April 7, 2016 at 10:49
Roy Greenslade: Decade of change but journalism must survive
And so I must away. It was 10 years ago this month that my first column was published in this newspaper and this is my last. During the decade, the media landscape has changed utterly.
In April 2006, I wrote about a prime minister called Tony Blair, and about two editors, the New York Times’s Jill Abramson and the Sunday Telegraph’s Patience Wheatcroft. All three have, for different reasons, moved on.
Those departures can be seen as part of the typical political and media merry-go-round. Their impact pales beside the structural change that was about to take place with the creation of what we now call “social media”.
At the time, Twitter had not been launched. Facebook and YouTube were in their infancy (YouTube was but a year old). Reddit had not made its mark. There was no WhatsApp, Pinterest or BuzzFeed. Uber had not left the garage.
That month, UK national daily newspapers together sold more than 12 million print copies. Last month’s audited figures reveal that the same titles sold barely 6.5 million. The Independent’s i, launched in October 2010, boosted that total.
Although there are no statistics available to compare the newspapers’ digital audiences in 2006 with those in 2016, it cannot be doubted that many millions more people now read their journalistic output on screen.
Media life as we know it, whether as producer or consumer, has been undergoing radical change throughout the past 10 years. The latest example was the decision to turn the Independent into the first national title to be digital-only.
This newspaper’s fortunes were transformed in 2009 after being acquired by Alexander Lebedev and his son, Evgeny, who decided it should become a free newspaper. Now 900,000 copies are given away across the capital, and the paper turns a healthy profit.
Risk-taking innovation has become the norm as people experiment with digital tools, whether they be veteran entrepreneurs or bright students single-mindedly pursuing ideas that challenge the status quo. Start-up websites have sprung up. Trinity Mirror has even dared to be counter-intuitive by launching a paid-for daily paper in print, The New Day.
Aside from technological change, 2006 was also a turning point in British press history for a very different reason — the first intimation of one of popular journalism’s darkest secrets. In August, two men were arrested — one a News of the World reporter and the other a private investigator, setting off a chain of events that became known as the phone-hacking scandal.
What followed was the revelation that some reporters at the News of the World and Mirror group titles had been routinely intercepting the voicemail messages of celebrities, politicians and members of the public who happened to be caught up in news stories.
It led to the closure of the News of the World, huge compensation payments to hacking victims, the setting-up of the Leveson Inquiry into the standards and practices of journalists, and the eventual creation of a new press regulator.
Quite separately, the BBC also found itself embroiled in scandal:after the death of one of its former stars, Jimmy Savile, it was discovered that he had abused young men and women throughout his career. The reverberations of that saga continue to haunt Britain’s public service broadcaster.
Its future is also under threat because of severe budget cuts after political decisions, first to freeze the licence fee and then to take on the financial responsibility for running the World Service and providing free licences for the over-75s. I will not be here to record the outcome of the Government’s White Paper that will decide the BBC’s fate. Nor will I be able to chart the inevitable changes to newspapers.
Whatever happens, this I know:journalism, the trade I have practised for more than 50 years, must survive. Without it, democracy itself is imperilled.
Roy Greenslade is Professor of Journalism, City University London, and writes a blog for the Guardian