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Sunday, February 24, 2008

What's to blame: journalism or technology?

There's a nice bit of debate on the boil about whether journalism itself is to blame for the decline in newspaper sales.

It seems to have come down to whether you think people don't buy papers anymore because of lifestyle changes - it's easier to read stories online, say, or catch radio bulletins on the run - or because journalism quality has slipped and people are fed up with __________________ (put your favourite beef in here: shallow stories, overworked journalists not having time to investigate stories, obsession with celebrity, over-reliance on PR, anything else you don't like about the media today).

Adrian Monck kicks off with this post saying journalism is not to blame and giving the following analogies:

"The decline of Vaudeville had very little to do with the declining effectiveness of one-liners and the relative merits of novelty acts.
"The decline of drive-in movie theatres was not the fault of Hollywood screenwriters.
"The crops did not fail because we offended the gods.
"The problems journalists are confronting are to do with the changing social habits of people who once purchased newspapers and were thus appealing to advertisers.
"Besides, the very first study of reader preferences in newspaper content (by George Gallup at the start of the 1930s) revealed that the things people liked best in them were not the journalism, but the pictures and comic strips."
No change there, then. The one mistake guaranteed to jam a newspaper's switchboard is to run the wrong crossword.

Lots of lively comments on the post, including this one from Wired Journalist Ryan Sholin:
"You're certainly right on with the Vaudeville angle, but I have a hard time believing that Not Sucking wouldn't hurt as newspapers try to transition to a model that still depends on actual written words, now and then."
Roy Greenslade has picked it up at the Guardian, re-running Adrian's thoughts and sparking a fresh wave of comments. All very enjoyable reading.

What do I think? All of the above.

Yes, people are complaining about spin, shallowness and the prevalence of celebrity stories, although it doesn't necessarily mean they don't buy papers and magazines to read them.

I, too, complain about recycled stories, the ever-presence of Britney Spears, the woeful trend to over-dramatise - inconvenience becomes chaos, annoyance becomes outrage, concern becomes horror. Not just in newspapers but across the media.

In reality, though, I'm not struggling to find enough that's sufficiently engaging to read or watch, I'm struggling to find the time to read it all, there's so much of it.

Mostly, I think newspapers are declining because of technology and lifestyle changes. There are more places to get news now and there's more of it. We travel more by plane and less by train. We all have cars (a luxury item in the 50s) and are less reliant on buses. I don't read features in newspapers so much anymore, but I do follow blogs and read popular non-fiction paperbacks on technology, economics, psychology and science - same content, new formats that better suit my lifestyle.

I like Adrian's point about
"journalism’s culture of self-flagellation - it is actually a typical human response: seeking to explain events beyond our control by reference to ourselves."