The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: the new commercial masters of the ‘branded’ newsroom

openMedia pan-European survey throws up an early warning for the next generation of journalists.

James Cusick
James Cusick
29 November 2017

Newspapers stand, March 19, 2013. Image by Flickr/(Mick Baker)rooster

If Fleet Street, or what’s left of the shrinking print collective, ever decides to open the equivalent of an advanced training college, it should be located somewhere which looks like Compton Sinbury.

Scandal, secrets and sin, both venial and mortal, were the covert characteristics  of novelist Guy Bellamy’s imaginary commuter village;  a place where a potential page lead lurked round every corner and the twin curses of English civilisation, Christianity and journalism, lived side-by-side in grand delusion.

But it’s the accidental modernity of Bellamy’s village that out-trumps any potential rival. If Rupert Murdoch lodged in a nearby grand manor house, or the Barclay twins occupied a Restoration palace on the parish borders, none of these grandees would add much to the cultural failures on show. As the cleric in the novel, Owen Gray, was told, “Reporters don’t believe in anything, vicar, it’s an article of faith.”

Independence as a luxury

With the government still wrestling with Murdoch’s latest power grab on the UK media, as British academics draw a deeply sloping graph line towards the Street’s financial funeral, and proprietors, boards or trusts either hold out their begging bowl or inflate cultural stereo-types in the vain hope they will appeal to dwindling readerships, the idea that belief or independent thought should be the business of  news gatherers is almost becoming quaintly anachronistic. These are broad generalisations of course, and there are notable exceptions. But paid-for, untainted news, specifically gathered and analysed, rather than being cut and copied from elsewhere, is becoming a luxury product.

Political or proprietorial loyalties were once explained away as simply tribal. And the old Fleet Street simply learned to live with the tangential and commercial realities of proprietorial pomp. Now harsher financial and ideological expectations are in play. What is written and how it’s written is not just about what’s out there. Instead content has become a driven derivative, ruled by commercial needs, party political worship, and, crucially, the reflex demands of suspect proprietors and their advertising directors. Content is now the prime territory of the marketing director; it is sponsored, monetised, sold at auction and branded.

Desk editors once in charge of a specific domain, are now the sub-servants in a chain of command that reaches up and deep into the ad department. News and its tangential neighbours can now be bought, sponsored, flipped or, crucially, silenced.

‘Peak ink’

Just as oil companies have been pushed to environmental extremes to keep the cash flowing in the tough economic era that has followed “peak oil”, the shrinking of profits in the national news industry has brought about its own “peak ink” ethic. Gone is any firm divide between editorial and advertising. Almost gone is the need to offer a political balance on events or policy. And the neutral benevolent proprietor, if he ever existed? They have become almost a made-up character in highly-funded public relations operations – who fool only a few sycophants and committee advisers who bestow honours like cheap confetti.

For the new-entrant reporter, who perhaps once thought the minute hand of history might be just as important as the hour hand, their critical sphere of work is largely centred on commercial obedience and the delivery of what is ask for. Freedom of expression and the choosing of targets is now a far-off fantasy for the crèches of cut-and-paste journalists; learning a craft is almost off-limits and instead their role is to serially mimic news written elsewhere and increase the clicks that please senior faux-editors who’ve long forgotten why they came to this industry in the first place.   

The new command structure, driven not by a sense of the public good but by either raw survival or old-fashioned greed, now involves the critical input of commercial directors. With traditional advertising seen as less effective, or capable of being ignored, editorial written by journalists rather than copy writers is seen as more effective in the capture of attention; with attention, however low and fleeting, now nothing less than news’ gold standard.

This era of the implanted commercial message has already kicked off, and those journalists who challenge it risk losing their jobs.

openMedia survey

OpenDemocracy’s openMedia project – researching commersial pressures and patterns across European Council member states - is an attempt to map out and measure the extent of commercial influence. It looks beyond the simplistic idea of ‘fake’ news to asks how the era of  ‘peak ink’ impacts the role of journalists across Europe.

Early soundings from openMedia’s pan-European survey paints an uncomfortable picture. A third of those who responded indicated their publication consistently protects or promotes the various interests of companies and politicians. It shows self-censorship in play when the commercial adventures of proprietors come too close in an investigative project;  with the ‘friends’ of the proprietor off-limits if anything negative is about to be written.

Blurring the lines

With the business model that once centred on steady streams of ad revenue and circulation income now in tatters in the advancing digital age, those industries prepared to pay well to control all aspects of content, including strategic silence -  – big pharma, energy, construction, IT and tech – find themselves with paid-for power and no longer subservient to the trade cycle of rolling news. For reporters this can now mean a dual role as journalist and copy-writer, where a marked clarity between straight editorial and advertorial becomes blurred and the obligation to inform reader of where the divide falls doesn’t exist. 

Many reporters across Europe in the openMedia survey point to editors who simply forget, or no longer much care, where the divide now lies. And for those uneasy with the added role of ordered copy writer rather than career reporter? Journalists who responded in the survey, describe work-place tensions, the threat of dismissal and the acknowledgement that many feel overwhelmed at the increasing amount of work they are expected to carry out to keep jobs that are both scarce and low-paid.

Transition and warning

These are of course early days for an industry in transition. And the openMedia survey, due to the understandable hesitancy and fear-factor of employed journalists, will not be capable of laying out in full this evolutionary change. But the death of Fleet Street and its European equivalents, and the rise in influence of “content” no longer free from external commercial influence, comes with a potential high price.

When those who consume news lose trust, and feel they can no longer distinguish between content that is being controlled for a price, and what is actually out there, there will be only one course of action. They will stop. Stop reading. Stop believing. In the process of extinction, there are always critical points where warnings should be listened to. This is one of them.

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