Richard Addis on The Daily Telegraph: Old skills are still needed

With a new editor of the Telegraph comes a revolution in the way that journalists there will work. Should the industry be rejoicing? Richard Addis doesn't think so
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The Independent Online

The reasons for inventing the brave new world of the multimedia, fully converged Telegraph are widely accepted. Everyone agrees that the traditional media must jump to it. We are in the midst of a veritable media Armageddon. Newspapers are stricken! Dead tree technology is finished! Anarchy is loosed upon the world. The falcon is so far from the falconer that he can't even remember there was one, let alone hear him. I saw Nick Lloyd the other day in the street, a man who was knighted for editing the Daily Express, and for a flash it was like glimpsing Chief Running Bull in his feathers out shopping at Wal-Mart. Chief remains. Village has moved on.

The crumbling of the newspaper industry is like the dying days of any great belief system. The cathedrals of Fleet Street and Bouverie Street are abandoned. The lunchtime rites of el Vino are long since forgotten. The mysteries of the mad magnates are replaced by Investors in People. And Gnostics, Arians, Pelagians, Lollards and Anabaptists roam the streets.

Some, like me, have speculated that all titles, even the Financial Times and The Guardian and The New York Times, will be free in the not too distant future. So, yes, we all agree that there must be change. The old media certainties are definitely over.

This is a great time for exciting change and new thinking across all media. It is also a great time for fads. There are two really big ideas around at the moment. One is convergence and the other is citizen journalism. To my mind the first is a fad and the second is really going to rock the boat. Certainly the Telegraph is not alone in going for the fad with such enthusiasm.

This is how it comes to pass. The old model isn't working. So a bright executive with potential leadership qualities is asked by management to look around the world and return with a plan. In a flash (for he or she is certainly very bright) the executive reads the stuff from the World Association of Newspapers or the Poynter Institute and 'understands' the following points:

1. News information is all around us on phones, PDAs, TV, cable, internet, teletext, kiosks, radio, video in lifts, video in buses.

2. A host of non-traditional players are muscling in to the market place.

3. Audiences are using multiple information sources.

4. Traditional mono-media companies must become content engines, developing content for all media channels using an integrated approach.

5. And then imagine the efficiencies! Content engines can deliver the Holy Grail: "Create once; publish many".

6. Get into extensible mark-up language. With your XML software a news story can be seamlessly distributed to multiple channels: TV, radio, online, mobile, you name it.

7. Journalists will not be learning about multimedia operations, they will be living them.

8. There will be no media distinctions among journalists, and of course the new newsroom will be fully integrated across all media.

9. Partly in order to mark the new start but also to make this a practical reality there must be a new newsroom with a hub and spokes and many screens.

10. The million or two that this requires will be more than compensated for by the efficiencies mentioned in point No.5.

11. There will need to be a visit to Aftonbladet (and afterwards some fine restaurants in Stockholm) to see how it works.

WHAT'S WRONG with this? Doesn't it make good sense? It's complicated and there's a great deal that could be said about it but in essence I think there may be three main reasons why multimedia convergence is more fad than revolution.

The most important point is that all types of journalism are a deep craft. Journalists know this. Management consultants tend not to. The problem is that in a business crisis like the one we're having now, the consultants get powerful. There are myriads of small skills involved in writing a good headline or producing a decent story that are individually not especially complex but collectively make all the difference. These skills do not transfer well from print to radio or from video to column writing.

The second point is that convergence encourages the wrong kind of journalism. The stuff that does translate well is precisely the stuff that we want less of, the journalism of very little value. We're all sick of commoditised news. What we're hungry for is insight, wit, personality, attitude. That is precisely what dies first on the multimedia spokes. And then to cap it all, the fabled efficiencies are vastly over-rated. Fewer Jacks of all Trades are very seldom more efficient than a greater number of Masters of Some. Particularly now when part-time and freelance and home working is so much easier and more prevalent and there are Masters for hire all over the place.

Listen to Bob Stover, managing editor of Florida Today: "My cell phone woke me about 6am with a text message alert, sent by our space team to our text message subscribers: Fueling of the space shuttle is underway at KSC. Throughout the day our website was filled with video feeds featuring our reporters at Kennedy Space Center.

"It had traffic updates for all the tourists who flocked to town for the launch, a blog by our space reporters, animations from our graphics staff and regular news updates on the status of the launch. At the same time we were planning how to make sure the next day's paper wouldn't just be a repeat of what had been online, on television or on the text messages.

"We go through less dramatic versions of that drill every day now. It's a lot of fun. But I do wonder whether we can improve the way we manage and coordinate this variety of information on the web while ensuring that we continue producing a top-notch print product."

What a nightmare! One feels that poor Bob has had to spend too much time in Room 101 with the Man from McKinsey.

Richard Addis is a former editor of the Daily Express. He now runs Shakeup Media, an editing and design service.