And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

The internet isn’t killing journalism – journalists are.

Earlier this week I read a good article in More Intelligent Life titled “Can the Guardian survive?“. As a Guardian employee I’m fairly interested in its extended longevity and I read the piece with interest. A single paragraph stood out to me above all of others, so I’m reproducing it verbatim here:

At the Open Weekend, one event looked at whether journalism was a second-rate form of writing. In the audience of 50 or so was the white-haired figure of Nick Davies, taking a breather from his investigative duties. When the conversation turned to long-form journalism, he spoke up, sounding exasperated. “In 20 years’ time,” he said, “there won’t be any newspapers left to do this. All these millions of hits won’t pay our salaries. The internet is killing journalism.”

This boggled my mind. I had to go back and re-read it to make sure I hadn’t got it wrong. This is the same Nick Davies who worked closely with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks — an entirely internet-based organisation — to publish some of the most important journalism of the 21st century thus far? And he thinks “the internet is killing journalism”?

I respect Davies immensely. He’s a hugely prolific and talented writer and his book Flat Earth News was a recent favourite of mine. Neither do I disagree with the statements he makes prior to the doom-mongering closing sentence: I agree that in 20 years, print newspapers will be virtually extinct. I also agree that “millions of hits” don’t add up to a financial model all on their own (ask any failed Web 2.0 company). I don’t agree, though, that these things add up to “the internet is killing journalism”.

Since I wasn’t at the talk in question and can only rely on the linked article for background on Davies’ quote, I went off and re-read relevant parts of 2008′s Flat Earth News. Davies comments sparingly on the internet, but where he does, he’s pretty clear on things:

“And, of course, there is the internet. Bloggers and citizen journalists do uncover untold stories. [A war story] emerged, despite official denials from the US State Department, because bloggers found and circulated evidence from an article in a US Army magazine.”

Here Davies highlights civilian journalism (almost setting off the “is blogging journalism?” klaxon in the process) and the benefits it adds to the wider context of a story, or even discovering the story itself. So far, so straightforward: Davies is simply pre-empting Alan Rusbridger’s current thinking on “open journalism”.

Davies goes on, however, to counteract this benefit:

“But, against that, the Internet is also functioning as a kind of information madhouse, frantically repeating whatever fragments of ‘news’ happen to make it into the blogosphere, much of it nonsense.”

Again, nothing too controversial here. The internet is more susceptible to repeating “nonsense” due to the speed of transmission and the way tools like Twitter allow stories to go viral in a way print never could. I don’t believe this kills journalism: in fact, it makes it stronger. Frequently when major news breaks on social networks, I see comments from users wanting to see “official” reports on events before they’ll believe them. While Twitter and Facebook might “break” news before the BBC and co, there’s still a healthy regard for the mass-media and its output in a world where everyone with an internet connection can be a commentator. Surely that means journalism is very much alive?

Most presciently, Davies concludes his thoughts on the internet with this:

“The real promise of the Internet, however, is not that it is a means of allowing individuals to beat the mass media but that it could liberate the mass media from churnalism. By delivering news electronically, the Internet has the potential to slash the costs of production, reducing or completely removing the heavy costs of printing and distributing conventional newspapers. If those savings were recycled back into the newsrooms, to employ more journalists, we could start to reverse the process which has made the media so vulnerable to Flat Earth news. But that sounds suspiciously like the imaginary world again. So far, media owners have shown every sign of grasping electronic delivery as yet another chance to cut costs and increase revenue without putting anything back into journalism.”

Again, I agree with Davies that digital news can help cut the massive costs of “traditional” journalism and these savings should be channelled back into production. As a web developer, though, I fear that Davies’ comments on “employ[ing] more journalists” betrays that print media mentality where the technical bods who build the websites are nothing more than dumb production workers. More than once at the Guardian offices, highly skilled (and highly paid) members of our software team have been mistaken by journalists for the IT helpdesk who fix people’s Blackberries when they break. Websites don’t build themselves and journalists need to recognise that they aren’t the only players in this game.

Returning to Davies’ original assertion, that “the internet is killing journalism”, I’d like to propose an alternate interpretation:

“The internet is accelerating the demise of print-based news consumption”.

It’s no lie that print sales are falling and print newspapers are increasingly unprofitable. But why does Nick Davies and other journalists like him seem to believe that there is only one form of journalism? Why do they act like people making things on the internet want to kill it? Enormous web companies are doing everything they can to embrace it. Google obsess over Google News and making it provision of content and headlines super-intelligent. Twitter have provided arguably the biggest external production service to newspapers since their own in-house tools. Facebook are falling over themselves to persuade news companies to seed their content into the website, knowing it will increase user interest and usage. The internet is reinvigorating journalism and taking it into new spaces, quickly.

Davies can mourn the death of print all he likes. The age-old traditions of newsprint and ink-stained fingers will be a quiet loss to society. That loss does not include the journalism itself, however. All of the things Davies acknowledged in Flat Earth News are still true and his apparent convenient ignorance of the fact that many of his recent major stories (WikiLeaks, the News International phone hacking stories) were partially or completely enabled by digital journalism is embarrassing.

Maybe I’m asking too much to expect the old guard of the print world to respect and understand digital news. I don’t want them to become arbiters for apps, feeds and widgets — let’s be realistic. But attention-grabbing and reductive one-liners like “the internet is killing journalism” are at best ignorant, and at worst, lies. The internet is saving journalism, and journalists need to understand that. Take it away and newspapers won’t suddenly spring back into life, selling millions of copies a day.

People will always want to read the news and they will always trust journalists to provide it accurately, quickly, and honourably. The internet changes none of that. Print newspapers are not the only form of journalism, and if journalists don’t realise that soon, they’ll have nothing left at all.

All quotes taken from Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News, p.395 (Kindle Edition).

  • M Caruana Galizia

    Hi Matt, this is Matt. I do your job at the FT. Reading this post, I felt like I was reading something that I had written myself. I can’t say I’ve ever heard any criticism as explicit as that of Nick Davies here, but I do think the sentiment haunts most big news organisations that made their names in print – certainly those in London. To me it was doubly strange, because I had come from a culture where experienced print journalists were setting up news enterprises in partnership with developers – Burt Herman and Xavier Damman of Storify, for example – to one where developers were seen as production line underlings. It was also doubly frustrating, because as young, liberal ‘net natives’ we had bagfuls of ideas and were a kind of hyper-version of the audience that the same organisation would soon come to depend on whether they like it or not. If they didn’t listen to us, who were they going to listen to? More importantly, who was going to listen to them from then on? I grew up in the media as well as online and I have a deep respect for journalism. I don’t think we can afford to lose it – if we do then our democracy will surely suffer. So I’m not going to give up because of some attitude problems within the organisation. I think it’s better to use our positions to change the culture and business of the organisation from the inside, even if we have to step on a few toes to get there.

    However, I do have to say that sometimes we developers don’t do ourselves any favours. There are a lot of problems with social skills and we could make more of an effort to talk to people outside our trade. Why not talk to journalists, talk to editors – show a bit of an interest? Or as one of the speakers at a conference I went to recently said, stop interrupting conversations with a, “Well, actually…”? If we live up to the archetype of the IT helpdesk person we make it easier for people to treat us just like that. There’s a hurdle that prevents many journalists from understanding web development, but we’re at an advantage because the basic principles and processes of journalism are easy to grasp. So why not use that to our advantage and go to journalism meetups and conferences as well as development ones?

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