Falling Standards?

October 14, 2009

The publication beginning this week of the London Evening Standard as a free newspaper took many media watchers by surprise. Roy Greenslade who writes for the paper said he was “shocked and disappointed” by the news when the story first broke.

Critics of freesheets, including Greenslade himself, maintain that they undermine good journalism. They are, so the argument goes, little more than vehicles for advertising bulked out with editorial puff. Writing in his blog, he said he could only reconcile himself with the Standard’s decision by understanding that the paper had no other option.   Editor Geordie Greig may choose to describe the step as a “pioneering and exciting development”, but the reality of dwindling sales (443,000 in July 2000 to 127,000 this July) and consequently falling advertising revenue imperilled its existence. The aim now is to ramp up daily circulation to 600,000, delivering quality content targeted at prosperous Londoners aged 24 to 44.

Desperate times, extreme remedies. In the US, the Ann Arbor News which has printed a daily paper for the Michigan town since 1835 has closed its offices and is now producing a twice-weekly online version. And over the past 18 months, 12 US cities have lost their dailies as advertisers move online to engage with audiences that have little or no affinity with traditional newspapers.

What does all this mean for readers? Does the freesheet and the switch to providing content online signal the end of serious journalism?

The newspaperman in me is concerned. I have seen close up what advertising-led local newspapers look like and how they are operated. You only need to visit the offices of a local newspaper and see whose car park spaces are nearest the front entrance to understand which part of the dog is wagging. The veteran editor Sir Harold Evans is more optimistic believing that provincial dailies are still capable of having an important campaigning role and “some of them may be some of the best answers for the crises in the press.”

Sir Harold, I hope you are right. But as I look at today’s newspapers, the fact is that it was not a campaigning newspaper or any news organisation that was responsible for the collapse of an injunction preventing reporting of the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, it was Twitter users and social networking sites. Journalism’s centre of gravity of is shifting; where it will stop, no one knows.