All the President’s Men is a wonderful film. The story of how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two reporters from The Washington Post, pieced together the jigsaw puzzle linking the Nixon administration to Watergate is fascinating. Both of them had almost nothing to go on, except a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. Their relentless digging for information from library cards, phone calls and visits to unknown people’s homes has the feel of an edge-of-the-seat thriller.
Yet this Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman starrer is actually just the story of a good piece of journalistic work. What is admirable? One, the drive those guys had and the efficiency with which they worked without the tools that modern journalists take for granted — mobile phones, computers and the internet, none of which were around in the early 1970s when the Watergate scandal broke.
Two, the fact that their editor backed them. And though the film doesn’t say so, clearly (the late) Katharine Graham, owner of The Washington Post, must have withstood a lot of political and financial pressure to let the story be. This “standing behind” included giving the story the time and money it needed. It eventually led to the indictment of 40 White House and administration officials and the resignation of the then president Richard Nixon.
As we hurtle towards a future where good research and writing are the exception rather than the rule, where anything you read is “content” and “content is free”, this old-fashioned film about old-fashioned journalism is a good way to ask some critical questions. If advertisers and readers don’t want to pay for content, if media owners don’t want to invest in it and, therefore, editors stop caring about what comes out of their stable, who is to blame? And should we, then, complain about falling standards in journalism? Note: this column refers only to newspapers.
Think of it this way. If it takes 500 people to run an airport and that number is reduced to half, chances are the airport is neither efficient nor safe. That is true for newspapers too. If you need 300 people to bring out a daily, then cutting it to 280 is all right. But bringing it to 200 or 150 is killing it. And that is what is happening across the developed world as readers move online, but revenues don’t.
“The State of the News Media 2012”, the Pew Research Centre’s annual report on the state of American journalism, is one of the best pieces of research on the linkages between the business of newspapers and its impact on journalism. It states that over the last decade total newspaper revenues in the United States have fallen from a high of $58 billion in 2000 to about $34 billion in 2011. This includes advertising on newspaper websites ($1.2 billion) and circulation revenues, which are stagnant at about $10 billion.
Newspapers have been forced to cut costs of everything including content. So foreign bureaux have shut, reporters are multitasking — and so are editors. More than 28 per cent of the staff at newspapers were let go over a decade. In 2011 the report quoted media economist Robert Picard as saying that wage levels, beyond the top tier of organisations, are falling and will continue to fall and that a gradual “de-skilling” of journalism is in progress.
Much of this, then, takes its toll on the quality of journalism. A Lehman story can only be broken by at least six good financial reporters sniffing around at data for months. That kind of skill may exist, but newspapers don’t have the money or time for it. So a Lehman just creeps up on us. We never hear about it beforehand. There are dozens of stories like these – the Watergates of our time – that never get broken or even sniffed at because newspapers do not have the money to hire skilled people and give them enough time to do their research.
Also, the era of newspaper barons who stood behind their reporters is over. Many of the papers in the US are now owned by private equity funds or by rich businessmen who like the idea of bailing out a famous brand. Most demand cost-cutting, a return to profitability and an editorial stance that is pro-business.
Closer home, Indian newspapers, which are largely very profitable, spend appallingly little on building expertise, training at various levels or top-notch research. So while American papers took a decade to start spiralling downwards, Indian papers will do it in less than two years once the Net hits us as badly.
As the era of good-quality, research-based journalism ends and that of “commoditised content” begins, it is nice to indulge in the nostalgia that All the President’s Men invokes. Sigh.