It’s not the BBC, it’s you

Are you interested in newsprint, the survival of print journalism and the impact of online communities on news distribution? Don’t bother with Nick Cohen’s column in the Observer this weekend, then. It’s not just Nick who comes over as clueless: the same issue features Barbara Ellen sniping on Twitter as a pointless tool of “uber-narcissists”, and a full-page feature of recipe-tweets (ah, not so pointless when you’ve got some ink to spill). But if the Observer is still reeling from the shock of the tweet, surely they’ve had time to reconcile themselves to the idea of blogging?

Oh no, not Nick. Starting with a metaphor that makes no sense and skittering on to a conclusion that has no depth, Nick’s column reads like a howl from the bowels of ignorance:

Professional journalists in the age of the internet look as doomed as blacksmiths in the age the combustion engine. Local newspapers are disappearing. National newspapers and commercial TV stations are seeing the web take their advertisers.

Even the gloomiest forecasters expect there will still be a few reporters around in 2025, but as with blacksmiths, we will be curiosities.

Leaving aside Nick’s self-identification as a reporter (you’re a columnist, Nick: say it with me, own what you are), let’s sharpen our teeth on that opening analogy. Journalist = blacksmith, internet = internal combustion engine. Blacksmiths made a product that was essential for the use of horse-drawn transport but unnecessary with motorised vehicles; journalists make a product which can be transmitted through newspapers and broadcasting, and which can also be transmitted via the internet. So a more appropriate version of Nick’s figure of speech would be something like, “Professional journalists in the age of the internet look as doomed as grain merchants in the age the combustion engine.” Sure, it lacks that alarmist edge, but at least it’s tending to accuracy.

Nick’s really worried, though (this week, anyway). Here’s why:

The best reason for wanting my colleagues to survive is that serious reporters and broadcasters offer a guarantee that what they say is true. If they stray, their editors impose journalistic standards and insist on objectivity. They may not have the best or fullest story or the most vivid account, but readers should be able to assume their work is reliable, while a blogger’s commitment to objectivity can never be assumed.

I know. Here’s Nick Cohen, scribbling away for the newspaper that sold the MMR and WMD scares with the ferocity of a blind bear with a bee up its arse, telling everyone else about the very serious journalistic standards that stop him and every other hack from telling outright untruths. Astonishing. It’s possible that it’s not the internet so much as the incompetance that’s been herding consumers away from newspapers. But Nick, with another badly thought-out non-story to trample through, is too busy kicking the BBC to take a self-reflexive look at the journalistic failings of his own medium.