What’s happening to journalism

Journalism is a dead industry. Or dying, at least. That’s what we hear. Citizen reporters are using new technology to provide for free what professional journalists currently provide for a salary. All they need is a smart phone and a social-media account and these insurgent hacks are good-to-go. It costs nothing to produce and nothing to view; and who needs training? They simply hold their phone in the air and start beaming whatever seismic event is taking place in front of them.

How can professional journalism compete with this? And, more importantly for those still earning a living by the trade, how can they make it pay? This might prompt most people to say, ‘who cares what happens to the phone-hacking cockroaches?’ But journalists – and other writers, such as Alexander Chancellor in The Spectator recently – are, for understandable reasons, a little more concerned.

He recounts an address he gave recently to journalist-hopefuls at Nottingham University, in which he found himself torn between wanting to explain how today’s youth would have to be particularly stupid to aspire to a career in journalism, and not wanting to discourage the bright young things from pursuing their cherished dreams. Still, obviously not too torn, because he gave them the gloomy news anyway.

It’s a good question: ‘Where are the new jobs going to be when every news organisation in the country seemed to be getting rid of people instead of hiring them?’ And possibly a question with no redeeming answer to someone (and I hope this sentence is not taken the wrong way) nearer the end of his journalistic career than the beginning.

When one has spent a life in a particular organisation, there is always something sad about uncontrollable change. Old soldiers, sailors and airmen grieve stoically when their regiment, ship or squadron drops off the order of battle. But they rarely, if ever, stop the change. If something lives, you know it will die; and, if you take an optimistic view of life, it might re-emerge in a new, improved form.

Sticking with the military theme, we might think institutions like the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force, conservative as they are, respond poorly to change. But that’s not quite true. One need only look at the way all three services implement the ever-changing demands of their political masters with grumpy but loyal commitment. In 2006, the Army lost 6,000 posts, renamed and lost distinguished regiments and reorganised after three decades of deployment in Northern Ireland; and over the coming years it will do the same, only this time it will lose 20,000 posts and integrate the Territorial Army into a new Reserve force central to all future regular commitments. This is quite a change, with considerable risk; but the Army will get on with it, as it always does.

What’s this got to do with journalism? Nothing, really, except to say that things always change. Fantastic advances in technology are shattering the assumptions that have underpinned journalism since the invention of the printing press. We might wonder if late-medieval scribes had a little panic when Gutenberg revealed, with Steve-Jobs evangelism, his filthy, job-destroying machine? They probably did, but we might then note how the printing press gave rise to a whole new set of employment opportunities; and there is no reason to believe that, when we’ve worked out how to marry journalism with today’s developing technology, we will not have a vibrant new industry that looks like journalism, but not quite as we have known it.

Mr Chancellor knows this, of course; he’s far too shrewd an observer of our species. But perhaps he’s not yet thought about the matter as one might think of greater societal change. Perhaps his observation – that fewer people are to be employed professionally in journalism – is not a sign of decline, but of advance. Think of all those former journalists now free to take up more productive employment.

One of the ways – perhaps the chief way – society advances is through diversification. Indeed, a society that can produce a greater variety of goods and services is generally considered a more prosperous society. They are freed from the risks and the poverty characteristic of societies still largely dependent on one or two rudimentary industries. It is still fashionable in certain political circles to think the West enjoys lower child mortality, more abundant food and better medicine because of socialistic provision, but this ignores the creative power of capital and trade – the means of diversification and prosperity.

And key to our ability to produce more of the things that make our lives better, is being able to create more with less (or, rather, to make what we want, but with lower human input) – Productivity. Take agriculture. Societies where agriculture forms the main source of wealth are poor societies, harassed by poverty’s attendant problems: greater ignorance, higher mortality and less freedom. The great triumph of developed societies is their ability to get people off the land while still being able to feed themselves. Every person freed from dependence on the land is a person doing something else to make our lives more varied and interesting: education, science, business, art, philosophy etc.

The principle continues through all trades and industries. More efficiency, especially in labour, leads to greater capacity for other things, thus enriching society and creating what we recognise today as advanced and diversified culture. Every time we substitute robots for people to build cars, we free people to do other things; every time we find a more efficient method of producing what we want, we reduce the need for labour, freeing that labour to do something else to enrich society. Some people, generally of a Luddite tendency, still see labour-saving advances in productivity as a regressive step; but this is a mistake. Not everyone can work on the land: who will make the ploughs?

Back to the point, and back to journalism. Perhaps we need to look at this present revolution in journalism as we do other labour-saving advances? Perhaps technology, by enabling the citizen-journalist, is simply making journalism better and more efficient. Perhaps the professional journalist, with his or her tendency to filter and edit the news, has always been an undesirable hindrance to our understanding of what is truly happening in the world. After all, if Time magazine wasn’t witness to the latest great tragedy, then it didn’t really happen! Now we are all witness, and we can testify with the touch of a button.

But it is not all doom and gloom for the professional journalist. If the human race is good at one thing, it is good at finding ways to make money. Citizen journalism will need polishing-up for the more discerning market. It will need editors, copywriters, distributors, platforms and more, all of which means jobs – just slightly different jobs, that’s all, and perhaps fewer; but that’s all right. Perhaps journalists of the future will be less journalist, more editor. Perhaps journalists are, in fact, simply going to be ‘the people’: people who do something else but know the issue on which they write in far greater detail than any journalist could manage?

No, journalism isn’t dead; it’s not even dying. It’s simply changing, and if anyone wants to make money from it, they will have to do what all businesses do without the crutch of state subsidy. They will have to provide something for which people are willing to pay, be they readers, advertisers, philanthropists or anyone else. But it was always thus; it’s just that things have got a bit more competitive, that’s all. And that’s a good thing, no?

How to follow test-match cricket

Question: What’s the best way to follow test cricket?

Answer: Team bus, then the pavilion, then at the wicket with your teammates.

Well, obviously! But the average cricket punter isn’t so fortunate as to play for England, and he is more than likely stuck at home. As such, cricket votaries must find another way to keep up with the latest developments 10,000 miles Down Under, even though things have not begun quite as England would have wished.

There’s television, radio, alternative-radio, newspapers, blogs, social media and your mate Dave who, to your immeasurable envy, has got an entrance ticket to the Gabba or the Melbourne Cricket Ground or wherever his unjust good-fortune has taken him, and from where he is sending you provocative texts and photos of the scene, knowing full well that it’s the middle of the night back home and freezing cold and you’ve got to go to work in the morning.

Mates, eh? But we live in modern times, do we not? And with great technology comes great… No, hang on, that’s something else… Here it is: With all this new media comes greater choice in how we might follow the cricket. So, just what is the best option?

Time gone by, when players wore facial hair for reasons other than Movember, you’d have waited for the papers, which in turn would have waited for the steamship. Or a decade or two later you might have gleaned the score at Sydney from the clipped and crepitating voice on the wireless in the corner. But today we have an abundance of media options. If you are yet undecided on how to follow the Ashes this winter, or are struggling to make sense of this babble of choice, then perhaps this will help:

Let’s begin the old fashioned way: with newspapers. Take your pick. Broadsheet, tabloid, Berliner—all of which publish full scorecards and ample comment. It’s comment, really, that most elevates the British press. We know traditional newspapers are struggling to make a profit right now, but their future viability is dependent on high quality articles, with greater depth and nuance, rather than the currency of their news, for which they cannot compete with electronic media.

The political environment is also somewhat hostile, but it’s difficult to see why either politicians or regulators might want to stop Derek Pringle and Mike Atherton venting their frustrations in black and white. Newspapers also tend to give a considered view. Cricket writers are able to spend the day percolating their literary conceits, and the reader gets to wallow in their joy or misery, whichever mood the players have roused in them.

But lack of immediacy is a genuine problem for newspapers. These days we like to have things 24/7, but we have to wait until the following day before reading about the exploits of Mitchell Johnson or Ryan Harris; and as play doesn’t usually finish until the sun is shining on Greenwich, reports miss the final hours of play. By the time the newspaper story gets to the reader, he already knows what has happened. Editors need to offer something more.

Which brings us to television: the Rolls Royce of cricket-following options. If you’ve got High Definition, all the better. Ball by ball, and to the very second, you can follow the action the other side of the world. TV — that most modern and culture-shifting of devices — allows the viewer to see, in full florescence and at various speeds, each snorting wicket, scintillating catch and glorious shot, all with expert analysis on hand to explain the action. And if we’re lucky, we might catch one or two fruity sledges. The commentator’s words are less important in this medium, mostly because we can see the action perfectly well for ourselves, but this is one instance when less really is more.

Yet there is a problem with television coverage: not everyone can get it. Each cricket devotee will have their reasons for not subscribing, but the most prevalent is, no doubt, cost. The coverage maybe good, but it isn’t cheap. So millions of cricketers are orphaned from the game, like waifs bereft of the thing that sustains them. Other options are required.

Up steps radio. Aficionados like to claim this is the ‘high art’ of the form, which may or may not be the case; but the real reason for the success of radio (or voice broadcast, as is more pertinent a description since we can now listen through the internet) is that it doesn’t cost a penny (apart from internet connections and computers and smartphones; but apart from that, it’s free).

With radio broadcast, the bucolic tones of an Agnew or a Blofeld, or the late Johnston and Arlott, sing through the air and we are transported to the field of play in a way that engages the imagination more effectively than the clearest of television pictures. Because we have to make an effort to imagine ourselves there, the rewards are so much greater than sitting passively in front of the TV. Some viewers are even known to turn the TV commentary down and the radio up — No offence, you guys!

If it can be said — and I don’t see why not — that artists prefer the visual medium of television, then poets probably prefer radio; and the comedy poets have emerged on the scene in recent years. In 2009, Andy Zaltzman, self-confessed comedian, presented a radio programme: Yes, It’s The Ashes, a humorous take on the oldest cricketing rivalry. But Test Match Sofa, recently acquired by The Cricketer Magazine, now carries the mantle of ‘alternative’ commentary. Taking a more matey and irreverent approach to live cricket-chat than BBC’s Test Match Special, it broadcasts every test match played by England.

Yet perhaps you feel you cannot devote all the hours of the night — the ones normally spent sleeping — to the cricket, while at the same time remaining either employed or married. It’s a moot point as to which is the more desperate creature: the cricket widow or the cricket widower; but spending twenty-five winter nights with men from Down Under whispering sweet sorrows and elations into your ear is probably not the healthiest of pastimes.

You might, then, try a podcast, to which you can listen at your convenience. Test Match Special unleashes Geoffrey Boycott for a good twenty minutes at the close of play each day. And Cricinfo offers a less frequent but no less interesting podcast. Or you could listen to the day’s radio commentary on the iPlayer while at work. Who’d know?

This is where technology begins to bamboozle us with choices. Choice is a good thing, of course, but the options seem to expand exponentially. Perhaps the most democratic medium — in that anyone and everyone can broadcast their opinion — is Twitter. There are other forms of social media, but we’ve all heard of Twitter. With the help of the BBC’s cricket correspondent or current and ex-cricketers or celebrities or your mate Dave, you can keep up with the action. The only limitation is the number of people we choose to follow. Though sometimes someone will tweet ‘THAT’S OUT’ two minutes after everyone else has done the same, thus inducing mild coronary because we think yet another batsman has fallen to the national malaise.

The thing about social media is that it allows us mortals to join in — up to a point. In earlier times the cricket devotee listened passively to someone else telling the story, occassionally profaning at the television or the radio if suitably inspired, but now he can offer his own wisdoms and witticisms — lot’s of them. Perhaps he has coaching expertise to impart to some batsman who’s just been castled or a bowler who’s just thrown down a long hop and been hoiked for six? They’d appreciate that, I’m sure.

It’s probably the invention and gifting to the world of Internet technology, by Tim Berners-Lee, that is most responsible for this proliferation. It’s not possible to survey all of the web pages so far made, but a brief internet search of the term ‘cricket’ reveals 497,000,000 results. Happy reading! There’s no end to the stuff. Much of it is drivel, and much is out of date, but there’s certainly something there to satisfy most people.

Journalists, as already mentioned, are having a tough time of it at the moment, and cricket writers are no different. But the Internet has released all sorts of new voices. There are many writers out there, some professional, some unprofessional (meaning unpaid rather than incompetent, though they might be that too), who offer interesting commentary. Cricket truly is the sport of poets. Perhaps more than any other sport, it has provoked great writing, and while much of it ends up in books, a lot is also written on the web. Allan and Alex Massie, father and son, frequently venture their views on the game (go on, internet them); and there are plenty of other blogs from which to choose. They might not all offer the scores, but they offer thought.

And that’s what the game of cricket is really about: thought, and the mind. It would be inconceivable to play any game for five days solid and expect to rely on brawn alone to achieve the ends. Skill, of course, is also required, but it is brains and mental fortitude that makes the difference.

Indeed, perhaps it is the meandering paths of intellectual intrigue, from selections to field placements to line and length to declarations and much more, that bewitches cricket lovers so much: to the extent that the love of it becomes a sort of pathology.

There: ‘Cricket as Pathology, Discuss.’

And perhaps this is why devotees enjoy seeking out so many complicated and obscure ways to keep up with the day’s play, especially when the series in question is the Ashes. But as it happens, there is no best way to follow test cricket. Just follow any way you can.

The Literature Prize is up and running, but is now called The Folio Prize

Good news. There’s a new literary prize in the firmament. It used to be known simply as the Literature prize when Andrew Kidd, a literary agent, thought up the idea in 2011. There’s something Ronsealesque in the name, in that it does what it says on the tin. Write some literature, win a prize. Simple. But now it’s got itself a sponsor and is going to be called The Folio Prize, which seems a bit more obscure, unless you know The Folio Society specialises in publishing beautiful books. Not that this is a genuine issue for complaint; where else is the money for the prize going to come from if not sponsorship? Some anonymous philanthropist? An ultra-successful author who has already made their millions? Well, perhaps, but that obviously didn’t happen, so The Folio Prize it is.

No doubt between now and March 2014, when the first winner is announced, there’s going to be a lot of chat about how the new prize is sticking two fingers up at the Man Booker for being inferior and generally more downmarket. After all, the two most recent winners are Hilary Mantel and Julian Barnes, who, as we know, specialise in airport junk*. If they can win the Man Booker then I can for goodness sake. We must therefore make a stand for proper literature and support The Folio Prize. We might think differently if we were now talking about The Ryanair Prize, but we’re not so we don’t need to worry our pretty little heads on that one.

Yet I’m not sure we need to concern ourselves at all with potential rivalry or corporate compromise. This represents neither of those things. £40,000 is being offered, and that’s good money to any author, even already successful ones like Mantel or Barnes. It’s the recognition for literature, in all its forms, that is important here. Authors need encouragement and a bit of a pat on the back to keep going. And if the publicity generates more book sales, even through Amazon (although there are other places to go), then that’s got to be good news, and is probably the point of the whole exercise anyway.

Which leaves just one thing to say: if I start now, have I got time to bang out a brilliant novel and submit it before entries close?

*Given recent hullabaloos, which I think should be referred to as MantelGate from now on, if not already, I should just make plain that I don’t think they write junk; just so we’re clear.

Some thoughts on blogging and writing

There’s something about bloggers, isn’t there? Something you can’t quite bring yourself to say, for reasons of inclination or enervation, either will do, despite occasionally or perhaps frequently thinking it. That they’re… well, a bit weird.

Hunched for hours over the internet, filling their heads with its unending babble before adding to the general melee by posting their own very special opinions, comments, photos and links to cats doing cute things as if that’s exactly what civilisation needed right now. (Okay, here are the cats). And if that’s not enough, something new is only ever a click away. It’s all growing at such an exponential rate it wouldn’t be surprising if it overtook the universe any day now. Then what? Someone should look into that.

For people of a certain age, the sense of weirdness probably stems from childhood. In those days, people who spent most of their time on computers were seen as geeks: techy people not much good at sport or lading about in the park – important things like that. A hobby without human interaction was the answer, and in the eighties and nineties that meant computers – comics were mainly seventies and before, I think, although their appeal to a certain type still proves interestingly stubborn.

Computer geeks played games. Some wrote games, while others programmed the dos or whatever that thing was that made computers do stuff back then. There was a sense that these people were missing out in some way – on friends and girlfriends mainly, but also other things, the absence of which gave the impression they belonged to an odd sect of secluded youth.

But who is laughing now? The geeks, of course. Geeks, or swots as they are otherwise known, have always been the ones laughing in the end, because they learn useful things at school and university which they later turn into money-making schemes, often involving the word app. The former geeks are today’s success stories – Branson? Hawking? Tempah? (Tinie Tempah, the London rapper, if you don’t know). Geeks, the lot of them. Okay, so TT can’t spell, which you would have thought, being a geek, he would have sorted out by now, but that’s incidental.

Geeks rule! Remember teen movies? Of course you do. Still watching them, aren’t you. In the best of them, the jocks were the deadbeats, even though there was always a sense that they weren’t. Alongside the jocks (although seemingly in competition) were the ‘alternatives’, but they wore black and opted out not because they were proper geeks but because they were too cool for school, only in different ways – still deadbeats. But those paying attention, and adults, including the film makers themselves, knew who was going to amount to something in the end. Yes, the math-club-science-club dweeb. They kept telling us, for goodness sake.

So there’s still a sense – certainly in older generations – that people with their faces in computers, including bloggers, are a bit geeky and therefore a bit weird, despite the reality being quite different. In fact, if you want an explanation of the generational divide, then look no further than TV shows like the IT Crowd and the Big Bang Theory. Although created by people you might consider a bit old, like Graham Linehan and Chuck Lore, they have turned geek-jock lore on its head. Youth gets it. Geeks have now got it and the jocks are the joke – when they actually feature.

At the root of blogging is a desire to be noticed. It’s a cruel irony, therefore, that there is probably no better way to remind yourself how people aren’t noticing you than to write a blog post. We have the hyper-bloggers, of course – Andrew SullivanGuido Fawkes and the blogging teams at places like the Telegraph and the Guardian – but they are the exception. Everyone else – the everyday chumps – continue to be ignored. Take Twitter, the micro-blogging site – there’s absolutely no better way to get ignored by famous people than tweeting them your witty jokes. Go on, try it. If you really want to (and sometimes if you don’t) you can get noticed in other ways, such as by threatening to blow up an airport or saying you don’t like someone because they smell funny, but that’s not the sort of recognition most bloggers are looking for.

Except this argument is a load of old rubbish, too. Proper geeks (you remember – the people who actually get it and know their geekness is in fact their route to success), proper geeks know how to use these things properly. They don’t howl at the wind and wonder why the wind doesn’t engage them in stimulating, warm-hearted dialogue. They build and talk to networks of like-minded individuals or fellow tech people who can help them crowd source ideas and stuff like that which most people including me don’t really understand. For them it serves a constructive, Berners-Lee-type purpose of generous digital engagement and horizon expansion.

I’m not sure most other people get that. Of course, there will be the odd individual who just wants to write stuff down and put it out there for no other reason than that. They might fancy themselves as a professor-like character only interested in studying the properties of spider webs for its own mind-expanding sake. A bit like writers or diarists who just have to write because that’s, like, what makes them tick and without it they’d, like, stop breathing or something. Maybe these people exist, but I’d say not many. Most writers want to be noticed, and most of them want to sell you their writing, too, a bit like celebrities selling you the impression you have a special connection in return for you buying their stuff or perpetuating their fame.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but, at the bottom of it, celebrities just want to sell you something. They try to do it directly (if they’re not very imaginative) or they try to do it indirectly. They might tell you about their day or what they had for breakfast in the belief that whoever is reading their missives will think that, in return for such personal information, the least they can do is buy the DVD box set or whatever else is being hawked at the time.

It’s all marketing, and you’re the mark. Think of it a bit like someone mugging you in the shopping centre aisles to buy their sparkly mobile phone cover, only it’s done cyberwebically and you’ve invited them over by liking or following them. They don’t even have to see you coming, you’ll come right over to their little market stall and ask for the damn things.

I keep getting pushed off this weirdness idea. Perhaps that’s because it’s not weird at all, and the thought that it might be only endures because of childhood misunderstanding. There’s nothing new in writing stuff no one will notice. People used to write diaries with no expectation of public recognition – the politico diaries one finds in bookshops were never proper diaries, always pension pots and opportunities to further the author’s legend or correct some inconvenient public misconception about their conduct in public office.

True, proper diaries are not shown to the public like blog posts, but so what, we’ve established that most blogs are not read by anyone anyway. Publishing them online merely represents the modern way of writing. If nothing else, it just looks a little more serious, professional, contemporary.

People also paint pictures and take photographs without expecting public recognition. A whole variety of hobbies and pastimes exist that result in little more than a memory of something done that they found interesting. And writing is just the same. People do it because they like to. Recognition would be nice, money better, but it doesn’t really matter. None of that will come anyway unless you write something in the first place. People write and blog because they like the shapes and images the letters make on the page and in their minds, just like artists; and if you think that’s weird, well, then YOUR weird.