Britain’s got journalistic talent

New media might extend the reach and speed of traditional media’s offer, but there’s no substitute for old-style content creation

It’s been a fortnight of extraordinary success for the most traditional of “old” media. First, The Telegraph has reminded the whole of the ailing national newspaper sector about its roots in investigative journalism.

The scandal over MPs’ expenses has the heady cocktail of a detailed scoop – exclusivity, material for a daily drip feed of revelations and political scalps. On a parochial level, this has transformed The Telegraph’s business; in the midst of biting recession, sales have been up by 1 million copies since the story broke. On a political level, the story has also transformed the political landscape, with New Labour polling behind UKIP in the European elections, several MPs and cabinet ministers choosing to stand down (or be reshuffled) and the Speaker forced from office for the first time in over 300 years. Truly exciting stuff.

All this from pure investigative journalism, skilfully edited. Trawling through four years’ of expenses for more than 600 MPs to find the killer stories has required the patience and diligence of journalism at its best. Editing those stories to keep the pot boiling, counter accusations of political bias and find the killer headlines – from duck house to dog house – has showcased brilliant editorial judgement.

Meanwhile, over on ITV, a truly extraordinary estimate of 19.2 million viewers saw the final of Britain’s Got Talent. That’s close to 20 times the entire worldwide registered user base (on one night alone) for trendy new website Spotify. Quite a number to get the Twitterers tweeting. The personal stories behind Shaheen, Diversity and Hollie have filled our newspapers, TV chat shows and live radio programmes for the past fortnight. Great telly with the marginal cost of a £100,000 first prize.

Trawling through four years’ of expenses for more than 600 MPs to find the killer stories has required the patience and diligence of journalism at its best. Editing those stories to keep the pot boiling, counter accusations of political bias and find the killer headlines – from duck house to dog house – has showcased brilliant editorial judgement.

All this from a traditional Saturday night family talent show format, again skilfully edited, with great judges whose eye for a good story matches that of a Telegraph reporter. It requires real skill to edit so many nationwide auditions to find stories like that of Susan Boyle (pictured), leading to her audition being viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube. Editing the final week’s shows to build interest and excitement for the final show demonstrates a flair for family entertainment.

Both these stories have been embellished and enhanced by the internet – fuelling the scandal about expenses and the surge of interest in Susan Boyle. Indeed, both The Telegraph and ITV have fed small titbits of their stories online before exploiting them in broadcast or broadsheet form the next day. But they have at their heart roots in the craft skills of old media. It takes time and effort to land these major stories – time all the more precious in the immediate 24-hour news culture of CNN, blogs and instant messaging. Yet this also demonstrates the failings of modern online news feeds to make the news. They may be fast at posting in cyberspace the story that “early bird catches worm”, but these instant news-stands don’t know where to look for the worms.

Come to think of it, all the major stories that shape our lives seem to start in old media – Andrew Gilligan on Radio 4’s Today programme first broke the story about how Tony Blair’s government had “sexed up” evidence of weapons of mass destruction to justify the Iraq war. The electorate’s love affair with New Labour changed from that moment (as did Greg Dyke’s career at the BBC). Gilligan again, this time in the Evening Standard, exposed the corruption at City Hall that foreshadowed the replacement of Ken Livingstone with Boris Johnson as Mayor of London. Robert Peston has made the BBC TV coverage of the breaking banking scandal the first point for news on the crisis, which started with TV news pictures of ordinary savers queuing around the block to withdraw deposits from Northern Rock.

This ability to dwell on slow burn pieces of investigative depth or ignite with high profile talent is at the heart of old media. It’s why the best of it will thrive in a world where aggregators and distributors scrabble for the privilege of distributing great offline content.

It’s also why the choice between new and old media is a false one; advertisers and media agencies that chase the latest distribution platform are more interested in the glorious technicolour of the rainbow, rather than the pot of content gold that is at the start of it and that sustains it. New media extends the reach and speed of old media’s offer; organising, in Google’s words, the information created elsewhere – but it’s the traditional media and entertainment makers – music, radio, TV, film and newspaper journalists – who create the content in the first place.

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