Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Dead tree journalism, blogging and council glossies

Salford is a city next door to Manchester, and often confused with its more famous neighbour. It is the birthplace of Alistair (then Alfred) Cooke, a great journalist, at home on TV and radio, but also in print, right up to the last decade of his life.

It is also the home of a lively magazine, the Salford Star, which, until recently for reasons explained in issue no 9, published both a print and online edition. It won "Best Regional Newspaper" at last year's Plain English Campaign awards. However, it cannot survive in a print edition without sufficient advertising and, as editor Stephen Kingston said in an Independent interview earlier this week: "the problem is that if you are going to produce a proper community magazine you might have to bite the hand that feeds you. Because we are scrutinising and taking figures apart, advertisers don't want to go near you."

Needless to say, Salford City was not about to grant the "Star" any money while the council was spending £175,000 on its own glossy magazine. Councils' own free magazines are very good at propagating good news stories - and I take Cllr Derek Vaughan's oft-expressed point that these are not always attractive to the commercial press - but citizens are deprived if they don't have access to good investigative journalism as well.

Famous newspapers in the United States are being forced to take the online-only route. Even a nationwide (most US newspapers are regional) - nay, international - publication like the "Christian Science Monitor" went completely online at the end of March. Two American titles are folding per week, according to Donald Trelford. He is despondent. "The industry in which I have spent half a century may have to learn very quickly that society doesn't need newspapers any more," he writes, "but it will still need journalism to find things out and explain the world's complexities. The challenge – not just for newspaper companies, but for society as a whole – is how to pay for that when traditional sources of revenue have disappeared or moved elsewhere."

On the other hand, one of the most remarkable results of the democratisation of Iraq was an explosion in the number of print titles. This, in a land where blogging, though liable to land you with a visit from Saddam's heavies, flourished.

Blogging in its turn is doomed, according to my third excerpt from last Monday's Independent Media, by Andrew Keen. He reckons that self-publishing lumps of ones own static text is going to be replaced by real-time social media personal portals. He cites WordPress as enabling users to do everything from incorporating their Twitter feeds, videos and photos, to managing their own independent labels.

Well, Keen may not have noticed, but WordPress also enables you to self-publish text: witness Alix Mortimer. There is no sign of the Mortimerian Republic's losing popularity (though unaccountably it lost out in the Orwell awards to Nightjack; commiserations, Alix).

Good and lively writing is clearly going to thrive in cyberspace even if no newspaper survives. What is worrying is the future of authoritative journalism. The papers at the top of the American tree are famous for their scrupulous fact-checking and separation of fact from opinion, in the CP Scott tradition. This is not true of US television news, nor, mostly, of the press over here. What happens if the former die? Who can you trust on the Web?

There will be local print sheets as long as people have cars to sell or wish to notify births, marriages and deaths. The question is: can they also incorporate unbiased news, let alone carry out investigative journalism?

Alistair Cooke showed that one could combine traditional journalism with emerging technologies. (Television did not take off in the States until he was well into his stride as a Guardian correspondent.) I believe that old and new media will eventually find a means of cohabitation, but I cannot predict what form it will take.

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