David Bullard believes newspaper editors should stop patting each other on the back and work at ensuring their products – and not just their pockets – are excellent.
On 1 November 2012 that naughty Chris Moerdyk wrote a piece for TheMediaOnline (from the safe distance of the USA, nogal) titled ‘South Africa’s sad, sensationalist media’. In lamenting the state of the mass media here, he made the comment: “The standard of journalism in South Africa is, I believe, at an all-time low.”
Naturally I tweeted the comment immediately and got a quick response from a newspaper editor (one of the few who is allowed to talk to me) saying he thought the statement was untrue. I also happen to think Moerdyk’s statement a little unfair because there are still pockets of excellence in the media, particularly among the various investigative units and within the financial media. The problem is that it is mostly experienced journalists doing this sort of work and when one looks at the sort of stuff used to bulk out the majority of our newspapers, it is difficult to disagree with Moerdyk. It is the most dreadful load of crap and I suspect that is entirely due to a lack on the job training front, something I have written about previously.
Despite protestations from people like Strato Copteros, from Rhodes University, I still think that journalism is a bogus degree and that aspirant journos would learn far more through a working apprenticeship in a newsroom. They’d also have a lot more fun. Two recently graduated journalism/media studies journalists to whom I spoke told me that they only got on to creative writing in their third year.
Whether or not you think the standard of South African journalism is at an all-time low also depends on your experience of journalism. If you’ve been kicking around for a few decades, as Moerdyk and I have, then you are likely to be less tolerant of what passes for good newspaper fodder than someone who’s only been exposed to journalism for five years. This is the problem with age and experience: we tend to think that things were better in our day and maybe we’re wrong. But just in case we’re right, here are a few words of advice for the print industry, and newspapers in particular.
When anybody criticises the quality of newspapers, you [editors] have a tendency to roll into a tight ball and tell your critics they’re talking rubbish. You also have a tendency, as editors, to pat one another on the back and tell the world what jolly good fellows (and fellowettes)
This is admirable solidarity, but it does rather suggest that you’ve all bought into the lowest common denominator survival theory. In other words, providing you are all equally mediocre and your product doesn’t (heaven forbid) eclipse any rival product, then you’re all likely to stay drinking buddies and keep your jobs.
The attitude that newspaper readers are too stupid to know if they’re being fobbed off with an inferior product has been a popular notion among newspaper management for as long as I can remember. When the Sunday Times decided to save money and print its newly introduced Lifestyle section on cheaper paper, objections were dismissed with the comment that the reader would never notice. Of course they did notice, particularly the blurry photographs, but management’s attitude then was that they would just have to get used to it. After all, they were only readers.
For years, it has been assumed that people automatically buy newspapers as part of their daily ritual and the quality of the product is irrelevant. But that has changed now and it’s not just the internet that is eating into newspaper sales. Constant cost cutting in newsrooms means that the best (that is, most costly) writers are no longer affordable and the white space between the ads has to be filled at bargain basement prices. Every man and his dog has now become a ‘columnist’ because that’s a pretty inexpensive way of filling space and saves enormously on the cost of news gathering.
News items are generally lifted from the wire feeds and printed verbatim or changed marginally just to give the sub editors something to do. Staff at newspapers have always been treated appallingly badly by management, which leads to demotivation. Excellence is never rewarded because to do so would be to risk upsetting the mediocre majority. Journalism is a very tall poppy syndrome business and you will never be popular if you rise above the common herd, with the result that real talent drifts off to the better paid corporate world or public relations agencies.
So maybe it’s time to face facts and acknowledge that Moerdyk may have a point. Whether you want to believe it or not, your ever dwindling sales should be telling you something about the perceived quality of your product. n
This story was first published in the February 2013 issue of The Media magazine. Bullard writes a regular column, called Shooting from the Hip.