One of the many complex reasons why more and more newspapers are in what seems to be a fatal decline is plain and simple: shoddy journalism.
Take this front-page story in The Times. The headline read, ‘Whites not happy’ and the whole article was based on what turned out to be bizarre and uninformed comments by the statistician general, Pali Lehohla about heart attacks killing far more whites than blacks because of hypertension, which he described as a disease caused by “unhappiness”.
Subsequently, a number of medical specialists wrote letters to the editor of The Times debunking just about everything Lehohla had claimed.
A typical example of shoddy journalism because had the newspaper gone beyond just quoting from what appeared to be a press release and elicited opinion from medical specialists, the story would certainly not have made the front page and might well have been spiked.
One of South Africa’s great editors, Harvey Tyson, drummed into his editorial staff at The Star that unless two sides of a story were presented, it would not be published.
Somehow, this basic fundamental of journalism seems to be completely ignored these days with the result that general consumer newspapers end up as litanies of one-sided stories or even worse, opinion pieces based more on stirring than informing.
On page seven of the same issue of The Times was the headline, ‘Teens win war on terror’ which immediately made me think that perhaps youngsters were rising up against Al Qaeda. But no, it was an article about how four young South African pupils won an international debating championship with the subject being terrorism.
Cheap shot subbing at its worst.
Undoubtedly the editor and staff at The Times will probably be miffed at me for picking on them as an example of shoddy journalism. But, there is good news and bad news here. The good news is that the Sunday Times with its daily The Times are only two newspapers to which I still subscribe to right now. Everything else I read online.
The bad news is that after 60 years of never missing an issue of the Sunday Times, I am seriously wondering whether to renew my subscription, not only because of an increase in shoddy journalism but mainly because, apart from the business dailies, South African newspapers don’t seem to be aimed at my age group. Which is surprising because while we only make up 6% of the population we do represent more than 20% of disposable income.
But, back to shoddy journalism.
While it doesn’t help to generalise, there is no question that in their efforts to remain financially viable, most newspapers have cut back on the very element that could keep them going.
And that is quality content. And quality reporters. Volumes of research indicate that when it comes to magazines and newspapers, is the quality of the content that is key to keeping readers buying titles.
Even more research shows that newspapers, particularly, need to move beyond the paradigms to which they are so religiously entrapped.
Newspapers simply cannot be ‘news’ papers anymore, because every other medium from TV, radio and particularly social media and online are beating them hollow with breaking news.
Somehow newspaper publishers just can’t seem to break away from what has become an outdated habit.
And the more they cut back on editorial quality the worse everything is going to become.
It is all very depressing quite frankly, particularly for those like me who grew up with newspapers, who worked in newspapers and who still love reading newspapers.
Trouble is, I really don’t want to keep punishing myself by having to read one-sided stories and awful subbing.
And if my ilk and I stop reading newspapers then heaven knows what they will do because I don’t actually know anyone under the age of 30 these days who actually reads a newspaper. Something else that newspaper management should try and do is get off their high horses. There cannot be any other industry that is so to intolerant of criticism and averse to advice than our newspaper industry. And it shows.