Private Eye’s Street of Shame column used to be illustrated with a Willie Rushton cartoon of a classic Fleet Street dissolute journalist slumped in front of a computer with a bottle. (Please excuse the gratuitous use at this point of a picture of Andrew Neil – he is actually irrelevant to this post – but one simply cannot mention the Eye without using that image.)
On the hack’s screen appeared the words: “New technology baffles pissed old hack.”
That hack’s had a pretty grim time of late. The fat years of long boozy lunches, unquestioned expenses and winging it have long gone. Bustling, smoke-filled newsrooms bursting with energy and profanity have been replaced by wannabe call centres staffed with clean, ambitious journalism graduates.
Now the whole industry seems on the point of collapse: circulations are tumbling nearly as fast as ad revenues. There’s no joy left in the craft. It seems to have become some kind of profession rather than the Epicureanist’s vocation it seemed to be back in the Good Old Days (™: any pissed old hack). But fear not, here’s the good news.
1) There will always be print: There are some kinds of content that are easier to read in the printed form. Ever tried to read anything over 1,000 words online? It’s like having your retina stir fried. Paper remains cheaper and more portable than any electronic device. Finally, print layouts are an effective way of presenting information in an easy-to-understand way. (None of this means, though, that the printing will be done by enormous presses with the product shipped round the country by trucks.)
2) There has never been greater demand for stories: More people than ever are consuming interesting stories. However, a vast number are not doing it in the ways they used to. Herein lies the revolution.
3) There will always be a need for journalistic skills: Someone has to write, film and picture the above stories. While user-generated content and citizen journalism offer fascinating opportunities, the ability to identify and filter information and then present it in an interesting, grammatical and ordered form needs a set of skills that are restricted to a tiny proportion of the general population – and far too few journalists.
4) There will always be a living to be made from journalism: OK, this is a bit of a leap of faith but trust me on this. The corollary of all the above is that there will be a commercial need for journalists – if they follow what the information market is doing.
The bad news: While there has never been a better time to be a journalist, there has never been a worse time to work for a newspaper. The future will be very kind to those who get it right and very harsh to those who don’t. If, as a journalist, your work is unique, interesting and relevant to your reader, congratulations, you will survive. If you understand that your audience is everything to you, that they are central to your work and that they provide input whose value cannot be calculated then you will thrive.
If, however, you’re waiting for your parent company’s commercial people to sort it all out while you keep on keeping on filling space like you always have done, then you’re extinct already. Remember the good times…