Masters of Our Own Destruction

DO YOU WANT THE BAD NEWS or the bad news? Because that’s exactly what veteran journalist Nick Davies says is the state of journalism worldwide, as overworked reporters turn into desk jockeys and truth takes a back seat

On a recent Monday morning some of South Africa’s most senior journalists, with two dozen fresh-faced journalism students, gathered at Hofmeyr House in a leafy corner of the Wits University campus. Crammed into a small room with low-slung ceilings, they were there to hear British journalist Nick Davies speak about the state of the world’s media. It was not good news.

A “state of the media” discussion is an obvious and depressing topic. We all know the sad, sad story. Print is dead. Newspapers across the United States are shutting down and the big guns of journalism like the New York Times, faced with plummeting revenues and dramatic staff cuts, announced earlier this month that to save themselves — and the rest of us with them — their website’s “paywall” (which requires readers to pay for much of the content) will go up in 2011.

Back at home, we journos are holding our collective breath, knowing just how lucky we are that internet penetration in South Africa remains relatively low and that broadband costs haven’t come down as fast as everybody had hoped. Because we all know what’s coming — we’ll just feel the pain a bit later.

Our business model, if you haven’t heard, is broken. And nobody is really certain how to fix it. Print advertising sales are dropping dramatically, not helped by a global recession. Space in newspapers is shrinking every year and, to make things worse, online revenue is paltry — certainly not enough to pay the bills, even while we pour more and more cash and resources into the internet black hole, waiting for something to bubble to the surface.

You see, we have given away the milk for free for so long that nobody wants to buy the cow. Used and useless, we are about to be taken out and shot.

But Davies, wearing a grey-blue button-up shirt with rolled-up sleevess, sweat forming circles under his armpits and slightly breathless (he had just arrived in the country and was finding the air a bit tight in Egoli), was there to cheer us all up. It turns out it’s not just our business model that’s broken and it’s not just online that’s killing us. We’re actually killing ourselves.

“I know it’s a slightly odd title,” said Davies of his book, Flat Earth News. “But it’s about when we believed that the Earth was flat, well, because it was. But when you actually look, it’s not.”

His point was clearly noted. We accept what’s passed along, with no quality time to research the obviously obvious, and report back to headquarters what everyone else is reporting.

It’s this that disturbed Davies. “What journalists are supposed to do is tell the truth. So I wanted to find out why, then, we so frequently put out stories that fail that.”

Davies was inspired by the great Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” story, which — surprise, surprise — never actually existed, and was all brought about by a massive misinformation campaign that the world’s press swallowed hook, line and sunk-us-all-into-war.

“The logic of commercialism,” he told the tired, overworked, long-suffering group, “has usurped journalism.” Well, yeah. But not in the way you would think.

Davies didn’t put forth the obvious culprit — the nasty finger-pointing part we journos love to pull out at strategic moments about those advertorials creeping into our editorial space, or not-so-well-disguised editorial pressure from big advertisers or government pals to promote their agendas. “There was something else at work,” he said, “something far nastier.”

Davies started to do his homework, pulling in a university team of researchers to help him crunch the numbers around media. He found out more about what we already know — that we’re churning out more copy in a shorter time. Our newsrooms are increasingly filled with junior reporters; senior journalists are too costly to employ. But he put some numbers to this: Davies’s researchers found that journalists are filling three times as much space in newspapers as they did in the Eighties in one-third of the time.

“Time is the journalist’s [most] important working asset,” he said. Take that away and it’s “like taking away the steel from the washing machine”.

There were audible sighs in the room, colleagues shaking their heads at one another in sadness and shame. But even more disturbing than all of that — and all of that is disturbing — is what his researchers found when they tried to figure out where reporters were getting their raw material.

From 2 000 stories in various British papers that the researchers examined, they couldn’t find the original source material for 8% of those, while just 12% of source material was found to come from the reporter.

A jaw-dropping 80% was secondary material. That is: PR agencies, trade unions, private companies, government and news agencies. Yup. You heard that right. Eighty percent. Enough to make any respectable journalist want to curl up and cry.

But then that’s why, said Davies, PR agencies make the big bucks. He ran down some nice stories about an international communications consultancy helping out Beijing with the fallout from Tiananmen and setting up a human rights group to fuel Desert Storm. Turns out the 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl who testified that she watched Iraqi soldiers yank babies out of incubators and murder them was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, and living in Washington DC when the said baby-yanking was going down.

Davies talked about a story on some English football fan by the name of Paul Hucker, who took out insurance in case he suffered emotional trauma from his team’s loss. The story was so good it went global, appearing in papers from England to Indonesia.

It didn’t take Davies long to discover that Hucker was quoted in lots of pieces about insurance (Google Paul Hucker and see for yourself); he finally tracked him down as the head of PR for — guess what? — an insurance company.

Journalists don’t go out in the field enough, don’t talk to enough people, don’t double and triple-check their sources.

All too often we do desktop journalism, we go to press conferences, engage in the hideous email interview practice and eat up government statistics without looking at them with a sharp eye. We accept that the Earth is flat because some release or some publicity flack — or Reuters — said so.

Except the reporters filing for Reuters don’t have more time than the rest of us. In fact, they have less, with more countries to cover and more stories to file.
One news agency reporter told Davies they weren’t attempting to deal with the pursuit of truth any longer; what news agency reporters are looking for these days is “accuracy”. “That is,” said Davies, “what is between the quote marks.”

There just isn’t enough time to check it all. And then we all follow the leader like lemmings right off the side of the news mountain, too afraid, too burdened, too busy, to take the initiative with our own stories — and, well, even worse.

The truth is we are too afraid to be left out of the news cycle, to not have what everyone else has got. Davies calls it Ninja Turtle Syndrome — comparing it with when he and his wife wouldn’t initially give in to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze, refusing to buy their children ridiculous plastic turtle toys. But in the end they went Ninja. After all, they couldn’t continue to allow their kids to be outcasts. Could they?

So we’ve either got a bad case of Ninja Turtle Syndrome or, as New York Times reporter Peter Baker recently told the New Yorker, we’re “much like eight-year-olds chasing a soccer ball”. “Instead of finding ways of creating fresh, original, high-impact journalism, we’re way too eager to chase the same story everyone else is chasing, which is too often the easy story and, too often, the simplistic story — and too often the story that misses what’s going on.”

What stories are we missing now while we chase the endless news cycle that keeps us believing the world is flat?

I suppose we won’t know unless we unchain ourselves from the desk, drill down to the numbers, listen to people on the ground, question those who leak us stories and play us as political pawns, take a breath and do our homework. Our job, actually.

Well, here’s to the future of journalism. Let’s change it while we can.

Mail & Guardian, February 19, 2010