The Media Standards Trust has begun a lecture series on ‘Why Journalism Matters’. It is disconcerting that it feels we have to ask the question. The argument put forward by the British group’s director Martin Moore is that news organisations are so preoccupied with business survival that discussion of the broader social, political and cultural function of journalism gets forgotten. It is a pertinent review then, given the icy economic blasts hitting most Anglo-Saxon media groups, and notwithstanding the recent examples of self-evidently broader journalistic ‘value’ produced by London’s Daily Telegraph in its politican-shaming investigations into parliamentarians’ expenses.
First up in the series was Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, who cantered through the justifications for a vibrant, independent press. Watchdog, informer, explainer, campaigner, community builder and debater – those are the roles that journalism plays. The value that it brings is most evident by comparison with the unhealthiness of states where the press is not free, noted Barber, citing the struggles of the citizenry in China and Russia to hold their leaders to account.
The FT’s USP as a media group, according to Barber, is as an explainer and analyser of complicated events that play out across a global stage. But analytical reporting of global stories costs serious cash, he noted, in a question-begging aside. That you get the quality of journalism you are prepared to pay for, ultimately, is his response to the challenge posed to mainstream media by Internet-enabled communicators. For free you can have the rawness of a blog. For crafted journalism that is properly sourced, reviewed for taste and style and checked for accuracy, you must find ways to charge. At your peril do you blur the edges between the crafted and the raw world of easy comment, hasty opinion and rumour billed as fact, argues the FT editor. (There was a hat tip, however, to the bloggers that have broken news, such as Guido Fawkes who forced the resignation of an advisor to Gordon Brown by revealing his plans for a smear email campaign.)
So a sharp distinction was drawn between the value proposition of professional journalism and its unruly blogging and twittering cousin. No such clarity yet, though, on the funding model for the former when the Internet has made audiences expect to read most general interest news and a lot of specialised niche content for free. No secret that each and every news group is daunted by this obstacle, even the FT, which has not been immune to the downturn in advertising revenue.
We were left with a couple of clues on the way forward. Barber predicted that within a year all news organisations will be charging for online content in some way. (The FT’s model is to allow readers access to a few articles for free and then charge for further use.) Will Google ever pay for content – unlikely says Barber. But at least they might be prepared to talk about linking via searches to articles requiring subscription, which they do not do currently.
And his flippant response to the demographic challenge posed to a print-based news organisation by the emergence of a generation of youngsters who get all their information from screens? People are living longer – they will still buy newspapers.