Byline Podcast Episode Two with Evan Davis
Nick Mutch (NM): Has what people want to hear in general changed with the advent of new media?
Evan Davis (ED): The problem is the word ‘people in general.’ There are specific people. There is a very big demand for feeding back to people information that has their worldview imprinted on it. That is a huge and valuable market. I think it’s a logical outcome of the existence of a lot more available material. People say I want to select the material that tells me what to think, but I want it in my worldview. I’m left wing, I’m right wing, a nationalist, a globalist, I can be anything, but I want to find the version of world news that is written by people who share my outlook. That is what most people are going to do, they are going to set up a blog with a particular view; it could be about gay issues, it could be about animal rights, it could be about Manchester United, and they will sell it on the basis that there is a niche of people out there, maybe a really big niche.
NM: Pretend that you, like our journalists, had to pitch your journalistic work to an audience that would decide whether to crowd-fund you. How would you do it?
My personal pitch, if I was making one would be to people who say ‘I’m curious, and I want something where we are struggling to take out the attitude as much as possible. It is really hard because we all know there is no such thing as news without attitude, no such thing as news without values, because we know
that the selection of the stories, the selection of facts in the stories, the place where you get those facts from obviously has to come from some sense of values, some sense of what people want. But I suppose there is a difference between the kind of more open-minded journalism where you say 'hang on, what is the story here, how should we interpret the facts and the available data. What is the most logical or simple or straightforward way of accounting for what we observe', from the journalism that says ‘how do I get these facts to fit my world view.’ I’d like to be selling what we (the BBC) do is, we don’t start with the viewpoint, we try our best, and sometimes succeed, to say, what is the most logical, simple straightforward way of interpreting what we see. My pitch would be ‘if you are tired of the cacophony of people who have already made up their minds about everything and you want to hear from a journalist who hasn’t made up their mind, then come to my site, which happens to be Newsnight. Now I will be slammed for saying that Nick, they’ll say ‘you’ve always made up your mind, you’re a neoliberal, you’re a pro-Palestinian, a pro-Israeli, you’re a lackey of the establishment, all those things but I really do believe that we do try out best to being open minded. That’s not true of everybody. I read a lot of great publications where it is clear whoever is writing is not open minded, and there is a place for that, but we don’t want everywhere to be like that.
NM: Do you have any good tips or tricks for doing good political interviews when politicians always have pre-prepared answers?
ED: If I did I would use them so I obviously haven’t gotten any! We actually rehearsed many of the interviews before the election. My colleague Ed Brown played Nick Clegg and another colleague played David Cameron and we would run through various questions and what was shockingly disarming was how good those people were when you compared what people said in rehearsal to what politicians’ answers to those questions actually were. It shows you are right that it is difficult to do an interesting political interview as you most what the politician is going to say. There isn’t a trick. There are things interviewers do to knock them off the pedestal or disarm or ask their questions in a more interesting way, but in the arms race between politicians and political interviewers, the politicians have got better defences as the interviewers have better attack techniques. The only thing I think is that you should ask interesting questions to which they don’t already have prepared answers. I actually don’t think I did enough of that in the pre-election interviews. We did some of it, but we didn’t, I didn’t, do enough. I’ll give you an example of what I mean; I did an interview with Cameron in which I asked him whether there was such a thing as the ‘undeserving rich’ whether he ever gets angry at rich people who underpay their workers or don’t pay their taxes or just inherited their money and have decadent lifestyles. That was an interesting conversation, and he didn’t have a prepared answer for it like he did on welfare cuts or various other things. You saw him answering a question.
NM: What style of interviewing do you most admire?
ED: I do admire interviewers in different styles. I think that Eddie Mair is brilliant, everything he does is brilliant. David Frost was very good actually. Personally, I’m always pitched against the more adversarial types, the Paxman’s, the Humphrys’. On a good day, Paxman and Humphrys do brilliant interviews, no problem with those. What strikes me, as the person I would cite as having a big effect for me is Brian Walden, who was a Labour MP who was an interviewer on Weekend World. It was very forensic and very intelligent. What Walden would do, which I do quite like as a kind of interview style is that he would set out a thesis and then confront the politician with a thesis. It was less about asking politicians questions and more about asking ‘this is your problem, this is how the world is moving, how will you cope with that.’ That is very structured journalism, even if the politician didn’t accept the thesis or didn’t answer the question, you still had the thesis. It was a mix of interview and explanation and I like that. Interviews, the viewer should pick up something from the questions and the preamble rather than just giving one-line questions to a politician.
NM: Do you think there is an issue with this sort of adversarial style that attempts to get politicians to effectively just say stupid things?
ED: That particular thing has been overdone and it is worn out. It's been overdone because it's not really a public service to try and trip someone into a gaffe or get them to say something which they really think in order to then blow it up into something which isn’t really what they meant… I don’t think that’s a public service. I don’t think ‘getting the scalp’ is a great public service, but I think that whole approach is worn out. Our cynicism with politicians has gone too far, and we’re in a remarkable situation where politicians seem much more impressive in private than in public, and I don’t know how we’ve managed to get to that position. It's weird that when you have a private conversation you come out more impressed than in public.
It was a style has a particular use at a particular time; I think that style was fresh once and it has just become less interesting as everyone seen it more and more used. It’s just made an arms race where politicians become more defensive and instead of making gaffes they just sound obfuscatory and boring.
NM: You said earlier you had been described as a neoliberal. What do you think the balance is between journalism as a public service and as a profit making industry?
ED: Look there are horses for courses here. I just want a mixed economy, its useful have for profit makers; they have to be honest and play by the rules, but they have to play within certain constraints. Most of them do, they have brand names to protect and reputations that serve and if you lie too many times then people aren’t going to buy your paper. I don’t think it does any harm at all to have alternatives; charitable organisations like the Guardian, publicly financed organisations like the BBC who can maybe do things the profit-making sector wouldn’t do. All these different institutional types keep each other on their toes. The profit makers have a keener eye for the tastes of their customers, if you didn’t have any profit makers out there and you only had people like the BBC, it would be likely that we would drift away from what audiences want and be doing what we want to supply. The profit makers role is connecting journalists to demand If you only have profit makers out there you can have a bit of a race to the bottom where everyone is just going for stories that hit the most watched, most read category and a society can lose its bearings about what is really important. It’s crucial that journalists also think about what is important even if not as many people are reading it. The mixed economy is the best thing.
NM: There are two interesting schools of thought on the way the Internet has changed journalism. One is that it that no one should ever go into it anymore, it is a dying industry and you’ll never make any money. Another says that there has never been as good a time to get into it and establish an individual reputation. What are your thoughts?
ED: Both are true. The way technology and globalisation has moved in lots of professions is that the returns for being a star, if you’re really really good, your stuff can be distributed more cheaply and more widely it is possible to monetize this and you can become very rich. David Beckham, for instance, is much richer than his equivalent 40 years ago as is Tom Daley or JK Rowling. If you are able to sell books in China or football matches in Malaysia you can make a lot of money. There is certainly more opportunity to be a big player. It is also easier to enter and be some kind of journalist, to produce blogs, be independent or join up with a few friends to produce a site and produce content. It is easier to be a journalist, and also to be a huge player.
Where it has changed is in the middle layer, for instance getting a job at a newspaper and a job that is secure, you're not a superstar but you have a good job that allows you to buy a nice house with a garden and think about a pension. That job has gotten much harder because that layer of the industry is struggling quite hard against competition from blogs, Facebook and user generated content, the public who can tell their own stories. If you are going to be the best in the world, these are great days for you, much better than before. Same if you don’t care much about the money you just want to write. But if you wanted a solid career that would get you through to retirement, things will be much tougher.
If you want to be a superstar, you start writing and getting stuff out there. You’ll quickly get information back in whether people are interested in what you have to say. Here is my career advice; there isn’t a proper route you should take. Your role, starting out, is to find out whether you are going to make it. It is an information search where you want to find out if you can do it. The only way to get feedback that it’s a productive route is to start on it. Then do another one and keep going on the path as long as it seems rewarding. Take the career of Owen Jones who isn’t that much older than you! He has exploded into being one of the three or four names of left-wing thought in the country. He wrote a book, which anyone can do these days if you scrape together enough money for some cheap rent and a word processor. It was apparently a very good book, people liked it, the next book presumably he got paid a lot more for. He blogged, tweeted, people liked what he has to say and soon enough he’s got a job on the Guardian, he is a huge name and invited to speak everywhere. I don’t think he drives a Rolls Royce, but he can certainly make a decent living. That was a journey where he was discovering every step of the way for what he was saying, every step along that path justifies the next. But at every stage have a plan B for if it stops working.
NM: What about the argument-people say it about people who win the Nobel Prize in literature- that once you are a huge established name, you never do your best work again?
ED: Yes well that’s called regression to the mean. It says ‘if we take 100 people who write stuff, some are going to write something brilliant, some are going to write something mediocre. It might be that they might be brilliant, or they might have just had a great stroke of luck and had one good idea. If you ask those 100 people to write something else, the good ones aren’t going to be as lucky as before. But that is normal; I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. You want to make sure the people who are flourishing are the ones who have something interesting to say.
By and large, the market works. If you look at the people who get read and kept getting read the ones who survive are usually the ones who have something interesting to say.
NM: You seem much more optimistic than most journalists; not just about the profession, but also about the way society works in general.
ED: I’m aware that there are dysfunctions in the market, and that this is an incredibly turbulent time believes me no one in the BBC is under any illusions as we get year after year of slicing out money and finding fewer people to do the same job. It has been disrupted, very heavily disrupted. There are dysfunctions with a system of journalism built in a world of social media and we know what those dysfunctions are, people rushing to judgement about things without reading anything about them, feedback loops where the same inaccurate things are howled around as if they are true, hysteria, mob rule, excessive emphasis on clickbait, the polarisation of sources, right wing people only reading right wing bloggers, same on the left so people can't even agree on the tenants of debate; believe me there is a LOT wrong. But the truth is there is an explosion of information, there is a huge amount of holding to account, a huge variety of viewpoints for people to say stuff; I’m often impressed by what comes out in non-traditional journalistic sources. It is not a nice road to sunlit uplands, but it is what it is and I don’t think it is fair to say that society is losing a lively public sphere of debate, fact and reporting. But there are dysfunctions, but there were dysfunctions in the old model.
ED: If you want to read about the old model, read Scoop, the old Evelyn Waugh novel, which is a satire on it. There was a lot of bullshit in the old model, there is a lot in the new; we’ve all done our fair share of bullshit. But I will be confident that we are not in a dark place if we have a thriving eco-system of models of different journalists aiming to do different things. If it were just big proprietor newspapers I would worry. If it were just the Guardian burning through its endowment I would worry. If it were just the BBC I would worry. It is got to be a lot of different things out there, and at the moment we have that. Actually on my radio program, the bottom line, we had a program on the newspaper industry where we spoke to three business managers, people who are executives, not editors. They were from the Financial Times, which is just a brilliant product that has managed to move to monetize digital more successfully than the others, from the Guardian and from local papers. They all felt deep down that while the newspaper is in trouble, journalism isn’t.
NM: So have we reached a stage where we are we past the worst of the disruption then?
ED: When I stand on the station and I’m waiting for a train, and I don’t know when the train is going to arrive, it feels bad and the wait feels very long, that’s because you don’t know when it will arrive. When they say its seven minutes, suddenly that seven minutes goes quite quickly. At the moment, we’re in a position where no one quite knows when we’ll arrive, or where we are going to arrive and that makes it feel more disruptive and traumatic. I can see what it feels very dark, but I do tend to the view… I just see quite a vibrant public sphere that isn’t going away.
We’re curious what you think of Byline’s model. Pretend you are back in Dragons Den; what do you think of a model based on the assumptions that people are going to be willing to crowd fund quality journalism based on a particular writer whose work they admire and want to support.
There is so much wrapped up in that and it is so interesting. One is the really important question of ‘where is the branding going to come in the new industry.’ Is it going to come from a newspaper such as the Guardian, the Daily Mail or from the individual writer? What the brand is doing is giving information about what you can expect to find underneath it. Those brands really do tell you what you are going to find. Where is the branding going to lie; is it going to lie in the name Nick Mutch or is it going to be in the name the Guardian or Byline. I’m slightly sceptical Nick that, bar the superstars, that the branding will be in the name of the journalist, but I could be wrong. I think there will be a few too many journalists for me to remember their names, although there are a good few and I might be wrong.
What I’m not sceptical about is that people will pay. They won’t pay if someone is producing a free alternative, and they kind of won't pay if it means spending four minutes putting in name, address, credit card details, 3-digit CVC code, waiting for an email that you confirm with. But if you can avoid all that, and have a system where people can pay quickly with a click, like on Amazon or iTunes, then I don’t think people will resist paying.
I think there is a demand for quality, there are niches of people out there who want to read that stuff, and there are people who will pay. I cite the Financial Times as the model; it is just worth paying for. The most interesting development in media is that 20 years ago we all said “US TV is the worst TV in the world” but then technology changed with cable and it became possible to charge people for cable and possible to charge people subscription fees and thus became possible to offer people a higher quality at a higher price. What came along? HBO and you have to say that American dramas now from the Wire to the West Wing to the Sopranos, these are just the best dramas in the world. As soon as the chance came for people to pay, unlike in the advertising model people said ‘if you can pay, we will do it.’ People will pay for quality.