Magazines, newspapers and political coverage for the elite

Three things to consider:

1) Professor Tim Luckhurst (University of Kent, formerly editor of The Scotsman) writes about newspapers' role as the Fourth Estate in Scotland and, whether he meant to or not, more generally:

The country's broadcasters are ill equipped to fill the vacuum left by its failing newspapers. Broadcasters can never do the job of a free press. At their best they provide balanced, informative news. It is to newspapers that citizens must turn for investigation, exposure and crusading zeal.

(taken from his article in the Independent)

2) Max Hastings (former editor of the Daily Telegraph and London Evening Standard) writes about the disastrous effects of financial market deregulation on his pension fund:

One of the illusions of the Thatcher era, now laid bare by the economic crisis, was that of "financial self-empowerment". Margaret Thatcher aspired to give individuals discretion over their finances, above all pensions. Even back in the 1980s, this notion rang alarm bells with some of us. I suggested to a financial journalist friend that most people were neither eager to accept responsibility for their own money, nor fit to do so. He, a good Thatcherite, shrugged and said that we would just have to grow up, wouldn't we?

(taken from his article in the Guardian)

Before we get to item 3), can anyone else see a disjunction in those two extracts? To me, they say, yes newspapers can be investigative crusaders, guarding the interests of the entire nation, but, actually, they usually choose not to be because ... well, because of all sorts of non-journalistic reasons. Proprietorial preference, perhaps; the desire to remain "one of us", maybe.

Was Mr Hastings not in a position to express his concerns to the Telegraph reading public? Perhaps he would like to tell us why he did not. Some people have tried to blame Robert Peston for precipitating the current crisis but it looks to me as though it goes back to the period Mr Hastings writes about, when newspapers such as the one he edited signally failed to act as a Fourth Estate.

And, despite Professor Luckhurst's protestations, perhaps that is one reason why people have turned away from buying information from newspapers - because they have come to realise that newspapers are rarely "at their best" and hardly ever offer "investigation, exposure and crusading zeal".

3) Peter Wilby writes about B2B/Special Interest magazines in the USA:

Most of their subscribers are members of professional elites. And in the US, at least, they are gradually taking over the coverage of politics. Press coverage is being remoulded to serve an elite that will pay a premium price to keep tabs on how politicians and civil servants are affecting elite interests. News of how democratic institutions work is being segmented and privatised. And this process began 20 years ago, long before the recession and even before the growth of the internet.

(taken from his column in the Guardian)

Although this segmentation and privatisation (which is how magazines work) is presented as a bad thing, surely it provides a model for newspapers? One reason the Daily Mail is successful is because it is so tightly focused on a particular segment of British society; the same principle applies to the Financial Times. As Vin Crosbie noted recently: "Wonder why there r no good suggestions how 2save traditional newspapers? Bcause that generic package of news has bcome obsolete." (It was a tweet, so forgive the txtspk).

The generic package of news has become obsolete:

  • Most newspapers have abandoned their specificity (as Tim Luckhurst notes in his article mentioned above) and much of their content is available elsewhere for free.
  • Too many newspapers have voluntarily abandoned their role as the Fourth Estate (as Max Hastings admits, albeit inadvertently).
  • Media-savvy readers have twigged that all reported news is partial. Once they have discovered the possibility of plurality (via alternative narratives, link trails, blogs, tweets, etc) the traditional model seems inadequate. However, specific interest groups still want to be served with specific information: architects want to know about issues that affect architecture; lawyers about issues that affect the law. This is still Fourth Estate stuff but applied to an audience that is actively interested and concerned. (If anyone is interested in tracing the history of this, I recommend Richard Ohmann's Selling culture: magazines, markets, and class at the turn of the century (London ; New York : Verso, 1996), which provides a thoughtful and informative analysis (see Chapter 7 in particular for the rise of the Professional-Managerial Class – Wilby's "elite").