News for a round Earth

THE PROFESSION of journalism "is disintegrating", a trend which has been "accelerating alarmingly" in the last 12 months. That was the warning from Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News (www.flatearthnews .net), speaking at a special meeting in February co-hosted by London Freelance Branch and Press & Public Relations Branch.

Nick believes that the business model sustaining the media is failing, and there's nothing to replace it. "We might be on the edge of an era of information chaos where we can't find out what's going on."

Nick Davies; © Julio Etchart
Nick Davies: Photo © Julio Etchart

How did this happen? As described in Flat Earth News, family firms that ran newspapers fell into the hands of big corporations. Commercial concerns took over and destroyed the "quality and reliability" of news: readers started to drift away. Then came the internet, and a lot of advertising went. And then along came the credit crunch. Nick sees a clear linkage between commercial pressures and the spread of "falsehood" in news: his research shows that compared to when News International moved to Wapping in June 1986, the average reporter now has three times as much space to fill as they did then. Only 12 per cent of stories (one in eight) come direct from journalists: 8 per cent have a source that can't really be traced, and the remaining 80 per cent come from agencies and "our friends in PR".

"Rules of production" have also grown up whereby the media choose safe stories that won't cause trouble, and produce "moral panics" in which all outlets have to play back a prevailing emotion, whether alleged grief at the death of the Queen Mother or the mandatory hope of the souvenir editions for Barack Obama's first days in office.

None of the media asks hard questions in this prevailing atmosphere, like: why is Obama's America still bombing Pakistan?

And none of the media is reporting on its own demise, says Nick. Rather than dwelling on this demise, journalist need to find "what's the new model" for making money out of reporting news. The days of mass media may be gone, but Nick predicts that low-cost "mini-media" organisations may take over - for example, three freelances who know everything about Shrewsbury, or everything about the arms trade.

It's up to us as journalists, says Nick, to find new sources of money for the media, and to convince the public that they need to hold onto media outlets like their local paper (in print or on the web.) He pointed to models like the US Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit foundation which funds investigative reporting and calls press conferences to give away the news it uncovers to the mainstream media, and makes deals for paid-for exclusives.

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