"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

22 April, 2009

George Orwell would be blogging. Why irrational nostalgia poses a real threat to the future of print journalism

This image copyright Hergé/Moulinsart SA

World’s most famous Belgian?
Tintin, the intrepid boy reporter and his trusty sidekick Snowy

Is there another profession whose practitioners suffer from quite as much maudlin nostalgia as journalism? I think not. You don’t often hear doctors talking about the good old days of trepanning and leeches and I have never met a farmer – and yes I know quite a few, living as we do in rural isolation – who would willingly swap his Sanderson for a horse drawn plough or the sharpest scythe.

Yet gather together hacks of a certain age and before too long, the conversation comes around to the long lost days of hot type, the whiff of the ink, the clatter of the typewriter keys and the reliability or otherwise of telephone lines across five continents. At a recent Frontline Club discussion on the future for local newspapers, I was flabbergasted to hear three members of a distinguished and experienced panel, plus a few contributors from the floor, recounting endless tales of how things used to be done and how noble (read: how much better) it all was back then.

There was much hand wringing at the current crisis but precious little initiative or lateral thinking on the thorny subject of how the local papers will have to regroup to survive. One panellist sorrowfully evoked Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi presumably in the sense that you “don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone”.

Unsurprisingly, I shared many of the fears expressed, notably that the current slash-and-burn happening across the country at so many regional titles will inevitably lead to a dumbing down of coverage and erosion of quality and to a worrying lack of transparency on key community matters such as the arcane proceedings of the local council or the police. Nevertheless, there was no valid discussion as to how the big media groups might go about replacing the (once obscenely) lucrative advertising revenues which have inevitably migrated to the nefarious world-wide intraweb.

I, too, am guilty as charged: my very first job was actually, physically, on Fleet Street in the elegant Lutyens-designed headquarters of Reuters at number 85, next door to Wren’s equally elegant St Bride’s, still the “Journalists’ Church”. I, too, can bore for Britain with tales of long nights at El Vino’s, long days at the City Golf Club and the odd international scoop. Earlier this month, I sat, enthralled, alongside 120 other self-confessed hacks, listening to the distinguished poet and writer James Fenton wax lyrical about his days as a bona fide war correspondent, hitching one of the last choppers out of Saigon. Those were indeed the days and should be celebrated as such.

I was struck by the absurdity of this longing for a long gone era when recently recounting just such a tale, albeit at their request, to a bunch of student friends, all of whom remain puzzlingly keen to forge their own career in journalism. “So finally, after four hours of failed attempts, we finally got a phone line through to Moscow, I had to run all the way down the newsroom in my high heels and short skirt, to make sure the copytakers were ready.”

More than one hand shot up. “What’s a copytaker, Dee?” Now these are Oxbridge undergraduates, not conspicuously lacking in intelligence but I could see the concept perplexed them. They simply could not conceive of a room full of head-setted typists, fingers poised over the keyboard, ready to take dictation. Of course not. They all write their own pithy reviews of dire student drama productions on their I-Phones and just press send.

When you think about it, hankering for the good old days of journalism is plain bonkers. Why would anyone swap their Netbook and Wi-fi for a super-annuated Tandy dependent on a reliable three-pin plug and a telephone line? No chance. Technology is awesome and should be gratefully embraced. Click here to read an enthusiastic paean on the topic from the entertaining and always perceptive Shane Richmond of the Telegraph.

I hope to return to post on some practical approaches for the brave new world of print. The advertising model is not actually broken – as was tiresomely reiterated during the Frontline discussion – but it does need some serious modification. Counting solely on traffic has already failed to successfully monetize newspapers' online offerings. The existing CPC/CPA model currently in widespread use really needs to move to a tenancy-based sell. There are, however, several other problems which may prove more intractable, from simple inertia, to the huge range of widely diverse individual newspaper cultures. At 'Out with a Bang' Rick Waghorn writes intelligently about these and related conundrums. Another mine of knowledge and consistently lucid source is the editors’ blog at Journalism.co.uk. For a truly comprehensive view, I can really recommend the percipient and spookily timely “SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save The World” by LSE Polis Director, Charlie Beckett whose blog is also required reading.

Print is not yet dead. It is not even moribund as I was reminded by two publications which recently hit my desk. The first is the immaculate, highly readable and beautifully produced UK version of Wired, edited by a former Guardian colleague David Rowan. I am still dipping in and out of the April Launch Issue. The second is IssueOne magazine, a rather more exotic but equally beautiful beast to which I hope to return in another post.