JOURNALISM MATTERS An NUJ campaign to improve the quality of journalism Why Journalism Matters Journalism matters not just to journalists but to everyone. Good quality journalism is a central pillar for democratic societies all over the world providing the information and the opinions upon which they depend. Today's journalism is a world apart from the free press of the 18th century. News then could only be obtained in infrequent news sheets, it now surrounds us like the air we breathe. Today news can be accessed everywhere, on computers and even on mobile phones. It is no longer tied to a routine fix of a morning newspaper and evening television bulletin. It is disgorged 24 hours a day and in all kinds of formats, even programmed to order and pre-sorted via personal organisers. It is not only ubiquitous but also global and instant. There is however a new mood of interrogation, even from journalists themselves, over the quality of news, its accuracy and reliability. Quality news means well-informed and empowered citizens, but there is increasing evidence that the market makes it harder for news to be presented in a way that people can use. Despite emphatic statements from experts that media products are not like other economic products because they have a social, cultural and democratic value, the treatment of news as merely a commercial commodity continues to interfere with the duty of journalists to inform their audience. Many commentators argue that we need many competing cultures of ownership if our news media are to be truly diverse and consequently trusted. Ian Hargreaves, professor of journalism at Cardiff University, lists in his Very Short Introduction to Journalism among the main challenges for journalism its ability to achieve trust across society, which itself is so diverse in terms of economic circumstance, class, ethnic and gender composition as well as regional interest. A journalism that lacks diversity and pluralism cannot adapt to change, and if it cannot be trusted it will inevitably fail, he says. To quote Dr Carl Jensen, founder of Project Censored, "The press has the power to stimulate people to clean up the environment, prevent nuclear proliferation, force crooked politicians out of office and even save millions of lives. But instead we are using it to promote sex, violence and sensationalism and to line the pockets of already wealthy media moguls." There is a well-established view that today's media owners are deflecting journalism from its traditional mission to inform citizens, but pander instead to the interest of the shareholders. In many countries there are movements emerging advocating a return to basic professional standards of accurate and balanced reporting and campaigning against an overtly commercial news media. Given the poor quality and poor performance of some media outlets, the watchdog sometimes looks more like a political or corporate poodle. This perception makes it vital that journalists themselves challenge the loss of equilibrium between business and editorial imperatives within media. A lot of these problems can be blamed on competition and heavy concentration within the industry. This is best illustrated by the profound changes that have permeated the industry even at the most local level. Experts in the industry believe that local content is a fundamental pre-requisite to the survival of regional journalism. Most agree that regional newspapers can survive through becoming more regional with localised editions, campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of regional and local advertising and by carrying more local – and less national – news. The increasing concentration of ownership among four major groups has inevitably led to more centralised business policy. A common call has been made for more strategic decisions about profit re-investment be made at a local level. If regional newspapers cut down on editorial, deny the importance of good photography and employ graduates as advertising salespeople on ridiculously low rates, how can they expect to compete at point of sale with the bigger, better funded, better designed national press? they ask. Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, and editor of the Cambridge Evening News for nearly 15 years, champions editorial quality saying "While editorial departments must share responsibility for commercial performance, the surest way to set off into the downward spiral of that vicious circle is to compromise on editorial quality and credibility. Who wants to buy a car without wheels?" Alan Geere, director of the Journalism Training Centre, referred to a story in his local paper about 2,000 patients who won't be getting the hospital operation they've been waiting for. Only two people were quoted in the story, the Primary Care Trust chairman and the director of planning. But none of the patients or hospital staff. "The regional press needs to wake up quickly and reinvent itself, before the only readers left are those officials, PR people and pressure groups who make up the news conspiracy along with bored reporters and unimaginative editors," he commented. "It's time to reward editors who work hard to enthuse their staff to engage with readers - back them when they want to introduce innovative programmes of community journalism that get the journalists out of the office and into the field." Peter Cole, professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield, stresses that even small weeklies, with small circulations, small profits and small ad revenues can be successful. "In a world of mobile, rootless citizens, the desire for a sense of community grows. The local paper can create and reinforce that sense of community, by championing, campaigning, celebrating and changing for the better. That requires good journalism – supported by good management and marketing – good reporters who understand the issues, have good contacts, expose the inadequacies of local government, and the impact locally of national decisions," he said, adding that, "Instead, trainees are employed for rubbish money, editorial staffs are shrunk, budgets depend on the cheap trainees moving on, and there is no time to dig. The root cause of all of this is cost-cutting by the mega conglomerates, who seek profit margins of 30 per cent or more on turnover in order to drive up share price and satisfy the City." What are the Threats to Journalism? In recent years, journalists have become increasingly anxious over the pressure on the quality of their work. They had to withstand public concern over quality in media at the same time that insecure and difficult working conditions continue to prevail. Internal pressure on editorial budgets, media convergence, and increased competition has also had consequences, not least on media quality. The main areas of concerns are: Reduction in the status of journalism and decrease in the confidence of journalists Reduction in scope of editorial coverage Pressure to integrate advertising and commercial objectives into editorial work Fall in circulation Less investment in professional training. Nearly two centuries ago a British historian Macauley labelled the press gallery in Parliament as the "fourth estate" of the realm, a catchword that defined the profession of journalism until recent times. Today, a surge in the power of the media seems to have propelled it to be the first estate – able to topple governments and influence law making. More people today vote in television reality shows than in an election to the European Parliament or for local authorities, according to Professor Hargreaves. He further argues that, although the mass media is increasingly powerful, this is not translated to the level of individual journalists. All the opinion surveys suggest that public trust in journalists has reached an all-time low, ranking alongside the politicians they help drag down, and way behind other professionals such as doctors and teachers. There is a well-established view that the traditional mission of journalists is being used as "a cloak to shield media conglomerates' domination of public discussion." More than a decade of lack of employment protection has also sapped new staff of the confidence needed to be able to challenge the impact of poor working conditions on quality of journalism. As the media corporations grew in power transforming the editors into businesspeople and newspapers into businesses, journalists were unable to resist cuts to newsroom budgets and the increasing moves to give advertisers and sponsors unwarranted influence over news agendas. This has resulted in an acutely polarised situation, according to Professor Hargreaves, with, at one end, badly paid and quite often inadequately trained young journalists working in smaller newspapers, radio stations, magazines and on-line news services and, at the other, a handful of celebrity journalists earning show business salaries. This lack of protection is now having an increasing impact on the profession itself, with traditional working principles, such as journalistic sources, coming under sustained attack. Everyone wants to know who journalists are talking to – the police, governments, corporations, and special interest groups. But journalism is only ever as good as the sources of information that journalists have, and if there is no adequate protection of the right of confidentiality the quality of journalism will suffer dramatically. And new problems, resulting from the continuous demands to hand over films or pictures as evidence of serious crimes coupled with increased subpoenas on reporters to give testimony of what they have seen while in the exercise of journalism, are set to dent the confidence of journalists even further. One of the big threats faced by journalists today is that almost all modern journalism is underpinned by a corporate setting, which limits and influences what journalists do, according to Professor Hargreaves. “If today‟s typical media boss is not a Maxwell, Black or even a Murdoch, what is he? He is most likely to be a professional manager, working in a corporate setting, and increasingly that corporate setting will entail involvement in a wide range of media – from the internet to movies and be spread across many parts of the world.” The competing demands between the serious news instinct and entertainment instinct tests journalists' judgement more than ever before. More and more editors today accuse media corporations of demanding from their newsrooms soft features friendly to their local advertisers. There are also increasing instances of news organisations becoming tainted by conflict of interests through their association with entertainment. In the scramble by media organisations to "dumb down", journalists are accused of "privileging sensation before significance, celebrity before achievement, intrusion before purposeful investigation and entertainment before reliability". As public relations machines and vested commercial interests intrude in newsrooms, fundamental principles of journalisms are coming under pressure making journalists prisoners of the „hidden agenda‟ of political or business power instead of champions of the public interest. Resource-intensive journalism is the first casualty of this new culture of news. Quarter-to-quarter improvements and lining the pockets of shareholders have become the main preoccupation of editors who are incentivised themselves by their own share options. In response to the pressures of financial markets, they have become increasingly distracted from their journalistic purpose, in some cases putting in danger their readers‟ loyalty. There is much talk that the rapid changes in media organisation and its impact on journalists is directly linked to the emergence of an unprecedented global oligopoly, operating in media markets all over the world. The attempt to resist this media concentration remains a legitimate concern not only Britain but elsewhere for the simple reason that a plural media is more likely to lead to a diversity of editorial approached. But there are instances such as the rapid growth of commercial radio stations when a plural media has not led to a more diverse content. In Britain in the last decade, the number of commercial radio stations has grown from 50 to 250 and television offers more than 200 channels compared with four or five decades ago, increasing the total of television news on offer to the multi-channels homes by roughly 8-fold. However, a significant gap remains in that it has failed to achieve significant provision of local news. Many analysts have been trailing the diversifying of media into interactive journalism now supplied via multimedia, text-messaging and the web, predicting that it would sweep aside "old values". It is already assumed to be having an impact on circulation of newspapers which has been declining since the economic downturn in 1999. Whatever the validity of these theories there is ample evidence to suggest that the current fall in revenue is directly linked to the fall in public confidence in media. All the studies show that the relocation of resources from serious reporting and analysis to showbiz and trivia has resulted in the serious damage to quality and the undermining of trust between journalists and their audience. This view is not shared by many media executives. For example Neil Benson, the Trinity Mirror Editorial Director, defends his cutbacks by arguing that they were a "sensible response to a major change in trading conditions, and are no different to the action taken by publishers in previous downturns". He looks to making up lost ground by embracing digital media, where Trinity "can provide a depth and relevance of content that others can only dream of". "For us, the trick is to use our unique advantages as we evolve into genuine multimedia publishers. When you aggregate our print and digital readership, you see that our overall audience is growing. If publishers and journalists embrace this opportunity, the future will be very bright,” he added. The demise of the publishing industry‟s National Training Organisation, the rise of degree qualification journalism, and the continued confusion over separate qualifications have contributed to an increasing confusion over the skills needed to work as journalists. The report on training in the industry commissioned from the Journalism Training Forum remains to this day the largest ever independent study. It illustrates the stark divide between the level of training that employers believed was needed and what individual journalists knew they needed. If companies are to provide in-house training or to use external training providers, the quality needs to be checked, with each company providing training to at least minimum standards. The Media Industry and Profits It is important to understand one fundamental point concerning ownership of media. For the most part it is not run by press barons. The myth of the cigar chomping thundering press baron, hectoring his editor and locked in a tussle with politicians or a tug of war with competitors is stuff of the past when publishers physically dominated the skyline of their newsroom. Today, national and regional news media are owned by media conglomerates. There are still a few exceptions like Australian-American Rupert Murdoch who controls over a third of the national newspaper market and owns British dominant pay television platform. The rest is owned by media corporations. In the regionals‟ market, the five biggest conglomerates, owning the majority of dailies, Sundays, weekly paid and weekly free newspapers are Trinity Mirror plc, Newsquest (Media group) Ltd, Johnston Press plc, Northcliffe Newspapers Group Ltd and Associated Newspapers Ltd. They account for 63% of all titles and 73% of total circulation. The market is supplied by 91 publishers and the concentration of ownership is such that the 10 largest account for as much as 74% of all titles and 87% of weekly circulation. At the other end of the spectrum there are 43 publishers with one title each. A recent entrant into this market has been Newquest, owned by the US giant media corporation Gannett, which came from nowhere and is now the second biggest regional publishers accounting for 216 newspapers in this country. In global media terms, US companies are dominant simply because their domestic market is so much larger than any other. They occupy roughly 30 slots in the list of the world's 50 largest media companies. There are also major newspapers owned by families or trusts (the Guardian Media group plc is seventh is the regionals‟ league), just as there are excellent news organisation like the BBC in the public sector. Despite their size, many US style media operations are mostly small units in large publishing groups, enjoying advantages of scale in back office functions, crossselling between different advertising markets and using this weight in negotiations publishing rights to celebrity content and sports rights. The last decade has been marked by a steady decline in newspaper circulation, but a very slow, and profitable, decline. Newspapers everywhere are struggling to maintain circulation and share of advertising revenues against growing electronic competition. Newspaper consumption is falling sharply particularly amongst young people. In the regional press sales of daily newspapers circulation fell sharply in the 90s, encouraging steady consolidation into larger groups. Between 1945 and 1995 the number of morning titles published outside London fell by a third. And the survivors struggled to hold circulation. Weekly local newspapers were in a better shape but they too have been hurt by the impact of free newspapers. Between 2000 and 2004 the market as a whole lost 13% in total volume sales, with the sharpest decline among the evening and Sunday regional newspapers. In contrast, the weeklies increased sales by 4% over the same period. Publishers blame this apparent decline in volume sales, to the removal of bulk sales and discounted copies from audited circulation figures and believe that, on the whole, circulation decline has slowed down. They quote some instances of year-on-year circulation having started to nudge up. Publishers are countering this decline by reinforcing the range of complementary local media targeting specific subgroups and including on-line. The Newspaper Society reports that in addition to its core newspaper titles, the regional press now includes over 400 magazines and niche publications and over 600 websites as well as radio and television stations. Online readers are now routinely added to total readership, and raw circulation figures should be considered in that light. The regional press is more and more heavily dependent on advertising, which accounts for over 80% of total newspaper revenue, compared with around 46% in the national sector. Classified advertising takes the lion's share contributing over two thirds of regionals' advertising revenue. These do not include their increasingly significant online advertising sales revenues. Despite the fall in circulation, the regional newspapers continue on the whole to make higher profits. If you take the case of the top regional publisher, Trinity Mirror, they made approximately £200 million profit in 2005 despite claims of "difficult economic conditions" citing falling advertising revenues and competition from the Internet. In Wales, for example, according to one study, the Western Mail and Echo made nearly £20 million, according to a study, with a very high profit margin of 35.5%. Between 2001and 2004, the group made over £50 million pre-tax profit with an average profit margin of over 30%. This suggests that the company, and its Welsh operations in particular, are in very robust health, despite the much lamented fourmonth drop in advertising revenue which appears to be cyclical rather than a sign of structural ill-health of the newspaper industry. Trinity's interim results show an increase in every single aspect of their operation – a growth of 1.2% and 7.9% respectively in their revenue and operating profit; an improved group operating margin by 1.3% to 22.1% with the regionals' margins climbing to 28.4%. As a result, earnings per share grew by 13.2% increasing the interim dividend by 8.5%. So whilst shareholders got a better deal, the results showed incremental cost savings of £4.1 m on track to achieve the £35 m annualised saving for the year. A major part of the savings has been job cuts and, according to the same study, between 2000 and 2004, the number of employees at Trinity Mirror fell by a substantial 23%. The direct relationship between cost-cutting including loss of jobs and poor pay and conditions and the reduction in editorial standards and loss of quality is now self-evident. This correlation was further demonstrated when Knight Ridder, a major US publisher, was put up for sale. A report by consultants, designed to dress it up for the market place, highlighted that in order to be attractive to venture capital, this company not only has to make cuts of $350 million (equivalent to 887 job losses), but has to compare favourably with competitors such as US Gannett, which now owns a big chunk of the British regionals. Gannett boasts operating margins that are nearly 50% higher than Knight Ridder's. And the report argues that the primary reason for this difference is the higher rate of unionisation at Knight Ridder, which stands at "28% of the company's total FTE's [full-time equivalents] (18,000 at year end, 2004) unionized versus 13% for Gannett." If Knight Ridder's labour costs were proportionately the same as Gannett's, the analysts argue, the company would realise another $212 million in annual profits. There is little doubt that the pursuit of higher profit margins has been elevated by newspaper publishers to a dogma above standards in journalism, the welfare of their staff and the public interest of their readers. Cuts and Loss of Expertise in the Regional Press In the last year, a swathe of job cuts across the regional press have meant hundreds of trained journalists have been put out of work. The major media conglomerates have been falling over each other to be the most brutal in slashing staff numbers to impress the shareholders. Trinity Mirror, the UK‟s largest regional newspaper group, has axed more than 300 jobs including editorial jobs in most of their national, regional and local titles. The Wolverhampton Express and Star alone was hit with a staggering 70 job losses. Northcliffe, owners of more than 100 titles, embarked on a £30m cost-cutting exercise before eventually putting themselves up for sale. No buyer has been found. Though Trinity have been the most savage in their cuts, Newsquest and Northcliffe weren‟t far behind - it has been the same story all over the country, with the Midlands, the South West, Scotland and Wales particularly hard hit. Such is the concern, that Trinity Mirror Chief Executive Sly Bailey was asked to appear before a Welsh Assembly enquiry to answer concerns about the future of the regional press in the country. When staff are lost – through voluntary or compulsory redundancies – years of experience and local knowledge are lost. The quality of news coverage is inevitably damaged and a vicious circle of circulation loss and further job cuts will follow. Alternative Models In recent years, debate has been growing about the profession of journalism. The launch of the British Journalism Review was typical in its soul-searching over the loss of the mission. “The business is now subject to a contagious outbreak of squalid, banal, lazy and cowardly journalism whose only qualification is that it helps to make newspaper publishers rich" was typical of the harsh rumbles about the state of journalism. Most journalists might not always be sure about what is at the heart of the mission of journalism, but they'll agree that their basic business is to find out, communicate accurately and be trusted. It is therefore crucial that in the context of the ascendancy of the corporation's global power, journalists should re-establish confidence in themselves and their collective strength to maintain standards and quality. They must insist on the right to be included in the editing process, to help establish internal structures for dialogue on standards, to have access to training opportunities for all staff (including freelances and journalists working on online editions and websites), to have a say in anti-discrimination policies and recruitment strategies. Included in this agenda should be standards of editorial independence (respect for codes of conduct and freedom to act according to conscience) as well as mid-career training opportunities coupled with targeted awareness-raising on key questions – human rights reporting, tolerance and conflict issues, stereotyping, etc. Questions are continually asked about the ability of journalists themselves to set editorial standards and to create credible structures to protect the interests of citizens and consumers (codes of good practice, introduction of readers' editors and panels). Journalists are by and large against laws to regulate ethics, but there is a lively debate over co-regulation that permits self-regulation backed up by legal sanctions. This should be taken up by journalists themselves to challenge the fall in quality of content and resist the call for stronger forms of regulation. Journalistic ethics boil down to three simple principles – respect for the truth, the need to be independent and, finally, to be aware of the consequences of what we publish. The mix of so-called entertainment media and news media has developed its own problems. One major challenge for a quality campaign is that journalism is divided – on the one hand editors and publishers seem complacent in their approach to public concerns over falling quality, on the other journalists are too often divided themselves or lack the confidence to confront the internal threats to the profession. Peter Sand, Director of the Press Association Editorial Centre, believes that the traditional publishers' remedies to declines in sales – such as wholesale newsroom redundancies and restructuring (remember multiskilling pods and clusters?) – were mere knee-jerk reactions. "Fast forward to 2006, and here we are again," he said. " DMGT knows it is a sensible time to bow out. Who would bet against others following? The high returns, profits gleaned almost exclusively from local businesses, cannot be sustained forever, using the current model….In the next phase, the regional landscape will probably be made up of smaller groups (some bought out by current managements) who will develop their business with local knowledge, pride and more modest profit targets…. The journalists who thrive will be driven individuals who can find compelling content and have the skills to deliver it via print, video, podcasts, the web and SMS messaging….The key lesson for journalists, as it was in the '80s and '90s, is to simply gain the skills needed for the next stage. Quickly." Steve Dyson, editor of the Birmingham Mail, advocates an end to ignoring the readers and pleads for local content. "If regional papers spent more time publishing what people loved to read, see and talk about, we'd have more chance of securing our futures. In general, regional circulations are not in terminal decline. But they will only revive, or the decline will only flatten out or slow down, if we modernise and become at the centre of readers' lives again," he said. Cutting back on journalists does not have to be the only option. "Increase or at least replace vacancies that are working for your newspaper… If you've got reporters who give you results, who work their balls off and don't go home until the paper's full to brimming with real-life stories, then fight like hell to keep 'em," he said. Commenting on the old ownership, he did not think it was that great either, adding "While such owners may have been local and popular in memory, how many were actually just fairly fat (wallets and girth), pin-stripe suited businessmen who had long lunches and condescending walks along the editorial floor? These family firms made smaller profit margins, but in many cases ate, drank and lived on that profit, as part of the P&L." But it is the issue of new media that has started exercising the major media players. Faced by digital TV, mobile news, internet and free Metro and Lite newspapers, they see it as the next area where they can expand. They had time to learn from the pitfalls of the dotcom craze, and hope to establish news services that help fill the growing gaps in local and community news services which opened as a result of cuts in resources. Both Trinity Mirror and DMGT have spent millions buying up internet advertising sites, and soon they may look towards consolidating content that appears on the web. So, to quote David Brent, let's get 'customer focused' and put the reader first. That needs a change in attitude at the top, which leads to a revolution in what regional journalists do and how they do it. Commenting on the fact that British paid-for dailies show the worst circulation declines in Western Europe, Jim Chisholm, strategy adviser to the World Association of Newspapers, has no doubt that blogging and citizen journalists are the key to the future. "The role of the professional editor will be more important than ever, if readers are to navigate the fog of blog, without succumbing to the allure of Google," he said. “Rather than thinking technological developments are not for them, regionals should embrace blogs and podcasts. Rather than moaning about developments in local television, they should work with it, realising that they know more about local news gathering than television does. Basically, they have to invest in the product, or there will be no product." In the absence of a different credible business model there have been renewed attempts to grapple with the issue of alternative ownership. In the US, the proposals for devastating cuts in jobs surrounding the proposed sale of publishers Knight Ridder provoked the Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America, the largest US union representing workers in the newspaper industry, to attempt a "worker friendly" buy out of some of its titles. Their financial advisors believe that the group can easily attract investment from the labour, management and the investment community to be able to make a serious bid. The decision by the executive of the Sporstman to give its staff shares in the new paper up a total share of 10%, is an absolute first in British newspapers. It is likely to rekindle some of the debates about alternative model of ownership and why companies refuse to incentivise their employees while at the same time giving share options to editors and senior executives Ten Steps Towards a Quality Media 1. Develop a highly trained, confident and professional staff aware of their mission to deliver an accurate, diverse and trusted journalism. 2. Build the widest possible coalition of politicians with a detailed programme of activities in support of quality journalism, such as a Parliamentary Select Committee investigation into monopoly control and profiteering at the expense of local democracy and plurality. 3. Build bridges with civic society groups (including the wider trade union movement and local campaigning networks) in order to work together to defend editorial standards. 4. Build a common campaign group across the industry, including editors, media commentators, trainers and teachers of journalism to raise awareness and promote the importance of properly funded, principled journalism. 5. Investigate and promote alternative business models for local media drawing on case studies in the UK and worldwide which demonstrate that commitment to local coverage and investment in training and resources on the ground pay off on the balance sheet. 6. Campaign for editorial independence for journalists as a vital guarantor of quality. Consider confidence-building measures to raise awareness and promote debate within journalism about the need for editorial independence, the freedom to act according to conscience and to challenge corporate influence. 7. Establish structures for dialogue on standards and ethics including respect for codes of conduct and targeted awareness-raising on key questions such as human rights reporting, tolerance and conflict resolution issues, stereotyping, etc. 8. Call for a review of laws and rules that restrict press freedom and undermine independent journalism. For example, call on governments to integrate principles of European case law, in particular on protection of sources. 9. Engage with new contributors such as citizen journalists and the blogosphere to ensure they adopt adequate norms of quality and relate in a mutually co-operative manner to local established media. 10. Promote new research into the impact of globalisation and media concentration on journalism in general and the editorial process in particular.
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