Two things that persuaded me that journalism absolutely will carry on, and get paid

The first was that I wandered into the kitchen while The Message, compered by Steve Hewlett, was on. They were talking about blogs and new media and stuff. One of the guests made the point that “In all the years I’ve listened to Radio 4, I’ve never heard anything useful on Any Answers. But on Any Questions, where you have professionals answering the questions, I have.”

The point about Any Answers is sooo true. It’s open mike for anyone who can’t be bothered to think beyond the headlines they might have seen. Last Saturday it was full of people who thought that the captured British sailors in Iran should have stuck to name, rank and serial number and refused to comply with demands to do daft TV pieces.

Name, rank and serial number must be one of those stuck memes – those things we think are still the form in which things are done (I mentioned the one of climbers making ascents by banging things into the rock, even though in rock climbing in Britain that’s been pretty much totally abandoned – because it damages the rock – since the 1970s). NR&SN was abandoned by the Allies some time ago – during the first Gulf War? – because they recognised that it simply doesn’t work. They are going to torture you, and it is going to hurt like hell, and precisely what is it you’re keeping from them? Any sensible command structure won’t have told you anything useful beyond your mission, else they wouldn’t have sent you. Military instructions have for some years been: don’t be obstructive. Don’t help, do escape if you get a clear chance, don’t volunteer stuff, but make your time there as pleasant for yourself as you can, and bear in mind that it’s all head games, apart from the bits which are really unpleasant, which aren’t.

So, no intelligence on display in Any Answers.

The second was trudging through the Technorati-discovered responses to Vic Keegan’s piece headlined “To the Average Joe, blogs aren’t cutting it“. There are 70-odd of them, so I’ll save you, but the reason why (on about the 30th, parroting the same response: “I’m an average joe and I like my blog”) this process persuaded me that journalism is here to last is that so many of the people whining hadn’t read the original. They had a link to it, but they’d not managed to go through it. They hadn’t managed to read it, absorb it, think of the questions it did and didn’t raise. They hadn’t been to look at the State of the Blogosphere report. They hadn’t checked primary sources. They hadn’t done the footwork.

Journalists do that: they do check, they do ask, they do look for inconsistencies, things left out, things unsaid. They do ask what procedures are, they do go looking for notes on what those procedures are, they ask people who’ve been captured what it was like, if they can tell them what they’ve been told.

You can’t get the average person to do that. It’s a skill, one which can to some extent be learnt, but the drive to know what’s going on comes from somewhere inside. And it’s absolutely the sort of thing that will be essential in future. It’s weird that it takes the counter-evidence to show it, but the exception proves – where “proves” has its Old English meaning, of “tests” – the rule. It’s exceptional for people who aren’t journalists to have those abilities. But as a rule, journalists do this stuff. And always will.

5 Comments

  1. I haven’t heard much useful on Any Questions, but I’m put off by all the applauding and thus don’t listen much.

    Anyone saying “blogs” are important surely hasn’t noticed that a “blog” is just a medium. As you say, it’s the message that matters.

    What I’m not sure about is where the money for decent journalism will come from. I reckon (without any evidence) that the Average Jo doesn’t care about the good journalistic qualities you mention. She cares about whether Angelina might be breaking up with Jennifer or whether Mourinho had signed a secret deal to take over at Real Madrid, regardless of truth. And she’s not even paying for the news; advertisers are.

    Whereas John Gruber provides what I think is pretty interesting and rigourous coverage of… Apple-related stuff, funded directly by his readers (and, to be fair, advertising). I just don’t know if that model works for stuff that’s more relevant in the real world. Cos, as I say, I think Average Jo gets bored by details and nuance. She wants “Gay Adoption Scandal!”, “Vegetable Tax Outrage!”, and “Chocolate Cures Cancer!”

  2. Journalists do that: they do check, they do ask, they do look for inconsistencies, things left out, things unsaid

    The Duncan Campbell piece you ran this week is a great example of that. Superb journalism.

    Paul –

    What Iím not sure about is where the money for decent journalism will come from

    That worries me too. I don’t think we’re quite at the stage where publishers’ only criteria will be page views and Diggability – and I hope that won’t ever happen, or all online newspapers will resemble a cross between the Daily Star, MacRumors, You’ve Been Framed and those “best 26 letters in the alphabet, ever!” Channel 4 programmes – but there’s definitely downward pressure on budgets. Good investigative journalism is very expensive, and it doesn’t always turn into a big story that sells papers. If publishers see such journalism as having a halo effect on their brand, they’ll continue to fund it. But if they don’t care about halos…

    Chocolate cures cancer!

    That’s an example of the downward pressure in action, I think. It seems as if much of the health reporting now – and not just in health magazines – is written by people who don’t have a background in health and who were hired on the basis that they can write quickly and cheaply. Digging into the story to see whether the press releases or the manufacturer’s claims are based on reality, even if they have the inclination or the expertise to do so, isn’t something their publishers seem to want.

    Here’s a real example, a job ad from a few weeks back:

    Menís Fitness is looking for an experienced staff writer to write and edit the Nutrition and Health sections of the magazine.
    You donít need to be an expert on health matters, but you do need a proven record of producing sharp, witty and accurate copy for a consumer title.

    You don’t need to be an expert on health matters to write and edit the health section of a magazine entirely devoted to health and fitness?

    That probably explains why Zest, the female equivalent of Men’s Fitness, often runs scare features based on nothing (killer wi-fi, for example), and why the health sections of so many magazines frequently regurgitate utter bullshit from cosmetics firms, quacks and the like.

    *gets depressed*

  3. Charles

    Friday 20 April 2007 at 12:36 pm

    Yes, the Duncan Campbell piece on Operation Ore’s flaws (link provided for passers-by; see also the comments on The Register story, which has someone who had the exact same experience) was good. Kudos to PC Plus, who offered it to me in the first place.

    Actually, Duncan might be the role model for the future investigative journalist: he acts as an expert witness. I think that can be well-paid. Though it feels wrong that people who are innocent should have to shell out for something which is the police’s fault. Happily, there’s a class action by those who say they were wrongly accused – see the Inquisition 21 site for more.

    Don’t worry, though, Gary – I’ve heard that life has a 100% mortality rate. Let’s see Zest get around that one.

  4. I donít think weíre quite at the stage where publishersí only criteria will be page views and Diggability

    Yikes, hadn’t even thought of that. That would suck. “Page views” is a horrible metric.

    But I’m signing up for a Zest subscription immediately :)

  5. A very thoughtful piece. As a keen reader of blogs, I hadn’t considered them to be a threat to conventional journalism. What Blogs do do though, in my opinion, is allow ‘any questions’ type professional opinion to be expressed in more detail. Journalists are very rarely experts in the field they are writing on, but meerly expert journalists. This inherent lack of personal experience, and the desire to deliver ‘both sides of the arguement’ is a major weakness when you don’t fully understand the argument.

    As example of this is BBC health reporting. Very occasionally they actually identify the big issue of the day (eg Junior doctors’ jobs) and allow 5 minutes of medical opinion. They then feel obliged to let a government minsister spin, bluster and lie for 5 minutes in the name of ‘balance’ – but they don’t have the knowledge or ability to expose the obvious holes and untruths in the official argument! This gives the inexpert viewer the opinion that ‘it’s a close argument’ which it patenetly isn’t.

    As for blogging, read this:

    http://www.drrant.net/2007/04/nhs-what-is-to-be-done.html

    I would love to see an example of comparable aurthority and skill written by a health journalist or even ‘medical economist’. It is highly unlikely, becasue Dr Rant’s piece is soaked in personal experience and intimate knowledge of the subject matter. It also reads well.

    Blogging has it’s place, and that place should at times be more prominent in the public’s conciousness.

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