Review: Out of Print

I reviewed George Brock’s new book about the future of journalism for Cherwell.

Last week I watched Blade Runner, the cult 80s sci-fi film that imagines a somewhat dystopian Los Angeles in 2019.

In keeping with films of its genre and generation it has an endearingly oh-so 20th century conception of what the 21stcentury might look like: cities in the sky, flying cars, humanoid robots – you name it.

But amidst all that futuristic splendour there are newspapers, actual ink-on-paper newspapers. Hollywood futurology circa-1981 managed to dream up every outlandish creation going, but it simply didn’t occur that news might one day arrive on something other than dead trees.

What’s unfortunate, according to George Brock, who heads City University’s journalism department, is that it didn’t occur to journalists either.

“The Internet will strut its hour upon the stage and then take its place in the ranks a lesser media”. So Brock teasingly quotes Simon Jenkins in 1997.

Jenkins, who used to edit The Times, now writes for the Guardian, a paper which has responded to plummeting print circulation by the unprecedented move of pursuing a ‘digital first’ strategy. Its problems are shared throughout the industry, forcing them to make editorial cut backs while searching for a business model that diversifies away from print revenue.

Brock neatly captures the malaise in a way that is comprehensible to the lay reader, though the narrative can be dry.

The book is at its best when it challenges the basic orthodoxy that the internet is killing journalism. The business model underpinning print media was coming apart well before new online entrants and social media emerged, Brock shows.

And in fact by opening up a treasure trove of data, information and source material, there has never been a more exciting time to be a journalist. On the consumer side new technology may actually rescue newspapers, rather than killing them off.

That said, the age of industrial-sized media outlets is an aberration in journalism’s history, reaching a climax in the inter-war period. What need is there today for a newspaper covering everything from opera to Big Brother when a customised twitter newsfeed allows consumers to pick only the content they are interested in, from multiple sources.

Brock predicts a return to an anarchic, more pluralistic market characteristic of the 19th century world of pamphleteers and activists. Politico, Gawker and Guido Fawkes are successful examples of outlets that have, at times, bettered old media, but Brock warns that even insurgent online start-ups like BuzzFeed, which as I write lists ’22 Hilarious and Disturbing Missing Cat Posters’ on its homepage, “will gradually become tougher competition for established players”.

Out of Print is a good primer in what journalism is (he refreshingly doesn’t subscribe to the obtuse notion that tweeting is journalism) where it has come from and where it might go. Brock’s story isn’t dazzling – I wanted more anecdotes – but it’s overwhelmingly shrewd.

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A plea to journalists: don’t troll your interns

What is it with journalists having a go at interns lately? Brendan O’Neill did it in August for The Spectator, with an imbecilic ‘Why interns don’t deserve pay’ piece, and Ed Cumming has told interns in The Telegraph today that they “should stop complaining and work for free”.

Cumming, who studied English at Clare College, Cambridge, writes of aspiring student journalists: “There are no lengths to which I will not go to keep those prodigious little Oxbridge s**** off my turf”.

He also wrote for Varsity, a Cambridge student newspaper, but is nonetheless derogatory about interns “who drone on all week about their fine work for the satirical university paper”.

So it seems there is more than a little self-loathing going on here. It’s clear that Cumming, along with O’Neill, are trolling. But it takes some chutzpah to slam precisely the sort of intern that Cumming, by his own confession, was just a few years ago.

Once an intern is performing tasks that a paid staffer would otherwise have to do then he or she deserves to be paid. It is that simple, both morally and legally.

It’s difficult to find anything resembling a coherent argument for why interns should be grateful to work for free. Instead there are plenty of dubious assertions.

Take this. “I am always staggered by the number of interns who come to the Telegraph apparently with the expectation that at the end of the week they’ll be given a column with a fat salary and that will be that.”

That’s not true. Most newspaper interns, especially those who are new to the business, arrive with a shy and deferential attitude to their temporary colleagues. Big newsrooms are scary places and journalists, at first sight, are either fiercely intelligent or just plain fierce. Interns, few of whom are able to demand payment, do not demand columns.

If they do “go home at 4pm without suggesting an article”, then maybe that is because they lack initiative. As a serial intern myself I’ve met plenty of young people – typically the ones who have been set up on the internship by a close friend or relative – who don’t have the faintest clue.

In most cases however interns just don’t feel welcome in the office. That’s generally not the fault of journalists. They’re usually mad busy, especially as the peak intern season coincides with the summer break – when staff take their summer holidays leaving more work for the remaining staff to hoover up.

Of course the fact that there is more to do over the holiday season should represent an opportunity for interns to step in and prove themselves. But when aspiring journalists read the sort of derogatory drivel that Cumming posted today, they can be forgiven for hiding meekly in the corner.

Another OUCA story…

It’s of course unfair of me to label this just ‘Another OUCA story…’ when that’s very much not the headline that appears.

Here’s the text online. There was substance to warrant a story: an OUCA officer had been unfairly disciplined and, on a separate note, we had a witness to attest to a bit of sexism at Port and Policy, the society’s weekly port-sodden debating fixture. There was not substance though to warrant the Watergate-esque ‘Revealed: The OUCA files’ headline. It over-promised sensation to the reader and was a bit tabloid, which isn’t Cherwell’s style. So I do have regrets about the way that story was framed.

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