Tagged: the observer

The lure of big media

Entrepreneurial, multi-platform aware and innovative. They’re the qualities that graduates hoping to go into journalism are supposed to embody. They should be able to have a sense of when audio or video can augment a story. They must be able to use maps and data to add to stories when necessary. Self starters like Josh Halliday made their own luck, running a small scale news operation that served a tight community.

That said, big media still looms large over many graduates’ expectations and validation as to whether they’ve “made” it. Part of this is an image problem. It’s still far cooler to say you work for the Times or the Telegraph than even something like Press Gazette. You get an ID badge with that distinct, centuries-old font on it, and your mum will be proud that you work for a “proper” newspaper.

Case in point on a personal level: 99% of the work I do is based online. I’ve been part of some really exciting stuff in the past and hope to go on and do much more in the future. But the thing that made my mother call me up hysterically with waves of pride in her voice was when I landed a two-line quote in Andrew Rawnsley’s book The End of the Party.

Print feels more “real” to many people. Because newspapers are still thought of as primarily a print format even though we (news junkies or otherwise) all freely admit to getting the majority of our media online. Our word association with “newspaper” hasn’t yet shifted to projecting a thought of a website or an app into our heads. I’m not claiming that how newspapers approach online journalism won’t be pivotal to whether they sink or float, but we haven’t yet shaken the connotations of a news organisation’s primary output being the printed word.

Working somewhere like the Guardian is the same as going to Oxford or Cambridge. You’re not just going to university, you’re following in the footsteps of some of the most brilliant minds of any generation, of J.G. Ballard, Francis Bacon and even Oliver Cromwell. There are reams and reams of newspaper copy in national newspaper archives. To think that your name will grace the same pages as great journalists who’ve come before you is a tantalising prospect.

But why? Is it as simple as wanting to be part of that recognisable and homogeneous whole? Or an unawareness that there are other options? As the class of 2011 graduate, they’ll be hunting for jobs in yet another tough climate. The majority of those applications will be filed towards graduate schemes, for recognisable news outlets that have a mainstream reputation. Does landing a job on a national incontrovertibly grant you more freedom, enterprise and creativity within your job description? Not necessarily.

I remember speaking to a B2B journalist who worked for a organic food trade magazine a couple of years ago. He got paid more than if he were an entry level staff journalist on a big regional or national. His job entailed a lot more freedom to create his own news agenda. He occasionally got a big industry-related scoop that left the nationals standing due to his specialisation and good contacts.

Having considered all that, is it really enough? Are increased pay, less stress, more flexibility and extra freedom worth the supposedly non-glamourous world of B2B and trade journalism?

For many graduates, the answer would seem to be a resounding no. Big news organisations still fill that idyll of the classic journalism training ground. One of chatty, sweaty and argumentative newsrooms coupled with powerful editors and the chance to to see your name in print.

I’m not deriding the big organisations. They need offbeat and experimental thinkers more than ever. But there are other, less conventional routes into journalism. For every Adam Westbrook wanting to find new ways to fund journalism and think dynamically, there’ll be 100 graduates wanting to start on the bottom rung at a national.

Re: Authority

Everyone would agree that being authorative as a journalist is very important.

If the reader doesn’t believe the text written on the page or if the author doesn’t seem informed, there’s a clear problem. It’s interesting that before the new form of the internet, journalists could probably get away more with being slightly less than experts with their writing. Now journalists can be subjected to a coterie of experts who can easily fact-check, dismantle and disprove their articles. In his Cudlipp Lecture, Alan Rusbridger detailed how journalists once considered themselves special figures of authority. He states that “We had the information and the access; you didn’t.”. Recent research has revealed that trust in journalists has fallen over the past seven years.

The idea of authority is very key to journalism, perhaps more than other more tangible and heuristic aspects of the trade. Once the idea of “hang on, this bloke doesn’t know what he’s talking about” pops into the reader’s head, you’ve lost them. It doesn’t matter how killer the quote, how innovative the visualisation or how saucy the photo, getting a reader back after you’ve lost the sense of authority is very difficult.

I find the whole idea quite intriguing. People read Andrew Rawnsley’s column in the Observer because he has over 17 years of experience as a political commentator. His authority is defined by his experiences, which help imbue and inform his writing with a certain gravitas as well as a guaranteed core audience who’ll want to see his take on events. But he isn’t infallible. He does (I’m sure he’d admit) occasionally make mistakes, or misjudge a situation. Does that mean he suffers from a lapse of authority? Perhaps not.

The question I think I’m trying to address is; Does a writer’s perceived authority affect our ability to judge their views? If you deleted Rawnsley’s byline and say, replaced it with “Anonymous Student”, would that make us analyse his writing in a different way?

It links to the idea that we read articles and books because of who they’re written by, as opposed to the content itself. Why for example, does Leona Lewis warrant an autobiography? Her life seems fairly tame compared to some people I know.

Why don’t we read autobiographies written by ‘normal’ people? I’m sure many of them would be far more fascinating and candid than their celebrity counterparts, free of any trappings or obligations, and possibly a darn sight less egotistical. But Leona has come through the fame mill and appeared on a television show viewed by millions. We read because in a way she has devolved authority. Simon ‘God’ Cowell deemed her good enough to win the X Factor, so in the audience’s eyes she gains a certain prerogative to open up her life in the form of a book.

Where am I going with this? I’m not too sure. It’s human nature to judge things on appearance and not substance. and difficult to take apart all preconceptions before tucking into a slice of journalistic pie. If I wrote a piece about the Bosnian War alongside one by Paddy Ashdown, which one would readers be more likely to praise? Would they ever really pick mine even if it contained scintiallating prose and a uniquely threaded story, or would they choose the man who was actually there over one who was blogging from his home in the North West?

I don’t think it’s possible to read an article with total objectivity. Ironic, considering journalists are supposed to worship at the altar of impartiality.


Rawnsley: Cameron Uncovered

Some journalists court controversy wherever they go.

Some remain eloquent and cerebral.

Andrew Rawnsley manages to achieve both.

Tonight, the Observer’s Political Commentator and Associate Editor presented Dispatches: Cameron Uncovered, shining a light on the modern Conservative Party.
It followed ground previously trodden in Rawnsley’s book The End of the Party, this time turning on David Cameron and chums.

Understandable parallels were drawn between Cameron’s media persona and Tony Blair’s ascent to power.

We now know Blair to be style over substance, favouring actions over detail and rhetoric over evidence. Cameron is cut from the same political cloth, enjoying the medium of television, never more at home than when wowing an audience.

A crucial difference is the historical and political context, and this is at the crux of why Britain has yet to warm to Cameron and his faceless neophytes. New Labour stormed Downing Street on the back of 18 years of Tory power. 18 years of broken unions, unsavoury MPs and uncertain leadership. Here was Blair, crusading for our rights, for a new Britain, a new dawn…well, we know what happened next.

The fact remains that the Labour government has limped, rather than sprinted to the finishing line of this year’s general election. But Cameron doesn’t have the benefit of public optimism that Blair had carrying him into the landslide 1997 election.

Britain is wearied by recession and by revelations like the expenses scandal. The public do not trust their elected representatives anymore. Pre-1997, Labour made much of their squeaky-clean MPs in contrast to the sleazy and clapped out Tory counterparts.

Today no such disctinction can be made. Cameron’s pretense of a party representing the right choice has been stripped down to a cheap veneer. With hindsight we wistfully remember how so many of us were credulous to Blair’s oratorical skill. For the Tories, this distrust is spreading before the election has even happened.

It is said that parties tend to return to traditional policies during times of economic hardship. Health, provisions and security are all prioritised. Plainly, this attitude also manifests itself in our political leaders.

Britain is sick of Labour. But where to turn? Not to the Tories, who seem to offer similar policy but with a leader so prepped in media training that no one believes a word. Not to the Liberal Democrats, who have missed the ship of capitalising on the two major parties’ failure to capture the public imagination.

No, in times like these, polls show that we’re closer than ever to picking Gordon and co.

The last 13 years haven’t been perfect, but best stick to the devil we know.