The electronic age is the saviour of all journalists. Or is it?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Let me drop a name: Michael Bloomberg. Never heard of him? If you don't work in the City, then it's hardly surprising. His name is attached to hundreds of terminals in City dealing rooms, where a steady stream of financial information and analysis is squirted down phone lines and on to screens. Stock quotes, bond rates, option terms - that sort of thing.

Bloomberg also runs a news service, picked up by newspapers around the world (including The Independent), and has even launched television channels in various countries around the world. The company, worth a cool $2bn, is 70 per cent owned by its consequently filthy rich 54-year-old founder.

Those of you who want to know more about him should look out for the full profile running one of these days in the City pages of The Independent. But I wanted to share two ideas Bloomberg spoke about when I met him last week. The first will intrigue anyone who reads newspapers (that'll be you then) and the second might reassure low-morale journalists (are there any other kind?) worried about their jobs.

"Pretty soon you'll be able to buy a small sheet of cloth that looks like a newspaper," Bloomberg says. "This will have hidden transmitters and be capable of receiving signals, and [reporters] will be able to send the content through the air. Readers will simply squeeze the corner and see page one. Squeeze again and they will get page two. The stories will be sent instantaneously, so you won't have to wait 12 hours for the trucks to deliver the newspapers."

Cool. This sounds much better to me than the laptop computer that many believe will download my morning newspaper for me. I like the idea of using the "new newspaper" in the same ways I used the old ones - on the train, or over coffee in the Bar Italia in Soho.

Now for the reassuring news that journalists have been waiting for. "Your skills will be more necessary than ever," Bloomberg says. "The future delivery systems for news and information are going to require editorial judgement, selection, packaging. That's going to make you as a reporter more valuable, and will mean you will sell your content faster, cheaper and will be able to update it instantly."

Hooray! All the doom and gloom can be dispelled. Journalism thrives in the electronic age! True, Bloomberg despairs for "the guy who chops down the trees to make the newsprint" and for the "guy who drives the trucks". But we, the working journalists, are safe.

Funny, but it doesn't feel that way. What Bloomberg hasn't described is the process of cost-cutting and technological upgrading that has already seen the loss of thousands of jobs in the print media. He hasn't talked about the way most newspapers are now run: undermanned picture desks, overworked sub-editors, inadequate library systems, lack of secretarial support. I am describing every national newspaper, with the exception of the Financial Times (where the cost-cutting is just getting under way) and Associated Newspapers, where the Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard are still being produced on fulsome budgets. Elsewhere in Fleet Street, and in the regional press, the process has been the same: incessant cuts in operating costs, usually justified by the advent of new technology.

I can't believe that the new "delivery systems" described by Bloomberg will mean any improvements for journalists. I take his point that somebody has to produce the content, and that editorial judgement still fetches a premium. But will that work be properly remunerated? Not on present trends it won't.

This past year's battle royal between cable operators and Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB, culminating in the whitewash handed down by the Office of Fair Trading, was meant to have been the war to end all wars. Brace yourselves for the outbreak of Pay-TV War II.

In the first battle, the cable industry had hoped to convince regulators that Sky was behaving anti-competitively, specifically by imposing onerous terms for the supply of its channels to cable networks. The OFT didn't buy it. This time, the target will be Sky's cosy relationship with BT, the telecoms operator, which is helping Sky develop a set-top box capable of receiving digital signals. The plan is to offer 200 channels of programming, home shopping, electronic banking pay-per-view movies and sport and Internet connections.

Most of the cable industry doesn't like the fact that the country's dominant telecoms operator and the biggest pay-TV player are joining forces. And you can understand why. Cable operators offer both TV and telephony. They are squeezed in one market by BT's overwhelming presence and in the other by Sky's near-monopoly position. This time, the industry is having a go at a different regulator - Oftel. The hope is that the telecoms watchdog will be more interventionist than the OFT has been, and order BT to back away from its set-top box commitments and its joint marketing efforts with Sky.

If the bid fails, the more activist cable operators will no doubt press their case in Brussels as well, opening up a second front. Will they prevail? On past form, you'd be better off betting on Murdochn

'The Independent' is pleased to point out that 'Programme', the new listings magazine published by Associated Newspapers, is offered by 'The Mail on Sunday' and not the 'Daily Mail'. As a result of a production error, incorrect information was given in these pages last week.

Comments