Over the past week I’ve digested all sorts of stories about the changes being wrought on newspapers.
There is definitely a wee sense of foreboding (bordering on mild hysteria) among those in newspaperland who are paying attention. Though I suspect there are many journalists simply looking away in the hope that if they can’t see what’s going on then maybe it won’t actually happen after all.
In the space of 24 hours, three stories were relayed to me by two separate sources – all concerning well-known regional newspapers in both Scotland and England. In each case the narrative was broadly similar:
1 – These papers will only employ new staff who can demonstrate multi-media skills (ie, it doesn’t matter if they can’t source, bottom out or write a story – as long as they can upload a reasonable facsimilie thereof onto the web);
2 – They are issuing state-of-the-art mobile phones-cameras to all staff who will be expected to be writers, photographers and to come back from assignments with video and audio – as well as the story and pictures – all for uploading to the website;
3 – They are all finally realising that web hits massively outnumber traditional readers, while reluctantly accepting that, thanks to some unthinkable paradox, the internet yields virtually nixy in advertising revenue.
As with so much else it comes down to money. Papers have never been so desperate for content. And thanks to their websites have now achieved the holy grail of instant reach and geographically unrestrained coverage. What was once the sole preserve of radio and TV is now available to newspaper websites – real time audio and moving pictures.
But the poor old papers are equally cursed and blessed. Since revenues are falling where is the money coming from to pay for all this additional content? Oh. It’s not.
In fact, staff numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate (I’m reliably informed The Scotsman regularly has no-one – not a single reporter – covering the evening shift). As a result those who are left are being asked to do more. It seems the internet is intent on welding together the jobs of writers, photographers and broadcasters (whether TV or radio) into one unwieldy, ugly, media Frankenstein.
Over lunch with Euan McGrory, assistant editor of the Evening News, I gloomily suggested the demise of newspapers would only be hastened by the inevitable in-fighting as reporters are asked to take on duties traditionally performed by photographers – and vice-versa.
Euan’s take was both cheerful and reassuringly practical: “The problem with all this is as plain as the nose on your face.”
I can only assume the Evening News have already piloted this, becauase Euan was emphatic. “When you sent out a photographer they come back with some really nice images. When you sent out a reporter with a camera, they come back with a pile of crap.”
The simplicity of the argument stopped me in my tracks. During all the handwringing and woe-is-me soul searching over the future of journalism, I missed one vital point. Most reporters can’t compose, light or capture much more than a basic happy snap. And I’m afraid to say that most photographers I’ve worked with find the standard 50-word picture caption tests them to the limit.
Neither of those factors has every been a problem because, until now, the two very distinct disciplines of words and pictures have been just that – distinct. Now the panic measure in a media struggling to come to terms with the web mean we are seeing news people being asked to multi-task to ludicrous levels. And it’s only just beginning.
I’m fond of my job swap analogies, so let me put it another way. If you were about to go under for heart surgery, you wouldn’t suddenly want to learn that the surgeon was also the radiographer who earlier conducted your ultrasound scan. And was also doubling up as the anaesthetist. Then planned a half shift as a specialist intensive care nurse on the recovery ward, before rounding off his/or her day by popping over to the admin block to crunch some numbers with the hospital management team.
I’m living in a half-demolished house just now and I know categorically that the tradesmen rebuilding it are almost tribal in there professional factionalism. Brickies build walls; joiners work wood; sparkies deal with the electrics; and plumbers handle the water works (and maybe a bit of heating/ventilation if you’re really lucky). If I asked any of them to mix and match they’d pack up their tools and leave me to do it myself.
Scott Adam, the creator of the hilarious Dilbert cartoon strip, is a sharp student of the so-called New Media and has, for instance, been blogging for yonks. But even he is feeling the pinch and now plans to rein it in his online activities. He announced the news to his army of readers with this shrewdly worded aside: “It’s hard to tell the family I can’t spend time with them because I need to create free content on the Internet that will lower our income.”
Being optimistic I hope that, as skilled and trained news operators find themselves being squeezed out of the market then, just like Scott Adam, they are going to stop contributing to the free content which makes the web so great while simultaneously cutting the throats of many of the best contributors.
I’m now closing my eyes and hoping really, really hard that people will only knowingly accept total crap for so long, before reluctantly acknowledging they’ll have to pay for the good stuff in some way or another. Then again maybe not.
In the meantime I’ll watch reporters desperately brushing up on how to use camera phones and photographers wrestling with the vagaries of grammar and spelling – and I’ll be ignoring what I’m actually quite good at (a wee spot of media relations) to try reinventing myself as a multi-media guru instead.
Maybe the future’s not so bright after all.