Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note from Issue Seven
Journalism is on its last legs. Publishing wheezes on life support. Sales are down again. A second Dark Ages await. The prognostications of doom come louder and more panicky every day.
From the established newspapers and publishers, it's understandable. The drop off in newspaper sales over the past decade is, for those whose livelihoods depend on them, terrifying. The number of independent book shops in Britain has fallen by a factor of 15 over the past five years. Ottakars, Borders and Books Etc are no more. Other chains are ailing. Magazines are going out of business. Those of us in football journalism see colleagues laid off with horrifying regularity. Those who remain on staff do twice the work for half the pay of their predecessors of even a decade ago.
Yet here's the paradox: we live in a golden age. There has never been so much football journalism of such high standard as there is now. There have been more high-quality football books published in Britain this year than in whole decades of the twentieth century. That's not just a personal view, it's also the opinion of the doyen of British football-writing, Brian Glanville ("There are two sorts of football journalists," Paddy Barclay once said. "Those who have been influenced by Brian Glanville and those who should have been.") I had dinner with him shortly after his eightieth birthday last year and he said that these days he looks round almost every press box he goes to and sees at least half a dozen writers who would have been the best in the country in any other era.
And that's without even mentioning the blogs and websites of which there are thousands upon thousands. The vast majority are boring, repetitive, badly-written and angry and most are dedicated to the same handful of clubs; but there are several that are genuinely high excellent, whether because they're clever, funny, well-written, emotionally powerful, provocative or just different. And the beauty of the modern world is that the writers of the best ones are rapidly elevated. Take, for example, Michael Cox, the editor of zonalmarking.net, who went in 18 months from being an unknown setting up his own website to a mainstream voice with columns on the Guardian, ESPN and Betfair websites.
"Zonal Whoever", as Owen Coyle once dismissed him after Cox had suggested his claims of playing passing football were misleading, is an example of the positives of modern journalism. Everybody can be heard and those who stand out prosper. The system is more democratic than ever before. Even by the time I began writing professionally, in 1999, the old route of a journalist working his way up through a local paper to beat reporter on a national to correspondent or columnist didn't really apply. Now it's non-existent —and only partly because of the decline of local newspapers. Perhaps some of the craft of journalism has been lost as a result but the gain has been freshness and innovation and a great sense of opportunity.
And that in itself is unpopular among those already in journalism. It's probably less true of football than of other sports (cricket, certainly) but there is a hostility among certain members of the old guard towards those who write for websites, less because of who they are than what they represent. And that, of course, is a threat. They represent the new age and in the new age, there are no sinecures. There are no lifetime contracts and there is no possibility of a comfortable dotage, plodding along to a couple of games and a couple of press conferences a week. The competition is relentless. There is no respite, no possibility of a lazy week: a journalist has to prove himself with every story.
That may be a bad thing for journalists but for journalism, of course, it's excellent news. Or it would be in isolation. But as well as increasing access, making it possible for anybody with an internet connection to publish their writing, the internet has destroyed the payment model of the newspapers. For two centuries, readers were happy to pay the cover price and that, along with advertising, was enough to pay for paper, ink, printing, distribution and the staff. Since the advent of the internet, though, there is an expectation that content should be available for free and, particularly given the decline of the advertising market in a worldwide economic crisis, that has slashed revenue. It's never been easier to break into journalism; it's never been harder to make a living from it.
The internet — clearly — hasn't diminished the appetite for information; if anything it's done the opposite. Publishers talk of the extraordinary demand for readers to meet and interact with authors — at festivals, as one senior executive put it in a tone of bewilderment, "even the Sunday 9 am slots are full." The problem is that nobody has worked out how to monetise that. A decade ago, the assumption was that a solution would present itself. As yet, it hasn't. The Murdoch papers have gone behind a paywall but opinion is divided on whether that has been a success. In July this year, the Mail's website became the first to turn a profit through advertising revenues; the Guardian's online revenues went up by 16% last year (but the paper as a whole lost £44million). Those figures, perhaps, offer hope for the future, particularly as global economic conditions improve and the advertising market picks up. That may come too late for certain papers, though, if it comes at all: the internet publishing industry has existed for too long on promises of jam tomorrow.
A frankly ludicrous piece in the Guardian by David Leigh — who has, as he announced in an opening line of tellingly quaint metaphor, "survived more than 40 years at the coalface of British journalism (longer than a term of service in the ancient Roman army)" —proposed a £2 per month levy on broadband subscriptions to subsidise ailing newspapers. There is no logic to this, nor any chance of it happening. If newspapers are to be subsidised, why not other industries affected by the internet? Why not book shops, music producers, cinema chains, printers and pornographers? If everybody paid just an extra £50 a month we could probably keep the world exactly as it was in the early 1990s. In fact, why stop there? Why not destroy the printing presses and set monks to work copying manuscripts by candlelight while the news is distributed by fat men with big hats and bells?
Luddism is not the answer to any new technology. Industry and society evolve: stasis and subsidy can never be more than short-term strategies to delay the inevitable. Journalism is not dying, but it is changing and part of that change might be the death, or at least the weakening, of the big brands. That can already be seen in the way writers use social media to publicise themselves — it's an on-going process but increasingly readers follow particular writers they like or articles on particular topics that interest them. The sense of being a Telegraph reader or a Mirror reader is not as binding as it once was. It may even be that the increasing number of independent voices, the questioning of the big brands, helped bring about the current debate in Britain about media ethics as represented by the Leveson Inquiry.
This is a world in which power is increasingly being devolved from the media brands to the consumer. The reader has more choice than ever before. In the abstract, it's hard to see that as anything other than positive. The issue now is making the new world work for writers as well as readers, which is essential if the best writers are to keep writing and not to drift off to more lucrative fields. Paywalls are unpopular, but even they have an essentially democratic ethos: after all, which is preferable, financial control coming from a community of readers each paying a small fee each year or from three or four major advertisers?
Other payment models may be found, are still waiting to be found. The Blizzard, thanks to readers being responsible in what they pay and writers being prepared to receive not a flat fee but a share of revenue, has stumbled upon a payment structure that seems to work for us, for now — which isn't to say that it will work for everybody or that it will work for us forever.
Journalism stands on a new frontier. There is great opportunity but also jeopardy. It is all but inconceivable, to look at this from an English perspective, that all 10 national daily newspapers will survive the next decade. Smaller, niche publications, whether online or print, will spring up. Many will flash brightly and fade away; some will establish themselves. The future is uncertain, but it is also exciting. And while the appetite for news, analysis and opinion exists, journalism will never die. It'll just look a bit different.