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Objection! The Case for Professional News Reporting

The purpose of this essay is to show how journalism is true to the world it describes, despite the many, fully justifiable complaints levelled against some aspects of it; moreover, that professionally produced news reporting is disposed to provide a unique kind of truth which is not generally replicable by non-professionals – at least, not in current conditions nor in the foreseeable future

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Andrew Calcutt

Proof 2010: Journalists Defending Journalism
Set 1, January 2010 The Scale and Origins of the Threat to Journalism

Introduction: Under Fire

Journalists are facing new pressures. Even before ‘credit crunch’ became full-blown recession, there was the perceived threat to professional journalism posed by user-generated content (UGC), and the migration of classified advertising from the local press to the internet.

Now, in the current context of reduced advertising revenue, declining readership and deepening recession (at least in the UK), publishers are especially keen on UGC. They see it as an opportunity to cut costs by reducing the number of professional journalists involved in the production of media content (note, ‘media content’; no longer ‘news’ or ‘features’). Compared to paid-for journalists, citizens come cheap.

From the publishers’ point of view, it makes sense: if readers don’t pay for online content, why should publishers have to fork out for it? What’s free to the goose should be no-fee to the gander.

If implemented to the letter, this approach would spell the end of the professional reporter. News reporting, the front line of journalism and also its single, costliest component, now faces the firing squad.

Battle Of Ideas

Journalists are naturally opposed to this view, and the cost-cutting, job-slashing measures which it reflects. But so far we have been unable to re-think the problems facing journalism in such a way as to reinforce the role of professional journalists and confirm the essential character of news reporting.

What’s thinking got to do with it? Journalists are often called upon to enter into readers’ thought processes, but we ‘hacks’ do not normally include independent thinking in our job description. In any case, you can’t think yourself out of recession.

However, given that we are in recession, and recession means that already limited resources are becoming even more so, we should recognise that the ensuing battle for resources partly depends on a battle of ideas – ideas about what journalism does, what it can be expected to do, and what it is about professional journalism that is worth paying a premium for.

Holding The Line

The cut and thrust of office politics largely determine whether more or less of a fixed budget is spent on news reporting; and whether UGC is deployed as a substitute for it. Of course personal loyalties (and their absence) also play a significant part in these battles, but ultimately you can only hold the line if first you have an original line of thought to hold onto; and this we hacks have lacked.

Instead, journalists have entered the conflict on other people’s terms, unwisely accepting that digital technology destroys journalism; conceding, unnecessarily, that UGC inevitably undermines the role of professionals. Having ceded so much to the other side, we’ve hardly been able to convince ourselves of the importance of professional journalism. We know we would be penniless without it. But that’s about as much as we have managed to say; and in these penny-pinching times, it is nowhere near enough to prevent journalists being made to feel the pinch.

Commentator Ben Goldacre nearly had it when he said of ‘the media’ and swine-flu ‘hype’: they ‘have lost all confidence in their own ability to give us the facts’ (the Guardian, 29/4/09 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/29/swine-flu-hype ).

More than that, nowadays we journalists hardly dare claim to ‘speak truth to power’, because we have largely conceded that truth is beyond our ken.

The purpose of this essay is to show how journalism is true to the world it describes, despite the many, fully justifiable complaints levelled against some aspects of it; moreover, that professionally produced news reporting is disposed to provide a unique kind of truth which is not generally replicable by non-professionals – at least, not in current conditions nor in the foreseeable future; furthermore, that journalism which is true to the world is both true to itself and up to the money. Hard facts, if only they are hard enough, will measure up to the harsh realities of economic life.

By the same token, this essay also provides journalists with a convincing argument for professional journalism in general and news reporting in particular; an argument to be used against publishers disposed to dispense with professional journalism at its costliest and also its most important point, i.e. news reporting, the point at which new information originates.

This is the first in a volume of essays, ‘Journalists Defending Journalism’, published by Proof. The authors of these essays object to the various prosecutions currently brought against professional journalism, and offer a host of powerful arguments in defence of it. By lodging these objections and acting upon them, we can do more than cover our backs. The uncertainties we are presented with also present us with the opportunity to certify what journalism is for; and the chance to do this with more confidence than ever before.

Vested with the following arguments in support of our own professional interests, we journalists need not go naked into the conference chamber.

Economy of Time

Journalism pictures the world for its readers, viewers and listeners. Not so that they can appreciate the depiction (though we don’t mind if they do), but in order that they may know what’s going on.

Long before BBC iplayer, it was professional journalism which made the unmissable, unmissable.

Web 2.0 enthusiasts make out that people can do this largely for themselves nowadays, for and on behalf of each other. In the new world of their numerous catch-phrases, ‘here comes everybody’ segues into ‘we the media’. But this outlook confuses the possibility afforded by new media technology with the realisation of that possibility in an historically specific social context. Standing in between the two is an enormous obstacle – much more than a technicality – known as the economy of time.

We all know that ‘time is money’, and the ‘economy of time’ is shorthand for the allocation of work time, and thus the measuring out of lifetimes, according to the pressure to make money. All commercial companies are obliged to operate within the economy of time, and so are their employees. Accordingly, most people spend most of their time either working for the company or recreating themselves so that they are fit for work next day; and time allocated to these mainly mundane activities, is not available for journalistic purposes. What’s already spoken for, is not free to be spent any other way.

By the same token, i.e. having to have money to live, to earn a living we journalists are obliged to allocate the time of our working lives to the business of reporting the world. At first sight, this is merely to state the obvious distinction between amateur and professional; but it has been so readily obscured recently, that it merits a second look.

The economic pressures which inevitably distract non-professionals from journalistic activities, have the opposite effect on professional journalists, consistently focussing our attention on the continuous task of reporting the world and processing our reports into revenue-generating packages. Under the terms of this arrangement, consistent economic pressure matches the continuous nature of the reporting role that journalism takes on. The economy of time means that journalism is best-equipped to support readers, viewers and listeners, providing them with high-quality information about a wide range of events, when the people best-qualified to practise it are financially supported for doing so.

‘We the media’ people will have their calculators out, by now. They will have worked out that if you add up the shorter time available to most individuals for journalistic activity, it may outlast the longer time at the disposal of a relatively small number of professional journalists, so long as the non-professionals taking part are sufficiently numerous. But even this trade-off cannot match the unique social role played by professional journalism – a role which depends on the economy of time but is not reducible to it.

Time and Time Again

Setting aside quantitative considerations for a moment, getting paid to do journalism allows journalists whose time is paid-for to practise journalism continuously, which in turn lends a particular quality to the journalism they are thus able to produce. We journalists soon recognise this, just as we are quick to laugh at those who have not had enough practice. But there is more at issue here than technique; the latter is merely the outward form of the essentially social character of professional journalism.

Those paid to do journalism all day, cannot but do one story after another. Although we are not often asked to write exactly the same story twice (it sometimes seems otherwise!), repeated reporting – going out on one story after another – means that each time we do go out, we take with us what we saw last time, and what we think we might encounter on our next outing, even as we are working on the job in hand.

Continual repetition, in other words, makes for continuous comparison. As well as reporting on specific events, as and when they report them, professional journalists are also comparing these events to other events and relating them to other stories they have already reported. While recording the details of any one story, professional journalists are also measuring its details on a scale constructed from the previous details of earlier stories, and the way those other stories were also calibrated by reporters, sub-editors, desk editors, title editors, and the editor of last resort – readers. In describing one experience the professional journalist also inscribes it with other experiences, so that in making an account of it, journalists render every experience commensurate with all other experiences.

As authors of ‘the first draft of history’, professional journalists are the first to perform this comparison; moreover, all subsequent comparisons depend on our original evaluation, even if they end by rejecting it as incomplete or inaccurate.

A simple simile: each time they hear patients’ symptoms, doctors make their diagnosis based on what they have heard just now, together with what they have previously heard at medical school or from other patients. Without this comparative capability, they would be quacks; with it, they are essential to the health of society.

The Social Role of Journalism

Among professional journalists, the same sort of ability is loosely described as ‘news sense’. To veterans of the newsroom, it is as natural as walking and chewing gum at the same time. It is casually described but also rightly revered, for this is not only a matter of practised technique; it is also an essential component in journalism’s social role.

When professional journalists compare one story with another – the comparison which repetitive reporting will prompt them to make automatically, in their mind’s eye they are exchanging one human experience for another. This enables them to rate the new story according to its ‘news value’, i.e. to identify its significance in relation to other stories. But there is more to this rating than the ratings (viewing figures, readership, professional status). The fact that individual human beings can understand the experiences of other individuals, and even their own, depends on those experiences being exchangeable, commensurate, measured according to the same scale.

On a monthly, weekly, daily, hourly basis, professional journalism makes a particular contribution to mutual understanding because professional journalists are exceptionally well trained in sizing up a wide variety of current experiences according to standards held in common. Yes, these standards and the way we journalists apply them should both be open to question; nonetheless, it is largely by our efforts that each new experience is placed in relation to other experiences; and this association of all experiences is not only the stuff of journalism, it is also the precursor to every association between people. It is vital to the production of society itself. Moreover, because of the economy of time professional journalists are uniquely placed to play this socially constructive role: being regularly paid for long periods of reporting prompts particular development of the comparative capability from which society itself is partly derived.

Retrospective Standards

In taking up with UGC, and encouraging it to take over from professional reporting, publishers seem to think that the comparative capability of the professional can be introduced at a later stage in the production of media content, usually in the person of the sub-editor tasked with making some decent copy (applying common standards) out of the variable stuff (non-standard) sent in by the punters. But this is wholly unsatisfactory.

Though reporters and sub-editors have often differed sharply in their interpretation, nonetheless they are accustomed to working to a common standard. The comparative capability characteristic of the professional journalist is writ large in the sub’s re-drafting as it is in the reporter’s first draft. But it is not normally present in the raw form of UGC, which often consists of a simple invitation to ‘look at that’, or even to ‘look at me.’ This is one-dimensional, and when sub-editors (‘re-badged’ as ‘content processors’) are required to make something more of it, they are being asked to insert the social dimension retrospectively, into one-sided material which lacks the duality inherent in professional work.

The resulting content is devoid of integrity; it is highly manipulated, which makes it prone to inaccuracy; and at its worst it is laughable. Charlie Brooker got it right when he roasted BBC Online for the vast expanse of UGC which it devoted to…..snow.

Properly deployed, UGC allows news organisations to widen the range of their source material. A wider range of material may well result in better coverage, not least because there is more material available for comparative evaluation; but if used as a substitute for professional reporting, it can only lead to inferior coverage – and less (commercial) interest in that coverage on the part of readers, listeners and viewers.

The Money Shot

In response to all of the above, publishers will say that professional concern about journalism’s decline does not in itself make a convincing case for investing more money in news reporting. They point out that:

Journalism’s ‘social role’, as you have chosen to call it, is conditional on its commercial function; and now that its business model has been broken by the worldwide web, professional journalism, especially paid-for reporting, is increasingly dysfunctional.

For an industry which frequently declares itself ‘platform agnostic’, it is strange how many senior managers are true believers in the power (divine or devilish?) of one platform to destroy all others. Equally strange that journalism’s ‘broken’ business model is considerably stronger in parts of the world which have recently experienced rapid economic growth and cultural development, including the expansion of the internet. The simple equation of internet expansion with the contraction of professional journalism, does not add up.

Furthermore, the statements made by many American and European publishers are at odds with the measures they themselves have taken, and the promiscuous investments they have made. Without waiting for the development of a sustainable business model, many of these publishers have spent millions attempting to turn their titles into branded social media where readers can recognise themselves and associate with each other via the people (peers, professionals, celebrities) they see represented in them. This trend, which began nearly 10 years ago with magazines imitating online communities, has since spread along all media platforms.

Instead of updating and improving the outward-looking role that professional reporting plays in support of society, all sorts of publishers have sought to use quasi-journalism as the mechanism for engineering inward-facing, small-scale societies into short-term existence – just long enough (they hope) for the eyeballs of reader-participants to acquire a commercial existence. But it has never been clear why free association between people would produce a cash cow. Who needs to buy a magazine, or pay for access to any other media platform, if it offers virtually the same experience as Facebook? Or going to church/mosque/synagogue?

Greatly Exaggerated

The social role of professional journalism is to associate new human experiences by composing accounts of these experiences which are both singularly accurate and inherently comparative. Professional journalists have been paid by publishers on account of their dual capacity to capture an event in its particularity and its comparability; and in turn, readers have been ready to pay for paid-for journalists to rehearse this particular combination on their behalf.

From a global perspective, this model is by no means broken. In parts of the world such as China, India and Brazil, it is thriving like never before. In the West it has come close to breaking point (despite Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to retrench), but this point has been reached largely because publishers (and some journalists) have been promoting their publications not as journalism but as sites where users participate in quasi-therapeutic encounters. Instead of developing a relationship with readers via the quality of reporting, they have sought to establish a direct relationship between personalised users and the persona of a particular publication, aka the brand. By the same token, however, they themselves have demoted journalism’s mission to report, which in turn has done much to undermine the commercial basis for reporting.

Perhaps publishers were hoping to advertise the experience of media-based community, i.e. to turn the existence of such communities into a hook for advertising, in order to counter-act recessionary tendencies within the core business of bringing new information into the public domain. If so, this tactic has backfired. Disguised until recently, recessionary tendencies are now very much in evidence, and there is no evidence that the monetisation of community is enough to hold them off.

Worse still, many Western publishers gave up on journalism without waiting to see whether it would give up on them. They changed their core business from truth-telling (allegedly) to facilitating conviviality, and now they complain that the traditional model for journalism does not cater for the new package of therapy and hospitality which they want us journalists to produce (in smaller numbers and on lower salaries).

Meanwhile the continuing success of some titles which have positioned themselves primarily on the strength of their professional journalism, e.g. the Economist, confirms that publishers need not have rushed to abandon the core business of speaking truth to power. Even the devoted following for TV shows such as The Wire points to a continuing public appetite for veracity.

Publishers claim to have been responding to drastically different appetites on the part of new media users, but they were already predisposed to the demise of journalism before they announced the death of its traditional business model. This means that reports of the end of journalism have been grossly exaggerated; but unless publishers are confronted and their miscalculations challenged, unfounded rumour may yet become self-fulfilling prophesy.

Conclusion: Recovering Our Nerve

On the other hand, if we professionals recover our nerve, and re-assert the significance of journalism for society (not as a substitute for it), hence its commercial viability, it is more likely that publishers will re-instate us. They may even find some backbone of their own, as Murdoch seems to have done.

If many remain resistant to the force of our argument, we should remind them of the terrible fate of those other companies which recently moved away from their core business in search of new models and (over)-extended revenue streams, only to find that they had made their own situation far worse. In the UK, such companies were formerly known as….. building societies.

Securing the future by extending publishers’ brands into non-journalistic areas, has been as fallacious as the ‘securitisation’ of assets in over-extended financial products. Conversely, just as the further development of society requires journalism to play its social role, so economic recovery in publishing demands the immediate recovery of professional reporting.

On this occasion, our demands as professional journalists coincide with our employers’ long-term economic interests, and the common good. Professional news reporting must be recognised and re-instated not only as the foundation of our trade, but also as the cornerstone connecting commercial publishing with the public realm.

Andrew Calcutt is the editor of Proof and course leader of MA Journalism and Society, UEL.

 

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