Murdoch wants to charge people to read what the PR industry spews out

by Chris Bertram on May 7, 2009

Rupert Murdoch thinks he can charge people for reading The Times online :

Asked whether he envisaged fees at his British papers such as the Times, the Sunday Times, the Sun and the News of the World, he replied: “We’re absolutely looking at that.” Taking questions on a conference call with reporters and analysts, he said that moves could begin “within the next 12 months‚” adding: “The current days of the internet will soon be over.”

Hmm. On Tuesday I attended the Bristol Book Awards. Nick Davies walked off with the prize for his Flat Earth News. The killer findings :

80 per cent of news stories in the quality UK national newspapers are at least partly made up of recycled newswire or PR copy, according to new research. This was one of the findings of a study by Cardiff University’s journalism department which also claimed that fewer Fleet Street journalists now produce three times as many pages as they did 20 years ago. The research was carried out for a controversial new book investigating Fleet Street by Guardian journalist Nick Davies. It also claims that the majority of home news stories in national newspapers are mainly made up of PR and/or wire copy. The research claims that the proportions are: The Times, 69 per cent; The Daily Telegraph, 68 per cent; Daily Mail, 66 per cent; The Independent, 65 per cent and The Guardian, 52 per cent.

So why would people pay for that?

{ 44 comments }

1

Adrian Monck 05.07.09 at 9:30 am

Nick’s findings – actually from someone he paid to do the research – aren’t so killer… if you check the research he quotes you’ll find it a somewhat different picture. Always good to go back to primary sources. I wrote about it here.

2

Preachy Preach 05.07.09 at 9:48 am

I found Murdoch’s references to the Sunday Times barely breaking even these days fairly interesting – even just a couple of years back it was one of NI’s two cash cows. Even back then, mind, they were keeping it at the same level of profitability only because they could raise the price to compensate for declining sales and ad revenue.

3

Hidari 05.07.09 at 9:59 am

I’m sorry Adrian but….

‘electronic databases
computers
mobile telephony
the Internet?
Haven’t these revolutionary changes all made life for journalists quicker and easier in the past 20 years? Shouldn’t we demand that reporters work faster, smarter and produce more given all this?
No cuttings libraries to sift through, no dial to turn on the telephone, or telephone books to wade through. No telex machines to service or wire copy to rip and read.’

I’m sorry Adrian but do you know any journalists? Do you know what the job is like nowadays? E.g. ‘Shouldn’t ‘we’ (and who is ‘we’?) ‘demand’ that journalists work faster?

But faster, in journalism, usually means worse. Good stories are slow, by definition. Look up Flat Earth News and look at how the Philby story was broken.

As for the crap about electronics making our lives better…my job is infinitely more complex and demanding due to computers, the internet and mobiles. Because work that would previously have been given to a secretary is now forced on me, which means I spend hours of valuable time learning how to use them and then waste my time on (e.g.) working out how to do dual columns in Word. But of course Murdoch likes this because it means that journalists don’t have the time to do ‘slow’ stories that threaten his powerful friends, and also because it means he can then sack the secretary.

Finally, mobiles etc. just mean that my boss can now reach me and shout at me 24/7. Nowadays when I start a new job I just lie and say I don’t have a mobile and refuse to use it for work related purposes (if they want me to have a mobile THEY can buy me one). ‘
(incidentally i’m not a journalist but my jobs is closely related).

4

novakant 05.07.09 at 10:45 am

There’s nothing wrong with “recycled newswire”. The agencies employ some of the best journalists around and your average paper can’t really be expected to have correspondents all over the place.

5

ajay 05.07.09 at 10:59 am

Yes, “PR and/or wire copy” is a really sly move. Bit like saying “academics make an average of $15,000 a year from bribes from big business and/or book sales”.

6

Chris Bertram 05.07.09 at 11:25 am

I think running the two together is defensible. The point is that they don’t go out and discover anything, they just recycle (usually without checking anything) what other people send them – hence “churnalism”.

I’m sure the situation is worse, actually, once you add to the picture “off the record” briefings by security agencies etc.

novakant: fair point, in principle, but when you look at the resources the PA have in place to cover everything in, say, Wales, the picture isn’t that great.

7

ajay 05.07.09 at 11:40 am

The point is that they don’t go out and discover anything, they just recycle (usually without checking anything) what other people send them – hence “churnalism”.

Well, if true, that would indeed be a problem – but that is not in fact what Davies was saying. “At least partly made up of recycled newswire or PR copy” is the actual phrase. Not – repeat, not – “made up of newswire or PR copy without any additional checking or significant added material”. If you’ve got figures for that, please share. But there’s nothing wrong with taking a brief Reuters report that says “New president elected in Zambia” and adding 500 words of copy on the new guy’s background, his likely policies, changes from the old guy’s policies, comments from an economist on the main economic problems the new guy will face and why he may not be up to them, what this means for the region, etc, etc.

8

Hidari 05.07.09 at 11:41 am

‘The agencies employ some of the best journalists around and your average paper can’t really be expected to have correspondents all over the place.’

Agencies also tend to have a ‘herd mentality’ and to cover the most obvious stories in the most obvious ways. They also, by definition, fail to provide context and background.

Cutting and pasting ain’t journalism, no matter how much you pretty it up.

9

Hidari 05.07.09 at 11:43 am

‘But there’s nothing wrong with taking a brief Reuters report that says “New president elected in Zambia” and adding 500 words of copy on the new guy’s background, his likely policies, changes from the old guy’s policies, comments from an economist on the main economic problems the new guy will face and why he may not be up to them, what this means for the region, etc, etc.’

Ajay
have you actually ever read The Sun or the News of the World? Honestly?

10

Idiot/Savant 05.07.09 at 11:46 am

So why would people pay for that?

Don’t they already, in hardcopy?

11

Zamfir 05.07.09 at 11:51 am

The Times, 69 per cent; The Daily Telegraph, 68 per cent; Daily Mail, 66 per cent; The Independent, 65 per cent and The Guardian, 52 per

How did the average get to be 80% ?

12

Stuart 05.07.09 at 11:56 am

How did the average get to be 80% ?

80% is all stories, the percentages quoted are for local (“home”) stories where you would expect a much lower fraction of use of wire services.

13

dsquared 05.07.09 at 12:08 pm

Well, if true, that would indeed be a problem – but that is not in fact what Davies was saying.

he goes into a lot more detail on this in the book – his contention is that the wire services are if anything stretched even thinner.

14

novakant 05.07.09 at 12:20 pm

The point is that they don’t go out and discover anything, they just recycle (usually without checking anything) what other people send them

But why should I as a reader be bothered if the person doing the leg-work is employed by an agency or by the respective newspaper? And as far as fact-checking is concerned, I think agencies are generally more trustworthy than individual newspapers.

but when you look at the resources the PA have in place to cover everything in, say, Wales, the picture isn’t that great.

That might well be, but does anything ever happen in Wales, lol?

15

Jim 05.07.09 at 12:37 pm

‘But why should I as a reader be bothered if the person doing the leg-work is employed by an agency or by the respective newspaper?’

As Davies points out in his book (which does go into a lot more detail of the kind people are asking for here), the agencies are quite open about the fact that they simply report what people say and do not, as journalists are supposed to do, check the truth of what is said or seek corroborating sources. So yes, it does make a difference.

16

ajay 05.07.09 at 12:46 pm

9: yes, I have had that pleasure. Fail to see the relevance, though.

There’s a lot of back and forth above about whether agencies are good, how much newspapers normally add to agency feeds, etc. This is irrelevant.
What we should be worried about is “percentage of stories that simply reiterate statements of interested parties uncritically” – and I have yet to see either a figure for this or a good reason for assuming that this figure correlates in any way with “percentage of stories that are partially based on PR or wire copy”.
Maybe that’s in his book, I don’t know, but from what’s being presented here there’s a lot of dodgy elision of categories going on.
And don’t forget, a story headlined “Bank of America’s massive losses betray the complete failure of the group’s strategy” is a story “partially based on a press release” – the announcement of the losses!

17

Hidari 05.07.09 at 1:06 pm

‘As Davies points out in his book (which does go into a lot more detail of the kind people are asking for here), the agencies are quite open about the fact that they simply report what people say and do not, as journalists are supposed to do, check the truth of what is said or seek corroborating sources. So yes, it does make a difference.’

More to the point it changes the role of the journalist from being pro-active to being reactive: whereas before the key point of of a journalists job would be to be out of the office and discovering what the story was, now they sit in the office and wait for wire copy to come in and tell them what the story is. Moreover, many/most lack the language skills or (physical,human) contacts to provide the necessary contextualisation.

One might note, in a Chomskyan stylee…that companies like Thomson’s-Reuters are primarily businesses, whose primary role is to provide financial information to other businesses. ‘News’ is a sideline. Given their role, it’s also clear that they want to sell their product to as many outlets as possible: therefore, by definition, ‘controversial’ ‘comment’ is invariably left out, and the most obvious stories are the ones that are most covered. In other words, you are clearly using the word ‘journalist’ in a two very different ways when you say a Reuters staffer is a ‘journalist’ and when you say Seymour Hersh is a ‘journalist’.

I am baffled by Ajay’s point that ‘What we should be worried about is “percentage of stories that simply reiterate statements of interested parties uncritically.’. When has anyone, ever, read a piece in a news story that challenges a PR story? The whole point of these anti-stories is to provide covert advertising for some firm or person. Ben Goldacre has described frequently the scientific atrocities produced when newspapers uncritically relay PR stories (as they invariably do). Moreover, PR stories from state sources (e.g. the army, the police) are invariably stated to be true, even when they are blatantly lies (this was shown recently by the G20 riots: many of the cameramen for the newspapers who published the police’s lies, and even some journalists, had been beaten up by the police or had witnessed police violence, but PR from the police overruled evidence from paid staff at those same newspapers!)

18

Neil 05.07.09 at 1:07 pm

In partial support of ajay (though not of his claim that News of the World does such a good job on Zambian politics) and partial dissent:

1. The fact that a journalist introduces a ‘critical perspective’ on a story is not always a good thing. Go to Deltoid and read Tim Lambert’s semi-regular feature, ‘The Australian’s war on Science’ As John Quiggin recently noted here, the Australian is very careful never to uncritically report what experts say on climate science.

2. Related to 1, even with more innocently motivated journalists, there is a direct relation between the average journalist’s conscientious effort to avoid simply regurgitating a press release reporting a science story and the number of errors and wild exaggerations the resultant story contains.

I must say, I see little need to deviate from my current policy of reading only headlines and perhaps the ledes from newspapers, and getting analysis from blogs written by genuine experts.

19

ajay 05.07.09 at 1:17 pm

I’m not sure I’m happy with being cast as the defender of the NOTW’s Zambia desk…

“When has anyone, ever, read a piece in a news story that challenges a PR story?… Moreover, PR stories from state sources (e.g. the army, the police) are invariably stated to be true, even when they are blatantly lies…”

Invariably, eh? Will you give me a tenner for every counterexample I find?

20

Hidari 05.07.09 at 1:20 pm

‘The fact that a journalist introduces a ‘critical perspective’ on a story is not always a good thing. Go to Deltoid and read Tim Lambert’s semi-regular feature, ‘The Australian’s war on Science’ As John Quiggin recently noted here, the Australian is very careful never to uncritically report what experts say on climate science.’

Yes OK I see what you mean. I retract my last statement. Rupert Murdoch papers will qualify or criticise PR from sources that contradict his hard-right political views. Fair enough.

21

Fr. 05.07.09 at 1:25 pm

Let’s assume that, if Murdoch decides to make Times/Sun/etc. readers pay, he will only accelerate the destructive creation process that will replace his Empire of Muck with something marginally more sound.

Why would anyone want to stop that happening?

22

MH 05.07.09 at 1:50 pm

Neither here not there, but just last night, I used an umbrella we have because my wife paid for Slate during the brief period when they tried to do that. The umbrella was the booby prize when they went back to free. This was back when Randy Cohen was deliberately funny.

23

Hidari 05.07.09 at 1:55 pm

I notice,reading back my posts, that the point is being missed here. The point, as I see it,is the move from pro-active journalism to re-active ‘journalism’.

But the other,even more important point is that the real subject of the post was:

‘So why would people pay for that?’

And the answer is: I have no idea and I don’t think they will.

24

Zamfir 05.07.09 at 2:05 pm

But Hidari, are we sure there was a golden age? People tell me that a few decades ago, newspapers had much smaller staffs, especially the regional newspapers that used to be much more common, and were relying a lot more on wire services than the bigger ones do today.

And purely wire-service driven news websites and free subway papers are quite popular. I can see a lot of reasons why newspapers might die, but relying on newswires doesn’t seem to be one of them.

25

ajay 05.07.09 at 2:19 pm

24: quite. Hidari assumes that this move is actually happening, whereas in fact the only hard facts are these: 1) newspapers have fewer full-time staffers than they used to 2) there is a lot of bad (or at least “reactive”) journalism out there. There’s no evidence that 2) is more true now than it used to be, far less that 1) is responsible.

And you raise another interesting point, which is: why should we assume that a dwindling of what we define as “good” journalism – proactive, investigative, etc – will necessarily mean the commercial doom of the newspapers?

26

dsquared 05.07.09 at 2:34 pm

People tell me that a few decades ago, newspapers had much smaller staffs, especially the regional newspapers that used to be much more common, and were relying a lot more on wire services than the bigger ones do today.

there did used to be a lot more news agencies, particularly regional ones, than there are.

27

Zeba 05.07.09 at 3:29 pm

Just before reading this article, I was reading on the Telegraph website about Glyndebourne, an interesting article for the opera buff about how the place is surviving the recession and how it is planning to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Attached to the article were two clips from Glyndebourne’s ‘smash’ production of Guilio Cesare, supplied by Glyndebourne. The article was written by a respected opera critic who had clearly had a dose of PR which involved going down to Glyndebourne (such hardship) and having a chat with its current chairman.

The article was much enriched by the Handel clips. It made me think about the pleasure of being able to surf the net to read opinions and articles from the newspapers and made me wonder how running the increasingly sophisticated websites that newspapers offer can be made to pay. Murdoch is on a hiding for nothing if he thinks he can suddenly turn his websites into subscriber only stuff: both the FT and Economist have tried that one with limited success – it simply turns readers off those websites, and as other commentators above have noted, there are plenty of specialist websites on just about any subject you care to study in depth on the net that offer much more insight and depth than the news sites. For snapshot stuff, people will use free sites like Huffpost and the BBC, and then follow the links or do their own searches. Where does that leave the Times and the Sun? My guess would be unvisited.

As for getting news off the wires and from PR – twas ever thus…I was last a journalist 18 years ago, and quite a lot of stories started out as puff from the PR machines…but a good journalist will go out and work the angles. The journalist under excessive time pressure will do a bit of rewriting and regurgitation. Mostly, you can tell the difference.

28

Jim 05.07.09 at 4:21 pm

And there used to be a lot more reporters covering the courts, and parliament, and local government, and so on. Davies does provide a lot of hard numbers on this kind of thing in his book. If there’s evidence to the contrary I’d like to see it (honestly! That wasn’t meant to sound snarky).

29

novakant 05.07.09 at 5:27 pm

In the golden age people subscribed to their local paper or maybe a national one, that presented them with a view of the world restricted by its specific political and selection bias – and that was that. Today we have access to a gazillion news sources from every corner of the world covering every angle and journalistic format at the click of a button. I simply don’t see how we are less well informed than 30 years ago.

30

Randolph 05.07.09 at 5:52 pm

Picking and packing wire-service stories is real work–editing counts, and I know there’s more on the wires than I could possibly every read. So I wouldn’t mind paying as long as it was a real price–one that didn’t include the cost of no-longer-necessary paper and printing. That would probably be a few pennies a day. And, of course, as long as paid mass advertising wasn’t already funding the news source. The WSJ makes its money from businesses and businesspeople, who purchase it because they need it for their business. People are paying for the valuable information which the WSJ (and the other financial news services) provide. The News Corp papers are consumer products, and are purchased at low prices for a few specific reasons: filling time, providing classifieds and local advertising, and so on. That’s not as valuable to most people, and the price has to be lower or the product has to be better.

novakant, if you look at these multiple sources, mostly they are repeating each other. (I make an exception for genuinely different sources like the English-language al-Jazeera.) On-the-ground reporting means paying reporters, and there’s been less and less money for that in the past few decades. Hmmm. I wonder if this is related to the attitudes that have brought on the global financial collapse. Less and less effort spent on actual work, more and more on pushing around the money made from actual work.

31

Adrian Monck 05.07.09 at 6:25 pm

Do I know any journalists, Hidari? Now there’s a question…

32

Hidari 05.07.09 at 6:29 pm

‘newspapers have fewer full-time staffers than they used to’

‘People tell me that a few decades ago, newspapers had much smaller staffs’

33

novakant 05.07.09 at 6:38 pm

Randolph, I have around 50 sites bookmarked for news and politics and they all feature for the most part original reporting and commentary. If they were all repeating each other, I wouldn’t read them. I only have enough time to read a fraction of them on a regular basis. Maybe you are limiting yourself to too few and similar sources?

34

Mutimba Mazwi 05.07.09 at 6:58 pm

It seems the internet has changed how news is perceived: a journalist can now read about India’s GDP in less than a minute by either ‘Googling’ it or using the BBC news Country Profiles link.

If that turns out to be indequate, there are various sources, including the Council on Foreign Relations who feature a lot of ‘experts’ in various fields.

What the masses take in as ‘news’ seems to be what you already know + general knowledge.

35

Hidari 05.07.09 at 7:19 pm

Incidentally, Novakent also believes that

‘Goodheart is to be taken with a grain of salt, but is anybody here seriously deying that the LRB is a tad biased when it comes to Israel or that large parts of the population in middle eastern countries are blatantly anti-semitic?’

Which makes me think that his definition of ‘original reporting and commentary’ is different from mine. It also makes me think that when he argues that Randolph is limiting himself to ‘too few and similar sources’ this should be interpreted in a highly specific sense.

36

self exile 05.08.09 at 12:50 am

Simple answer to why do people read newspapers – they hate trees.

37

engels 05.08.09 at 12:53 am

For snapshot stuff, people will use free sites like Huffpost and the BBC

I wonder what Murdoch would like to happen to the BBC…

38

Lee A. Arnold 05.08.09 at 3:44 am

Murdoch seems to be abstracting wrongly from the example of the Wall Street Journal. Take a quick glance at today’s Wall Street Journal front webpage. Most of its stories, even though not quite the churnalism showing-up in his other endeavors, are yet covered by other outlets, while some of its stories are junk (the front page has now fallen so far as to headline the reliable excretions from the clown pundits of the GOP’s yesteryears.) People are paying for it now, only because of what it used to be — and that habit is going to pass.

A new business model is becoming possible. The platform is the internet itself, which is turning into a single big newspaper. Google is trying to create a ready-made, world-wide advertising department for the thing, using context-sensitive ads. (They figure they can corner the ad department from “search.”) The new model is going to be a hot (i.e. popular, important) “aggregator page.” Drudge and Huffington are the merest hints of what is to come. It won’t be just snapshot stuff. The momentum will be new people who want to be editors, having good ideas about topics, format and choices, and running aggregator pages that present new people who want to be writers and videomakers. In other words, much of the world is going free-lance, and all will share in the AdSense revenue of the aggregator page of the creative editor. It doesn’t even have to be exclusive — a good new freelance writer could show up wherever he or she wants to. There could even be be re-aggregator pages — see popurls.com for an example of how this could look (I found the Susan Boyle video there when it had less than 400,000 hits.) The power is going to reside with the creators, and the best stories will find these new avenues.

In the old days the Journal had a dedicated staff in physical proximity to the New York financial center, and so it could break stories and present analysis that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Its hardcopy subscribers, dependent upon this business news, have been willing to follow it on-line and to pay for it there. This almost certainly has to change. The Journal’s editors do not have a commanding view of the way the world works; their detection of the financial crisis was dismal for example; and any capable young person choosing an editorial career would almost certainly want to do things his or her own way instead — and possibly make lots more money. Similarly the Journal is not going to pick up the best new reporters because the contracts are restrictive — they don’t have the freedom to publish books based on research performed on duty, for example. Meanwhile, something like Wolfram Alpha will obviate most of the numerical analytical functions for which the old readership regarded the Journal so highly. In short, The Wall Street Journal is likely to become further weakened in intellectual firepower, while being swamped by continuous waves of hotter information. How much is the old name worth?

39

Matt Kuzma 05.08.09 at 7:10 pm

So much journalism has been free or ad-sponsored for so long that I don’t think most of the public even knows what for-pay journalism looks like. I’d be interested to see what kind of correlation there is between the percent of revenue from issue sales and the proportion of original content in news sources.

40

Matt 05.08.09 at 9:06 pm

David Simon kind of says it all, doesn’t he?

http://www.democracynow.org/2009/5/7/david_simon_creator_of_acclaimed_hbo

41

Adrian Monck 05.09.09 at 3:09 pm

Ryan Tate actually has a very good answer for Simon‘s points here:

With so much quality civic reporting already being done online for little or no pay, it stands to reason we could eventually get quality government reporting entirely from bloggers, both professional and amateur, rather than depending on a federally-coddled cabal of conspiring nonprofit newspapers, as Simon envisions.

And there are reasons to think the quality would actually be better, since so many of the writers are deeply invested residents, rather than the sort of superficially-engaged, careerist professional journalists portrayed so well by Simon in The Wire and all too common in American newsrooms.

42

homer bigart 05.09.09 at 6:31 pm

Anyone thinks Ryan Tate’s response is actually a credible response to the kind of beat reporting that Simon is describing is a sucker.

Even the Oakland blogger he cited as a viable substitute for professional journalism gave an interview yesterday in which she bemoaned the lack of reporting in Oakland and how bereft the city was of mainstream journalism.

For Tate to list whatever fledgling efforts he can get off the web and claim that they amount to systemic coverage of a regional area is itself a prima facie case of just how empty blog reporting often is. That so many people buy it without actually investigating how much ground those “citizen journalists” are covering is real
herd-of-sheep tragic.

43

Martin Wisse 05.09.09 at 6:46 pm

But Hidari, are we sure there was a golden age?

There never was. Just look e.g. at A. J Liebling’s report of the American newspaper industry of the late fifties and early sixties, which doesn’t differ all that much from Flat Earth News

44

The Raven 05.09.09 at 7:13 pm

As for Simon, I think we need a better business model for business.

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