US humourist skewers newspaper industry

Editor & Publisher interviewed US humourist and syndicated newspaper columnist Dave Berry after he won 2013 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement award, and the interview was excerpted on the blog Newspaper Death Watch. When asked why newspapers have cut down on their humour columns, Berry responded:

Newspapers have had a consistent problem over the past 30 to 40 years that whenever they are offered two options, they always pick the one that is more boring and less desirable to readers.

Personally, I attribute the modern failure of newspapers to English majors. We let our business be run by English majors, but since the model was a foolproof way of making money and the only place for Sears to buy and print a full-page ad, they could do whatever they wanted. This created the notion that whatever they were doing had huge market demand, and when the Internet came along, we found out that wasn’t necessarily the case.

That’s an incisive comment, not because English majors were running the business, but because we’ve had a shift from a time when newspapers had almost a licence to make money to a much more challenging environment. This shift from a pretty lazy business model to one where we had to be creative about how to sustain journalism is still playing out. To make enough money to support a news operation approaching the scale that we have now we’ll need to work smarter and harder to rebuild the business. I also think it would be realistic to cede that it’s probably not possible to retain the size of organisations that we currently have in the US and western Europe. What’s the optimal size to provide quality coverage for a community? I don’t know, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to find out. 

Leveson: Freedom of expression and the press are different rights

Professor Chris Frost, the Head of Journalism at Liverpool John Moores University, has testified before the Leveson inquiry “in in his role as Chairman of the National Union of Journalists Ethics Council, alongside NUJ General Secretary, Michelle Stanistreet”, and I think he raised a point that is important not only with respect to the press corruption scandal in Britain but also in a lot of other debates that we’re currently having in terms of rights and responsibilities in democratic societies. I’ve heard a number of times recently people confuse freedom of the press with freedom of speech or of expression. These are different rights. 

Frost drew a distinction, and I think an important one, between freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Just as important in terms of making distinctions between these freedoms, he also speaks about limits with respect to these freedoms. 

Clearly other people have other freedoms which may come into conflict.  The obvious ones are reputation, privacy, fair trial and so on, all as mentioned in the Human Rights Act, and clearly journalists need to balance their – and indeed everybody needs to – balance their right to freedom of expression against those other rights.

This becomes particularly important for the media, which is in a particular position of power, so that whereas the kind of freedom of expression you and I enjoy when talking to other people can have a little more licence, when it’s driven by a media which is talking potentially to millions, there needs to be much more concern about the rights of others, such as privacy and so on.

The difference between the rights of the individual to expression and the rights of journalists as members of the press and media are different. The individual right of expression versus the institutional right of freedom of the press have a different relationship to the democratic process. I’ve made the point before that the press, the Fourth Estate, is an institution with power. It needs this power to hold other institutions and other holders of power to account. However, power corrupts, and in the case of the British tabloids, in particular, they not only became corrupt but also had a corrupting influence on public officials. When other institutions, whether they are in government or in the private sphere, we call for reform.

Recent attacks on the process of the Leveson inquiry by powerful interests of the press worry me. The British press is in need of reform, not to protect the powerful from being held to account but to protect ordinary British citizens whose reputations have been smeared and whose right to privacy has been trampled by an unaccountable tabloid press. Leveson is about stamping out corruption in an important democratic institution, the press. It is not an attack on freedom of speech. 

NewspaperAlum: There is life after journalism

As I’ve often written here, I feel very blessed by how rich and rewarding my career has been after taking a buyout from the Guardian in 2010. I’ve travelled the world, working with journalism organisations and journalists to help them seize their digital future, and that prepared me for my current as the editor of Knowledge Bridge, a project of the Media Development Loan Fund, to help news organisations in emerging democracies make the transition to digital media. 

With all of the turmoil in the industry, I often speak with former colleagues and friends in the business who are facing their own decisions. For those who didn’t know what I was doing during my freelance years, I often simply replied, “I’m doing things to support my journalism habit.” My digital skills paid the bills, allowing me to accept the going rate for freelance journalism jobs. I still love journalism, and for most journalists, what we do is more than just a job. For many who practice it, it is an all-consuming passion, which makes it very difficult to transition to another profession. 

However, if you want some inspiration on what comes after journalism, check out the excellent blog, NewspaperAlum. The site says:

What you WON’T read about in this blog: Firings, layoffs, dwindling circulation figures, and embarrassing headlines. What you WILL read about in this blog: Reports on the whereabouts and activities of those who have left U.S. daily newspapers and have blazed a new path for themselves outside of the newsroom.

On this rainy Monday here in Britain, if you need a bit of inspiration for when you are coming to a fork in the professional road, take a stroll through these personal stories. It is an important reminder: There is life after journalism.