Traditional media outlets struggle for an identity

By Chris McCarthy

Every day I like to learn something new. Sometimes I proactively source a new skill or seek a morsel of information to temporarily sate my insatiable appetite for knowledge and obscure facts. Other times I am a passive participant to the exchange of information through a process of subconscious osmosis. Often we learn without realising we have. Yesterday I was acutely aware of what I was learning though it was an unintended consequence of my initial purpose and a reinforcement of a previously held conviction. As consumption patterns change, the dissemination of news through traditional media outlets is chronically ill and newspapers are  struggling for an identity.

As part of my journalism course I’m required to produce a portfolio of 10 pieces of work, i.e., news articles. Many of these can be sourced from a work placement with a national or regional paper. Thinking I had struck it lucky to be offered a week in the sports desk of a major national paper, I plucked out my white shirt and crisp suit trousers carrying the excitement of expectation at getting a true ‘flavour’ of life at a bastion of British journalism.

The e-mail I sent below to the employee responsible for my placement after returning from my first day adequately captures my experience.

Dear Sarah,

I hope you’re enjoying your break.

Thank you again for informing me that you would be away. It’s always reassuring to know your presence is valued when you call up the week before you are due to start and there is no record of your attendance. Even more so when you arrive on the day and reception still has no details of your placement despite your aforementioned call.

In-keeping with your professionalism I thought it best to inform you that I will not be coming in for the rest of my placement after making the executive decision that I could learn more about journalism from staring at my own excrement than I would sat another day at your desk.

After being logged-in and passed a copy of the day’s paper, the totality of my work consisted of: submitting two questions to a live in-house Q&A to ensure there was a regular flow of traffic and punching holes in past editions of your paper to insert on your display rack. No hyperbole, no inflation of the truth, the sum of my contribution amounted to just shy of four minutes. No supervision, no structured contact, not even a useful pointer to where the toilet was.

Maybe I should not be so dismissive for it did afford me the opportunity to order my groceries online and avoid a major domestic faux pas as my toilet roll rations near total depletion. I also purchased Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ and the classic board-game ‘Stratego’ as gifts to friends who hosted me on holiday last week. And there is an ample-sized Waitrose nearby where I could sample their fresh sundried tomatoes and coronation rice.

I don’t know whether your plans for me during my placement went astray before you left – I’m inclined to think there never were any – and I don’t know whether you are good at what you do, but to treat future work experience placements the way you treated me will only be to the detriment of your paper’s reputation and your readership.

Lukewarm regards,

Chris McCarthy

What did I learn? That in the race to the bottom of a declining industry this news paper will land first and hardest. Where I work – the press office of a national cancer charity – there is dynamism, creativity and passion. People are asking the right questions and there is a genuine commitment to forge a positive relationship with our supporters and understand their needs. Yesterday’s offices carried the odour of stale defeatism. No energy, no buzz.

There will always be a place for traditional news outlets. They provide a potted snapshot of developments that might be of interest to you, domestic, international, in business and sport. Despite rafts of changes – endless supplements, magazines, free give-aways, changing formats, etc. – dwindling sales have continued. As Roy Greenslade argues the fall cannot be attributed to a single reason. He is right to identify changes in societal structures and the proliferation of free online content as contributory factors but is there something broader here to explain the decline?

As changes in consumer preference demand greater choice, a more personalised message and the opportunity to invest their own authorship, can monolithic news outlets cater to these expectations? I’m yet to be convinced. Their importance will continue to ebb away but probably never terminally and so they will remain, stubbornly immobile anachronistic relics. Journalism is about more than the provision of news or exposing dishonesty and scandal in the public interest. It’s about telling stories, ones we can be all be privy to writing.

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