Wednesday, November 4, 2009...4:01 pm

Journalism and survival

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Thanks to Greg Watts and FleetStreetBlues for weighing in on my Beyond Journalism essay.
I used a comment by FleetStreetBlues on my media recession poll as a springboard for some ideas I have been developing on creativity and the way that we tend to put boundaries around the things we do in life.
Though they graciously conceded much of the main argument, the FleetStreetBlues crew made the point that, although I had survived the media recession doing interesting work, I hadn’t, crucially, survived it as a journalist.
Which, let’s face it, is strictly true. I’m not solely a journalist – nor do I want to be. The freelance is unbound, after all. And as things stand I’m getting less like a journalist (at least in those terms) as I move into other areas of creative work.
Greg Watts is coming from my side of the argument when he says:

“Journalism is one branch of the writing tree. Marketing copy is another.”

So, yes, like Greg, I see myself as a writer, rather than a journalist.
But does any of this matter? I certainly don’t disagree with FleetStreetBlues – they are, after all, literally correct. Are we just having a pointless “you say potato, I say po-tah-to” disagreement?
I’m not sure. There’s something else here bothering me that I’m trying to pin down.
It could be that I remember typesetting.
Anyone over the age of 45 probably does. It involved sending your laboriously typewritten copy to a different company (or different department, if you worked on a national paper) to be turned into galley proofs.
Teams of (largely) men sweated over hot metal type (well, actually some kind of phototypesetting by the time I got involved) and produced the raw material of media layouts. After you stuck your galleys down to dummy pages using hot wax (no, I’m not making this up), the typesetter would make up the pages for printing.
It was a pleasantly solid process. You felt you were somehow involved in a semi-industrial activity. Digital pre-press workflow just doesn’t have the same romance somehow. I just can’t get excited about PDFs.
But, as the song says, all things must pass. The arrival of the Apple Mac and desktop publishing eclipsed typesetting – provoking futile rearguard industrial action by typesetting union the NGA and causing the bulk of colour reprographics work to be sent to the Far East, which had quickly geared up to take advantage of the new technology.
What happened to typesetting? It ended. It ceased to be. It is an ex-industry – though I’m sure there are some craftspeople somewhere creating printed material using hot metal technology funded by an Arts Council grant.
So if you asked a typesetter how they survived the upheaval of the early 1990s, it’s almost certain that they wouldn’t have survived it as a typesetter.
I think this is important. Typesetters went into a whole range of other work to put food on the table, some of which was more or less related to typesetting.
Because as the cost of digital kit came down, a big chunk of that colour repro work that went to Hong Kong or Singapore came back to the UK. Where it was handled by a lot of the old typesetters who were now working in digital pre-press. Though not as typesetters. Not exactly.
I guess I have the same sense about journalism. It’s not going to vanish in the way that typesetting did. But it’s going to change radically. What were full-time jobs may become part-time hobbies, as redundant or under-employed journalists set up community-based news sites, but pay the bills writing marketing copy and doing consulting.
And if part of being a production journalist used to involve learning how to use QuarkXPress (after the hot wax thing), now it involves running what is effectively a pre-press workflow, up to and including the final digital files that produce the printing plates.
In future, it will involve being able to construct an online reader forum using CMS tools, as well as handling the Flash-based banner ads that need to be placed on the site. Oh, and write some halfway decent copy.
(I feel sorry for the typesetters in all of this too. They’ve almost been displaced from repro now. Heaven knows where they’ll go next.)
And as FleetStreetBlues quite rightly notes, that isn’t journalism. Not really. But I do wonder if what we have understood as journalism up to now will still be the model for this strange media activity we’re involved in forever.
I suspect that framing a question such as how we survived the media recession as journalists may make as much sense in the future as asking how we’ve managed to walk on land as fish.


  • Hi Simon,
    while reading your article, I had some ideas on my own, you know, it happens sometimes… 😉
    Journalism and typesetting isn’t quite the same to me. Typesetting is a kind of technique, like copywriting or drawing or cooking or whatever – it’s a skill.
    But Journalism is an attitude like being an artist to me. It’s a way of seeing the world, to analyze the world and to describe it. Journalists are like scientific explorers and how could an attitude die just because the tools has changed?

  • Simon – because there is no money in it any more?
    Actually, though, I don’t think journalism, local or national, will die. I think it will prosper. I think the number of reporters will rise in the next ten years. You watch. Things are going to get better and better.

  • Partly, yes. And it’s becoming more of a grind. But if you widen your idea of “journalism” (to include things that many might see as “not journalism”) I think things become more interesting – and possibly better paid.
    I admire your optimism. Please elaborate!

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