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The golden age of journalism

Idi Amin strode into the hotel foyer, his Stewart tartan swishing around large naked knees. An entourage of spivs and thugs accompanied him. Sarah, one of his doomed wives, followed a few steps behind. We filmed furiously, wallowing in the relative exclusivity of our access.

As a 19-year-old I had lived in Uganda doing Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), teaching on the remoter banks of the Nile. I had first met Amin years before, at a school boxing tournament that he’d refereed. Somehow I managed to revive the link.

This was 1975: there were no mobiles, no emails; and the trunk telephone system cost a fortune, was erratic, and often down for days. There was neither the hope nor the expectation of discussing the day’s filming with my news desk. And the fastest we could get a picture back to London was on a flight from Entebbe, of which there were a dwindling number.

Some would be tempted to call this the Golden Age of Journalism - an age when William Boot still scoured Africa for his scoop with more than enough time to do it. My foreign desk at ITN would dispatch me to East Africa for months at a time and expect two or three stories a week, which then ran four or five days after we shot them.

In those days, Idi Amin was hot news. He’d already expelled the Asian population; had exterminated many of his foes; and had continued to run a crazed neo-Imperial, Britain-hating regime that was never far from the headlines. But with no Sky, BBC News 24, CNN or Al Jazeera, the hunger for news about Amin could be sated no faster than we produced it.

Even in Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979, we were still “talking to London” by telex. We would pound the keys, punching holes in inch-wide paper tape that reincarnated itself into laboriously reassembled words in London. It was actually possible to hold a “live” conversation with the foreign editor by telex, but you’d sap a vast amount of time by doing so. At least in Tehran we had the option of getting our film processed and transmitted by Indian Ocean satellite - but as it would then be censored too, it was still better to ship it out.

In 1979, there was no search engine to retrieve information. I remember trying to clarify the role of the 12th Imam in the belief structure of Shia Islam, which dominated Iran’s daily street demonstrations. I managed a difficult interview with an academic at Tehran University that occupied a whole morning to get to, record and get back from. These days Google would have found me a relevant article in nanoseconds and I’d be on my way in three minutes.

So no, this was not the Golden Age - at least, not of journalism, although perhaps it was a kind of age of adventure (and of content) you would never see anywhere else. Everything you did was your own. You researched it, travelled it, reported it, recorded it, and sent it. There was very little any editor in London could do about it.

By 1985, it was all change. In Washington reporting on the catastrophic crash of the Challenger space shuttle - rendered the more searing for the presence of the first teacher, Christa McAuliffe, on board - we were on video and able to book one of two satellite paths across the Atlantic. Instant reporting was with us. The story broke at 5.10pm in London and we had it on the air at 5.45pm, together with an insert of rescue services mounting their search. Some in the world knew what a failure in the booster rocket’s “O rings” was before we did.

now is not the Golden Age of Journalism... we are on the threshold of it. As yet the human has not caught up with the technology it has invented: we are still wowed by the instantaneous whiz-bang of it all

Cast forward to the present. The digital revolution is with us and has empowered the editor in London. He or she can see the pictures coming in - from Reuters, AFP, CBS, Al Jazeera. It means the London news producers can get a sense of what the news is and design the story they want from their correspondent. Increasingly, correspondents are sent to “package” rather than find the story, and then pop up live on that night’s news. “CBS have a terrific shot of the fire belching out of the volcano’s mouth,” they might say, followed by the order - “I want you to cut that in.” And then, “There’s a great survivor - old lady in her nineties - cut in a bit of her too.” No good remonstrating that we have very different but equally telling stuff we have experienced ourselves.

So my job has changed. Where once I was one pair of eyes witnessing a story and sending my account back to London, I am now charged with retrieving the work of many pairs of eyes and putting together an apparently holistic account of an event. We call this “sausage machine telly”. In the competitive multiplatform age in which we live, this age will not last long. Why not? Because it is neither distinctive, nor is it particularly interesting.

A big problem with sausage machine telly is that it spawns sausage machine reporters. In too many instances, reporters are no longer easily distinguished from one another. The sausage system is not breeding or maturing new talent to take over the airwaves when we are gone.

So now is not the Golden Age of Journalism either. But I argue we are on the threshold of it. As yet the human has not caught up with the technology it has invented: we are still wowed by the instantaneous whiz-bang of it all. We in the newsroom know that to have a man live in Mogadishu is a stunning achievement. To the viewer it may not add much. For the reporter the sheer business of “going live” so preoccupies and undermines the journalistic endeavour, there is little time left to retrieve the unique content his or her pair of eyes should be giving us.

Welcome, then, to the coming Golden Age of Journalism. This is the multiplatform world in which, as we were told at the internet’s inception, “it is all about content, content, content”.

I encountered this new world twice in the last year, in Haiti - once in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, and once last November when I returned for Hurricane Tomas. Suddenly I was back to one pair of eyes. We were so cut off from one another on the ground that we could not share pictures. Everything I transmitted we researched, retrieved, shot, edited, and beamed back to London ourselves. Only the local satellite dishes worked, dependent on their own generators and fuel - the satellite paths to the outside world were almost the only elements the earthquake had not reached. News desks knew instantly the massive pressure we were under and left us alone. After we’d sent our reports they would bask in their novelty, pain and exclusivity.

Indeed, I believe that the massive and generous support that flowed from the people of Britain to a country they knew little of, and with which they had no colonial or immigration link, is in part down to the succession of intimate “one pair of eyes” reports from assorted TV outlets. They took viewers into the very heart of the individual suffering at the wrecking hand of the earthquake. According to the UK Disasters Emergency Committee, the £100 million raised for Haiti outstripped any single appeal in their history.

Add then to the revival of classic reporting the existence of Google, Facebook, Twitter and more, and we are breaking new ground. On my way home from Haiti I read a brilliant article in The Wall Street Journal identifying the limits of aid in reviving the country. I tweeted it to my followers; I blogged daily throughout my stay in Haiti, both times, on my Channel 4 Snowblog site; I sent round-robin accounts on my Snowmail email. But I only “went live” once a day on TV and sometimes not even then. We were on the ground ferreting around, following leads, tracking down survivors. It certainly felt like the Golden Age of Journalism. But we shall not long sustain it if we fail to monetise it. If we don’t, TV content will wither.

Think about it. When Gordon Brown resigned, was it Google who put the choppers up to record his historic traipse to the Palace and the birth of the first peacetime coalition in UK history? No, it was us - good old conventional TV.

I like to use the allegory of the brilliant documentary Man on Wire. It’s a film about a mad French tightrope-walker who, before they came down, determined to climb the Twin Towers in New York and walk between them. He has no idea how he’ll get his great rope up the towers, let alone string it between them, but he does. And he walks the daunting gap.

I think of the old media - us - as inhabiting one tower, and the Googles, Yahoos, Facebooks, Twitters and the rest of the new media in the other. They need us as much as we need them. As yet, we don’t even have a tightrope. But we shall find one, we shall get it across and together we shall enter the true Golden Age of Journalism. We shall generate original and irresistible content, make money, and sustain our profession. Just don’t ask me exactly how.

Jon Snow is a veteran foreign correspondent and anchorman of the UK’s Channel 4 news. This column was first published in the inaugural issue of Port magazine which has granted permission for it to be published here.

© Port and Jon Snow 2011 ■