The rise of the opinion columnist is one side effect of the decline of newspaper sales. But are ‘op-eds’ (opinion columns) really a substitute for genuine journalism? What are the dangers of the new ‘opinion economy’, and can they be avoided?
There’s little doubt that newspapers are dying. Late last year, a ‘briefing’ in The Week summed up the parlous state of the British press. 2016 was a bad year: The Independent ceased to exist as a print publication, and went online; while a new title called New Day, launched by Trinity Mirror, one of our leading newspaper groups, lasted just two months. The Sun, formerly the country’s most popular newspaper, has seen its circulation halved over the past six years; while the same has occurred at The Guardian, the leading liberal broadsheet. Since 2005, more than 300 UK local newspapers have closed.
Perhaps predictably, young people are the least likely age group to read newspapers, while over-55s are the most likely. A YouGov report from a few years ago predicted that newspaper readership would die out with the older generation (although it didn’t actually compare readership over time). Even so, the report found that young people were the most inclined to seek news online, including from newspaper websites: the problem, it seems, is not so much with people’s desire for news itself, but with the form of the printed newspaper.
The same appears to be true elsewhere, at least in Europe and the USA. John Oliver’s excellent satire of the situation in the US summed up some of the consequences for journalism. As its parody of the Spotlight trailer implied, the chances of old-style investigative reporting surviving in a much more commercially-driven, cost-cutting environment are pretty minimal. A few years ago, Nick Davies’ book Flat Earth News made some similar points through its detailed study of the changing working practices of British journalists. And as the Guardian’s Katharine Viner has argued, ‘clickbait’ and ‘churnalism’ – the recycling of press releases designed to attract attention online – are bound to take precedence over serious journalism.
The internet is generally seen as the culprit here, although (as The Week explained), the situation is more complex. The advertising on which newspapers depend has increasingly moved online, and online advertising on newspaper sites doesn’t make enough money to offset the decline in revenue. Most online advertising (and commercial data gathering) is in the hands of technology companies like Google and Facebook; while smaller ‘classified’ ads have now migrated to specialist websites. While some newspapers have resorted to paywalls – most notably The Times – this significantly reduces traffic, and tends to work better for upmarket specialist papers like The Financial Times.
While we might hope that journalism – across a variety of media – will survive, it’s quite possible that the physical form of the printed newspaper will not (although you might not think that as you wade through the piles of discarded freesheet papers on the London underground at the end of an evening). However, the history of media suggests that something more complex might occur. New media do not necessarily replace old media: what more often happens is that the functions of those old media – the reasons for which we use them – are subtly changed. As our repertoire of media choices widens, we tend to turn to particular media for more specific purposes.
In a world of instant communication, newspapers are less and less useful as a medium for news – that is, as a means of finding out about events that are happening right now. When there is a major news event, most of us turn to radio and 24-hour rolling news channels, and now to social media. We might read all about it the following day in the newspaper, but what we expect from newspapers now (and what we get) is rather different.
As a result, the newspaper is increasingly becoming a medium, not so much of news, but of commentary on news. More disturbingly perhaps, it is becoming a medium of opinion rather than a medium of information. I don’t have any research on this in relation to British newspapers, but my sense is that the proportion of commentary has grown while the proportion of news reporting has declined. Most newspapers continue to run ‘editorial’ columns: generally a single column, without a named author, that is seen to represent the newspaper’s position on the issues of the day. These seem to have changed very little over the years. However, what has changed is the number of authored commentaries, where a named journalist will produce a regular (often weekly) column on a range of issues that have come to their attention during the week – a practice that in the US is often called the ‘op ed’ (the page opposite the editorial). While some are focused on particular areas of content – politics, social issues, ‘women’s issues’ – many op eds seem to cover a wide range of topics.
Of course, this isn’t a new development: it goes back to the origins of the newspaper as a medium. Even so, the amount of ‘opinion journalism’ has grown over time, and the boundaries between news and opinion have become steadily blurred. With the advent of social media, we have seen the emergence of a kind of ‘opinion economy’, in which competing providers vie for readers’ attention (and the advertising revenue that follows it) by offering ever-stronger doses of opinionated prose. The claim that ‘bad news sells’ may be somewhat outdated: today, it is strong opinions that sell.
Certainly, such opinion columnists seem to have proliferated in recent years, and many have attained the status of celebrities. There are numerous examples in the British popular press: Tony Parsons, Kelvin Mackenzie, Katie Hopkins, Piers Morgan, Rod Liddle, Richard Littlejohn, Melanie Phillips… Without exception, all of them are virulently right-wing. Of course, we might think that liberal-minded, ‘quality’ newspapers don’t do this sort of thing – but of course they do. In the newspapers I read, I am irritated on a regular weekly basis by the insistently strong opinions of the likes of Nick Cohen, Suzanne Moore, Barbara Ellen, Polly Toynbee, and several others.
These writers are members of what is sometimes called ‘the commentariat’. They are hired to generate content, typically in the form of several hundred words of opinions every week – and the stronger their opinions are, it would seem, the better. There is little space here for balance, nuance or speculation. In general, such columns are not based on journalistic research of any kind; and their writers are mostly not experts or specialists in any particular field. They are simply writers with strong personal opinions, who are considered qualified to comment on just about any issue that catches their attention. They are aptly parodied in the satirical magazine Private Eye, with their regular columnists Phil Space and Philippa Column.
There is a kind of continuum between the 500-word opinionated rants of these newspaper writers and the 140-character bursts of vitriol that can be found on Twitter. Indeed, many of these writers also broadcast their opinions on Twitter, thereby driving readers to their columns online and simultaneously generating advertising revenue. What’s required here is clickbait: sensational assertions are much more effective than accuracy or thoughtful discussion. Once readers arrive at the newspaper sites, they are further encouraged to comment ‘below the line’, adding to what often seems like a torrent of opinion – and which often seems to fan the flames of debate even further. While columnists themselves are sometimes encouraged to respond, they rarely do so.
Advocates of journalism have traditionally pointed to its role as a ‘fourth estate’ – an independent forum that holds the powerful to account. Others have argued that the press plays a major role in the modern ‘public sphere’, in which citizens come together to engage in rational debate about the issues of the day. For some enthusiasts, the internet is now the ‘networked fourth estate’, or a ‘virtual public sphere’, in which democratic political communication will thrive. Reading below the line on newspaper websites, or following some of the Twitter feeds of noted columnists, it is very hard to share such optimism.
Of course, there’s an irony here. I am blogging about this issue, and the blog is perhaps the ultimate medium of the highly opinionated. As a kind-of academic, I like to believe that this blog is a little more considered than some. But perhaps not. As the saying goes: opinions are like arseholes: everyone’s got one, and most of them stink.