Breaking News - a summary of the book's arguments for Medium

In a world of fake news and information chaos, we need more journalism. That was the elevator pitch — at least, inside my own head — as I embarked on a book about the revolution in news which is still ripping through our industry with the force of a Category 5 hurricane.

We’ve now stood on the brink of this existential crisis long enough to be frightened. A society that cannot agree on a factual basis for discussion or decision-making cannot progress. There can be no laws, no votes, no government, no science, no democracy without a shared understanding of what’s true and what isn’t. Of course, a commonly agreed basis of facts is only the beginning. Societies with no independent source of challenge or scrutiny are also not to be envied.

And so, I argued to myself, it should be obvious that we need to go back to journalists for the answer. We knew you’d miss us when we were (almost) gone. Now that you know how dark the world can be without us — or enough of us — perhaps you’ll treasure us a bit more in the future?

That was how the book had framed itself in my mind. Throw in a few chapters denouncing social media, chuckle at the utopian dreams we once nursed of the internet transforming the world, and the book would write itself.

That would have been a comfortable book to produce, but the longer I kicked the ideas around in my head, the less simple it became. I started sketching it out in 2016 against the backdrop of the most consequential referendum in modern British history: the in-out decision over the U.K.’s membership in the European Union.

Like the crisis with our weather systems, this is a crisis in the climate of information. In its own way, it has the potential to be just as deadly.

By then I was a civilian, not an editor. As a reader, I wanted two things from newspapers: 1) an acknowledgement that this was an extremely complex question (as we now cannot doubt), and 2) a balanced setting out of the arguments on both sides. Thus primed, I could make an informed vote. That’s the classic role of journalism: to create more knowledgeable citizens, who, in turn, will make better democratic choices.

But that’s not what most British journalism did in the run-up to the vote. The pro-Brexit papers outgunned their Remainer counterparts at least two to one: Most of them did not trouble to either set out two sides of the question or deal with complexity. They used their front pages to bellow, cajole, mislead, and even threaten — not to explain. One proprietor gave £1 million to the main Brexit party. The biggest tabloid was forced to register as a campaign group after spending the equivalent of £96,000 on a pull-out poster.

So, no, Brexit was not a great background to embark on a book arguing the case for journalism as the antidote to information chaos. And nor was climate change — the other momentous issue of our times, never far from our minds.

Let’s suppose that global warming is the most important issue of our generation. It dwarfs all others if only because, assuming the overwhelming majority of scientists are even approximately right, excessive warming has the potential to be a calamitous, even existential, threat to our species.

That’s a big story, however you look at it. But it’s one to which journalism struggles to do justice. The amount of coverage the issue gets is, in most outlets, in inverse proportion to its significance. It’s easier to write about the royals or the latest reality TV show — and you’ll hook infinitely more readers. Some editors, even when they do find space for the subject, drip skepticism all over the evidence.

Meanwhile, on social media, I can and do find authoritative voices talking good sense on Brexit and climate change — and by “good sense” I don’t just mean people who share my opinion. I find constitutional experts, lawyers, scientists, European academics, economists, and environmental thinkers in constant debate. Their tone tends to a conversation rather than a lecture. Unlike many journalists, they listen as well as talk. They respond to each other. They supply links and sources. Their modus operandi is not “take my word for it,” but “here’s my evidence.”

So this was confusing for someone trying to write a book about the trade that had occupied 40 years of my working life. Our story ought to be simple: There’s information chaos, and there’s journalism. There’s now an unparalleled ecosystem of falsity, manipulation, and fakery… and there’s journalism.

But at the very moment when we should be proving that we were better than the internet, too many of us have been failing. And the failures of some inevitably impact the achievements of others. “Journalism” is a big, baggy word that describes Fox News as well as the New York Times. The Sun and the Daily Mail do “journalism.” So do the Financial Times and the BBC. They overlap in some respects — but they also have very different ideas of their craft. If, in many western countries, there are now abysmal levels of trust in this umbrella concept of “journalism,” then maybe we need to think harder about what the word actually means.

There is no getting away from the question of trust. You can pick your poll or survey, but you can’t escape the reality that, as the latest Edelman Trust barometer puts it, “the media are now the least trusted institution.” Even more disturbing is the widespread disengagement from the news (about half of us) — or the two-thirds of us who now say we don’t know how to tell good journalism from rumor or falsehoods.

Like the crisis with our weather systems, this is a crisis in the climate of information. In its own way, it has the potential to be just as deadly.

Most people will be familiar with the economic side of the story: the flight of advertising from print to the giant tech companies that worked out there were billions to be made from mining personal data and in accurately matching sellers with potential buyers. Newspapers struggled to get with that act but were hopelessly outgunned on scale and technology.

Readers were — initially, at least — reluctant to pay for online news. The math suggested that publishers needed to reach much larger digital audiences to have any chance of retaining even a fraction of the revenues print used to pull in. Unless you were selling specialized or financial information, you couldn’t hope to grow or push into new markets by charging people for general news.

What once was scarce was now ubiquitous. The old world — in which a few billionaire individuals or corporations owned printing presses — was arranged vertically. Those of us lucky enough to have a printing press almost literally handed down the truth — or a version of it — from above. But now the world was rearranging itself horizontally, with 4 billion people able to publish, distribute, talk, and respond.

There will not be a simple answer — but the current tsunami of simple-answer populism should be enough to convince us of the need for more complex solutions.

The economics didn’t take long to affect the journalism. The saddest stories are about once-great titles where the business managers effectively took over the newsrooms — with calamitous consequences for reputation and trust. More commonly, historic ideas of profit drove short-term thinking, which usually began with cuts and demands for ever greater productivity. Journalism morphed into what my colleague, the investigative reporter Nick Davies, described as “churnalism.”

People spot churnalism when they see it. They don’t much value it or trust it. And they don’t see why they should pay for it. And so a destructive cycle began in which decent journalists have been prevented from doing the excellent work that would make the most eloquent case for the craft the world needed.

My book, Breaking News, sets out to describe that era from the inside: It does its best to capture what it was like to be in the eye of a storm with no route map. Part of the story is, inevitably, about the Guardian, a paper I edited for 20 years, from 1995 to 2015, more or less exactly the dates of the most violent stage of the great transformation.

Most of it is a universal story. The Guardian had shallower pockets than most, but in one respect it was unusual. The paper is owned by a trust that, with a $1 billion endowment, exists solely to preserve the news organization and its editorial values. Since its foundation after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 — now memorialized in a new Mike Leigh film — the paper has never placed profit before journalistic seriousness or integrity. Mission before money.

That, in theory, helped us devise a slightly more long-term strategy to transition into the world of digital. We would innovate at the speed of digital — or attempt to. We would expand to serve the new audiences digital distribution was reaching: By 2001, two-thirds of our readers lived outside the U.K. We would try to remain open — that is, without a paywall — as we tried to reach a scale that our commercial colleagues felt could sustain us into the future.

Finally, we would invite readers to become “members.” This was a term that grew out of a conversation between NYU digital guru Clay Shirky and me in 2012. A meeting of readers we convened one weekend found they were willing to pay, but they were overwhelmingly drawn to the notion of contributing as a form of philanthropy — the Guardian available to all — rather than purchasing an exclusive right to read something to which others were denied access.

We also had help from bigger philanthropists. An Australian entrepreneur, Graeme Wood, funded our initial push into Australia. Bill and Melinda Gates subsidized our commitment to reporting on Africa. The operation we developed in the United States was more straightforwardly commercial. The membership scheme was launched in September 2014 and could, we predicted in January of that year, make £15 million in profits by 2019–2020. Not enough to make up for the drop in print advertising, but a significant contribution.

And then we held our breath. There were, to be sure, rocky bumps along the way, and 2016 was a particularly bad year for all publishers. But gradually — with great skill and commitment from the present team in editorial and commercial — the plan appears to be working. There are now 1 million Guardian readers contributing to the cause. Reader revenues — including subscriptions — have now overtaken advertising receipts. Australia is in profit, with the United States predicted soon to follow. The whole organization says it will break even next year. The Guardian, which sold just 400,000-odd print copies in 1995, is now accessed by almost 160 million browsers a month worldwide. And there’s still more than $1 billion in the bank.

That’s one model of potential sustainability into the future. It wouldn’t work for everyone. There is, almost certainly, not one single template that can be adapted across a multitude of different publishers and titles.

But there are some obvious pointers at the heart of what we learned at the Guardian. The first is that, in a revolution, you can never hope to be right all the time. The second is that you will almost certainly have to be more patient than the old historic vertical models. Long-term thinking (ask Jeff Bezos) beats short-term profits.

The third is that you have to start with the mission. If we want to make the case that journalism deserves to survive because it is ultimately a form of public service, then we have to begin with that aim. Make the journalism as good, as meaningful, as relevant, as truthful, as serious as we can. If we can make profits as well, even better.

What does that look like in business terms? Again, there will not be just one model. The Scandinavian market differs from the Indian sector, which is considerably unlike the British or American. Some publishers can doubtless continue to build sustainable businesses off the back of subscriptions and advertising.

But it’s wise to think of a Plan B in case the 200-year-old association between advertising and journalism eventually begins to dissolve. Can we make people believe that more journalism is indeed the answer to information chaos? Can we create new kinds of social enterprises — even nonprofits or charities — that could benefit from incentives to supply the factual basis for good societies?

There is still wonderful journalism all around us. Donald Trump has, in a way, provoked many to think harder about whether journalism is the enemy or the friend of the people. We’ve been forced to ask difficult questions about what we do and to up our game.

The revolution is still in its infancy, as is the remaking of journalism. There will not be a simple answer — but the current tsunami of simple-answer populism should be enough to convince us of the need for more complex solutions. The horizontal world is not going to be wished away. Journalism needs to find a way of finding its place in the new conversations that are being born.

[Posted on November 28 2018}