You Can’t Read all About It Anymore

The web has ushered in a new era of journalism-but left a gaping hole in the coverage of vital local news

Nick Cohen

I joined the Birmingham Post and Evening Mail group in 1984, the same year Apple advertised the launch of its first personal computer. Ridley Scott showed an athlete smashing a giant image of Big Brother to announce that new technology would break down the old barriers and set us free. I was a young curmudgeon, and sneered at the hubris of corporate advertisers selling a luxury good to hobbyists.

Like novelists, who thought they could survive merely by publishing well-regarded books, or musicians who thought they did not need to be stars, just capable players, I thought the future would be like the past. I assumed journalism would carry on as it had for 150 years: that readers would always want to fund its crafts and subcultures, and be happy to keep specialist magazines and newspapers in business forever.

I did not realise that deciding to be a journalist in the year Steve Jobs shipped out his first Mac was like deciding to be a blacksmith the year Karl Benz built his first automobile. Traditional journalism was over. It had flourished not just because readers paid for newspapers, although that helped, but because everyone from estate agents to employers had to advertise in newspapers and magazines, and everyone from house hunters to jobseekers had to buy them. Now nearly all that classified advertising has gone online to Gumtree, Craigslist and specialist sites that are free or next to free and, well, that seems to be that.

Counts of newspapers that have closed or of dailies that have become weeklies (like the Birmingham Post) are deceptive. A title may still exist. A paper may still appear on the streets. People may still want newspapers, as the vast number of hits on their websites shows, and a few are prepared to pay for news.  But without the captive market of advertisers, most local newspapers cannot afford to hire the reporters you need to provide what I still think of as “proper” coverage. Today the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail struggle to stay in business. But in 1984 they had a near-monopoly on the city’s classified advertising. Their newsroom was the size of a football pitch and held more than a hundred journalists. We reported on every serious crime, and went to every court case, and every council, water and health authority meeting. Public figures looked at us sitting in the press gallery and had to ask themselves what the public might think of their behaviour. In towns and cities across the developed world local and regional reporters, who had been trained to spot news, condense and present it, provided a lowly but essential democratic service.

Now consider this story — or absence of a story — from the Barts Health NHS Trust. It runs Europe’s oldest hospital, St Bartholomew’s, and one of Britain’s toughest, the Royal London Hospital, in the East End. The state has mistreated both. Gordon Brown said that essential rebuilding work must be done under the terms of his disastrous private finance initiative, which tied up a significant portion of the hospital budget. The department of health made matters worse by insisting that the trust bought an expensive computer system that never worked. The waste of public money the government presided over with botched IT programmes and extortionate private contracts was a national news story. The future of the mistreated hospitals was an urgent matter of public concern.

Even though the papers had a story on a plate, even though the managers of Barts were committed to open government, not one reporter came to the trust’s public meetings. Their desperate employers had fired most of them and ordered the survivors to stay at their desks and recycle press releases. More to the point, there were no “citizen journalists”, live Tweeters or bloggers at Barts either. For here is what no one, not even Steve Jobs or Bill Gates understood: the web would indeed set people free. It would empower the masses and tear down hierarchies. But once the web had destroyed the old funding model for journalism, no one would take the place of the  reporters who trudged along to crime scenes, meetings and court cases. It turned out that unless a news organisation trained people to do it, paid them to do it and ordered them to do it, no one would want to do a difficult and at times boring job for nothing.

Big court cases and crimes are still covered, as is parliament. But the pronouncements of local politicians and the lofty declarations of judges are being heard less and less. Intelligent lawyers are asking themselves where the deterrent power of sentences lies when so few know what punishments judges are dispensing. In television drama series, directors show reporters mobbing the detective in Broadchurch or following every move of Copenhagen’s municipal politicians in The Killing. In the real world, reporters are vanishing and, for all their faults, you will miss them.

To its credit, the government has promised to create 50 local television channels to cover towns and cities where newspapers once flourished. The handful now broadcasting show the well-meant policy must fail. London Live, which had the most going for it, has atrocious ratings for the obvious reason that it cannot afford to hire the reporters to cover the politics, crimes, arts and scandals of one of the world’s great cities. Like local newspapers, local television cannot attract enough advertising in the age of the internet.

A few years ago, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, said something that has haunted me: “For the first time since the Enlightenment, it’s possible to imagine societies — towns, cities, and even countries — without any agreed or verifiable forms of the truth.”

If that is too apocalyptic for your taste, consider the difference between a private and a public institution. Journalists have no right to cover the board meetings of J.P. Morgan and Barclays, although the world might be a better place if they did. But they can cover the court cases and board meetings of the public institutions of a democracy. Now, because of changes in technology, public institutions are becoming private affairs. It is no one’s fault. The wicked state is not removing access. It is just that no competent replacement for the old trade of journalism exists.

It is for this reason, I believe, that for all the bellowing of Lord Justice Leveson and for all the complaints about the decline of deference, the powerful of the 21st century will have an easier time of it than their predecessors in the 20th.

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