Some readers have noticed I am not great in years; indeed, “Patrick Maxwell improves with age” is a comment I wish to have framed. Therefore, unlike many of our more experienced writers on this platform, I have not earned my scars as a foreign correspondent, have never donned a PRESS-labelled jacket in a war-zone, or spent years in the heady world of the Westminster lobby. Perhaps that is why my “pitches” go unnoticed by editors busy with their own deserved regulars. I am not a product of the old system of journalists who have served their time as young local reporters writing the stories of lost cats up trees for the Hendon Advertiser or sat through innumerable days in the county court. Does that make the new world of journalism more democratic? Writes Patrick Maxwell
As I write, greatly overworked editors are living far away, trying to ignore me. They may feel no hatred against me (though I often do against them) and they are merely, as the saying goes, trying to get by in life. Most of them, I imagine, are kind-hearted citizens who have no idea of the despair they are inflicting by their silence, and would never normally consider letting scintillating pieces of journalism slip through their editorial fingertips. However, if they succeed in blocking out all my entreaties for the rest of their careers, they will never sleep less easily in their beds. They are serving their publication, which is able to absolve them of all misdoings.
There are two things about the above which show it is a piece of modern journalism. First, that it is mainly copied from someone else (a certain George Orwell) and muddled with for my purposes. Second, that it is willfully hyperbolic and gratuitous (Orwell’s piece described the threat of German bombers roaming above him) in order to help make my own point, and to grab the attention of that fickle character, the reader. It also makes heavy use of the personal pronoun. Most damningly of all, it does very little of the thing journalism is supposed to do. Report.
For that is where the greatest and most dementing change has occurred in the ever-expanding world of journalism. Reporting, whereby a bedraggled and deadline-ridden person at a desk reads a press release, watches the news, or uses a telephone, or even, when he’s daring, goes out to get some information in the world, and eventually describes it in as few words as possible. The piece he writes includes the most basic facts about the case, with accompanying pictures, quotes from those involved, and a headline at the top written by someone else which draws our eyes down towards the story. If our reporter is lucky, his story will have a “hook” or a “peg” and the immediacy of the piece will be easy to realize. Then he can send it off with a flick of the wrist and move onto the next assignment.
Ask any old-time journalist, as I have sometimes done, and they will tell you how far away from reality that scene now is. For too many of us, what we want to read is not the news, but opinion, comment, or even that slyly mendacious term, analysis. We don’t want to know what the story is, but what whoever it is is we’re reading thinks about it. Newspapers have of course long fed this demand, but the popularity of an authoritative and nuanced leader column has long been usurped by the appeal of the columnist, preferably accompanied with a small portrait and a suitably controversial headline to set our hearts going with either assent or outrage at such explosive views.
Ask most people who want to go into journalism to list those in the trade who inspired them, and none of them will, in fact, be reporters. Most will be columnists, opinion-formers, “commentators” of some kind. They will probably have provided such inspiration because they turn out to write pieces which agree with the aspirants’ beliefs, not because of the fearless investigative work they have undertaken or pieces of particularly eye-opening reportage. If you want to get ahead in journalism, make sure people know what you think, not what you know.
As its outlines widen, journalism has become harder to enter, at least if you want to get enough money to eat while you’re at it. When I labor over anything I write, I know I could be making easier and quicker money in the local branch of KFC, and I’d be experiencing much more of the real world any writer should describe at such a place anyway. The burgeoning myriad of political sites and opinion websites may draw in readers but not much in cash. Comment pages mean anyone with wi-fi can publish their work; social media means all you need is an account and some extreme opinions repeatedly aired in few characters to get more attention than many worthy op-ed writers. But such a plethora of voices means that readers take their diet of opinion for granted; they expect it to be readily available, and therefore free. After all, how can we really know if a leader in The Times is worthier than the musings of a bored man letting off an angry Tweet in his pajamas? Too often, that depends solely on the opinions either of them expressed rather than their journalistic merit.
That use of the personal pronoun I used earlier speaks to this same malaise just as much: journalists know that to impress, they have to bring themselves into their pieces to show just how affected they are by said issue and how their “lived experience” surely makes their opinions on it more valid. Of course, this has its benefits: we have seen many NHS doctors anonymously giving their takes on the strain of the pandemic in more realistic terms than any of the armchair commentators who lecture us in their privately-insured comfort over the last year. The best writers can weave between objective fact and their own experiences, without reminding us of how it seems to them with the legitimizing bonus of a quick anecdote. But we can’t all be Hunter S Thompson; such an overload of perspectives means there’s little space left for those writing the actual news itself in the first place. It’s not so much the first draft of history as the second knee-jerk response to events.
If you will allow a small bit of that now, though: I don’t know whether the path into journalism can be one worth pursuing. Where can it lead? Where does the money come from? How does one move up the ladder? Jobs in newspapers are dying, and the number of freelancers is growing. The freelancer’s working life, thanks to the internet and 24-hour news, can very easily rely solely on a laptop, notebook, some coffee, and a helpful list of contacts. And of course, a regular surge of righteous indignation.
Some readers have noticed I am not great in years; indeed, “Patrick Maxwell improves with age” is a comment I wish to have framed. Therefore, unlike many of our more experienced writers on this platform, I have not earned my scars as a foreign correspondent, have never donned a PRESS-labelled jacket in a war-zone, or spent years in the heady world of the Westminster lobby. Perhaps that is why my “pitches” go unnoticed by editors busy with their own deserved regulars. I am not a product of the old system of journalists who have served their time as young local reporters writing the stories of lost cats up trees for the Hendon Advertiser or sat through innumerable days in the county court. Does that make the new world of journalism more democratic? Perhaps. And many great writers will be nurtured by exposure to the pressure of a column earlier in their careers.
But a society increasingly fractured along the trenches of the “culture wars” needs more objective journalism and more teams of investigative reporters following cases, not less. And that, damn it, is a true opinion. Don’t you think?
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