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Can MSM adapt to the web and do its job of exposing corruption?

This morning Roy Greenslade recorded in his Guardian blog that the San Jose Mercury is to cut 40 editorial jobs. In the main paper there was a report that the Freedom of Information Commissioner needs extra funds to cope with backlog of appeals against government bodies that have refused to release information.

On the face of it there is nothing to connect the two stories. The link is that they are both symptoms of concerns about the ability of the media to hold politicians and public bodies to account.

Investigative reporting has for far too long been low on the agenda of British newspapers with too few reporters for this time consuming and expensive work.

In the United States, by comparison, these skills have thrived. They have developed techniques of database analysis and the use of computerised mapping to identify links between different sets of information, which are hardly known here. They have also had a lot more reporters in their newsrooms to pore over reports and hit the streets with notebooks to dig out the facts.

So a first reaction to the news that the owners of another Californian newspaper, the Los Angeles Times wanted to cut the newsroom staff from 940 to 800 was that it was a luxury to have that many people. But the LA Times had already lost 260 jobs in the past four years. Together that is 400 jobs, a third of the newsroom.

Howard Kurtz, in the Washington Post (newsroom recently cut by 8% through early retirements) this week linked the LA Times job cuts to a corruption story in the same paper about a Congressman. He wrote:

It’s striking how many of the major probes involving members of Congress were launched because of news accounts, which have become the first line of defense against public corruption. While journalists may lack subpoena power and eavesdropping authority, they often crack these cases ahead of the cops.

Kurtz ran through a series of investigative stories and job cuts across America saying that anyone who thought investigative projects were unaffected by the slashing of jobs did not know the business. He concluded:

If this erosion continues, it would be bad news for serious journalism, and good news for corrupt politicians.

Much the same point was made during the summer by Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. He wrote in the Dallas Morning News:

For too long, the news industry has regarded investigative reporting as too time-consuming and costly. (And that attitude continues. Just last month, Time magazine laid off two of the best investigative reporters in our time because they were “too expensive.”)

Media owners also have seen investigative reporting as a “niche” kind of reporting: nice for the sake of public service and awards-gathering, but not really a daily concern.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that investigative reporting may be the beleaguered newspaper industry’s best franchise for the future.

Investigative reporting distinguishes journalists from agenda-pushing bloggers, from advocacy talk shows that parade as fair and balanced, and from the shallow reporting that happens when Wall Street pressures newsrooms to cut staffs.

The worth of investigative reporting is not measured in constant bean-counting, but in how well it serves the public interest. Solid investigative reporting demonstrates the credibility of a vigilant press, as well as the need for one – a need that’s greater than ever.

Much of what Kurtz and Houston fear in the US has already happened in the UK where too few newsrooms have resources for large investigations.

The Freedom of Information Act has helped fill the gap, giving us a new way to probe Government and official bodies. Now the government is looking for ways to curtail the release of information with Lord Falconer, the constitutional affairs secretary, proposing the rejection of more requests on the grounds that they were “too expensive to answer”. And today we learned that there is a backlog of 1,245 appeals against refusals to release information.

It is not only a matter of fewer people in newsrooms but that those who remain are expected to do extra things — writing for web as well as print, preparing podcasts, and blogging.

With advertising revenues down all round (ITV is expected to show a 13% decline this year) and income from newspaper and magazine circulation falling, the loss of jobs is likely to continue. With this happening at a time when more people are needed to cope with transition and convergence it is bound to be the more expensive bits of journalism, like investigating corruption, that suffer most.

The conundrum is, how do we manage the move to the web which is said to be “democratising the media” without damaging democracy?

Trust plan to save Press Gazette floated

The idea that the Press Gazette should be owned by a trust along the lines of the Scott Trust that runs the Guardian is attractive. It is important to the industry that there should be independent reporting and scrutiny in a time of rapid change, but it will not be easy to realise the dream outlined by the editor, Ian Reeves, today.

As he points out there have been seven different owners in recent years. The present owners Matthew Freud and Piers Morgan stepped in after the failure of the cross-subsidy stream from the British Press Awards. Their lack of success in restoring co-existence, if not love, between national newspaper editors and getting them all back into the awards is a reason given for the decision to sell.

Under their ownership both the paper and its website have improved. The Student Journalism awards, sponsored by Camelot, which are valuable in the development of young journalists have also been strengthened with Reuters hosting this year’s ceremony.

An inside page story gives more details of Reeves’ plan for “ownership by the industry” which suggest the paper can become profitable in the third year. This depends on increased display and recruitment advertising for which trustees would be offered a discounted rate. They would also get cut-price entry for the awards as part of the scheme to solve the impasse over the awards. No doubt, more details will be given at a meeting with 40 industry chief executives this week.

The success of the Guardian under the Scott Trust has also depended upon astute management of cross subsidy. The trust’s 2005-06 results show that the national newspapers made a loss of £19.3m before exceptional items. Trader Media was the “main engine of the business” producing an operating profit of £119.5m.

When the Press Gazette was founded some 40 years ago it rapidly became the first stop for recruitment ads. Ironically, the Scott Trust-owned Guardian now has that position.

Reeves says the aim would be “to publish Press Gazette as a profitable enterprise while ensuring its editorial independence”. He says: “The proposal requires a modest seed funding from each of the founding trustees, but also outlines the benefits that they would see from their involvement.”

It is right that the Press Gazette should be saved, yet I fear it is going to take more than a promise from the chief execs to put in a little money (seed funding and advertising) and buy expensive tables at the annual awards. But it should not be beyond 40 of the industry’s top executives to find a solution.

Hope beyond the Telegraph strike vote

Roy Greenslade has a measured response to the Telegraph NUJ chapel’s strike vote. He sees a possibility of narrowing of the old distance between owners and managers on one side and the NUJ on the other.

I hope he is right. Somehow the NUJ survived the trauma of Wapping (Fleet Street’s move to new print technology) although that is no real analogy for what is happening now except that it marked a revolution in the way journalists worked.

But it is clear that like direct input, the internet revolution is going to happen. Whatever the effects on traditional print revenue (sales and advertising) for newspapers and magazines journalists and owners have a common interest in survival.

For journalists it is bound to mean changes in the way they work, the times they work and the ways they tell their stories. Good journalism is essential for continued success and any owners that see the changes as a way of cutting costs are myopic.

Businesses with entrenched management and unions will be much less agile than start-ups, backed by big investments, which can react quickly to the changes which will continue to come at an even greater pace.

The vote does not make a strike inevitable. It is a reason an honest dialogue of the open-minded.

MPs fear Freedom of Information restrictions

About 85 MPs have signed an early day motion expressing fears that the Government is planning to restrict information released under the Freedom of Information Act by changing the charging arrangements.

Holdthefrontpage says the motion is being promoted by and all-party group of MPs and the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The Government is considering ways in which the cost of answering FoI requests is calculated by including reading time, consideration time and consultation time.

Government departments can refuse to answer a request if the cost is more than £600 while the figure for other authorities is £450, the website says.

Moderate, don’t write leaders, Jarvis tells newspapers

Nearly a month ago when Jeff Jarvis suggested in a post on his Buzzmachine blog headed “The death of the editorialist” that leader writers were not needed in an “age of open media”, I disagreed with him. Today he returns to the subject in his New Media column in Media Guardian.

He writes:

In this age of open media, when every voice and viewpoint can be heard, when news is analysed and overanalysed, and when we certainly suffer no shortage of opinion, do we still need newspaper leaders and the people who write them? I say no. Or at least, I say, they should join their colleagues in the newsroom in a radical re-examination of their roles in journalism.

He wants the leader writers to become “moderators and enablers of the democratic discussion, no matter where it occurs: in newspapers, on blogs, on television, and now on internet talk-shows like the conservative network 18 Doughty Street”.

Coming from Jarvis, an apostle of journalistic revolution through what many call “citizen journalism” and he has renamed “networked journalism”, this argument is no surprise.

When he writes about America, “where journalists insist that they are objective and that they and their institutions have no point of view,” you begin to see a divide opening up between the two sides of the Atlantic. You just have to look at Martin Newland writing about “editorial ethos” (my previous post) on the facing page, to see the difference.

Newland makes the case for a clear editorial policy. Jarvis rejects it in favour of “the voice of the people”.

Yes, I believe newspapers, in print or on the web, have to have a clear identity. Leaders and the process by which they are written is an essential part of creating that identity. The alternative is homogenised or, as Newland puts it “little more than a wire service” with columnists attached.

Moderate, don't write leaders, Jarvis tells newspapers

Nearly a month ago when Jeff Jarvis suggested in a post on his Buzzmachine blog headed “The death of the editorialist” that leader writers were not needed in an “age of open media”, I disagreed with him. Today he returns to the subject in his New Media column in Media Guardian.

He writes:

In this age of open media, when every voice and viewpoint can be heard, when news is analysed and overanalysed, and when we certainly suffer no shortage of opinion, do we still need newspaper leaders and the people who write them? I say no. Or at least, I say, they should join their colleagues in the newsroom in a radical re-examination of their roles in journalism.

He wants the leader writers to become “moderators and enablers of the democratic discussion, no matter where it occurs: in newspapers, on blogs, on television, and now on internet talk-shows like the conservative network 18 Doughty Street”.

Coming from Jarvis, an apostle of journalistic revolution through what many call “citizen journalism” and he has renamed “networked journalism”, this argument is no surprise.

When he writes about America, “where journalists insist that they are objective and that they and their institutions have no point of view,” you begin to see a divide opening up between the two sides of the Atlantic. You just have to look at Martin Newland writing about “editorial ethos” (my previous post) on the facing page, to see the difference.

Newland makes the case for a clear editorial policy. Jarvis rejects it in favour of “the voice of the people”.

Yes, I believe newspapers, in print or on the web, have to have a clear identity. Leaders and the process by which they are written is an essential part of creating that identity. The alternative is homogenised or, as Newland puts it “little more than a wire service” with columnists attached.

Newland on dangers facing the Telegraph

Martin Newland who resigned as editor of The Daily Telegraph a year ago writes in today’s Media Guardian about the formidable task facing the paper. The new editor, Will Lewis, he says must “recalibrate the Telegraph’s editorial ethos – to make it his own, rather than let it endure as a cobbled together product of the editorial interregnum.”

He is not confident of the future, concluding his column with this warning about the convergence programme:

But great care should be taken. The newspaper still makes the money, and locks in two million influential and wealthy readers a day. If it is dismantled and spread too quickly and thinly between podcast, television show and afternoon “click and carry” service, there is a danger of transforming a great newspaper into little more than a wire service with a handful of strident columnists attached.

What is the purpose of newspaper blogs?

For the lack of anything other to do on a wet Sunday afternoon — we were planning on lunch in Southwold but decided it was too cold and windy — I have started compiling the newspaper blog index. So far the data is just the numbers of blogs but I will develop it into a proper index by dividing the salary of the editor by the number of blogs, or something like that when another dull Sunday comes along.

The raw figures gathered this afternoon are Times 40, Telegraph 32, Guardian 12, Sun 10, Mail 5, Mirror and Independent none that I could find. The Independent should get a negative score of putting its site map behind its Portfolio barrier and demanding £1 before I could see it.

One can almost hear some editors shouting: “We need more of these blog things. Everyone has them my daughter tells me.” They have become one of the outward signs that the paper is up with the trends in journalism.

William Rees-Mogg at The Times likes to use questions as his headlines. He explained this on June 7 when he wrote: “I find the value of blogs is that they allow me to ask questions to which I genuinely do not know the answer.” On July 26 his question was: “A hung parliament in 2009?” Sorry, Lord Rees-Mogg even in the blogosphere none of us can help you with that.

Over at the Telegraph (list of 40 blogs) Natasha Cowan, one of four fashion bloggers, writes: “I’m not sure why, but I have got a niggling problem with the way the trend for leggings is being worn at the moment, and after discussing it with others it seems as though I am not the only one.”

More interestingly, at the Sun Louise Compton, the Girl with the Backpack, has discovered biodegradable knickers. I am not sure if this is really a blog as comments don’t seem to be accepted but the idea of reader-directed travel looks interesting.

At the Mail Peter Hitchens seems to take his blogging seriously. But a blog by an opinion columnist always makes you wonder whether you are reading the bits that were not good enough to get into the paper.

The Guardian’s score of 12 is rather misleading as only two of them have an author’s name as the title. They include readers’ reviews in the travelog blog, and the paper’s podcast feed. Jack Schofield has expanded his weekly computer agony column into a blog leaving Roy Greenslade on the media as the paper’s individual blogging voice.

This afternoon of browsing newspaper blogs leaves me confused. Some of the offerings are very good but too many seem like ways of presenting traditional content in a “look we understand the digital age” way, while others are dumping grounds for copy that would never get into the paper.

What would be really fascinating would be to know the numbers of visitors to the 99 blogs from the five newspapers visited.

Press Gazette looking for an angel

Depending on cross-subsidy to keep a newspaper alive is always a dangerous game. When Matthew Freud and Piers Morgan bought control of the Press Gazette 16 months ago they must have thought they could win.

The Gazette has depended upon the profits from running the British Press Awards, but that revenue stream was hit by rowdy behaviour, recriminations and boycotts. The new owners have failed to restore peace and profitability to the awards and Freud cites lack of support from some publishers as a reason for their decision to put the weekly up for sale.

Peter Cole in The Independent on Sunday wonders if the Press Gazette will be bought by a publisher who could encourage the defectors to return, but, he says, “there would still be the issue of the profits going to the magazine. Perhaps there will be no awards.”

It will be sad if the Press Gazette, much improved with its strong team of young journalists and an excellent website, founders. With a weekly print circulation of fewer than 6,000 it is going to be a tough time even if all the editors learn to love each other and turn up at the expensive awards dinner. They might even behave like angels.