W(h)ither quality journalism: views-papers versus newspapers

by Stephen Tall on January 9, 2005

“No one ever lost money under-estimating the intelligence of the public.” PT Barnum was an entertainer, not a journalist, but as these two trades increasingly merge, is there room for quality journalism any more?

Since The Times abandoned tradition and relegated its classifieds from the front page, there have been complaints against newspapers ‘dumbing down’ (a hatefully lazy phrase which should immediately be excised from rent-a-quote commentators’ vocabulary). But 2004 brought the issue up front and centre once again, as first The Independent and then The Times ditched their broadsheet for tabloid editions.

(Though of course both refused to accept the term tabloid, preferring ‘compact’ instead – a dispute equivalent, I guess, to understanding the social distinction between napkins and serviettes, and strikingly reminiscent of The Times’s marketing of its 1980s’ Bingo game as ‘Portfolio’.)

Their decision appears to have been validated, at least if sales are the criterion: both newspapers’ circulations were up by over 10% in November 2004 compared with 2003. But at what cost to the quality of their journalism?

The Independent’s transformation is the most glaring example of the changing face of British journalism. Its front pages scream at the readers, pummelling them into submission with its self-consciously radical-student-lefty-rag opinion pieces of which the image at the top of this story is merely one instance.

Perhaps their most famous version was the day after the Hutton Report’s publication, when the whole front page was cleared of text and pictures, except for one word, printed in small type, ‘Whitewash?’ It was triumphantly effective, principally for its (at the time) novelty. I have no doubt that today they would not even bother with that modifying question mark’s nod towards some attempt at impartiality.

The trend is increasingly clear. It is not now sufficient to be what the Daily Mail used to advertise itself as – ‘A newspaper not a snooze-paper’. Today they must be ‘Viewspapers not newspapers’.

Of course, this isn’t a peculiarly British phenomenon. Today’s Independent on Sunday carries an excellent analysis (first published in Business Week) of the dilemma facing the New York Times. After 108 years, and countless Pulitzer Prizes – seven in 2002 alone – it is facing something of a crisis. This is partly a result of the infamous Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal, when one of the NYT’s journalists was revealed to have fabricated dozens of stories; partly their frank admission that they had misled their readers over Iraq’s WMD.

Their creditable response has been to invest in their journalism: 20 new writing and editing jobs have been created. The result: profit margins still below 25%, sluggish advertising revenue increases which trail well behind their competitors, and a 0.2% circulation boost. Still, at least they’re trying.

But before those of us who yearn for a return to quality, impartial news reporting hang our heads in despair, let’s consider briefly the underlying reasons for the decline in standards of reporting. The last decade has seen an explosion in the number of news outlets, chiefly from 24-hour rolling news coverage and the Internet. The vast majority of readers are no longer reliant on their morning newspaper to inform and explain to them what is happening in the world. Why spend £4 a week on The Independent when you watched BBC News and read BBC.co.uk 12 hours earlier as part of your licence fee?

Newspapers’ clear and present response to this situation has been to attempt to plug the niche which broadcasting regulations prevent television from occupying: editorial opinion.

The problem for readers of this development is two-fold.

First, it is too easy to skim knowledge from TV and the Web. (Have you read this article with the same degree of concentration you would have devoted to a print equivalent?) They are no substitutes for the time and space you can devote to reading in-depth newspaper analysis.

Secondly, ‘views-papers’ encourage the rush to instant judgement. Impartial news coverage allows readers and editors time to form measured verdicts, and not to give in to easy, simplistic, knee-jerk attitudes.

And, thirdly, newspapers lose their capacity to challenge or surprise their readers. We risk becoming trapped in a vicious circle, with publishers increasingly seeking to turn their newspapers into brands appealing to particular demographics. The result? Editors select stories and hire commentators as part of a positioning strategy, rather than for their inherent worth; while readers demand newspapers which affirm their world-view, and rarely challenges it.

In a fluid, fast-moving world, we need news we can trust. Quality journalism is essential to our ability and confidence to make independent, qualitative assessments. Perhaps newspapers could try, in the words of another entertainer, “mis-underestimating” the intelligence of the public, and see what happens.