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Press: Condition critical for the ailing news business

05 June 2020

PA

The entrance to the offices of The Guardian and The Observer, in London

The entrance to the offices of The Guardian and The Observer, in London

THE day before my heart attack in 2012, I had to show a party of Swedish newspaper editors around The Guardian’s offices and tell them what a wonderful success we had made of the digital transition.

After ten minutes of my best optimism, one of them could no longer conceal his surprise: he looked across the vast expanse of the open-plan newsroom. “There are still so many people employed here!” he said.

Deep down inside, I knew what he meant. I had spent part of the previous day conscientiously reading everything that the Financial Times had published about The Guardian’s annual results over the preceding ten years. The cumulative effect made me so anxious that I felt ill, and, the next day, after some injudicious exercise, I was much iller.

Eight years later, almost to the day, although I am entirely recovered, the health of the news business has continued to deteriorate. The pandemic and subsequent depression may finish most of it off.

A few places will survive. The New York Times is recruiting, and so is the Dow Jones organisation. But, to quote the FT again, “Tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs or been furloughed in the past few months. This month alone more than 600 staff were laid off at Condé Nast, Vice, BuzzFeed, Quartz, The Atlantic and The Economist.”

Even Microsoft has been laying off the journalists who supply “content” for its websites, and replacing them with AI programs. My prophecy of last week that only AIs would read the press releases generated by other AIs did not take long to come true (Press, 29 May).

Essentially, there is no place for mass-market-advertising-supported journalism today. The Mail group’s print-advertising revenue dropped by 69 per cent in the first two months of the lockdown, although the circulation revenue fell by only 17 per cent. There have been huge rises in online traffic, of course, but this is profitless when the advertisers don’t want their wares to be seen next to the stories that people are actually reading.

The FT’s print circulation dropped by 40 per cent, which seems likely to be an effect of people no longer having it delivered to the offices where they no longer work. The Times, The Sun, and their Sunday stablemates no longer allow their circulation figures to be published; the Telegraph reached the same conclusion in December.

The veteran editor Peter Wilby wrote in the New Statesman: “We can plausibly deduce that no paper, daily or Sunday, now has a print circulation of more than a million. Twenty years ago, five newspapers sold more than two million copies each and the Sun, on 1.2 million when we were last allowed to glimpse the truth, sold 3.5 million.

“The papers point out that many more readers now access them online. Some pay for this but many don’t. The obvious solution is for digital as well as print readership to be recorded. Alas, nobody can agree on how to present such data. Newspapers will be allowed, the ABC explains, to choose their own ‘metrics’ and ‘create the sales narrative that fits their strategy’.”

All this goes hand in hand with a mounting assault on the legitimacy of the press as a whole. This is a symptom of political disease as much as it is a cause. It is only pleasurable to believe that “it’s all lies” if you think that knowing the truth will make no difference to your life. But to believe that everything in the media is self-serving lies is ultimately self-defeating.

 

THE GUARDIAN reported the horrifying story of Amy Fenton, the chief reporter for the local paper in Barrow-in Furness, who has been literally run out of town by threats of violence after reporting on a court case involving a 19-year-old woman charged with lying about being abused by a supposed Asian grooming gang.

Note that this was court reporting under English law, and so whatever she wrote will have been remarkably constrained and uninformative. But it will have punctured the fevered narrative built round the case on Facebook and Twitter, and this was enough to enrage some people enough to threaten credible harm to her and her five-year-old child. I don’t want to be high-minded about an often squalid trade, but a press that doesn’t at least occasionally tell people what they don’t want to hear is worthless.

 

IN THE United States, racism has broken out into street fighting. The police there have fired on at least 100 journalists in the riots after the murder of George Floyd; one woman has lost an eye as a result.

 

ENOUGH doom and gloom: let me end with a perfectly delightful paragraph from the New Statesman’s review of a history of the Italian Renaissance: “To learn that Lucrezia Borgia owned a mozzarella factory is somehow a useful corrective to the melodrama; to know that some of da Vinci’s supposed inventions were Heath Robinson fantasies balances the myth of universal genius.” The author, if you hadn’t guessed, is Rowan Williams.

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