Journalists: they can't live without us

Amid all the changes delivered by communications technology, no one has yet found another way of gen

I am teaching some journalism history this term (an enterprise made much more practical and enjoyable by the arrival of the first digitised, online newspaper archives), and inevitably I have been viewing the present state of the trade in a different light.

Probably most humbling are the constant, gloomy reminders that the people who write the words have always lived in the shadow of technology. When the Times introduced steam presses in 1814, or when railways made it possible to get a London paper to Newcastle overnight, or when messages by telegraph outstripped even the train, they did far more to create our national news media than the most brilliant reporter or editor.

By the same token, if you look at your daily today and compare it with a paper of even 25 years ago, the chief differences owe nothing to developments in news writing and editing. The Sun's infamous "Gotcha" edition of 1982 (not yet digitised) is a blotchy, scruffy product that is almost unrecognisable beside today's clean, smart, colour tabloid.

Of course the words have changed with the years. Journalists have been verbose - W T Stead is revered as a great investigator and editor, but by Jove he knew how to spin out his copy. Read today his famous 1885 exposé of child prostitution and you marvel at the patience of the reader as much as you do at the wickedness of Victorian London.

We have also been succinct. The Daily Mail championed economy of words in the 1890s, but the art reached its height in the 1940s, when newsprint was rationed and reports were often kept so short they verged on the cryptic.

We have been corrupt, and we have also been fairly straight. We have been posh, middle and working class. We have been drunk and sober, lazy and conscientious, pious and profane. Yes, we have changed in many ways down the years, but it would be a brave journalist who would claim that we have become better.

I tackle Wapping with the students late in the term, but previous experience has already taught me that this can be a bracing business. Modern undergraduates have a brutal way with the arguments of Sogat and the NGA, the old print unions, and though they are often suspicious of Rupert Murdoch as a monopolist and propagandist, many can only admire what he did in 1986.

Back then, Kelvin MacKenzie promised a new hegemony, declaring that "the only people that matter any more are the journalists", and I suppose in the short term the trade was better off with the "new technology" than without. From this distance, however, it seems more accurate to say that the only people who can't be done without are the journalists.

They have robotised or outsourced the printing, the distribution, the training, the catering and the libraries; they have moved out of town, reduced the number of editions and made deadlines earlier, but they just can't find a way to produce newspapers without journalists.

They may not keep us long, weeding out grey heads and replacing them with younger, cheaper models, and they may pare numbers to the bone, but still they must have journalists to make words. And it so happens that they need more words than ever, for in their folly the managers of newspapers have sunk much of the money they saved from getting rid of printers and raising cover prices into an insane arms race of bulk.

If journalism is really capable of changing for the better, of becoming more ethical and rigorous, or less hysterical, or less hypocritical, it will not happen in the midst of this desperate scramble to fill 100-page magazines alongside 80-page news sections and 20-page sports sections, not to mention property, fashion, family, health, money, education, travel and all the rest of the bolt-ons.

Roger Alton, the editor of the Independent, remarked in a recent interview that he liked the chunkiness of a modern Sunday paper. The same chunkiness makes my heart sink: think of all that journalistic effort, spread so thin.

Feel their pain

What was my champagne moment from the Great Crash of 2008? (I know we will all suffer, but no one can deny me a little glee at seeing so much smugness go pop.)

Was it reading that the Lehman Brothers boss kept most of his savings in Lehman Brothers shares? (Very far-seeing.) Was it Jeff Randall writing under the headline: "Capitalism: it's painful, but it works"? (Poor old capitalism, it sure needed defending.)

Was it David Cameron telling the Financial Times that the left must not exploit the crisis to wreck the financial system? (That's the system, you know, where taxpayers rescue bankers from their folly.) Or was it the Telegraph admitting that maybe the French and Germans do these things better after all? Truly, you needed a heart of stone not to laugh.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008