We need to go back.
Back to a time when tabloid reporters produced news investigations and broke exclusives.
These took time, money and seriously skilled manpower. Some stories took weeks and the end result was a two page spread inside the paper and maybe a touch on the front. That was the name of the game. It has not been this way for quite some time.
In the early 90′s I first heard the phrase “blackbagging.” I sat at my desk as older journalists who had been shown the door stuffed their collected detritus into refuse sacks and took the long walk out. After this exodus manpower was in short supply, and editors started to look at how long a story would take.
It started to creep into news conferences. Editors and money men wanted to quantify stories, put a time limit on them, rein in the expense. And all the time there was more “blackbagging.”
And that was the beginning of the end. Investigations, they lectured, could be timed. One week, two weeks, no result yet? Bin it. The shortage of staff meant there was always something waiting to be looked at or written up, and as the years rolled by the allocated time for investigations and exclusives shortened, along with the wage bill.
In the absence of stories to fill the paper they looked elsewhere for the news, the “exclusives.” And they looked to TV.
To reality TV, in fact. Big Brother, Jungle, BGT, to name but a few. They wrote stories about programmes fans had already watched the night before, with nothing new in the following day’s story. They wrote it because editors knew it was cheap. It wasn’t.
It doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that those who liked this type of show would have watched it the night before, so wouldn’t read the story, and those who hadn’t watched it the night before had made that choice so, er, wouldn’t read it either.
But editors thought up ever more ingenious ways of justifying their decision on driving their papers down Celebrity Road and assured anyone who asked it was what the punters wanted, in the face of freefalling circulation figures.
They didn’t consider the reader for a moment, they only saw the bottom line. And that bottom line was less bottoms on newsroom seats.
By this time a newspaper “investigation” was no such thing, unless you can do one these days from your desk with Google Street View. There are a few notable exceptions, but in the main tabloid newsrooms across the UK had fewer staff, more work and the reporters they had were inexperienced and had never “worked a beat.”
In the case of one newspaper group, Trinity Mirror, they set up a training course, placed a number of journalism trainees on it then gave them all jobs on a pittance at the end of it. Cue another round of “blackbagging.”
So we are where we are. Short-staffed dumbed down newsrooms, poorly paid and poorly trained reporters with little experience, no real news and papers populated with celebrity tittle-tattle because it’s cheap and can be done from the desk. Pressure mounted to get the “front of the book” stories that would make their paper stand out.
Not that reporters were allowed to spend any time doing it. Actually finding it. No time for that. Find another way. So, in a bid to hammer down costs, it became cost effective to hire someone from without to “pin down” who they were after so there was no longer any need to send reporters around 10 addresses listed in the phone book for Harry Jones. Cost effective quality information. Private detectives. The shadow lands.
Finding Harry Jones, the right Harry Jones, and heading straight to the correct address saved a fortune.
And if Harry Jones was not home but there was a car parked in the driveway? Wouldn’t it save an awful lot of time and money to know if that was Mr or Mrs Jones’ car? Once more to the shadow lands.
And what if Mr Jones’ tax return could be accessed, wouldn’t that give a place of work? That would save time waiting for him to come home. And all done without leaving the office so reporters could be writing something else while awaiting the details from the man on the other end of the phone. “Do it,” said the editors.
And then the black arts of the shadow lands really kicked in. Voice messages, texts, calls, BT Friends & Family lists, computer access, it all made life so easy for the ” investigative journalists.”
So they became inured to “civilians,” the general public. They did this for years and nobody asked them how they got the info. In fact their bosses quite happily paid the people in the shadow lands who delivered it.
Then one day it happened: a snap decision was required. A series of voice mails left on a mobile phone. They had them, and they didn’t want anyone else to have them. This has always been the mantra. They made the decision in a heartbeat. The messages were deleted. They had become such a part of the machine they hadn’t even thought through the wrenching heartache their actions would spark. It has happened in most redtop newsrooms in the UK.
In fact, News International are not the worst offenders. In the coming weeks and months other national newspaper groups will also feel the heat of the spotlight. Will their newspapers close down?
Rupert Murdoch wanted to move to a seven day operation. In a move of Machiavellian genius, he has in one fell swoop achieved his aim. Meanwhile 200 staff don’t know how they’ll pay the mortgage.
Their editors are living mortgage free.
You may not know it, but you are the worse for it.