Sunday, February 10, 2013

Journalism needs to develop a collective conscience if it is to survive

I started last Sunday morning in bed, the way I usually start Sunday mornings: Sitting up, reading loads of articles that had been recommended to me by my Facebook timeline during the past week - some blogs but mostly from newspaper sites - on the iPad or my laptop.

The iPad cost about £450 and the laptop cost a good deal more than that. I probably clipped a few things to Evernote from my work PC as well during the week. My WiFi connection costs me over £20 a month..... all in all, tech companies get paid a lot of money by me to make this lovely Sunday lie-in a good one.   

I usually clip articles that I intend to read straight to Evernote (which I pay for) and the only ads I really see are the ones Facebook serve up. Sometimes, if I notice people on Facebook or Twitter mentioning something without linking to it, I'll go over to Google, find out what they're on about and clip the article again for reading, so I do see the odd Google ad as well.  

For these reasons (and not because of any deliberate ad-avoidance) I dont see any adverts that are posted next to the articles. It would be fair to say that I don't pay a penny directly or indirectly to the authors or their agents for any of my Sunday morning reading.  

I rarely pay in any way for the journalism I consume. I get The Times app on my iPad to read on the way to work. I tried The Guardian one but it was so unreliable, I cancelled it.  
 My 'Times' purchase is an ill-considered one - and one that I don't get much value from. If I thought about it, I'd switch to the FT instead as I'm not keen on giving the Murdoch clan much of my tin, but I keep it on mainly because it's a fairly painless way for me to salve my conscience about not paying anything to read newspapers.

People like me are destroying the investment base of journalism. The only economic interaction I have with journalists is that their work nudges up the value that I place upon my iPad, laptop, Evernote and Facebook.

Objectively, people like me are far more vicious censors than any Ministry of Truth or any restrictive social convention. 
At least they allow some journalism to exist with a sustainable economic base. Do I feel bad about it? No. There would be no point in that.  
On the other hand, I would, if journalism as a craft with a collective conscience (and other crafts have these) woke up to the fact that their failure to assert the value of their work needs to be addressed radically.

But until then, there's no point. At the moment, I accept that we have a moral duty to part fools from their money.

Don't get me wrong either. I hate piracy and abuse of people's copyright. I work with film-makers and I know plenty of penurious musicians. I know how much learning, work and craft they put into their product. When some prick digitises their work and puts it on a P2P site - especially when the artist or their agents are either making it available at a price or choosing to exercise their moral rights - I regard this as a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance.

But newspapers are not filled with such craft. Nor do many of the writers have the chutzpah to demand that their work is valued in the way film-makers or musicians do. It would be a tough job to do if they did. After all, the blogosphere has established over the past decade that anyone can produce what a large slice of what most of the journalistic profession describes as the 'craft' of journalism is capable of producing - and that there are literally millions of people are already doing it in their own spare time.

Opinions are like arseholes - everyone has got one and no-one wants to hear any of them. We can all use Twitter to add our own flavour of cynicism and spin to what other people report. But good journalism - investigation, reporting, genuine educated insight - still needs to be funded. Unless it is, it becomes the exclusive terrain of those who would benefit in other ways from doing this work. As the professions of PR and journalism merge, this is already increasingly the reality here.

Good journalism won't ever be 'crowdsourced' like the Unicorn Cult of Wikipedians imagine it will be. When a 'journalist' copies the 'exclusive' work of a real journalist and reprints it without attribution, a profession with any sense of itself would hound them out of that profession. We're back to that 'craft conscience' issue. The missing component of all of the post-Leveson hand-wringing here in the UK has been journalists putting their hands up and saying "we have collectively failed - we have stood by and watched our profession degrade and it's time we did something about it."

That's the problem. It's not a profession or a craft that has any collective conscience. As such, it doesn't have the legitimacy that it needs to demand that its products are valued. Journalists seem to do little by way of demarcation between themselves and PR people these days. If it did, the profession and its industry would at least have the self-respect to be able to kick back against the scornful undervaluation of their work as much as the music and film businesses have.

But journalism is barely a profession or a craft anymore - except (ironically) the sort of stuff that people bother to clip to Evernote having read it in their Facebook or Twitter timeline.

What to do about this? It's hard to know where to start. You'd expect a craft that had a collective conscience to at least be discussing this. There is no question that the demand for real reporting and insight is larger than ever before. Other industries that have had their demand boosted by the arrival of the Internet have increased their revenue. But as long as it is the convention to give all of the content away to anyone with a browser and to allow search engines to index all of it without charge, no market can ever emerge.

Musicians like Camper Van Beethoven's David Lowery have been saying this for some time. Journalists need to start demanding the erection of a paywall around their work. They need to start insisting that Google pays something to index their content - as a single supplier that dominates the market, it exercises monopoly powers here and it should either compensate for the damage that this does to journalists, or be broken up.

It's time for writers to stop being conned into creating demand for tech kit. They deserve a slice of that cash we all spend on hardware / services / WiFi. I don't particularly want to see paywalls, and I don't think that a functioning market will ultimately need them either. But until they exist on all titles that pay journalists and Google have to pay to index what is behind them, no-one is going to incentivise publishers to take them down. There will be no functioning market for journalism until paywalls are at least introduced. Doing so may concentrate a few minds wonderfully.

If such paywalls existed, personally, I'd pay a fair few quid a week to my ISP if they could route me around them. I wouldn't mind paying a bit to services like Evernote for the added value I get from clipped stories.

Newspaper sites could be negotiating deals like this - if they erected paywalls, but at the moment they can't. For some reason, I can't remember the last time I heard a journalist attacking publishers for not creating paywalls. Why is this? Even though good journalism is a valuable craft, perhaps the fact that few people perceive it to be so means that no-one is prepared to make the argument?

The failure to articulate a collective journalistic conscience is at the heart of this problem.

1 comment:

George Timothy Shutt said...

Great article. Thoroughly enjoying your blog,

In regards to my own reading habits, I often view articles via their original website, therefore seeing adverts around the edges. I've also noticed that some newspapers are frequently using video news, which also has adverts before the video starts.

Intriguing article. Keep up the good work!