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

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.