News You Can Use
I worry about the future of newspapers. Every month I read about the dwindling circulation figures and I work out how long it will be before some of the most famous titles are selling fewer copies than my old school magazine. Then I try to do my bit by buying two or three papers every time I'm catching a train. I also make sure to toss them in the bin afterwards so that no one else can read them for free. I hope that helps. Not the planet, obviously.
But I don't just worry about newspapers; I worry about the future of news itself. It's one of my favourite conversation topics. Just get me started on this and I can clear a room within ten minutes. I'm not kidding.
I first performed this vanishing act many moons ago during a BBC Review Board. These are meetings where we gather to discuss and dissect recent output. People come from different departments and with different points of view. Sometimes I suspected they had colluded before those Review Boards and agreed to say nice things about each other's programmes. A non-hostility pact, if you like. At other times the meetings could descend into mutually assured destruction as estranged colleagues settled old scores.
That doesn't happen anymore. Well, not often.
But it was at one of those Review Boards, when I was voicing some criticism of Radio Scotland's news output, that the programme editor defended himself with the following question.
"But what do you think we missed?"
I didn't quite understand what he meant, so he elaborated.
"I mean, was there anything in the newspapers that morning that we didn't cover on the radio. Did we miss any stories?"
Well, the discussion went on for a bit. Some people made their excuses and left. Others were so numb that they couldn't think of an excuse and just threw themselves out of a window. Finally I had to accept that we hadn't, in that sense, "missed a story" but it confirmed my view that news journalism can drift too easily into information-processing. One journalist gets a story and everyone else transforms it into a radio or television piece, a magazine column, an online article, a blog and so on. The next morning that story is "taken on" by seeking reaction from a relevant person or organisation.
When I worked in commercial radio every political story had to be followed up by reaction from other politicians and then the CBI and STUC. Always riveting stuff, of course.
Journalists ought to be defined by their ability to find or cover that original story. To be first with the news, in fact. To tell people things they don't already know. To ask the right questions.
And that's what worries me about the demise of newspapers. Fewer journalists will mean fewer original stories.
I imagine that, around the world, there are newsrooms full of dedicated, intelligent staff who are working very long hours processing a very small number of stories...and that news agenda seems to be getting narrower all the time.
More than a year ago, at the Radio Festival, I found myself making headlines because I dared to state the obvious and point out that news was becoming dominated by stories about celebrities like Amy Winehouse and her trips to rehab. I went as far as to say that there were plenty of young women in Scotland whose lives were also being ruined by drugs and that we, as journalists, should find ways of putting their stories at the top of our bulletins.
News, I said, is what we say it is and we don't all have to say the same thing. It's why, on BBC Radio Scotland, we created the fortnightly Investigation programme...and why we have programmes like Give Me a Voice where real people - not professional journalists - get the chance to tell their own stories and demand answers from the authorities.
But maybe I'm wrong. Arrogant, even. Overweight too. Sober, though.
Maybe news should only be about what sells newspapers or bumps up listening and viewing figures.
So you tell me...what should be in the news?
And if you would like to read a more eloquent view of modern journalism, please look at this piece from the Nieman Foundation for Journalsim at Harvard.