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Why cannabis couldn’t save The Independent

Why cannabis couldn’t save The Independent

February 18, 2016

Some say that the death of The Independent newspaper is a national tragedy. A pillar that propped up our democracy, felled by the now-trending ephemera of the internet.

But I beg to differ. The fact is The Independent deserved to die, because it didn’t have a good enough reason to live.

Far from being a thundering bastion of British free speech, with an integrity hewn from centuries of skirmish with authority, it was actually launched just 30 years ago by a bunch of disgruntled journalists from The Daily Telegraph.

The problem with The Independent is that there wasn’t really any point in it. Like the Liberal Democrats, on paper it was fresh and uncontaminated and looked like a good idea – but in reality nobody really understood what it was there for.

It started in 1986 with the noble cause of actually being independent, when most national papers had political allegiance.

But through a sequence of 11 editors and four owners, it lost its plot and filled the vacuum by dabbling in a diverse spectrum of worthy causes, from legalising cannabis to saving elephants. It also lost its readers.

True, it once managed to sell 400,000 copies. But the novelty wore off and as it headed over a cliff earlier this month, only 40,000 people in the whole UK were prepared to pay the price of half a lager for it.

So what difference does all this make to internal communication?

The fact is that while the demise of The Independent is small fry in itself, it does reflect a trend which has major repercussions for all of us: The demise of journalism.

As recently as the noughties, Britain’s media employed tens of thousands of professional journalists and trained thousands of new ones every year.

The internet has changed all that. The ghost of our regional newspaper industry now largely relies for its content on press releases and citizen journalists, their words woven around clickbait.

And the national press is not far behind.

Even at the taxpayer-funded BBC, a news item involving a string of celebrity Twitter feeds gets preference over an incisive and impartial analysis of the facts.

For internal communication, clickbait news is bad news. Not least because IC often treads a hazardous route through a minefield of sensitivity.

It has complex, and often highly charged and delicate messages to share – and that is a skill that few citizen journalists have mastered.

Journalism is a skill. It takes three years to qualify – but importantly, many more years or experience in the frontline to master.

As a trainee journalist I learned shorthand, and the law of libel. And how to construct articles that made sense – and how government and business and public bodies worked.

But then I was unleashed on the streets and the learning really began.

Police, thieves, drugs, death, celebrity, celebration, sex, squalor, race, royalty, redundancy, courts, councils, accidents, acquisitions … all human life was there.

Why does this matter?

Because this is the learning that a journalist goes through – and it equips them not just to bash out a few coherent words, but to understand the nuances and sensitivities of a community.

It equips them to ask the questions that people want to be asked; not to be shocked or surprised but to see things in context and from a different perspective; to present information in a way that is truly relevant, incisive and analytical, that strikes a chord with its audience.

Journalism is much, much more than stringing together a few Twitter feeds and sticking in clickbait for good measure on Google Analytics.

And without journalism, IC risks being little more than well meaning but shallow propaganda – that is neither relevant nor does the job.

With the demise of traditional media we are experiencing a national shortage of real journalists.

The number active in the UK has fallen by 10 per cent – 6,000 – since 2013, and the death of The Independent means another 100 jobs will go.

Peter Doherty
Peter Doherty

But the good news is that we are not doomed. Life is merely evolving.

As the world gets smaller and more complicated, people are increasingly focused on the things closer to home – where they feel impact and influence. For many people, the democracy and engagement that really matter are not in Parliament or on the national news, but at work.

IC underpins this new democracy.

And it must rise to the challenge and take its responsibility seriously.

Part of this must be to recognise the power and importance of the properly written, or spoken, word.

It must fill the vacuum left by the death throes of traditional media, and train its own journalists: not as corporate copywriters, but as impartial professional observers, free to be incisive and analytical, whose insight is valued.

Because in a world increasingly choked by an infinite volume of choice and opportunity, one fact is rapidly emerging: Clear, reliable and relevant information is, as it always has been, king.