Hardly a new topic I know... but a couple
of things really hit home for me on this recently.

I met a journalist who writes for The
Guardian - one of the UK's major national newspapers - a week or so back. She was saying how her hours have been cut and the
desk she works on, creating two biggish chunks of the Saturday Guardian and
Observer has been cut by about 50%. She said:
"Basically all we have time to do now is knock together stories from
Press Releases."

We all know why the newspapers are cutting
staffing levels - they are all losing vast amounts of money and the future
looks bleak. Fewer people are buying newspapers, preferring to get their
news from other media channels - in particular the internet. Advertisers are deserting in droves as a result.

I then read a piece about the decline in serious investigative journalism.
Investigate journalist Nick Fielding was saying how only 5% of content in UK newspapers
these days is proper hardcore researched investigative writing. The rest is
made up of stuff from the newswires and PR rewrites.

The quality of our media is suffering because people won't pay to consume it anymore... there's a lowest common denominator effect taking place. I'm sure I'm joining a very long line of hacks saying similar things.

But - what's the REAL impact of this? Here are a few things we need to be really concerned about.

Fewer real stories, more noise
With less money spent on quality, original
journalism, everyone is using the same few sources of news. So the 'news' in
one paper is much the same as that in another. We're seeing real
homogenisation as everyone plugs into the same basic news feeds. The same stuff on the BBC, ITN in the Independent, Times and Guardian. Just a different spin... but the actual news agenda is the same.

Pseudo research masquerades as real fact
In the absence of time or resources to do
proper research, people resort to quick and dirty techniques instead. I see
this in the daily avalanche of press releases I get in my in-tray. PR agency
has committed to churn out a certain number of releases for its client -
regardless of whether they have anything newsworthy to say. So they 'create news'
by doing a survey. Ask a sample of say 100 people (almost always a tiny number
that is statistically completely insignificant)… and presto! You have a
percentage. 70% of tourists said they'd holiday outside the Eurozone this year (sample size: 200 from the website www.wesellholidaysinTurkey.com or some other interested party with a line to spin.) Some PRs reading this won't like this suggestion... I accept that not everyone does it... but I do get a LOT of pseudo survey guff in my in-tray.

The cult of the expert
The alternative to pseudo research is to
wheel in an 'expert'. In the absence of hard facts, media organisations are turning
to opinion instead. You don't need to do hardcore costly research to back up
your story if you can wheel out an expert - doesn't really matter who he is or
where from - to verify your claims. Doesn't matter whether global warming will
really kill us all by 2050 as long as a Professor from some university claims
it will. And if he's no longer around to stand by and back up his claim in 2050, better still. You see this so much in 24 hour news these days. Pseudo fact... backed up with waffle from expert... job done.

'Truthification' - repetition creates truth
The web has made it much easier to publish
- in all sorts of formats - so whilst we have less real news, we have many more
publishers. This means that some stories get disproportionate coverage for
their real value. And mistruths with their pseudo research and their so called expert opinion get spun on and on - picked up on an endless cycle
of websites, twitter feeds and more - until no one remembers where the original
story came from and these unsubstantiated claims become fact. 'Truth' is
literally created before our eyes from rumour and spin.

Being first is all that matters
Now that you can publish in an instant, being first is what matters. You
publish first and worry about the facts later. This is being driven by the
immediacy of the Net and of rolling TV news. One minute half of Mexico has swine flu and we're all going to die, the
next it's only 100 or so people worldwide. But that's OK… just update people with 'the latest
news' and correct your gross exaggeration later. No one will hold you to account
as - for the 10 minutes you published your mis-truth - it was as close to the
truth as anyone could get. Unfortunately that first rather inaccurate statement has
now been propagated all over the world by the 'Truthification' effect described above. 

Can bloggers be some kind of antidote to the dilution? Perhaps they can.

Or am I just an 'expert' creating the same half truths myself?



9 thoughts on “RIP quality journalism – the new age of Truthification

  1. Hi Jeremy - a lot of valid points and no arguement on those. Yes, newspapers are under pressure but I've long argued that the freelance travel model is dead. This has a lot to do with overkill of travel - too many journalists covering the same idea. There is very little original journalism because most of it has been done before. We try to explore new ways of making travel fresh and the web has given us a lot of tools to do that. PR's are getting dull in following trends but don't be too damning - it's an evolution, not an end game. I'm expecting more freshness to arrive from source contributors, the expats and travellers pumpin out the fresh stuff we all adore.

  2. If what you are arguing is true (personally I think it is) then it'll create a space that will be filled by others who: i.) care and ii.) don't have to service a mountain of debt to keep a media business going.

    Apologies, but I never knew of your existence until I bumped into you via Twitter. For what it's worth, I now read every *article* you publish here. I rarely read/watch news in the 'BBC, ITN, Independent, Times and Guardian' to which you refer above owing to this tedious 'Truthification' game.

    The space appears, people enter into the space and others start reading them.

    That's good?

  3. What a refreshingly honest piece Jeremy. I have been telling clients for 20 years that I am not going to issue a press release if there is nothing to say. Most respect that. However I don't think there is anything wrong with issuing releases focussing on new trips which are 'news' for the company concerned. I have been baffled for years as to how the 2000 odd 'travel writers' on our database make a living from it. Most don't I suspect. However I also think it is a shame that more and more papers are being forced to offer free holidays to staffers from other departments as long as they write something. The real travel writers are going hungry. Bring back the unions!

  4. An interesting list of concepts, Jeremy.

    Most I recognise and have railed about myself (eg Pseudo Research many times!) but 'Truthification' I hadn't really spotted - I'd noticed the symptoms but not identified the disease!

    BTW Twitter led me to this article, 'Why journalists deserve low pay' ( http://bit.ly/n1fLR ) by Robert Pickard this morning... same subject but from a slightly different angle.

  5. Hi Jeremy

    Eeek, freelancers are doomed and the evolution has not been televised. Personally I'm fed up reading in the supps about celebs on holiday (although Dom Joly in Thailand made me smile) and I'm not convinced about contributor leading magazines (we've tried them) and as advertisers they don't work. But maybe the model is different with the broadsheets.

    Basically we're looking at connecting good journalism with readers who appreciate good writing, paid for, if not by print media ads (and what it now costs for a paper at the weekend!), then by the travel industry.

    Off on a tangent here, but some sort of Betfair-type travel writing exchange hooking people up, (supplier(s) and writer) through some sort of CPC or direct biding or auction model. The technology is surely out there.

    Travel companies pay between 35p-£2 per click to the leading search engines, so why not pay that direct to the writer. Or a travel writer ebay...hmmm. Then the piece goes to the paper who dont pay the writer but guarantee to put it in or pre-ordered type status. Hmmm. Yes there would be issues but surely not insurmountable.

    Can writers be incentivized? Better writers get more money, lazy boring ones.....well lets not go there. We could do with a system like that for MPs too.

    Anyway, chin up, and I like your writing - especially when you did the Trans Siberian with us in the offline days (published in the Times too) so keep up the good work


    ps. I think good writers are always going to be okay. Also were Hemingway, Orwell, Twain and Theroux not freelancers of sorts...maybe starving helps creative juices - Moveable Feast etc...

  6. Hi Stu
    Great to hear from you. Hope all's well!
    Very interesting suggestion. Personally I like it... but I can't see an editor being happy as they'd effectively lose control of the piece - or at least there's the danger of that. There's also an interesting SEO angle to your suggestion. Could I write a piece, you pay me for it, newspaper gets it free, and I also stuff it with links back to your website, to mine, to a few others whilst I'm there. Hmmm. Nice idea. I feel a follow-on post coming!
    I completely agree about the celeb thing - Martin Clunes on islands etc (what does he know about islands etc?) Give me around the world in 80 trades with a real trader bloke who actually brings something to the party.
    PS: That Trans-Sib piece was my first ever cover feature in the Times Travel Section :-) Best trip I've ever done. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/travel/holiday_type/rail_travel/article428300.ece

  7. Very thought provoking Jeremy, as a PR I was going to get my back up about the survey guff, there was a similar debate on Travel Rants a while ago that dug my oar into http://www.travel-rants.com/2009/02/03/the-problem-with-travel-news/

    That said, yes, we generally have a number of releases to get out and I admit that not every single one is exactly the story of the century...

    As Steve mentions though, just as the web offers avenues for evolution for journalists, it also does so PRs.

    Also, bloggers offering an antidote to the dilution? Isn't there more of an argument to say that bloggers are causing the dilution? It's the blogosphere that's shifted the emphasis onto breaking the news first, one of the basic concepts of the blog is that it is not an outlet for fact based research driven articles but just opinion (anyones!), blogs are frequently blamed for the newspapers not being able to build decent online revenue models... an article relevant to that argument - http://www.charliebeckett.org/?p=614 - kind of comes to similar conclusions though!

  8. There's a lot of guff out there in the media. Papers end up running it because they're stretched, PRs pump it out to keep the clients happy, and writers - myself included sometimes - churn it out because its been a quiet week and they need that £300. Churnalism, truthification, whatever you call it, it's endemic according to Nick Davies in Flat Earth News (www.flatearthnews.net), the must-read book on every media studies syllabus. But can bloggers kick against the trend? Maybe. I think the ones adapting to the medium with good ideas, strong writing and not waiting to be spoon fed by client-approved platitudes will always find an outlet.

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