Save the Journalist

 I am (belatedly) reading the autobiography of Harold Evans. His is a name that can genuinely be prefixed by the word ‘great’. Undoubtedly one of the all-time great Editors.

Under his Editorship, the Sunday Times become synonymous with investigate journalism. The side-effects of the drug Thalidomide would never have been exposed without the ST team.

I have only got to about page 150 of his book, My Paper Chase, which has taken me to immediate post-World War Two Britain and Evans’ time as a cub reporter on a weekly newspaper in Manchester, northern England.

He used to get a bus, along with a colleague, in order to get to his patch, where he would knock on doors in the search of stories.

It is worthwhile repeating some of that last paragraph: bus, patch, knocking on doors, searching for stories.

Why was it worth repeating? Because it is unfortunately as antiquated now as the linotype presses Evans first saw.

Over the years, CEOs, proprietors, shareholders and boards everywhere have required that profit margins for newspaper increase often at the same time as pagination has increased. The greatest cost for a newspaper is manpower.

The result has often been less journalists doing more. The knock on the door interview has been replaced by an email – to the delight of every PR person who can now carefully craft an answer that he/she knows will go in print often unchallenged because the reporter is so over-burdened to bother seeking extra answers.

Investigative journalism has all but disappeared and so too has that ultra-local content that Evans would have garnered on his door knocks on his patch. A UK study by journalism students found that an astonishing percentage of content in the papers they studied (something like 70 percent) came from PR companies.

More than the national press, it is the smaller newspapers and media outlets that tend to expose corruption, wrong-doing, gaps in legislation etc first. In Bermuda, that role falls to the Royal Gazettes, the Bermuda Suns and the ZBMs of this world.

We had a taste recently of what can happen if someone is given the time to dig into a story.

Boards, proprietors, shareholders, CEOs everywhere should take note – more is good. It is under your watch that journalism is shrinking into something akin to a production line better suited to churning out cars as the number of journalists falls and the amount of investment in training tails off alarmingly.
In the UK we are seeing the creation of subbing hubs, taking local journalists hundreds of miles away from where they have worked. Local and journalists are two words that go together like hand and glove, take one away and the other is rendered useless.

Long ago I saw this coming and christened it production-line journalism. Others have called it churnalism – see Flat Earth News.

Sure, the recession has hit newspapers, and the media generally, hard, but more than in any other industry there is a public duty to maintain editorial standards. The newspaper is the ally of its readers, it is the champion of the community, it is the people’s watchdog – whether through print or electronic mediums.

Reach for the unreachable 40 percent profit margins, but ring fence the journalists. It is not just the newspaper that will suffer.