David Leigh: Web could spell the end of the reporter

Veteran Guardian investigative journalist David Leigh fears that the ‘proper reporter’is under threat in the age of the internet.

Predicting that ‘a new model of journalistic production’will be underway in all British national newspapers within the year, hewarned that the ‘patient assembler of facts’faces being replaced with in the future with “hyper-active news bunnies”.

Speaking at the inaugural Anthony Sampson lecture at City University, Leigh reminisced about his early career on The Scotsman in the 1960s and spoke of the vast steam-age industrial process of producing a paper in those days.

‘It was built like the headquarters of a major bank. It had mahogany panelling and marble staircases. There were heavy counters where you could place your classified ads.”

That building has since been sold by former Scotsman owners, the Barclay Brothers, and turned into a hotel.

He said: ‘What remains of The Scotsman is now produced away down at the bottom of the hill, in a glass rabbit-hutch with a bank of computer screens – by two men and a dog. It is dying quietly.

‘The Scotsman’s fate tells a story of the transience of newspapers which is the biggest story of my own professional times.”

Leigh said he agreed with fellow City University professor Roy Greenslade’s recent analysis that: ‘In effect, every citizen is now a journalist. Journalistic skills are not entirely wiped out in an online world, but they are eroded and, most importantly, they cannot be confined any longer to an exclusive élite group.”

‘It is also clear that media outlets will never generate the kind of income enjoyed by printed newspapers: circulation revenue will vanish and advertising revenue will be much smaller than today. There just won’t be the money to afford a large staff.”

Leigh said: ‘I’m afraid Roy is right, that the journalistic future will be a future with less money around. That won’t be good. Too much competition leads to a race to the bottom. And you can’t report if you can’t afford to eat.”

He said: ‘I expect we’re going to see a completely new model of newspaper production in all British nationals within the next year. The future is for a newsroom to put out a series of themed websites – one for each traditional, department. Environment, science, education, defence, investigations etc.

‘Then – working in multi-media nodes or clusters – we will range up and down the new journalistic spectrum – sometimes conversing back and forth with our own nerdy online specialist audience, sometimes breaking news quickly on the main website, sometimes doing it in the daily print version, sometimes at length for, say a Sunday outlet at the weekend.

‘And there’s a whole new global online outlet we’ve developed in the English language in – for instance – Guardian America. People can select from our news output whatever works for them in their busy, fragmented, international lives. And we hope by doing that, we’ll keep afloat.

‘I hope we do. Yet my fear is that today everybody is rather too obsessed with new platforms. But not enough people are talking about values.”

He said that web culture ‘degrades valuable things” such as “the idea of discrimination, that some voices are more credible than others, that a named source is better than an anonymous pamphleteer (that’s what they used to call bloggers in the 18th century, when they published, for example, the politically dangerous Letters of Junius.) The notion of authoritativeness is derided as a sort of ‘top-down’ fascism. I fear that these developments will endanger the role of the reporter.”

He added that: “Of course, there’ll always be room for news bunnies – to dash in front of a camera and breathlessly describe a lorry crash, or to bash out a press-release in 10 minutes. There’ll be probably be a lot more news bunnies in the future – high-speed, short-legged creatures of the internet age. There will probably also be hyperlocal sites – postcode journalism fuelled cheaply by neighbourhood bloggers. But not proper reporters.”

He said: ‘I do wish we could spend less time fretting about platforms and more about the loss of honesty in our trade. There is yet to be a proper accounting for the disgraceful loss of journalistic integrity on both sides of the Atlantic that cheer-led us into the Iraq war on a false prospectus.

‘I hope my colleague Nick Davies’ book Flat Earth Society – already causing a stir before it comes out next year – will start a proper debate about that. Wrong to name names of course? such as Judith Miller on the New York Times, or David Rose in Vanity Fair and elsewhere [who publicly put up his hands to it only a few weeks ago]…

Concluding, Leigh said: “I don’t want to see a journalistic future made up of hyper-active News Bunnies and narcissistic bloggers. You can get junk food on every high street. And you can get junk journalism nowadays in every outlet there is. But just as there is now a movement for slow cooking, I should also like to see more of a demand for slow journalism.

‘Slow journalism would show greater respect for the craft of the reporter – a patient assembler of facts. A skilled tradesman who is independent and professionally reputable. And who can get paid the rate for the job.

‘A disentangler of lies and weasel words. Don’t you think such people are useful operatives to probe the dodgy mechanisms of our imperfect democracy, and our very imperfect world? I do.”

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