Peter Oborne quits the Telegraph. He accuses them of bad things. He says they pander to advertisers, drop stories and run populist headlines. Everyone who cares says 'wow!' and the Telegraph gets a kicking on Twitter. That's the upshot of the story. But even if the Telegraph did do all these things, why was Oborne so surprised and shocked?
Over the last 10 years, newspapers have literally been fighting for their own survival. And when it's you or the other guy that's going to fill the single slot at the pearly gates (should you believe in these things) then you're going to do absolutely everything to make sure it's not you.
To put this in context, it's worth reminding ourselves that back in the pre-internet days, the only way to get news to your readers was to print the words on actual paper - yes, real paper, how quaint! However, this world no longer exists. The Internet killed home newspaper deliveries, supermarkets killed the traditional non-food newsagents, rolling TV news killed off what was left and Twitter is now a primary news outlet.
We stopped wanting the paper delivered because we could get all our news online or on TV and once smartphones and tablets were invented, why bother with the printed version when we can read the news on the train to work on our phone - or just enjoy a few hours of peace once a day in a life that's now dominated by shock-horror breaking news.
Today's media world is no longer over-stuffed leather sofas, gentleman's clubs or even smoky old dives in Soho. It's fast, vicious and highly developed. News is gathered via email, Twitter and the odd 1-2-1 meeting in corporate offices or boutique restaurants. Hardly anyone ever uses their shorthand skills and no one gets newsprint on their fingers anymore.
Online editions of newspapers are not constrained by size - or, to an extent, money. The cost of printing a newspaper is huge but the cost of publishing online can be, effectively, zero. So suddenly, there's as much space as you can fill at nil cost - and this space has to be filled, even if there's no real story. It's a news conveyor belt producing both top-quality stories, and total crap.
Papers like the Telegraph came late to this global online party. Along with most of their peers, it took them quite a while to react to what was actually happening out there. I think we have the impression that the media is quick to see competitive advance and agile enough to evolve quickly. But this is just not true. UK newspapers are institutions mired in tradition. They're like oil tankers with a massive turning circle. And that's an analogy that can be applied to many senior journalists too!
I know a great many journalists from UK newspapers and global news outlets. They're incredibly busy people who, in very many cases, lead extremely stressful, pressured lives. For journalists there's not a lot of time to sit around thinking about the bigger picture. And that's probably the reason why Peter Oborne didn't see what everyone else spotted at least five or six years ago.
I admire Peter Oborne a great deal. I've met him a few times when we've both done 'talking head' type punditry on shows like Jeremy Vine. Really nice guy, but perhaps more importantly, he is a very fine journalist indeed - one of the very best. However, in his article announcing his resignation, Oborne says a number of things that are just a tad naïve. The one that really did make me want to say 'bless' and give him a hug was his description of a story about a woman with three breasts: 'Stories seemed no longer judged by their importance, accuracy or appeal to those who actually bought the paper. The more important measure appeared to be the number of online visits. [...] I have no doubt [the breast story] was published in order to generate online traffic, at which it may have succeeded. I am not saying that online traffic is unimportant, but over the long term, however, such episodes inflict incalculable damage on the reputation of the paper'.
Yes folks. Peter Oborne has just discovered, now, in 2015, that newspapers run stories based on how many clicks they're going to get - not how important, accurate or newsworthy they are. Has he heard of the Daily Mail? If not he should go there sometimes. He doesn't have to read it (especially not the Sidebar of Shame), looking at the pictures would be enough. The Mail is the world's most visited online English-language newspaper. It had 199.4million unique monthly visitors in December 2014. It runs what you can politely call 'eye-catching' stories in a sharp format. And it's full of ads. Advertising is sold based on unique views these days - it's not sold on circulation. So, if you're an advertiser and you have the choice of the Telegraph or the Daily Mail - who are you going to choose? In this fight to the death, why is Oborne so surprised that the Telegraph, just like most of the rest of the press, is desperate to emulate the Mail's winning formula?
I'm not saying that what the Telegraph is doing is right. But is it entirely wrong when your paper is going down fast? Everyone has their own opinion. But let's all agree that the old ways are gone, never to return. Just to underline this, the Telegraph made sure they got the last word: as a parting shot, soon after Oborne resigned, they tweeted their following day's front page. Despite numerous international stories of great significance; death, destruction, war, Grexit etc., what was the big splash? 'Menopause symptoms like hot flushes can last 14 years'.