WILL 2009 see a revival for serious journalism? The former Daily Express editor Richard Addis thinks so. On his engaging blog, he writes: "More people want to understand; fewer people want to be titillated ... when things go wrong, you look for wisdom." Precedent suggests this is the opposite of the truth. We last heard of the new seriousness seven years ago, in the wake of 9/11. The then Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan told the Society of Editors that it had "redefined tabloid newspapers". Yet on the morning after 9/11, the rise in Mirror sales was only half of that after Diana's death. Morgan now makes his living out of encounters with celebrities.
If the early 90s recession helped serious journalism at all, the effect was short-lived. The Independent, then a paper so upmarket it risked giving readers altitude sickness, prospered during the late 1980s boom. Its circulation began to slide during the recession when, it seems, what people want most is glamour and escapism, not wisdom.
During recessions, newspapers get slimmer as advertisers withdraw their custom. Most usually weather the storm, looking forward to renewed expansion in a couple of years. That probably won't happen this time. When the recovery starts (2010? 2011? 2012?), the likelihood is that some advertisers will not return, or at least not return to their previous spending habits. They will be more selective about where they place their advertising. Newspapers, in turn, will become more selective about the readers they are trying to attract.
Here, I think, Addis hits the nail on the head. "There's no future," he argues, "for 126-page papers filled with a mix of heavy, light, UK, foreign, business, arts and sporting news." We forget that such papers are quite recent, dating back a mere two decades. Under one journalistic roof, you can now get politics and celebrity, business and sport, high culture and low. But as budgets are stretched more and more thinly - and editors try harder to be simultaneously comprehensive, speedy, exhaustive and original - newspapers become less authoritative and more error-prone. No paper dare stay out of the fabled water cooler conversation, whether the subject be the McCanns or Mumbai.
This year, such an approach will run out of road. Even the papers most strongly placed to survive the recession will cut budgets and staffing levels. They will not prosper by lopping off an assistant section editor here, a junior reporter there, and dumping subeditors in the name of "efficiency". They will have to decide what they do well, and what their readers really want from them. The paper that has come closest to that in recent years is the Financial Times, abandoning its attempts to reach out to a wider audience and refocusing on its core business readership, to an extent that sometimes makes the content, and even the headlines, impenetrable to outsiders. Conversely, the Independent continues trying to appeal across the market with, for example: "Can jumpsuits ever be flattering?" flagged above a front page on the plight of albino people in Tanzania.
If the future lies with authoritative journalism for niche markets, Addis is right. Mass-market journalism - short, snappy news items alongside gossip, glamour and articulate prejudice - is by definition doomed. Redtop papers remain skilfully packaged products but they add little of substance to what is available on the web. You don't need expensively remunerated hacks to add anything. Serious journalism will triumph by default.
How papers deliver and pay for it is another matter. Some may become web-only publishers, others may move to publishing in print only one or two days a week (probably at weekends). Yet others may cut their print runs and distribution networks and focus almost exclusively on pre-paying subscribers or e-paper editions. Rupert Murdoch's papers will probably stick with traditional publishing patterns, but then switch to something new with bewildering speed. For years, newspapers have been putting off those decisions, cushioned by a booming economy and a buoyant market for advertising. The internet barely existed when the last recession came to an end - 2009 will be the first year in which newspapers compete with digital media in a contracting economy. By the end of it, their future will be very much clearer.
Source: Peter Wilby, Guardian.co.uk