The Power of the Press

Best newspaper in the world? Maybe…

Last night we had dinner with our friend Gary Younge.

He is a columnist for The Guardian, the British newspaper. A paper many believe to be among the world’s best.

Gary noted that although Britain is the size of Michigan, it has one of the most vibrant and varied newspaper environments in the world. Each day The Times, The Sun, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The Guardian and many more papers are produced, purchased and read.

It is an incredibly media rich environment, and as a result, it is also an environment alive in public discourse; and a very knowledgeable and well read population.

In the US, the newspaper business used to be like this. Once, there were 17 daily newspapers in New York. Today, most cities have but one paper, and for anyone who travels, the depressing comic book USA TODAY often appears under the door. (Best investigative paragraph).

What happened?

In the 1950s, television eviscerated newspapers.

They took the audiences and they took the advertisers.

But they didn’t reproduce the quality of the journalism, despite their reach.

They couldn’t do it because the process of making television, particularly television news, which has such a short shelf life, was so complex and expensive that they were lucky to get on the air. And what they did get on the air was little more than an intellectually stunted shadow of what newspapers had been able to produce.

Newspapers had been able to produce so much richness because the process of making a newspaper, the process of reporting, was so much simpler and cheaper to do. Here is the notebook, there is the door. Be back by 6.

Well, now, suddenly, video has become as simple and cheap to produce as text. Final Cut Pro is a word processing software for images. And pretty much anyone can learn to do this, and do it well.

The ball and chain that crippled television journalism since its inception – the need for the cameraman, the editor, the producer, the van… all that is now gone. History. Finished.

Video reporting can be as simple, direct and inexpensive as newspaper reporting.

So we are at a moment of great potential.

We can recoup the aggressive, vibrant and powerful dialogue that a world of many newspapers and many voices once gave us – except now it is going to be in video, as well as text.

Who will embark on this next generation of journalism? TV stations? I doubt it They are too mired in old and expensive ways of working. Newspapers? Perhaps…. they have a visceral feel for good journalism. Or perhaps it will come from some as yet undiscovered internet enterprise. An eBay for journalists? Maybe.

But one thing is for sure. As the complexity and cost of the act of making video driven journalism continues to drop, it opens the door to a whole new world of multiple voices and a return to a city of 17 daily papers – but this time, in video.


13 responses to “The Power of the Press

  1. Does Gary Younge still produce video for the Guardian. Haven’t seen any for many moons – did it not work out?

    TV (talking heads excepted) concentrates on stories with strong visuals and therefore ignores most news.

    VJ, with it’s disdain for the talking head, exacerbates this tendency.

    You are a well-informed commentator Michael. How much of your knowledge arrives via video?

    I am not a VJ-denier, just a curious open-minded citizen. Why not read Andrew Marr’s “My Trade – a short history of British Journalism”?

  2. Hi Peter
    Gary has taken a modified leave of absence to work on his new book. He’s still doing a few columns a month, but off the campaign trail for the moment.

    I agree that his videos were excellent, as they captured his intelligence and editorial insight. Nothing wrong with a VJ doing that. What I am against is gratuitous stand ups and reporter as star. Columnist is another story – watch for this on the Star Ledger project.

    I have ordered Marr’s book on Amazon, as per your suggestion, and will let you know.

  3. I look forward to GY’s book – there is a void in American-Anglo relations since the demise of Alistair Cooke.

    BTW – as a Daily Male you will no doubt appreciate Marr’s assertion that the last time the well-being of the (British) press was seriously threatened – it was saved by the Daily Mail using strategies imported from the US.

  4. As Blair took the Clinton playbook for “New Labour”.

    I was thinking last night that what probably preserved the diversity of the British Press was in some ways the BBC, and the UK approach to TV in the 50s and 60s. By creating the Corporation, they in one stroke drove TV news to quality as opposed to ratings, and by funding the Beeb from license fees instead of ads, left the advertising pounds to the papers. In retrospect, a very smart move.

  5. “In the 1950s, television eviscerated newspapers.”

    This is a very over-simplistic explanation of what transpired. The gradual (and recently rapid) decline of newspapers is due as much to newspaper stubbornness, hubris and disinterest in audience as anything TV was doing. US newspaper readership peaked in the late 1970s, fueled, at least in part, by things like the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam War and Watergate.

    One could argue that the trend toward corporate ownership, the trend away from hard-hitting investigative reporting, and large-scale embracing of overly homogenized, advertiser safe, chicken mcnugget news played no small part in newspaper decline as well.

    It’s true that TV provided choice and a more passive news fix than newspapers. But it is beyond wishful thinking to assert that newspapers didn’t play a major role in their own decline.

    The question now is whether they have learned enough to a) allow their audience a role in the news process and b) grown the cajones to do the work that newspapers should have kept doing after the 1970s. If they haven’t done either of those things, than video pap won’t save them anymore than text pap has.

  6. I agree that the television/newspaper analysis is overly simplistic, but I don’t think so far from wrong. Television simply sucked dry the adversiting revenues that newspapers had taken for granted.

    The great newspapers strikes in the 60s and 70s, as papers transited from hot type to cold didn’t do them any favors either.

    I am curious as to what you mean by ‘allow their audience a role in the news process’.

  7. ‘allow their audience a role in the news process’.

    During my years in the newspaper business the only avenue for non-journalists to be part of the news process was a) as interviewees or b) letters to the editors.

    As the internet took off bloggers began to encroach on the traditional professional territory and the response from many in the newspaper business was as negative as one could imagine. I sat in on discussions only a couple of years ago in which people at my place resisted even having blogs at our paper, much less allowing comments and/or blogs from non-newspaper people.

    Now some news organizations are attempting to find creative and productive ways to allow outsiders into the process, but the reaction from many in the public is that they don’t want to be “allowed” in as “outsiders.” They are going to do their own thing, further eroding the audience. Newspapers, as the market I know, are also finding it difficult not to segregate those it traditionally consider simply consumers.

    The future for news media involves partnering with the “audience.” I have been in the newspaper business nearly 30 years. Based on that it may be hard for many in the business to manage such a change of perspective.

  8. As just the latest example of traditional news media having trouble allowing the “non-professional” audience into the conversation we have the AP serving bloggers with copyright violation letters.

    That’s no way to treat partners. Heck, it probably isn’t a good approach to take with consumers.

  9. Was thinking about this topic while finishing up work tonight. The old-style media approach is transactional. They supply, audience consumes. They sell, audience and advertisers buy.

    The new motif being forced by the internet is a more relational approach. Creator and consumer gets murkier. And while buying and selling continue, those making the money become facilitators of the transactions rather than controllers.

    Newspapers, at least, are having a great deal of difficulty wrapping brain and business practices around the new way.

  10. Your last note made me start to think about the architecture of web based information vs. newspaper (or broadcast for that matter).

    In the latter, ‘we’ deliver information to ‘you’ on our terms. In the former, it is, (as you note above) highly participatory and non-linear (ie, on demand). As newspapers migrate both to the web and to video, I wonder if we should not search for an architecture for the entire process that is far more reflective of how the web operates best.

    For example, if you go to Google (to pick the best of the best), there is no authoritative figure who decides for you what you want to see.On the contrary, all is available and the power of google is that it (as a mechanism) completely trusts in the judgment of the end user.

    It would be insane to have an Executive Editor of Google (or eBay for that matter), yet with information (not so different) we do this as a matter of course.

  11. There is a role for editors in the new information architecture, it just can’t be as the one and only arbiter of what you should or must see. Editors are no longer gate-keepers, rather they are professional recommenders. Those who don’t find ways to allow interactivity and a level playing field that recognizes and promotes content of value — regardless of source — may not survive. There probably won’t be enough audience to support what they are doing.

  12. Gary Younge really took the “Letter to America” theme to heart:

    I think it works a lot better than the traditional VJ he was doing – way too many cuts for my taste. One take video is harder to pull off – but it creates a more authentic feel. That “visual interest” schtik has to go – the idea that cutting from a wide shot to a close-up every few seconds creates a “visually more interesting product” is complete crapola.

    But hey – an innovative trailblazer making video for the largest newspaper site in the world can’t be bad.

  13. The Masked Avenger

    What absolute crap Peter. What do you propose? Wide shots only? Good luck with that in your little video window.

    The whole language of film making is not going to disappear overnight. It evolved for a reason.

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