Politics of the media: Is Flat Earth News the whole story?
I meant to write about this a bit earlier but the book's hard going (although instructive) and I’ve got other things to read (or re-read), like 'Flashman in the Great Game'.
Anyway Nick Davies' 'Flat Earth News' does put its angry finger on one of the problems of the age, the reduction in quality of media coverage in an era when media businesses are run just like any other businesses -- ie, for profit.
Nick's point is that the number of journalists, especially experienced practitioners, has reduced just as the demands on them from owners have increased.
At its most obvious, this is the requirement for journalists to provide blogs, podcasts and, in some cases, TV bits, at the same time as turning out their material for newspapers or magazines, TV or radio.
More damagingly, it's the increasing orthodoxy among managements that the essential building blocks of the journalistic trade, like sub-editors, people who correct and offer a second opinion on copy, are redundant.
On top of this is the reality that, with all these duties, reporters don't have the time or the licence to go out and meet contacts.
Many of these will be a waste of time of course (and just result in wasteful if agreeable drinking sessions) but a few will produce real stories.
The upshot, says Davies, is that most of the stuff you read anywhere (online as well as offline or broadcast) is recycled agency stuff (mostly Press Association in the UK, which itself is under-resourced) or the produce of the nefarious public relations business.
And it's hard to argue with this. Nick calls it "churnalism".
Does it matter and, if it does, what can we do about about it?
Well I haven't got far enough into 'Flat Earth News' yet to bring you Davies' conclusions.
But there's one point that strikes me.
Davies' start point is that the job of journalism is to "tell the truth".
That's what most journalists would wish it to be, but that's not how 'journalism' began (it began as propaganda) and, if Davies is right, certainly not where it is now.
It's hard to see how media companies can be immune from the desire to increase revenues and profits, the disagreeable duty of any company with shareholders.
Yes, once upon a time there were lots of newspapers owned by rich men (or women, in the case of Katharine Graham of the 'Watergate' Washington Post) but most of these only put profits to one side because they were more interested in pursuing their own political ends (Ms Graham being an honourable exception).
Right now the Sulzberger family, who control The New York Times (the best newspaper in the world in my view), is under siege from other investors who want to make more money. If this happens it will inevitably mean fewer reporters.
So is journalism caught between a rock and a hard place?
Can "citizen's journalism", ie bloggers, make up the difference?
No, but it can provide something which is "free" and doesn't kow-tow to the whims of publishing managements or the PR business.
What we really need is a business model where more reporters (who spend less time in the office) make someone or other more money.
Any suggestions welcome.
Politics of the media is a regular series of opinion pieces for Brand Republic about the way media shapes politics and vice-versa. Stephen Foster is a partner at The Editorial Partnership and can be contacted at:firstname.lastname@example.org.
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