Tuesday, 20 May 2008
Nick Davies: All the PR That's Fit to Print?
Last night in Cambridge someone asked Nick Davies what he would do if he was given 50 million pounds to fix journalism in the United Kingdom. Davies said he’d set up a "shadow newsroom" to sample all the output of the country's various newspapers to see what proportion of stories proved false or distorted. He’d make it a legal requirement that media products be labeled like food products, with stories rated as to the sources of information: how much original reporting had gone into them and which ones were just re-written press releases. “I think then consumers would start to abandon [the media] if they saw how bad their products were,” said Davies.
I don’t know if Nick Davies deserves 50 million pounds but certainly he deserves more than 6,000 pounds. That's what he said he netted after two years’ hard work on “Flat Earth News,” his delightfully detailed diatribe against journalism as it’s currently practiced. The book has struck a chord--nay, a very orchestra--in British media circles and there was a large crowd last night at the Wolfson College Press Fellowship event to hear him talk about it.
“New owners of the mass media have shifted their priority from propaganda to commerce,” Davies writes in "Flat Earth News." He argues that press barons no longer want to influence agendas but, instead, fatten their wallets. This obsession with the bottom line at a time of increased competition and falling profits has made owners ruthlessly cut costs. Reporters have to squeeze out more stories every day. Forced to increase their output they desperately turn to churnalism: recycling press releases. Writes Davies: “Almost all journalists work within a kind of professional cage which distorts their work and crushes their spirit.”
I was there to provide an American perspective though I don’t know how useful I was. I’ve only ever worked for The Washington Post and I’m unfamiliar with the assembly-line approach Davies described. We don’t have reporters writing nine stories a day, as Davies’s book claims is common in England. (Things may be different when I return to a post-buyout newsroom.) Nor does The Post resort to the dubious survey story, that is, a story based on "research" that's done by a business solely to get its name in the paper. Of course, the U.S. media makes its own mis-steps. For example, a medical show recently broadcast on NPR has been criticized for not informing listeners that the experts quoted all received money from drugmaker Eli Lilly.
Davies didn’t address some of the contradictions I found in his book. In one chapter he criticizes the lazy or overworked hacks who are content to do all their reporting (such as it is) via telephone and Google. But in another, he lambastes Fleet Street for employing private detectives to unearth private information—police records, phone records, health records—about story subjects. The latter activities imply a scoop-at-any-cost mindset lacking in the former. Davies returned to the economic rationale: Papers slashed their investigative staffs and now are forced to rely on crooked dicks going through trashcans and bribing police sources.
His attempts to wrap everything under the anti-commercial rubric weakens the book, I think. It would be just as strong as a catalogue of the media's shortcomings. His chapter on the failure of the press in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq--the issue that got him started on the project in the first place--is sobering. And his opening chapter on coverage of the Millennium Bug (remember that?) should be read by every journalist ready to pile on a hot story.
Davies doesn't offer any solutions. I think some of Britain's problems are easily fixed. Ban cheesy survey stories for a start. Don't be so concerned with matching dubious non-news events, just because your competitors have them. (That this might prove difficult was underscored by a former Fleet Street editor who pointed out that people need those sorts of trivial stories so they won’t feel left out down at the pub.)
There was definitely a fatalism in the air. Newspapers stink. The publishing business stinks (small, worthy books have to pay for themselves these days, said Davies, rather than be subsidized by blockbusters). One woman in the audience said she sees the same decay in academia—at Cambridge, presumably. “Things are going right downhill," she said. "I don’t understand how I’ve allowed this to happen. How have intelligent people lost control of their institutions?”
I’m not sure we’ve lost control. I'm not sure we ever had control. Things change. Davies writes in his book that there never was a golden age of journalism, but he certainly implies there is an ideal we are failing to achieve. Is there an audience for that ideal? That's hard to say. Going downmarket--flat Earth news, in Davies's parlance--seems to sell. Still, I'm hopeful that the sort of journalism I like to read--and I like to do--will always have an audience. If it doesn't, I don't want to be cramming it down peoples' throats just because it's good for them.
That’s a market solution Davies the socialist wouldn’t like. But it’s all I’ve got.