a drink or a meal with friends and “batting the breeze” about life, the universe and everything.  We may have hundreds of contacts on social media, but how many of them are truly “friends”?

It’s easy to maintain a simplistic stance if you never leave your desk. Google will reaffirm what you already know – or think you know. However if you take the time and trouble to go out and meet the people who are living through the things you’re reporting, and ask them what they think, you’ll soon find your opinions are tempered by reality. Real life is complex and contradictory. Successful columnists are often dogmatists, but good reporters are pragmatists. Regular contact with the folk they write about has taught them that life, and news, is rarely black and white.

I recommend that you take the time to read the article in full.  It’s not entirely relevant to our needs as independent authors, but it sure has a lot of meat on the bone to make us think about what we’re doing, and why.

10 thoughts on “Old-school journalism, old-school writers

  1. My original inclination was not to read the article in full. I have read some bits on the economic decline of modern journalism, such as by Megan McCardle, and do not credit much the pleas to financially support information sources I value because I put a very low value on the information sources.

    I am very glad that I read the whole thing. The deeper dive into the newspaper history fills in some worldbuilding context that I need to work on some of my ideas.

    Also implications for the future of solitary writing professions. How do you keep from going buggy? And at the same time have habits and workspace that permit the necessary isolation?

    I’ve bookmarked the article, but do not think I will be searching out Bill Cook articles in the future. Beyond the suggestions of his political preference, and his inability to understand why such as me might discount the value of conventional media, that whole bit about wishing he had pursued an MA sounds to me like a very boring mind.

  2. I have read a couple indie writers whose knowledge of the military is dated, and it shows. They have extensive knowledge- of ww2, or Vietnam Era, or 80s cold war…

    1. Occasionally I’ve read writers whose knowledge of the military is dated; they think their present-day experience translates back into history.

  3. What I’m reading here indicates that the newspapers were self-referential bullshit back in the day, and they’re self-referential bullshit now but now on roller skates. Same bullshit, shoveled faster and piled higher and deeper.

    Is it any wonder that the pay is less, now that the production roadblocks are out of the way?

    Newspapers now have to compete with -me-. When I see something I know to be Capital “B” Bullshit, I put up a blog post. I do it for free, because I can. My certified expertise extends to healthcare and guns, plenty of BS there in every paper every day. My general knowledge is wide and fairly deep in a lot of areas, I know BS when I see it most of the time.

    Used to be I thought I was alone. Certainly the newspapers and television fostered that notion. But now, thanks to the Internet, I know that there are millions of people like me who know all the same stuff I do, won through long experience and hard knocks.

    Those people all have blogs in their expert areas. That’s how we now know that global warming is a scam, “alternative” energy is a scam, self-driving cars are a scam, we know how the government and computer/phone manufacturers are collecting unprecedented amounts of information about us, we know all sorts of things we didn’t have a hope of knowing 30 years ago.

    We also know, now, that the newspapers/television/radio mass-media conglomeration effectively forms the propaganda arm of the socialist parties of Western Civilization. DemocRats in the USA, Liberals in Canada, Labour in the UK, etc. Which is why I used to think I was the only one yelling “BULL-SHIT!!!” at the television, or the radio, or the paper.

    So Mr. William Cook can pretty much K my A. He’s still getting paid more than he’s worth.

  4. Reporting news from secondary sources (or tweets!) seems directly analogous to writing historical fiction using historical fiction as sources.

  5. To be clear, the OP is a look at *British* media history. Unions aren’t a factor in a lot of American newspapers. And the OP’s attitude is a little strange. Credentials? To write an article? The credential in America was that you were a beat reporter who knew your beat inside and out. You could smell scoops and bulls–t both. I don’t know if it’s still on, but if you see the Hulu documentary about the Fyre Festival Fraud, you’ll notice that the people who saw right through Billy McFarland were beat reporters.

    As for fiction writing — I’m astonished at how little research newer writers are doing. Seriously basic research that you could do with a five-second DDG. I beta read a story that fell apart in the first chapter, because the writer had zero clue how police investigations work. Her attempt to make a heroine seem tough and honest fell flat, because her beliefs about inter-agency investigations was dead wrong. The heroine just looked crazy instead.

    The writer’s story would have been cooler if she’d done basic research: I explained how VICAP and CODIS could help her police detective track down vampires. I had to explain how police departments are funded, and how the feds give strange equipment to them. What if, instead of giving army tanks to tiny towns in the middle of nowhere — why? Was there something there ISIS would want**? — the feds were handing out silver bullets? Or, what if the tanks came equipped with ordnance suitable for taking down a kaiju?

    Not doing the research means missing so many opportunities to make the story cooler. I don’t get the point of skipping that part.

    **This is literally the question I asked when a reporter wanted me to build an interactive database to show what weapons the feds were giving police departments. Why did they give army tanks to police in the boonies? Obviously there’s a hellmouth below those towns. Or something…

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