First, let me be clear: I am not leaving the stage. I will still be writing as a freelance for those newspapers, of which I am extremely fond. Ever since I joined Andrew Neil’s Sunday Times in 1989, I’ve been captivated by the process of story-getting, informing and entertaining, and making a valuable contribution.
Andrew once said to me, then a wet-behind-the-ears cub reporter: "If you remember one lesson, it is that no-one, and I mean no-one, is indispensable."
How true he was as, in that period, I’ve witnessed what must be thousands of journalists depart their titles. Yet, except in two respects, there has been no discernible drop in quality. Content, whether it is in print or on digital, is as vital as it ever was. But, as cost-cutting has taken hold, two areas have suffered.
One is time – reporters do not have the days, weeks, months any more to develop contacts, to dig, to worry at a subject. On the insight team at The Sunday Times, we would spend two months, easily, on one story. I recall Andrew, again, asking me to reconstruct how the poll tax came to be law – a project that involved about 100 interviews, of serving and former cabinet ministers and their advisors, senior civil servants and think-tank experts.
That sort of mammoth, detailed retelling is rarely done today. Throw in the risk factor with many investigations – the possibility that all that effort and expense will come to nought as the story ultimately collapses, or it could result in a costly legal action – and the die is cast: investigative reporting has become a luxury rather than a necessity.
'Content is as vital as it ever was. But, as cost-cutting has taken hold, two areas have suffered: time and breadth'
The other is breadth. Most newspapers do an excellent job of covering the domestic waterfront as seen in London. But, regionally and internationally, they’ve retrenched. Local editions have virtually vanished; foreign bureaux are restricted to a handful of cities, with correspondents frequently expected to cover entire continents, let alone countries.
Ask a member of the public about my chosen profession and inevitably the subject of booze will rear its head. Incredibly, journalism, even today, can attract a higher premium for insuring a car. It’s to do with "lifestyle", apparently. This does not fit the picture of those spending hours and hours filing copy for print and web today.
But the spirit, the camaraderie, the razor-sharp – often black – humour live on, despite the strictures of Lord Leveson. Now, there was a man who had little appreciation for what I am talking about.
Chris Blackhurst is the former multimedia head of business at The Independent and London Evening Standard