Part of the Club? Journalism Today

September 17, 2014

By Elliott Goat

With journalism as a profession undergoing an intense period of upheaval and self-reflection, Grapevine Events, in conjunction with the Frontline Club, brought together some of the industry’s most prominent editors on Thursday 11 September to discuss the major issues affecting journalism today.

Asking the panel what preoccupied them each morning, former deputy editor of The Times and chair George Brock remarked that what remained central to an editor seemed as true today as it was 30 years ago.

Emma Tucker, deputy editor of The Times, spoke of her desire to continually come up with the story that would “make a difference” whilst focusing on maintaining and expanding readership.

“In this noise, ultimately what makes people read you is good, original journalism that impacts people.”

For both Amol Rajan, editor of The Independent and Alex Miller, editor-in-chief of VICE, despite the emergence of new news formats, what drives any news organisation remains fundamentally “timeless”, as Brock put it, with the success of any story based primarily on the brilliance and commitment of the journalist who produces it.

With traditional news titles seen as occupying a difficult position inside–outside the establishment, Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, challenged that while journalists are often perceived as part of the old boys’ club, and by extension any way into the profession is one based on patronage, this proximity was ultimately the necessary price paid for access.

“What we try to do is say: we know how this works, we know the people who are there, let’s tell the truth . . . and the more people you know the more people who tell you things.”

“That being said,” commented Miller, “the only reason I am on this panel, is precisely because we [at VICE] have made the most of being entirely outside the establishment. Going and doing stuff that grey guys from BBC and ITV and Channel 4 have been doing for a very long time but changing it and presenting it on new media, in a slightly different tone. It’s made people pay attention – which really is the benefit of being an outsider.”

Elaborating on how the tone of emerging news outlets, such as VICE, had attracted and engaged a new demographic, Miller spoke of challenging “a collective decision that news was the preserve of a certain type of person, who wore certain type of clothes and who spoke in a certain type of way”.

“I think by just presenting news as you would have a conversation with a friend has actually managed to break down more barriers that we ever thought we would and at the same time disprove some bullshit that the establishment had all collectively agreed that young people didn’t give a crap about what happened outside their own lives.”

Moving from journalism as part of the establishment to establishing a community of readers, there was a general agreement amongst the panel that news was a product which should ultimately be paid for in some form (as it has always traditionally been).

While for Tucker and The Times paywall model, the concept of readers has now literally shifted to a point where “we don’t have readers anymore . . . we have members”. For Rajan, the “nostalgia around the history of Fleet Street” and specifically the role of local newspapers in the community belies the changing nature of the way people identify and define themselves as consumers of news.

“In the digital age there is a kind of unbundling. Now people are promiscuous buyers [whereas once you would have people loyal to one title]. The idea behind membership is to try to rebuild that attachment to a particular institution.

“Possibly the most viable future for most newspapers to go down is the model where you pay online, because actually one way of creating membership is to create customers and if you get people to pay for what you do, you create a sense of engagement and commitment.”

Until people restore the link between quality journalism and paying for it, Rajan continued, that sense of community is going to be fractured. If you are a company which is ultimately trying to hit the bottom line you need to establish a bond between customers and product.

For Hislop, the very act of buying a copy of Private Eye is like belonging to a club.

Eye readers are a people with a particular attitude and a particular desire and I like the idea of them. I think they form their own club.”

However, while Miller agreed that creating a community was important, the debate within traditional news organisations into how best build this community is ultimately outmoded. “The internet does that on its own.”

Alex Hern of The Guardian commented that these technological advancements, which have so disrupted the practice and organisation of journalism, have also shifted the way in which we communicate.

“It is really important to remember that our generation is the first one ever where writing and the written word has been the primary way of communicating. We are more comfortable than ever before expressing ourselves, not just in considered journalism, but in every register of written language.”

Surely a development which can ultimately only benefit journalism and the industry.