2 January 2017

The collapse of the press and the rise of anti-social media put democracy in peril


Over the Christmas week, CapX is republishing its favourite pieces from the past year. You can find the full list here.  

For a bunch of supposed professional sceptics and cynics, British journalists tend to have a surprisingly strong romantic streak. No other trade (it is a trade, and not a profession) enjoys analysing its own history, and romanticising its past, quite as much as British hacks do.

There may well be memoirs in existence about the glory days of the steel industry, or the changing fortunes of rural solicitors and accountants, but I’ve not seen many in book shop window displays.

Journalism starts with an obvious advantage because lots of journalists like to write books about their escapades. The link between what was once Fleet Street and the book trade also remains strong. This is not down simply to a mutual interest in occasional long lunches – although that’s largely gone now – but books and newspapers share the same well-spring, and journalists, agents, editors and publishers tend to enjoy each other’s company.

In London, the book trade and hackery both emerged from the area immediately around St Paul’s cathedral, when Henry VIII encouraged the profusion of Protestant pamphleteers to attack the Pope and Rome. From the importation of the printing press grew news and scandal sheets, alongside book publishers. Pre-1939, some of the City of London’s many warehouses were stuffed with paper which duly went up in flames in the Blitz. In the pubs and inns of Fleet Street, hacks jostled with printers, photographers and admin staff, most of them afloat on a sea of alcohol.

That accident of history and proximity helped spawn a literature on the British press and its sometimes highly comic doings. On the bookshelves next to my desk at home are many such volumes. Alongside Matthew Engel’s Tickle the Public, and Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, I can see Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times,‎ by Harry Evans.

That final title – vanished times – is particularly apt this week. The British press had just about convinced itself that it has survived the arrival of the internet and the creative destruction which has resulted. Each year has brought job cuts, but with the economy recovering and plenty going on in the world it seemed manageable.

Unlike in America, where many of the city newspapers that have closed‎ were monopolies that for generations printed money for the owners, in the UK there is a long tradition of tough national and local competition, that meant when the web turned up the concept of challenge was not entirely novel.

But this is the week when what used to be Fleet Street, which is now geographically scattered and diminished, came face to face with the reality that the situation is truly dire. It is akin to the moment in the arc of the Titanic story when the idea that within a few hours you will be back in your cabin resting soundly is replaced with the realisation that in an hour or so the ship will be at the bottom of the ocean.

Advertising aimed at consumers is falling steeply, as advertisers flock to Facebook and other platforms. The highly successful Daily Mail group issued a profit-warning, although its celebrity-based web operation, very different from the paper in content, is flourishing. The Telegraph has just launched a new round of redundancies. The Guardian – which loses money faster than one could burn it – is having to rethink its entire business model as it crunches its way through a cash pile made from selling off a car magazine and website business.

As someone who edited newspapers in Scotland a decade ago – The Scotsman and then Scotland on Sunday – I feel as though I have seen this movie before. One of the rules of journalism is that those in it never realise that something is thriving, or enjoying a golden period, until after it is gone.

In the late 1990s there was no shortage of resources. Expansion was the name of the game and the internet was a minor curiosity in newsrooms. Read stories and columnists in American newspapers instantly rather than having to get an international edition several days later? How novel, but what possible mass-market application could this funny new technology have? My goodness we hacks were complacent before the dawn of the smartphone.

By the time I left Scotland in 2006 the decline had begun across the industry, but it was as nothing compared with what was to come. The then owners of the Scotsman, the Barclays, got out just in time. The titles were sold to Johnston Press, a company that had no idea what it was doing, although they were not alone in that.

The results have been calamitous. Despite the efforts of the talented journalists who remain, circulations are a third of what they were not that long ago. Only the efforts of London-based publishers running Scottish editions have ameliorated the collapse in quality and helped hold the domestic politicians to account.

London and the UK press has been slower to arrive at a full-blown crisis because it was, obviously, starting from much higher numbers in circulation and advertising. Newspapers still had the scale and clout, and owners, to dazzle advertisers. They also often set the news agenda that is followed by broadcasters, meaning the politicians had too woo them. It all transmitted the message that while the industry was in decline it still mattered, a lot.

The Leveson inquiry and the hacking scandal was a blow to the industry, of course. But the British had never had any illusions about the press and its conduct. What mattered more was that‎ reading habits were changing, on both sides of the Atlantic, with younger readers migrating online and the classified smaller ads market going there too.

‎Journalists – working in an industry with a great regard for itself – often make the mistake of thinking that non-journalists will care deeply about any of this. Why should a young mother on a “zero hours” contract at a superstore outside Oldham bother that arts editors and restaurant critics are being flung on the scrap heap? The answer is I bet she doesn’t.

The journalistic cry – but you’ll miss big newspapers when they are gone – invokes little sympathy either. I assure hacks in London, this has been trialled in Scotland and only a tiny number of punters care a jot. As one would expect, the politicians have done nothing in the way of protesting about cuts. Some may even have enjoyed seeing their tormentors diminished.

But we should be in no doubt about what, for all the flaws of the press, is being lost. The press was never perfect at exposing wrong-doing but it has done and does a lot that matters, whether that be in reporting on what goes on in courts or in exposing chicanery in local government.

Journalists can be annoying, of course, but when it comes to agitiaing on behalf of consumers being scammed, or taking a power-mad political leader down a peg or two, there is nothing better. No algorithim has been invented – yet – that can do it half as well. Politicians fear the press, and we should fear the disappearance of anything which makes them worry.

But how to pay for proper journalism? There is good news amid the gloom, I’m glad to say. Rupert Murdoch worked out that the underneath the new age prattling of the web giants there lurked ambition every bit as ruthless as his own.

And so it has turned out. As much as 85% of online advertising is reported to go to Facebook and Google. The decision in response several years ago to charge properly for the digital editions of The Times, Sunday Times and Wall Street Journal was the right call, as it gives serious news organisations revenue and at least a shot at survival.

Current affairs magazines in the UK, such as the Spectator and the New Statesman, are also in rude health and they charge. The former in particular has developed an events business and has grown a loyal base of supporters.‎ Guido Fawkes – the Westminster site – has become a dominant player, pioneering “boutique media”, not relying on charging readers but identifying revenue streams and areas of reader interest. City AM in London does it well too.

The global Financial Times‎ is also in a good position long-term, even if trading is tough. I do not agree with everything in it – far from it – but when its weekend edition arrives, or when I read a particularly good piece of analysis during the week, it is equivalent to entering a favourite restaurant or bar. The world outside spins on at ever greater speed, but among like-minded souls it is possible to find clarity, insight and pleasure, for a fair fee.

In this way, the media revolution that mostly rests on charging goes further than a simple transaction in return for news or features. It is – as we journalists should also have recognised from the start – as much about community as anything else.

People are hit by a bewildering blizzard of nonsense online and on TV and radio, and finding the good stuff among the dross is not simple. Considering the events of recent years, having global politics, economics and ideas explained properly seems more important than ever. It also turns out (no surprise) that the tech giants blend inherent anti-conservatism, liberal elitism and hatred of regulation. They are too big and increasingly too powerful.

‎Indeed, those ostensibly up-market titles that opted for a friendly approach, cosying up to Facebook, pumping out more and more free rubbish to chase high traffic numbers, now find they are – for the most part – stuffed. ‎Their friends at Facebook have most of the revenue and established titles have debased their brands to pursue what turned out to be a digital mirage.

The future, it turns out, is not in demands for government subsidies for local reporters, or whining, or forcing the BBC to pay for it. ‎It is going to come down – there are no other words for it – to capitalist innovation. It means creating news outlets, magazines and websites that can convince readers to pay membership or subscription to be part of the club.

What is at stake is much more important than mere hackery, and mainstream media is hardly blameless, of course. But if good outlets perish, and news and analysis is delivered largely via Facebook and Google, we’ll soon find out what a problem that is.

Already, in the rise of the SNP in Scotland, Corbyn in England, the more extreme Ukippers, and Trump in the US it is evident that “Facebook media” is a serious menance to a healthy democracy.

I say that not because I disagree with any of those causes, although I do disagree with them all. The concern is that people are encouraged to live in an anti-social media echo-chamber, in which they only hear views and conspiracy theories which confirm their prejudices.

Compromise is a key ingredient in a civilised society, yet constant exposure to the myth that it is always bad, and that there are simple populist solutions to every question, and that anyone who disagrees with you is an idiot, leads to Trump, Le Pen and a threat to civilisation and free thought about which we are far too sanguine.

Iain Martin is the former Editor of CapX. This article was originally published in May 2016.