Thursday, 15 May 2008
Roger That: Observing Roger Alton
I think one of the reasons I like the British newspaper biz is because I'm not too close to it. The figures I read about--the venal owners, the embattled editors, the disgraced reporters--aren't like real people to me. They're like characters from a comic book: flawed superheroes whose exploits I can enjoy at a remove.
In contrast, I find it harder to enjoy what's happening to the news biz in the United States: the grim circulation and advertising statistics, the layoffs, the lashings of gallows humor (and, believe me, no one does gallows humor like a journalist). It's all very close. Today is being called "D-Day" at The Washington Post, the deadline by which eligible newsroom employees must decide whether to take the company's buyout offer. (Hey, let's not forget that on the real D-Day the allies started turning things around in Europe!)
With his imposing stature and large, bald cranium, Roger Alton resembles a comic book character: the braniac mastermind who remains in the futuristic HQ while his ragtag band of superheroes do battle with the forces of evil. And that, essentially, is what a newspaper editor is. Alton ran the Observer, the Guardian's Sunday sister, for nearly 10 years, before leaving at the end of 2007. He'll become editor of the Independent in July. He spoke yesterday to the Reuters Fellows, delivering a lecture entitled "Not Dead Yet."
The title echoed one given by the New York Times's Bill Keller last fall in London. An "homage," said Alton. Alton's remarks were, if anything, even more upbeat than Keller's. (My write-up for the Reuters Institute should be up on its web page soon. Click here to check. ) Yes, times are tough, said Alton, but plenty of people still buy papers and there are plenty of ways to make sure they keep buying them.
I noticed that while Alton spoke, and especially when he answered questions, he would sketch on the papers in front of him: boxes, flowcharts, sets of concentric circles. He didn't show these jottings, they were just the graphical manifestation of what was going on in his mind. Many of the best editors I've worked with have shared that illustrative trait.
But is a nimble, doodling mind and a surfeit of energy enough to turn around the anemic Independent--or any newspaper these days? Alton touched on the changes new media have wrought--bloggers! vodcasting! social networks!--but it didn't sound like his heart was in any of it. He said his changes at the Indy wouldn't be revolutionary. "I'm not cut out for that," he admitted. He said the paper too often looked like a second section and that the campaigning tone it takes on so many front-page stories can induce a sort of campaign fatigue.
Independent columnist and former Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson was the seminar's discussant (isn't that those little sachets of chemicals packed with electronics equipment?). Like Alton (and me, I suppose) he's a bit of a newsosaur. Both decried the way Fleet Street peddles its wares these days with things like free DVDs and Prince CDs. It makes news a commodity, said Lawson--which, of course, is what it's become for many people. That old holy grail--the scoop--isn't respected anymore. It can't exist in an Internet world and it never did sell papers anyway, said Lawson. (England winning at soccer is much more likely to shift copies, but those days are over, right?) The tabloids are a bit adrift since their stock and trade--puncturing taboos over sex and celebrating topless trollops--now spills for free from our PCs.
And yet, and yet.... Alton said he can't help but believe that if you went down to the corner shop in the morning and there were no newspapers, you'd want to invent something like them. What else can you crumple in anger than a newspaper, said Lawson. I could see the wheels turning in their heads, these two old Sunday editors. Running a paper is like getting the coolest toy in the world to play with, a board game that entertains with every roll of the dice. Bring down a world leader: Move ahead three spaces! Defend an expensive libel suit: Lose your turn!
Or maybe it's like chess. What I wonder is if it's now like three-dimensional chess, that game they played on "Star Trek." Can any one person keep it all in his head?
In the Time of Nick
Alton is a main character in "Flat Earth News," the Nick Davies screed about the sorry state of journalism. ("Roger Alton has never claimed to be a political animal. His style is too intense, bordering on manic, at best full of charm, at worse eye-wateringly clumsy.") Davies says that Alton and the Observer basically carried water for Tony Blair in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, parroting the government's line and getting extra chummy with Blair and his PR Rasputin, Alastair Campbell.
Alton said he hasn't read the book but he bristled at one reference he had heard about, in which he allegedly returned from lunch with the Prime Minister "full of determined support for the campaign against Saddam." "It makes me sound like a fucking infant," said Alton, who said he never had lunch with Blair.
I think it's safe to say Alton and Davies won't be having lunch together anytime soon. Said Alton: "Journalists spend a lot of time shitbagging people so it's expected that they'll get shitbagged." At least, I think that's what he said. I hadn't heard the expression "shitbagging" before and perhaps I got it wrong.
Nick Davies will be talking about "Flat Earth News" at 8 p.m. on May 19 at Wolfson College in Cambridge. Click here for details.