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.