Peter Oborne was half right

It was with great interest that I and many around the world read the resignation letter of Peter Oborne formerly of the Telegraph newspaper. The former chief political correspondent of the “conservative leaning” newspaper in the UK left the paper with a damming critique of its present and future direction. His main criticism was aimed at the favourable treatment one of their main advertisers seemingly received and how perhaps when other papers were running with negative stories the Telegraph dedicated very little in terms of column inches to the organisation in question.

What he is addressing here is something that has been occurring for some time, the dumbing down of journalism. Journalism is meant to be a career pursued by truth-seekers who deliver content, opinion, facts and most importantly things that certain people, institutions or organisations would rather be left unheard. They deliver this content to a would be reader or the joe public who have a vested interest in knowing what the above mentioned are up to as often it directly impacts their lives whether they know it or not.

It would be very easy for me to lambast the media and just leave it there at criticism that they have dropped their standards and now engaging in serious conflicts of interest by mixing what is known in the business as “church and state.”

But let us address both sides of the story. If what Peter Oborne says is true and media organisations are mixing church and state i.e. letting the editorial be dictated by what their advertisers desire then what are the reasons that are causing this? Mr Oborne seems to allude to this a relatively new phenomenon. Could it perhaps be the case that the mixture of church and state is a direct response or rational decision by a media organisation whose consumers have also dropped their standards or at the very least directly changed their consumption habits.

We as consumers are now firmly entrenched in the information age. Communication and information can be transferred around the world with ease and in most cases for free. I can start a blog for free, open a facebook account for free, have a twitter account for free and countless other social media applications that I am too old to care or know about. The advent and tremendous technological advances in smart phone technology has also contributed to the sharing of information at break neck speed. Admittedly it was with horror that I watched the video shot from a smart phone of two of the Charlie Hebdo attackers actually executing a victim in the street. The person filming (I believe happened to be a journalist but not sure about that fact) was able to provide actual first hand evidence of the event. Again in a similar vein the video shot of the killing of Eric Garner in the USA was an instant viral. Following a live twitter feed from a demonstration or rally is probably more informative and encapsulating than a two minute live link from a television reporter. The consumer of information today is spoilt for choice in terms of mechanism of delivery.

Against this backdrop it is also a relatively rational choice for a consumer to not pay for information any more. When you are bombarded each day with content and information then the rational choice is to not go and pay for it if you see no real difference between what you are getting for free and what you are paying for.

Personally I have not bought a newspaper for years, I was fed up with the content from these organisations as was always left un-satisfied.  For me it seems like most media or news providers are merely selling fast-food, enough content to satisfy an instant craving for information but certainly not enough to be deemed healthy or fill you up for more than five minutes.

Take for example the Daily Mail faced with a circulation issue they created one of the most wildly popular “on-line news sites” in the world, the amount of traffic or visitors to this website is enormous on a daily basis. How do they do it? The daily mail is the big mac of newspapers, it appeals to the lowest common denominator in the majority of us. As the daily mail used to be a newspaper it still operates under the guise of a news organisation, but when you look at it, it is a glorified gossip column using clickbait and native advertising that is directly aimed at satisfying that instant craving in us all to cure boredom.  It is not hard to see where the daily mail more than likely receives most of its advertising revenue from. The majority of the “news” is related around which Z list celebrity was seen walking down the street looking fabulous, accompanied by an advertisement with a model wearing the exact same outfit from one of the top high street fashion stores. Doesn’t take a genius to figure how that article made it into the “news”.

If it feels like I am picking on the daily mail then fear not, I admire them as a business model, it clearly works for them, but to call it a newspaper is certainly stretching the imagination. It does serve its own niche very well however and what I most admire is that it adapted its business model almost perfectly to fit the new information age or more importantly how their consumers consume in the new information age, as really that is the goal of any business.

What I am implying however is that if you want solid journalism, full of hard hitting, well researched facts or opinion pieces then you as a consumer are going to have to pay for that right. So not only is there a supply problem there is also a demand problem.

Do consumers actually want hard hitting journalism? If they did, surely they would pay for it? or at least what they perceive it to be. Consumers generally vote with their feet and if the Daly Mail’s figures are anything to go by then no the majority of people do not want hard hitting journalism but more probably they want escapism and something to satisfy a boredom sensation for a short while.

Media like any markets has many niches, I believe in this day and age it is no longer possible to produce a daily newspaper that appeals to the masses, you cannot have a daily edition whereby all your readers get enough of what they want.

Real journalists are going to have to go niche – the niche being, the market for real journalists who want to report the news to real consumers. Journalists will have to leave large organisations as Peter Oborne has done and go it alone or band together with other journalists as is already happening to provide their craft via different mechanisms.

Consumers who crave strong reporting standards, hard hitting editorial and solid opinion pieces are going to have to re-educate themselves to the concept of clickbait and native advertising where they are being sucked into irrelevant and lame articles that are at best attention grabbing (to get the click for the advertiser) or actual paid for content disguised as “news” or a story.

For example if I wanted to increase my hits on this blog it would be pretty easy, a simple change of the title of this piece to“Who is right Peter Oborne or Kim Kardashian’s naked backside”. Kim Kardashian is technically relevant to the piece as she would feature heavily in say the daily mail and lots of other trashy newspapers, but in reality has nothing to do with this actual piece, but it sure would catch more attention. I can assure you the views of this article would increase exponentially and my mother would not be the only reader. I could show my advertiser (if I had one) that I have delivered X amount of viewers to their product. FYI as an experiment I have actually tagged this piece with a name of a well known celebrity to see if it draws traffic or not, I will report back any anomalies in viewership!

Consumers who seek this will have to spend time trawling through the vast oceans of noise to find a journalist or reporter who fits their standards and delivers what they want. Take for example some the work that Russell Brand does on his you tube programme “the trews”. Say what you like about his motives or his ideas (and many do) I admire the work he puts in attempting to highlight the issues of modern day media and PR and how they twist and manipulate stories or promote certain agendas. Whether you like him or not listen to what he has to say and then see if you can spot examples of it surrounding you. I will bet it wont take long before you start seeing examples almost every hour of the day. Once you have made your own opinion up and what it is you want from the media then it is your duty from yourself to vote with your feet, clicks, browser whatever it is and direct your attention to those outlets that satisfy your need for news.

But, (there is always a but) if you as a consumer want this then you will have to pay for it, it is not fair or rational to assume because someone who has a passion for journalism and happens to be good at it should give it away for free, they also have to make a living from it, they have to have a sense of assurance that their bills are paid and can provide for a family just like every person out there.

Peter Oborne’s letter addressed one side of the demand/supply equation and for obvious reasons did not address the other, the cynical beast in me says why would he attack the demand side? I doubt this will be the last we see of him. His letter made reference to how important it is for newspapers to avoid this conflict of interest that can arise, and I can empathise with that, he is seeing a career he loves being reduced in front of his eyes and is rallying against it. Sadly in the real world a newspaper is a business and it will do what it has to do to survive. Newspapers are being forced by the consumer to adapt their businesses models, some are winning and some are losing, that is business. The alternative is to have state sponsored newspapers which I am sure North Korea can provide advice on how to provide solid editorial!!

I assume that Mr. Oborne will probably follow a form of freelance journalism, I hope for his sake his livelihood and personal financial circumstances are never put in a situation where he may have to compromise on his standards or self-enforced professional integrity but maybe if it happens someday he might realise what he is fighting against for better or worse is merely a rational survival response.

Finally, Journalism seems like a very tough business. Ironically the rapid expansion of the information age should have made it easier not harder for media organisations to connect with their customer base but it opened the floodgates of competition and a race to the bottom in terms of price. This is not unique to the journalism industry, it has happened, is happening and will happen to almost all professions out there. Media companies must adapt, journalists must adapt and the consumer must adapt.

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