Tom Barfield's blog

Personal musings of a young journalist in London

The article: future of journalism or vestigial relic?

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Picture of Ignacio Ramonet

Ignacio Ramonet. Photo: Ludovic Péron

I spent a pleasant couple of hours on Sunday afternoon reading an essay by Ignacio Ramonet, former editor of French-based international newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique; he’s called it L’explosion du journalisme: Des médias de masse àla masse de médias (The explosion of journalism: from mass media to a mass of media).

The essay takes a fairly familiar course through recent history and ongoing debates to anyone who’s been following the media’s coverage of itself; if you’ve got an inkling of some of the thinking behind and around online journalism, Wikileaks, Nick DaviesFlat Earth News, and the recent spate of paywalls, you’ll not find much new here. Falling print sales; desperate attempts to turn online readership figures into revenue; increasing amounts of work for fewer journalists paid less money; an increasing level of PR and spin finding its way into journalism; potential of the internet to create a “new kind of journalism”; whither the newspapers, the television stations and the radio broadcasters?

(I must add, lest it sound tiresome, that Ramonet does an admirable job of putting all of this together in the space of 130 sparsely-printed pages, and that if you haven’t read everything on the above list, been to a few debates and lectures with interested parties and read a bunch of stuff online about it then the essay will give you a welcome overview of the state of the media).

Where it gets interesting is right at the end. Ramonet takes a tour around some of the responses to the ongoing media viability crisis and settles on Germany’s Die Zeit as the shining harbinger of things to come. Zeit has succeeded in getting its print readership back up above the 500,000 mark in the last few years. Here’s what Ramonet has to say about why, in a closing remark subtitled Les avions ne remplacent pas les bateaux (aeroplanes don’t replace ships):

Comment son directeur Giovanni di Lorenzo explique-t-il cette réussite? C’est fort simple. Il a d’abord étudié en détail les besoins des lecteurs, puis il a decidé d’ignorer tous les conseils des experts en médias, de refuser les modes et de continuer à publier des articles longs, documentés, serieux et même difficiles. Persuadé qu’il faut aller à contre-courant des tendances médiatiques actuelles (urgence, brièvité, simplicité, frivolité) dictées par la panique, Di Lorenzo estime également que les gens veulent des “informations estampillées”, c’est-a-dire dont la tracabilité remonte à une source en laquelle ils ont confiance.

 …

Die Zeit et tous les journaux qui n’ont pas trahi leurs lecteurs, qui on su conserver leur crédibilité et qui maintiennent leur exigence de qualité, ne sont nullement menacés d’extinction.

(How does boss Giovanni di Lorenzo explain this success? It’s pretty simple. He first studied the needs of the readers in detail, then he decided to ignore all the advice of media experts, to resist fashions and to continue to publish long, sourced, serious and even difficult articles. Persuaded that it was necessary to swim upstream against the current media trends (urgency, brevity, simplicity, frivolity) which are dictated by panic, Di Lorenzo believes also that people want “pressed information”, that is to say information which can be traced back to a source they trust.

Die Zeit and all the papers which haven’t betrayed their readers, which have realised how to retain their credibility and who maintain their demand for quality, are not at all threatened with disappearance.)

This might look like a bit of wishful thinking from today’s US or UK perspective, where the papers which offer this kind of long-form investigative reporting tend to be in straitened financial circumstances of one kind or another. Ramonet would probably argue that those circumstances are a temporary blip and that these papers will at some point work out a way to make quality journalism pay.

Picture of Jeff Jarvis

Jeff Jarvis. Photo: Robert Scoble

But this isn’t the question I want to raise about Ramonet’s conclusion. Reading the last chapter of this esssay put me in mind of a post on Jeff Jarvis’ Buzzmachine I read on Saturday, called “The article as luxury or byproduct”. Jarvis cites a few recent rolling news successes where journalists have moved away from the traditional article form, and then drops the bombshell:

 …when and whether we need articles. Oh, we still do. Articles can make it easy to catch up on a complex story; they make for easier reading than a string of disjointed facts; they pull together strands of a story and add perspective. Articles are wonderful. But they are no longer necessary for every event. They were a necessary form for newspapers and news shows but not the free flow, the never-starting, never-ending stream of digital. Sometimes, a quick update is sufficient; other times a collection of videos can do the trick. Other times, articles are good.

I think Jarvis is on to something here. I get fed up very quickly trying to read whole articles on some newspaper sites, because the standard style journalists are trained to write articles in is one which assumes the reader has been disconnected from civilisation for the last six months and has no idea of what anything referred to in the article is. Jarvis does accept that not all readers will have been following closely all the complex stories that are going on, and that an article might be necessary then; that some stories are just other stories bundled together; that investigation and analysis require more than a Twitter feed.

But for the people who are following the story closely, who know the name (and Twitter handle) of the reporter their preferred news outlet has on the case, who have Google Alerts and RSS feeds and who are watching 20 blogs waiting for fresh developments, writing articles is an attempt to ossify and make static what is ultimately an ongoing flow of events. Sure, have a guy back at base writing everything up and putting the pieces together and making it look nice so you have something to stick in the archives, to help out the general-interest reader and so on, but that shouldn’t be the focus of what your reporter on the ground is doing.

Does this make Ramonet wrong? I don’t necessarily think so. As more and more of us begin to get the raw stuff of news in the way Jarvis describes, there will be more room for the insight, the analysis and the reflective objectivity which journalists in traditional media organisations are always telling us they add to news coverage (and they have some justification when talking about, for example, Wikileaks). The Indy‘s been doing this for a long time; the paper sells itself on the analysis and the commentary that you can’t get anywhere else, not on the articles cobbled together from wire reports or from the same press conference that everyone’s political editor and his dog went to.

So I think there’s space for both of these old journalistic hands to be right. As the news article loses its importance (and hopefully we stop seeing the horrible, horrible <Newspaper> reporter or by our <topic> staff bylines that are code for we-cribbed-this-from-a-wire-service-or-worse-a-press-release) there will be space for the printed papers to offer a product worth buying. The online news freaks can get their fix without having to wade through all the exposition and explanation first, and hopefully everyone will be a bit happier than they are at the moment. Sound realistic?

Photo credits: Robert Scoble and Ludovic Péron

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