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.


Anonymous said...

This bit caught my eye:

"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.)"

I know you're not looking too much at the theory side of things. But you might find this new research paper interesting, by Pablo Boczkowski - the guy who wrote Digitizing the News.

I recently saw him give a talk on his new study, which was intriguing. He outlined some ways that online publishing is increasing the trend toward similarity in story choices among newspapers. Now that editors can see what the competition's publishing the minute they post it, there's more incentive to have the same story on their own websites, which in turn affects what shows up in the next day's print edition.

Part of the incentive to do this, he says, is supposedly that people will hear a story on the radio, on television, at the watercooler, (or at the pub, for that matter) and browse to the newspaper's website to find out more. If your site doesn't have the watercooler story, though, the fear is that these readers will bounce, and hits to your homepage will decline, along with your ad revenue and the market leverage that comes with impressive traffic stats.

Boczkowski's study was of Argentine papers, which apparently have a work environment similar in some ways to the one you describe - where reporters are expected to file myriad stories every day.

In his talk, though, he provided examples from lots of countries, and is apparently convinced that the same trend is going on everywhere.

Anonymous said...

As with other works of this genre (such as John Lloyd's "What the Media are Doing to our Politics") I wonder how much of Davies's thesis is just another piece of "It was all so much better in my young day" nostalgia which really doesn't stand up to comparative scrutiny. In any case, how is recycling corporate spin to line your pocket worse than recycling some politician's spin for the sake of influencing policy?

I'm still waiting for hard evidence that the great British public (or the American public) are actually less well served by the media now than 30 or 50 years ago. There may be some, it's just that I haven't seen it. Then again, I'm feeling pretty cynical having just watched the BBC's first TV news broadcast, which devoted as much time to Princess Margaret's visit to Lancashire as it did to the Korean war. Oh for those great bygone days....

Anonymous 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."
And just who would make all those value judgements Nick?
At last the totalitarian cat is out of Nick's nostalgic bag...

John Kelly said...

@Josh: That's interesting. I'll have to read that paper. That certainly fits with what the former News of the World guy said. It sounds like papers don't want to run the risk of being TOO different. It reminds me of debates over the web, and whether people simply look for information that reinforces their already-held beliefs rather than challenges them.

@Henry: Davies explicitly writes that there was no golden age. And yet by arguing that things are "worse" now he's implying that things used to be "better." I accused him of pining for journalism's Silver Age.

@Charlie: The argument of people like Nick is that the market can't be trusted to solve problems. It's because the market is biased that the world--and not just journalism--is going to hell. In my naive way I would say the market needs to be tweaked, not scrapped. Ratchet up the regulation, stiffen the penalties. But I never took a politics class in college.