Lines of duty

Information is everywhere. But who are the journalists and editors deciding which stories make the headlines? And what do digital advances mean for the traditional press? Nonesuch asked Bristol alumni for their take on British journalism today, and their predictions for the future.

Dr Alison Smale (BA 1977, Hon LLD 2009) ‘the correspondent’

Dr Alison Smale is Berlin Bureau Chief for the New York Times, where she started as Weekend Foreign Editor in 1998. In 2009, following her appointment as the first female Executive Editor of the International Herald Tribune, she was described as ‘the most powerful British female journalist working outside of London’.

Dr Alison SmaleI specifically wanted a career in foreign correspondence – the chance to speak languages and get to know different cultures – in what was a pre-digital age with almost no hint of today’s possibilities of communication. I wanted to be the eyes and ears of readers not fortunate enough to travel the world and report on what they found.

I have been lucky to have witnessed some very important events: the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when I crossed from East to West Berlin with the first East German citizen to come across Checkpoint Charlie; the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor in 1986; the tragic wars of the Balkans in the 1990s; 9/11 in New York City; the exciting expansion eastwards of the European Union that culminated in the Euro crisis; the effects of the 2008 global banking collapse. If I achieved something in explaining those events to many readers or viewers, I would consider that to be a justification for choosing journalism.

Journalists find stories. These usually depend on human beings behaving in ways that are unusual, wrong, funny, hugely influential, or politically, economically, socially or culturally significant. Every day, you look for the story you might tell your friend or family member, and you look for how to do that in a way that informs but also entertains, or a way that makes people laugh, cry and think.

Your responsibility to your audience is to find such stories and, above all, to tell or show the truth – in so far as the latter can be determined. Sometimes it’s just as important to make sure the reader understands what you don’t know, as to show what you consider you do.

Journalists have always looked for new means to spread their stories. In the digital world, that spells constant change, because technology is developing so fast. Today, we can involve and engage millions more people in constructing and appreciating those stories.

Will Hutton (BSc 1972, Hon LLD 2003) ‘the pundit’

Will Hutton began his career as an investment analyst, before joining the BBC as an economics correspondent in 1978. He spent four years as Editor-in-Chief of The Observer, for whom he continues to write regularly. He is now Principal of Hertford College, Oxford University.

Will HuttonIf I’m honest, I chose journalism because I wanted to make opinion-formers, and the British public, aware of how deeply destructive our financial system was. I was (and still am) a zealot about changing it.

In 1978, when I first started on Financial World Tonight, there was more seriousness of intent, and more attempt to separate news and comment. Broadsheets were more influential, but then newspaper circulation was probably twice as high as it is now. There was just more written word to be read. I can see continuity as well as difference today. British journalism has always had a readiness to make trouble, a willingness to debate, and a glorious desire to entertain and inform.

Information is power, and you have to get as much information into the public domain as possible. It’s not enough for a journalist to get news; they need to impart that news in a way that’s understandable and useful.

Journalism is about holding truth to power. But in Britain, it’s housed in a very ideological framework. The vast bulk of the press is incredibly centre right. Their choice of story, and how they present information, makes the British public think in certain ways. And in that sense, it’s actually rather sinister. I’ve no doubt that anti-European sentiment, and distrust of public expenditure and immigration, are all higher because of journalism – but journalism that’s concerned with influencing thought, rather than imparting information.

Fantastic work goes on at universities, and academics are starting to make their research more user-friendly. But newspapers don’t have the money to support journalists like they used to – they have fewer staff, with less time to read research. Public debate is circumscribed thereby. I believe academia should be hard-wired into the media, and that people, like me, should do our best to help that process.

Digital is the future. It’s going to be all about apps, mobiles and tablets. I’m not sorry about that, but I do worry that information will become more siloed. If you go online and only see information that confirms your existing prejudices, you’ll rarely be challenged. That’s problematic. One of the great things about newspapers is coming across the unexpected.

When I started as a journalist, the internet wasn’t invented, and the mobile phone didn’t exist. You can be certain that in the next 30 years, we’ll see new platforms for amazing journalism emerge. Human beings want it. Democracies need it. We’ll find a way.

Krissi Murison (BA 2003) ‘the editor’

Former Epigram Music Editor, Krissi Murison, joined NME as Staff Writer in 2003. Six years later, she became the first female editor in the magazine’s 57-year history. In 2012, she moved to the Sunday Times Magazine where she is now Associate Editor.

Krissi MurisonI’ve heard journalism described as ‘writing the first draft of history’. I’d certainly apply that to some of my colleagues who are doing extraordinarily important work, from exposing Britain’s modern-day slavery rings, to reporting direct from civil war-torn countries. As their commissioning editor, I like to bask in that grandeur too!

Deciding what stories to cover is usually as simple as asking the question: does it spark my interest? If I read or overhear something that makes me want to find out more, the chances are I’m not alone. Others will be curious too.

A journalist’s responsibilities to the reader are to inform, to entertain, to grip, to surprise and to make damn well sure you’re accurate.

When I started on magazines, digital publishing was a complete afterthought. The online team (for ‘team’, read ‘individual’ in most cases) was usually relegated to the furthest end of the office, and systematically ignored. Once it was clear there might be a future in the internet, most magazines ran around like headless chickens for a few years, trying to make their pages look more like websites. They were simultaneously throwing all their content away for free online, then wondering why physical sales were going down. Now the dust is settling and we’re beginning to see how to make it work. The Sunday Times’ online subscription model was controversial when it was first introduced, but it’s definitely working: our paid-for circulation – print combined with digital – is now stable. It won’t be long before it‘s rising again.

People are coming to accept that great content has to be paid for. For me, subscription models are clearly the future. Anyone looking for trusted, in-depth journalism will sign up to their preferred media outlet, in the same way I already do with Spotify for my music and Netflix for my box sets.

There’ll always be an audience for quality journalism, regardless of the medium (paper, iPad, website, phone app or something that hasn’t been invented yet). The basics – world-class words, photos, opinions and information – will never change, only the way people access them.

Alastair Stewart OBE (Hon LLD 2008) ‘the broadcaster’

Alastair Stewart was offered a job after a chance appearance on Southern ITV while Deputy President of the National Union of Students. He joined ITN as Industrial Correspondent in 1980, and is the longest-serving newsreader on British television.

Alastair StewartAt its heart, ‘journalism’ is what the French root of the word (de jour) implies: what happened today? In TV and radio, the role of journalism is to provide facts. You then invite the viewers or listeners to make their own minds up.

Impartiality is a challenge. But it’s a limitation I cherish and one I think is at the heart of our liberal, pluralist democracy. Bad societies have bad, biased media. Good societies elevate honesty and balance in journalism.

Factoring out emotion matters. At the Beslan siege and bombing, off camera, I was weeping. On camera, I was stoic. It’s not for me to lead you in an emotional response – it’s for me to give you the facts.

Social media has transformed the entire landscape. From gossip to vital tip-offs, it’s changed the way we engage with the facts, our contacts, our competitors, our colleagues and, of course, the public. It’s a ‘heads-up’ – the ‘jungle drums’ of a medium one cannot afford to ignore.

Choosing which stories to cover is a huge and difficult responsibility. It’s a collective process – from the editor down. The stories we choose are those that surprise, shock and provoke. By definition, ‘news’ is the novel, the unexpected – it is ‘new’. There is service information too, but the beating heart of news is the story that prompts a response between ‘I didn’t know that’ and ‘OMG’ (as they say on social media).

There is a risk of a period in the doldrums for newspapers as they work out what they must do to stay alive. We need to think about how megaliths like the BBC influence local media, their websites and social media.

Newspapers are second cousins these days to TV and radio, especially ‘rolling news’. I think ‘appointment-to-view bulletins’, like ITV’s 6.30 pm offer, have good prospects. People still like honest, balanced reporting that has been well considered before transmission.

It’s a precarious time for all of us when everything you need is on the internet. Like the classic Eric Morecambe sketch featuring Grieg’s piano concerto – we’re ‘playing all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order’.


Read more

Hear from two other media influencers - Isabel Oakeshott (BA 1996), political commentator, and Darren McCaffrey (BSc 2007), Reporter, Sky News - and find out about other Bristol graduates working in journalism.

Listen to audio version (mp3)

Back to Nonesuch Spring 2014