Peter Oborne’s resignation letter has caused a stir, but for many of us who have worked inside the media sausage factory, it’s not quite as surprising as it should be.
Having spent many years working as a journalist for a variety of different titles, I’ve witnessed close-up the numerous compromises and accommodations which advertisers have extracted from publishers. It’s not usually a case of a story being dropped at the request of an advertiser, as Oborne alleges the Telegraph did. More often, it’s a ‘favour’ or ‘a mention’ for someone who has spent a lot of money. Editors often attempt to fight against such compromises, but find themselves arguing against commercial teams with £ on their side.
More recently, there have been attempts to formalise these arrangements. There’s been a growth of native advertising and sponsored features. In theory, this should pay for the creation of unbiased content, while also providing a way for the advertiser to gain exposure. I’ve written a number of these kinds of articles myself and, if everyone plays by the rules, it works well and readers seem to get a fair deal. But it also gives advertisers and marketers direct access to writers and, unless there are guidelines in place, it’s not hard for things to get out of hand.
It’s easy to blame “profiteering publishers” for neglecting their public interest responsibilities. But the sad truth is that there is often very little profit in serving the public interest. Investigations and quality journalism cost money, and neither the public nor advertisers have shown enough willingness to fund them.
Publishers are struggling during an era of ever-declining ad revenues and increasingly fickle audiences; most are far from raking it in. Countless magazines and local papers have closed over the past decade. An often quoted phrase states that the best way to make a small fortune in publishing is to start off with a large one. In a world where content is given away for free, there are few ways to make money other than with advertising. Even prior to online journalism, newspapers offered guaranteed circulations through the free-sheet model. I’ve always argued that this was a bad thing as it divorced journalism from the business model.
In the online age, there might have been hope that great stories would bring traffic and clicks and inspire publishers to budget for investigative journalism. That even if the mighty corporations threatened to pull their investment, others could be attracted by the millions of eyeballs wishing to read the unfolding saga. But sadly, the numbers don’t stack up. The public is more interested in pictures of cats and celebrity blow-jobs than they are about how their planet and democracies are being bought and sold by the rich and powerful.
We should be more interested in reading the words of people like Oborne, the work of investigative journalists, the claims of whistleblowers and opinions qualified people, rather than the muck and supposed scandal which masquerades as news. Our media, rather like our politicians, is a reflection of the public it serves, which means that sometimes the image staring back at us is not as attractive as we would like it to be.