It’s becoming increasingly clear that a substantial section of our press is no longer serving to report the news, but rather functions as a full-blown arm of the entertainment industry. Accuracy, journalistic integrity and moral decency have been replaced by the overwhelming desire to sell as many newspapers and as much advertising space in those newspapers as possible. Whilst it could be argued that printing and selling newspapers has always been about the bottom line, Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News makes a convincing argument that the bottom line used to go hand in hand (at least most of the time) with the basic tenets of journalism.
Perhaps the main driver for moving away from the traditional concept of what a newspaper is (you could easily argue that the name no longer accurately describes what is still known as a ‘newspaper’) is the slow decline in sales caused in part by the Internet, but also by Television and in particular the notion of 24-hour rolling news channels. People can dip in and out of news at their own convenience on their smartphones – with the freedom to choose from any supplier (except, perhaps, The Times which has moved behind a paywall). People don’t need to subscribe to newspapers anymore and the freedom to pick articles from different newspaper websites destroys the idea of traditional brand loyalty, or the expectation that we have to choose the one newspaper that best matches our own outlook.
In Flat Earth News Davies charts the downfall of real journalism as newspaper owners dealt with declining revenues by cutting staff and reducing money spent on investigative journalism. All of this could be easily replaced by making the remaining journalists produce more copy – gleaned largely from Wire services or simply re-written from other news sources. As the numbers of journalists declined so the the workload of those remaining increased until very often bylines indicated little more than who had copy-and-pasted a Press Release or straight copy from a wire service – without checks with regards to accuracy. Thus the notion of churnalism was born.
But this wasn’t the only consequence of declining revenues. Another significant consequence was the change in the product itself. News was no longer the exclusive domain of the newspaper. People could get it quicker, brighter and louder through their TV, radio or picked up on their PCs or smartphones via a social networking site or via the newspaper websites themselves. By the time the newspaper is printed it is already old: it is telling people very little they don’t already know. This meant that the newspaper had to change the nature of the what they did. They became not the breakers or news, but the masters of news commentary (or spin, as it is better known).
Newspapers became concerned far more with opinion – rather than tell us the news they thought they would tell what to think of the news that we had already heard about. Newspapers have abandoned any subtle pretence of neutrality in favour of essentially becoming one giant editorial. People choose newspapers as a filter, they pick the one that bests skewers the news around them to fit their own prejudices. It is, essentially, a slightly more adult way of putting your fingers in your eyes and screaming ‘la-la-la I can’t hear you’ to the rest of the news world.
The final consequence of the new business model is that any money spent by a given newspaper / editor must generate tangible profits for the newspaper. This means that given the choice between spending £3,000 on sending a journalist to a location for what could possibly be an important, newsworthy story (the kind of journalism the press always like to talk about when they tell us how important it is for them to have absolute freedom because they are out there, being journalists to act as a check and balance to the rich and powerful etc) and spending £3,000 buying a photo of Hugh Grant broken down in his car the editor will spend the £3,000 on the Hugh Grant picture every time. Celebrity drivel sells.
It’s expensive, but cheap at the same time. Whilst it might cost a fair bit for paparazzi photos of celebrity-x frolicking on the beach, the price is fixed and clear – all the time, equipment, plane tickets and incidental expenses etc have already been dealt with by the individual pap – the pap takes on the risk and the newspaper gets a guaranteed story for a fixed price.
This is where the addiction begins.
The evidence suggests that reporting on celebrities doing even the most inane things (going to the gym, washing hair, putting out bins, leaving home, arriving home, eating out, looking fat, looking thin, wearing clothes, wearing clothes they have worn before, walking their dogs, leaving a night club and generally doing anything at all that can be photographed) is big business. Sadly, there is a market for this drivel and it is growing. You only have to look at the massive growth the Daily Mail website has enjoyed – which is largely driven by celebrity stories and American web traffic. The Mail have even set up offices in LA to maximise the celebrity crap they can churn out.
Celebrity drivel is the new business plan for a lot of newspapers (like the Daily Star trying to shoehorn Jordan onto the front page of every edition with ever more elaborate inventions or their amazing run of front pages about Ryan Giggs) and it is becoming an addiction for both editors and readers alike. The editors need the sales that celebrity drivel can generate, and it seems enough of the public need celebrity to drivel to fill some kind of vacuum in their obviously meaningless and shallow existences.
Call me a snob if you want, but I kind of find it pretty depressing that the Mail website is currently running this story: ‘Kate Middleton: We’ve seen that dress before, Kate…on Sarah Jessica Parker in 2006!’. It is depressing thinking that a lot of people will probably be quite excited by this news story, or at least interested enough to click and have a look. It is even more depressing to think that at some point in the construction of this story someone who had perhaps wanted to be a journalist had somehow found themselves going through reams of images to find this obscure match and then having to write an article around these two pictures.
But all of this is irrelevant. All that matters is that this stuff does generate page views and shifts newspapers. Editors generally don’t print want no-one wants to read.
So here we are, trapped in a mutual addiction. The drive of newspapers to out-dig and out-titillate TV news led to phone-hacking becoming a standard technique and although it may have originally intended to be used for good it was soon being used to track the relationships of celebrities and eventually to eavesdrop on the grief of families (allegedly) and even to obstruct the Police in their investigations.
Bad journalism isn’t neatly isolated into pockets that we can cut out, it is rather a systematic product of an addictive pattern of selling us what isn’t actually any good for us. The press have become no better than a drug dealer, selling us cheap highs, quick fixes, dishonest scares and above all celebrity gossip. We know it’s bad for us, we know we should be doing something more worthwhile with our lives, but like any addiction it is hard to tear ourselves away from turning the same old pages for the same old content.
It’s just like the food industry packing everything with sugar, making us crave more and more of it as we encounter it in more and more products. If a food company now tried to market a healthy alternative to this they’re stuffed because everyone is addicted to products stuffed with sugar. We know such products are bad for us, but we buy them all the same. To rid ourselves of any addiction takes a lot of willpower, and it also takes a brave producer to try to sell us a product that they can only sell to those of us who want to go cold turkey.
Sadly, the reality of business dicates that an alternative product will only be offered once the original product is abandoned by the consumer. So, the question is, therefore: are we ready to give up the newspapers we currently happily consume?