Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Newspaper journalism a ‘vocation’? Up to a point, Lord Copper. Or: Myths I should like to bust: Part 1 in an series of I don’t know how many more.

A few years ago, before the days my criminal son initiated me in the criminal ways of criminally downloading films with uTorrtent, I used to by DVDs, though having been voted St Breward Tightarse of the Year, seven years on the trot, I always keep an eye out for a bargain. One I bought was the complete first series of Mad Men, and as is usual with such DVDs there were ‘extras’, in this case a 15-minute spoken memoir of a veteran of Fifties Madison Avenue, when the whole advertising spiel really took off and came off age, i.e. no more of the ‘Buy our washing powder, because it’s the Best!’

In it he admitted that as far as he was concerned, the most successful ad campaign of all time was this: the advertising industry selling itself to commerce, other industries and business as being utterly essential to their business; that if you didn’t invest millions in advertising you were not only a total loser and your business would crash, but your dick was incredibly short.

He was right: everyone, but everyone in business would these days considering it complete madness not to advertise. And the thinking has become so daft that advertising budgets are now stratospheric. Then there’s the saying, attributed to many – because it’s a smart quote that many wish they had said – but usually attributed to a merchant, politician and ‘religious leader (the US seems to have a lot of those) called John Wannamaker.

He is said to have been asked: ‘How much of the money you spend on advertising is well spent?’ to which he replied ‘About half of it, but the trouble is I don’t know which half.’ Like many such quips what is apparently just a throwaway line actually sums up rather well the dilemma faced by businesses: are we wasting our money on advertising? Are we wasting our money on the wrong advertising? Dare we spend less and invest in the business in other ways? Should we spend more? And if a business starts doing a lot worse than a rival, there is always the suspicion, verging on paranoia that ‘we are not spending enough on advertising’.

The other side of the coin is, though, that the ad industry, the Mad Men (‘mad’ but also from MADison Avenue) are laughing all the way to the bank, making millions – well, these days billions – in the certain knowledge that businesses of all kinds have bought into the myth that ‘they can’t do without advertising’. I wasn’t going to blether on about advertising, though, but newspaper journalism. But before that I might add that if I knew then what I know now,

I might well have gone for a job as a copywriter, knowing that copywriters move on to do a lot more than simply write copy. And as I’m on that tack – and given my utterly contrary views as to what ‘art’ is (not the hi falutin’ activity before which far too many these days insist we should genuflect and another area for examining the myths we swallow – I have no trouble at all in suggesting that more real art is produced by the advertising industry than by any number of pure artists. But you will have to wait until another blog entry for me to explain myself and my views.

Now to newspaper journalism, an industry which his so shot through with myths that Peter Jackson should seriously consider shooting a three-part blockbuster about it in New Zealand (where the air is fresher and thus the bull and sheep shit more concentrated. I should add that, I think we no exception, were any of my colleagues on newspapers, past and present, to read what I am writing, they would in one voice chorus ‘Pat’s talking shite again’. Well, I don’t think so. Where do I start?

Well, how’s about here: that working as a newspaper journalist is ‘a vocation’ to which we are somehow ‘called’ and that as ‘a vocation’ we are only too happy to work on until God knows when without thought or complaint. ‘Up,’ as Evelyn Waugh had one of his characters (as it happens a newspaper managing editor) say ‘to a point, Lord Copper’, which in the novel in which it appeared – Scoop – meant that Lord Copper, the owner of the Daily Beast (Daily Mail in real life) was talking complete ball, but that his managing editor was far too tactful to say so. (Lord Copper’s rival in the novel was Lord Zinc, who owned the Daily Brute. In real life they were Lord Rothermere and Lord Beaverbrook.)

My reason for launching into this, my latest dyspeptic pontification, is that tonight is a Wednesday evening. I work in London from Sunday noon until, nominally 6pm on Wednesday nights, at which point, given that I am then faced with a four-hour drive back home to Cornwall, I am keen to get off as sharpish as possible. Yet my attitude is looked at askance: where’s your professional dedication? that look says. The job isn’t yet done, and you should be hanging on until we think you should be able to leave. Well, balls to that.

It’s not as though I am engaged and employed at the sharp end of journalism. My daily routine is, and has been for many years, looking after the production of the quiz pages, the Answers To Correspondents page, the Letters page and, on different days one or two other pages. For these past few years I have been banned from similarly looking after the Travel page because I had several unfortunate run-ins with an otherwise very pleasant young woman who commissions them and is one of two travel editors. More of that, perhaps, another time. Related to the myth that newspaper journalism is ‘a vocation’ is the myth that it is an difficult industry in which to get a job when starting out – hence the silly saying ‘breaking into journalism’. That phrase, that ineffably silly phrase is nothing but self-aggrandising.

Yes, there are possibly fewer jobs to find in on newspapers, and ever fewer as the print industry dies, partly a victim of the internet and social media, but if you are looking for one, believe me you will find one. However, a beginner’s wage is tiny. Why? Well, newspaper owners like to stress that as the job is ‘a vocation’, you are quite prepared to work for peanuts.

An example: a friend came across a letter offering a job to a graduate. He was offered just £20,000 to live and work in London. Well, man years ago when I was still working for the South Wales Echo, a friend landed himself a job on the Daily Star at the then, for a new arrival, very handsome annual whack of £22,000. But that was in 1987. Those values today: £20,000 in 2015 is £20,000. That

£22,000 of 28 years ago would be the equivalent of, depending on whether you are looking at the ‘historic standard of living’, ‘economic wealth’ or ‘economic power’ between £55,270 and £88,440, and probably closer to the higher figure. But don’t complain: it’s a fucking ‘vocation’, see.

Then there’s a second myth: ‘be first with the story’. It’s an imperative beaten into young reporters. But where it was once true – for solidly commercial reasons, it is even more bollocks. It’s quite simple: newspapers, in their heyday of between 1850 and, say, 1980, made quite fabulous sums selling ad space. And selling ad space, despite what they myth-makers would have you believe was – for the proprietor - the papers sole raison d’etre. There was no other. And that was why circulation was and is so important: if you are selling 100,000 copies a day you can charge the advertisers a certain amount for the space they buy. If you sell 200,000, you can charge more. If, however, circulation falls, as it has been and the obvous conclusion is that fewer folk are reading your paper, the advertisers have the whip hand: the simply insist that rates should be cut.

Until the slow decline of newspapers began after World War II, each city had at least two and often three rival papers, all vying to sell as many copies as possible and thus be in a position to up their ad rates. So in order to attract the reader – to news of the latest murder in Whitechapel, the election or football results, the latest gossip – you simply had to be first with the news. The paper that was first with the news sold out. If its rivals were on the street later than you, they sold fewer. QED. So reporters and their poor cousins, the sub-editors (copy editors) were urged to work faster, faster, faster to hit print deadlines to get that bloody paper out.

Now, of course, no evening papers have a rival, and the morning papers have such a well-defined constituency that they are not really rivals at all. But the myth carried on: work fast, get the news, and get it out – bugger how little (in the provinces) you were being paid.

How about this myth: ‘the public’s right to know’? Well, dear reader, that’s another piece of 24 carat bullshit. Take a look at the contents of your paper: diets, gossip, fashion, more gossip, a bit of stale news, ‘opinion’ – does the public really have ‘a right to know’ that? Is it really vital that the reader should know exactly where bloody Kim Kardashian had lunch yesterday, with whom and what she was wearing? Or that Taylor Swift is now higher up the ‘power list’ the the Queen of England. You decide. I know what I think.

Certainly the public has ‘the right to know’ what its government is decided on its behalf, what its local authority plans to spend local taxes on. The trouble is that, as a rule, the public isn’t in the least bit interested. Or rather the public is only interested in hearing that political news which reinforced its prejudices. Don’t believe me? Do you think that if the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Sun suddenly started suggesting that ‘immigrants’ – in truth such a vague word as to be almost meaningless – were not, after all, the scrounging fuckwits its readers like to believe them to be, it would carry one selling the number of copies is does? Do you? I don’t.

One of the first rules of a certain kind of journalism is: establish what your readers ill-informed prejudices are, then pander to them until you retire or until your dying day, whichever comes first. It is all a little more complex than that. In some parts of the world, in authoritarian states, for example, there really are some print journalists for whom their profession is a vocation, and of whom many lose their lives for embracing that vocation. But hey, don’t let a couple of facts ruin a good story, now.

If, however, you are interested, take a look at the latest figures of hacks, good men and women, who have lost their lives because of their job. Then, of course, retreat into your own prejudices, whatever they might be.

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