The media likes nothing better than a good old ding-dong about itself, so you’ll have to excuse the navel-gazing while I wade into a debate currently pinging around on various media blogs.
It all started when Ed Caesar wrote a piece in The Sunday Times mag about getting into journalism. It provoked some critical comment, such as that voiced by Adam Westbrook on his blog, and, in the case of Adam Tinworth, “incandescent rage”. Roy Greenslade has also weighed in, accusing the two Adams and various other of Caesar’s critics of failing to grasp reality.
At the heart of it all is the concept of ‘entrepreneurial journalism’, which is currently buzz phrase number one in certain media circles. Caesar’s critics say he ignores the new opportunities thrown up by changing technology and habits of consumption, and are irritated by what Tinworth describes as a “narrow, myopic, conservative” view which sees only national newspapers as of any real journalistic importance. Greenslade says, essentially, that national newspapers are all anyone is really interested in – his “reality” once again being simply his point of view, based on conversations with his students at City University.
I share some of the irritation with the school of thought which sees little of the world of journalism beyond the traditional national paper model. But I’ve also balked at the constant mantra of “be entrepreneurial” as if it is something new. It’s just a new buzzword for describing what may of us have always done, which is to be innovative and imaginative in order to make a living. When, a quarter of a century ago, we were producing fanzines and experimenting with a new tool called an Apple Mac, we didn’t see that as being entrepreneurial, we just saw it as taking a chance.
I accept that, for my generation that still bears the scars of the last Tory government, the word is loaded with much of the cant and excess of the Thatcher period. But there’s more to it than just a reflex dislike. Positing entrepreneurialism as something that’s never crossed journalism’s path before ignores the fact that its always been about finding readers, or a market if you prefer, and about finding new ways to get to them.
I’ve been to a fair few discussions on ‘entrepreneurial journalism’, and debated whether it should be a formal part of a journalism course both at LCC, before it descended into chaos, and on this blog. And I’ve said I think it’s a mistake to see it as a separate concept. What also worries me, as some of the discussions have spiralled into vaguary, is that there is a view being pushed which does not take sufficient account of aspects such as distribution networks and the power of big media. It may be a little easier now to start your own brand than when Eddie Shah told us we could all publish our own newspaper back in the 1980s, but there are still many hurdles when dealing with raw capitalism.
But I think Greenslade sets up a false opposition when he says “Caesar and his interviewees are telling like it is. His critics are saying what ought to happen… simply saying it will not convince the hordes of journalism students to take that route”. There’s nothing wrong with discussing new ways to make journalism work, and certainly nothing wrong with seeing journalism as more than the narrow, national paper, media establishment-defined model that dominates university courses. And I would’ve thought Roy would understand the need not just to interpret the world, but to change it.
Of course there are lots of established journalists harrumphing about change. There are also plenty who are too willing to dismiss the body of accumulated experience and knowledge journalism has. There are, as there have always been, opportunities. It is not, and it never has been, easy to succeed. But this generation’s Burchills and Parsons, its Amy Lawrences and Harry Pearsons and Nick Varleys, are already out there making things happen.