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An Open Letter to Fellow Journalists: Reformulating The Story Is More Urgent Than Moral Reform

The most pressing problem in journalism is not moral collapse but the collapse of ‘the story’.

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Andrew Calcutt

Proof Set 3, May 2012 The Reformation of Journalism

Dear Journo,

The Leveson Inquiry may be the most far-reaching investigation into ‘the culture, practices and ethics of the press’ (if only today’s investigative journalism was so well-resourced), yet it is way wide of the mark. The most pressing problem in journalism is not moral collapse but the collapse of ‘the story’.

‘The story’ is journalese for capturing events: it is the form in which an event appears, as and when we journalists have captured it. But today the story is on the point of escaping us; and we have done little to stop it.

The idea of capturing events strikes many, younger journalists as impossibly authoritarian. After the advent of Web 2.0, even senior editors began to share these misgivings. The cat is out of the bag, they said. With the media landscape opening up, there is no need for the kind of closure that capture contains: it’s foolish even to try. To keep hold of readers, go for Twitter instead.

Then along comes LevesonPlus (the man himself and the whole ensemble of his inquiry) with the message that capture is not merely mad, it is also morally bad. Thus the News of the World was doomed in the attempt to capture the story in a killer quote from Milly Dowler’s voicemail, allegedly. Unless it is regulated/reined in, the ambition to ‘nail it’ will be the death of journalism, supposedly.

On the contrary, it would be morally reprehensible if journalists did renounce their ambition to capture the essence of events; as if doctors could take back their Hippocratic oath while continuing to practise medicine. Moreover, journalism practised without this ambition is quack journalism: it collapses the distinction between casual media content and professional journalism, i.e. journalism worth paying for. So YPay for it? Indeed there is a now a generation that does not expect to. If you weren’t the journalist whose job depends on it, you wouldn’t, would you? And if we continue operating along these lines we will find ourselves writing the longest, professional suicide note in history – our own.

Previous issues of Proof made the case for the continuation of professional journalism, assuming that professional journalists continue to distinguish themselves by capturing the essence of events. The current issue is primarily concerned with how that happens, at a time when it seems to be happening less, and there is growing resistance, even among journalists, to it happening at all.

For journalism to remain a must-read, it must devise new story forms, capable of capturing the essence of the early twentieth century. Even more important than the moral choices facing journalists, journalism is destined to become optional if it does not rediscover its own essentialism, and devise new ways in which to formulate it. These are the tasks to which this Proof is dedicated.

All human life has to be here, in our pages and on our screens; or we don’t have to be here at all.

Please feel free to agree or disagree, extend or challenge the ideas and analysis contained in Proof.

Andrew Calcutt andrewcalcutt@gmail.com

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