I don’t normally read the Daily Telegraph in print, except when I’m visiting my parents and I try to do the crossword before my mum gets a chance. But I’ve been reading it a lot more online recently, ever since it became the best UK-based news website.
It used to be the second best, until the Guardian’s recent redesign elevated style over substance and overtly prioritised advertising revenue over the user experience. Of the others, The Times is good on paper but only has a half-decent website, which is about half what it should be given that you have to pay to view it, and the Independent is execrable in almost every department. I don’t generally read the tabloids either in print or online, except when I’m waiting to collect a takeaway when I sometimes thumb through the copy of The Sun on the table. Mail Online (which is effectively a different entity to the print Daily Mail) has the occasional good item of photojournalism, but otherwise is mostly celebrity gossip and populist rabble rousing.
Which is why Peter Oborne’s resignation from the Telegraph matters. I don’t read his columns often enough to have formed an opinion on his opinions, so to speak, but his account of the Telegraph’s decline is compelling.
Oborne’s decision to jump ship was prompted primarily by the newspaper’s willingness to allow editorial content to be influenced by advertisers. That in turn was highlighted by their reluctance to run articles critical of HSBC, but it seems to have been an issue for far longer than that.
I’m not going to rehash the specific issues raised by Oborne regarding the Telegraph. You can read them yourselves in his own article. What concerns me more is that the Telegraph is not unique.
When the phone hacking scandal broke a few years ago, there was a lot of schadenfreude and barely disguised gloating (and, in many cases, entirely undisguised gloating) among those who were predisposed to hate anything and everything related to Rupert Murdoch. The closure of the News of the World was, for them, vindication. But, of course, we now know (and I rightly predicted at the time) that it was by no means confined to the NotW, or the Murdoch stable. Other newspapers were not just at it as well, but at it on a far larger scale.
So what if the flaws Oborne has identified in the Telegraph are replicated elsewhere? We’ve already seen how aspects of the Guardian’s redesign were prompted by a desire to increase advertising revenue rather than improve the usability of the website for readers. The Independent long ago ceased to live up to its name in any meaningful sense. Oddly enough, the principle of separating editorial from advertiser influence seems to have been strongest under Murdoch. Not that that stops them being extremely non-neutral when it’s their own direct interests are concerned, though.
The problem is, of course, that news gathering and reportage is expensive. It’s understandable that newspaper publishers want to protect and increase their revenue. Whether this means a website built almost entirely around link bait (Mail Online) or giving advertisers control over editorial (Daily Telegraph), we’re likely to see more of it. The BBC, due to the unique way in which it is funded™, is broadly insulated from such concerns, but unfortunately its online news coverage is very shallow by comparison with the quality newspapers (or even, for that matter, the tabloids).
By contrast, some of the fastest growing “news” websites (and I’m putting the word in quotes deliberately) are those which indiscriminately mix news with either entertainment or propaganda (or sometimes both). The likes of Upworthy, Buzzfeed, RT and PressTV are a major threat to the principle of independent, honest journalism, because their success shows that readers – or, at least, their readers, have no great care for it.
So are we seeing the slow death of quality journalism? Maybe. And in a day when every man and his dog can publish their thoughts to the world via a blog (yeah, I get the irony, thanks), and social media breaks news quicker than the rolling TV channels, it could be argued that we don’t really need it. But there’s still a big difference between opinion and fact. And the fact is, whatever a newspaper’s bias when it comes to opinions, we need to be able to trust them with the facts. If we can’t do that, then we do have a real problem.