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Brand World

Les limiers de la presse

12/11/2015 - par Mark Tungate

I’ve always felt myself lucky to be one of the last journalists of my generation to work in a traditional newspaper office. By that I mean a large, scruffy, open-plan room filled with cigarette smoke, clacking typewriters and black rotary telephones. The year was 1987. It feels like a century ago.


Admittedly it was only a small local newspaper overlooking a market square in a country town. Its location no doubt explains its antiquated atmosphere. But if you’d seen the smile on my 19-year-old face, you would have thought I was working at The New York Times. I had dreamed of being a reporter, and the newsroom conformed to my every expectation.


There were six of us in the news team, all sitting around one large canteen-style table. The reporter opposite me – his name was Carter – had a habit of balancing his cigarettes on the edge of the table as he typed. They would slowly burn down, leaving grooved black scars in the wood.

New home

My time at the paper marked me almost as much as it marked that desk. I still have a tendency to type too hard and enunciate on the telephone (it was difficult to conduct an interview amidst all the ringing, shouting and typing).


Why am I sharing these recollections with you now? Because newsroom nostalgia is à la mode. Check out the trailer for Spotlight, a new movie set at The Boston Globe in 2001.


The plot is ostensibly about a group of journalists exposing child abuse among Catholic priests. But the script emphasises the fact that this was one of the last great newspaper investigations before the internet economy wrecked the business model of the press. A giant ad for AOL lurks over one of the scenes.


The ad plays the role of a question mark. With circulation plummeting and advertising moving online, how long will in-depth, prize-winning journalism survive? Such enquiries take time, funding and teamwork. They don’t provide instant click-bait.


As well as being the title of the film, Spotlight is a brand – the name of the Globe’s special investigations unit. The Sunday Times in London has a similar group: the Insight Team. In the 1970s, editor Harold Evans used it to promote the newspaper. As Kevin Williams writes in his book Read All About It: A History of the British Newspaper, Evans gave the Insight team “considerable time to dig up stories, selecting those that could be turned into best-selling books…Insight became a by-word for quality journalism in the British press and the paper attracted the best and most gifted journalists.”


Investigative teams are a luxury – but Evans understood that they could also be an investment, a driver of reputation.


So what happened to Insight? It was disbanded as a standalone unit in 2006, resulting in cost savings of £300 000 (more than 400 000 euros), according to rival newspaper The Guardian at the time. But the brand lived on. In fact, the corruption at the heart of FIFA, the governing body of football, was uncovered by Insight journalists.


Now Insight faces another challenge: one of its team, reporter Heidi Blake, has been lured away to BuzzFeed’s investigations unit. She will lead a team of three in London, to augment a team of 11 in New York. The site describes them as “blazing a new trail for journalism in the digital age.”


All of which leads me to wonder if the web, rather than destroying investigative journalism, might be its new home. Who is digging away behind the scenes in France, for example? The name “Médiapart” springs to mind. And in countries where press freedom is limited (I doubt Mr Putin is reading this), investigation continues underground – or online.


Another intriguing investigative journalism brand is ProPublica in the US: “An independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest”. It is linked to some of the most illustrious names in journalism – senior figures from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal – and is supported purely by public donations. (Its largest benefactor is The Sandler Foundation, created by former bankers Herbert and Marion Sandler.)


Perhaps that, in the end, is the future of investigative journalism. Are you a reporter with a great story and limited resources? Plead your case on Kickstarter. Maybe the public will fund your detective work. Which, by the way, is not a bad plot for a movie.

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