IT improved journalism? The argument just doesn't compute

TWENTY YEARS ago, the genius who was then my boss, Rupert Murdoch, bade me rise from my seat at a banquet in the Savoy Hotel and solemnly told a couple of hundred of our News International colleagues: "Banksy has helped save this company 12 million pounds."

It had been only weeks since the Wapping Revolution.

The compliment was genuine, the applause it evoked was warm and unstinting. We were celebrating the greatest leap forward in publishing since Caxton's monotype gave way to the Linotype machine, and I was blushingly proud of my part in bringing back the knowledge of computer-enabled journalism garnered during months working undercover in the United States.

So successful had been the technological transition — KRM's trap for the unions laid and sprung, my "Dirty Dozen" handful of specially-trained execs ready and able to produce all four titles until staffers were brought up to speed — that the gigantic sum the great man had budgeted for in lost editions, incomplete runs and refunded advertising had not been required. Why wouldn't he be happy, and why shouldn't I be proud?

Three years later, on the other side of the world, the same Rupert Murdoch paid me the same compliment, this time to an audience of my Australian fellow editors at a company conference in Sydney. It was still true but by this time the blushes were not of pride but embarrassment. I didn't want to always be remembered as The Man Who Saved Me Millions but as The Journalist Who Was Good At His Job.

Besides, modesty had long since diverted me from egotistical introspection to enormous regard for the piece of kit which had made the revolution possible… the computer.

I was, and still remain, won over by the wondrous workhorse that had single-handedly wrought such a cost-cutting revolution that the economic future of newspapers seemed assured for journalist generations to come.

But today, 20 years on, neither journalism nor newspapers are any better off for the revolution — circulations are collapsing, well-produced and resourced paid-for papers are giving way to illiterate, free-for-all trivia sheets, investigative reporting is all but finished in the popular market and a dying (all but lost) art in the broadsheets.

And all this has coincided in newspapers with the coming of the computer.

There is, too, an awful familiarity about the chosen remedy: job cuts — this time among journalists — saving money and holding out hope of newspapers' economic survival for, perhaps, one more generation. The Independent, already looking for voluntary leavers, is facing the unpalatable truth that the staff you want rid of won't go while the ones you'd have stay won't hear of it. The Guardian is believed to be next in line with the pruning fork.

But even mere survival demands a dreadful price be paid — diminishing resources, overworked, underpaid and, as a result, second-rate staff and an ambition among popular titles to accomplish little more than the Metro-Litelondonpaper and their ilk are currently achieving will be the inevitable outcome.

And in that direction lies dissatisfaction and disaffection among readerships and a steepened spiral of decline.

The solution, I believe, is to be found in a "Back to the Future" strategy which comes to you courtesy of my son, a safety razor and his Ghanaian girlfriend.

The other day, my youngest arrived home pleased as Punch, grinning like Columbus must have looked when he discovered the New World.

"Dad," says my son. "You'll never guess what Eleanor brought back from Ghana for me — it's the answer to all my shaving problems!"

Tim, whose face usually resembles a Red Cross flag day when he shaves, produced a safety razor. "And look!" he shouted, "When you want to put a new blade in you twist the bottom of the handle and the top opens up like a tulip.

So much better than those Gillette Mach 3s or the Bic throwaways!"

I laughed so hard I thought I would cry.

"You fool, young shaver," I punned, "This is not a technological leap forward, this safety razor is 50 years old. This was old-fashioned when your grandad came home from the war!"

And yet… and yet. His accidental point was well made.

Modernity had not improved on the old-fashioned method.

And as with shaving, so with journalism.

The mistake we made after Wapping was to allow the new computer technology to dictate our working methods.

Reporters, once impossible to tie down to the office, now sit staring at screens playing shoot-em-ups and flirting by email with the feature writers.

Sub-editors no longer rejoice in the hostile reception with which they traditionally received copy. They pay too much respect to words which display the neatly typed authority of print and instead of hacking and reassembling, merely cut (electronically, of course!) for length.

Backbenchers once built pages around hard-to-write headlines. Today there is no need — squeeze, kern and condense the typeface are the order of the day.

And don't talk to me about copytasters. At one time, the likes of The Sun's "Jack Pat" or "Marky" at the Mirror were the only mouse-racers with the authority and the access to know what stories were breaking. They and only they decided (fearful responsibility!) whether a story was worth further scrutiny or the spike.

Now the whole damned room is copytasting and second guessing and wondering instead of working.

As a result, news outlets spend their entire time "aggregating"

— a new-tech word that means little more than plagiarising, pinching and endlessly reproducing. What a dream for the PR industry!

Why do reporters normally need anything grander than a keyboard which allows simple word processing and the ability to "save" to a prescribed queue? Why do sub-editors need access to any source outside the office? And when either does need a more sophisticated access, why shouldn't that access be made on a limited basis at one or more central points in the office?

At the time of Wapping, the buzz bomb we knew as Kelvin MacKenzie earned himself the undeserved — and under-the-breath — nickname of "Leadite" when he insisted we remember that "it isn't computers and on-screen make-up that count — it's words and stories that sell papers!"

Come out from behind your screens and start finding and writing those best-selling stories, ladies and gentlemen.

Otherwise, I'm afraid, the illness is terminal.

 

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