by Mike Wright
THESE are hardly halcyon days for journalism. There has been a dense gloom filling newsrooms for as long as I have worked as a professional reporter. The atmosphere veers from a nihilistic acceptance to unrestrained despair. I have seen more colleagues and friends than I care to recall handed their P45s and had my value as a human resource quantified on an employment matrix.
All this has been accompanied by the mood music of euphemistic management-speak. The company is “operating in challenging conditions”, “cost-bases” need “streamlining” or “centralising” into “hubs”. The tragedy can lapse into farce. I remember at an earlier stage of my career being on a team of reporters congratulated as our paper saw its circulation drop least in the group that year. Needless to say no champagne accompanied this announcement.
Over time I think most hacks have become inured to this unrelenting state of decline and it’s now as much a part of newsrooms as the Bic Biro and notepad. On both sides of the Atlantic the printed press is the industry shrinking more violently than any other. I am thoroughly inured by now (possibly even jaded). But I am regularly disheartened by how of some elements of the fourth estate fail to recognise the context of print’s continued decay.
More so when I hear of the “the web” talked of as though it is some malicious conspiracy to send us all skidding down to the Job Centre. There is no great enigma. We are living through an information revolution, equal in proportions to those which have sparked geopolitical evolution and upheaval before.
There have been three major previous information revolutions. The invention of writing around 3,500 BC which meant we could store information accurately and indefinitely beyond what our limited memories could hold. Then from around 1,000 BC there was the development of the phonetic alphabet, which meant all human wisdom could be encapsulated in around 30 symbols. For these two we have little or no record of the direct effect they had on the people who lived through them. We do for the third.
In the 15th Century the invention of the Gutenberg press in Germany gave birth to the mass printed word. It upended centuries-old establishments and lit the touchpaper for the Reformation. (As an aside, it was a Bruges-based English businessman William Caxton who brought Gutenberg’s press to Britain in the 1470s. He set up his printing business in the precinct of Westminster Abbey, which is why print unions are called ‘chapels’ and their leaders ‘father’ or ‘mother’ of the chapel.)
We are living through the fourth information revolution: the digital word. so far this revolution is still in its infancy yet has already helped overturn a series of entrenched and brutal dictatorships in the Middle East. It is also causing economic tectonic plates to shift. One of the myriad consequences is that fewer people pick up newspapers. But it is the format, not the content they are rejecting.
I know that I now consume most of my news by plucking stories from social media feeds with scant regard of the publication behind them. It is a much more efficient and contemporary news environment. Also when I see papers on display they are generally a digest of stories I have already read and had my fill of in the previous 24 hours. Not to perceive this and evolve our business practices to match these new market realities seems about as wise as rejecting the phonetic alphabet.
For a profession that prides itself on being astute, we can be remarkably blinkered and naive about our current predicament.