The Engineer, one of the longest continually-published technical magazines and newspapers in the world, has announced that its next printed issue will be its last. From then on, after 156 years, most of them as a weekly, it will be an on-line publication only.
I have to declare a vested interest here, in that The Engineer under the great editorship of John Mortimer gave me my first job in journalism nearly 40 years ago, and I was the magazine’s editor for a period of more than six years from the mid-1980s.
What we tried to do with The Engineer, and it’s a policy that has I think been successfully maintained by subsequent and current editors, was to put an intelligent construction on the business and technology news that comes out of engineering and industry. Sometimes we broke big and important news stories; more often we drew threads together, highlighted trends and pointed to ideas that might otherwise be missed by readers who were mostly busy people with limited access to news sources.
The internet changes all of this, of course. News sources are available to all and though there’s still a strong role for journalists and editors to investigate, interpret and inform, you don’t need to do it on expensive paper and then post it out to readers. Web versions of newspapers and magazines can do the same job more continuously and without the in-built cost burden of paper, printing, publishing and postage. Going web-only is an economic decision, and in difficult economic times it’s no surprise that many are taking it. Readers may complain that they lose the tactile portability of paper – rather too many of them, when pressed, have admitted in the past that they read my magazines on the loo. But the web version is not constrained by space or by time: you can have more of it and more frequently.
That’s what The Engineer is currently promising, and I have no reason to doubt its good faith. Indeed, the present website is very good indeed and shows what can be done
And yet… two important aspects of journalism that don’t get mentioned enough in my view in this context are deadlines and indelibility.
The daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly deadline forced us as journalists to get our thoughts in order, in a presentable format, in time. It’s in the nature of most news stories that you can make further phone calls, spend longer honing your prose, bring your story closer to perfection and to incontrovertibility. Deadlines teach you a discipline that you’re only as good as the stories you publish, not the stories that are in your head or your notebook. The web’s lack of deadlines is part of its appeal, but also part of its potential indiscipline.
Indelibility is a second factor. If you know that your name is going to be attached to an article and that what you write you won’t be able to amend or update, I think you take more care over it. If it’s rubbish, then it’s your rubbish and it will always be there, in print, as your rubbish. Ditto if it’s genius.
These two factors, deadlines and indelibility, are I think important components in the craft of journalism. They make good journalism slightly difficult and encourage personal responsibility, whereas the benefits of the web mostly seem to make journalism, or something that can be passed off as journalism, rather too easy. And that’s without going into the potential there is for PR to masquerade as journalism.
I see the trends that have made The Engineer and other respected magazines and newspapers take the route they have, and I wish them luck with it. Somewhere along the line, I’d have hoped that there would be a balance struck between paper and web journalism that might enable the benefits of both to be maintained. But maybe no such balance exists. And if that is so, then I’m pleased my working life has been mostly on paper.
3 July On the train to nowhere
There is a nice little feature on the BBC website this week about “ghost” train services: the ones that run maybe only once a week and are maintained because it’s easier to do that than to close a line or an individual station completely. One example used in the BBC piece was a line between Stockport and Stalybridge in Greater Manchester, and the affable woman from the train operating company said that they’d be open to running more than the one unadvertised train a week that currently operates… if there was demand. Chickens and eggs and the precedence thereof came to mind: demand won’t be there if there’s no service and service won’t be there if there’s no demand.
The Manchester environs aren’t, in fact, particularly short on transport infrastructure, so the “Parliamentary” service on this line – so called because parliament once ruled that if a rail line is deemed to be open then you have to provide some sort of service, no matter how infrequent or undersold – may not be much of a local headache. But that isn’t always so. Take Table 19 of the National Rail timetable, for example.
Table 19 – you can find it here: http://www.networkrail.co.uk/browse%20documents/eNRT/May12/timetables/Table%20019.pdf – covers a line between Skegness and Nottingham via Grantham. You can imagine that in days of yore, in laceworkers’ wakes weeks for instance, this was heaving with traffic. D H Lawrence probably did the journey on stopping trains that called everywhere. Today, you can still do it and the journey takes around two hours, stopping only in towns you’ve probably heard of.
But several of the other village-y stations on the line are still nominally open. Havenhouse, for instance, near the Skegness end of the line, still has its station: but it only has two trains a day in each direction. If you wanted to commute by train from Havenhouse to Skegness, you could catch the 7.54 in the morning and come home by the 16.11 in the afternoon. That might make a rather circumscribed working day, but I suspect schoolchildren might just do it. Except that it seems they don’t, because Havenhouse in 2010-11 had only 100 passengers in a whole year, arriving and departing. At Elton & Orston station on the same line (but halfway between Grantham and Nottingham) there’s only one train a day to Nottingham and it leaves at 6.25 in the morning. That station had only 42 arrivals and 42 departures in 2010-11 and only eight of the 42 were children. No one had a season ticket. Not surprised: sensible folk are still in bed at 6.25 am.
There are plenty of other examples of this. Pilning, north of Bristol near the Severn Tunnel, had a service in only one direction on one day of the week last time I checked; Shippea Hill might seem a reasonable commute eastwards into Norwich, but though you can leave from it in the morning, you can’t come back. Ever. Or at any rate not by train. Unless you catch a westbound train from Norwich to Ely (passing through Shippea Hill), stay overnight, and then catch the following morning’s eastbound train and alight at Shippea Hill. Don’t try it on a Saturday morning, though: you won’t get back till Monday.
Of course, you can blame all of this on the disastrous rail line and station cuts imposed by Dr Beeching nearly 50 years ago, but though I like to blame the man wherever possible, it really doesn’t stack up this time. I hear too there are arguments that if you invest in new infrastructure, it rapidly gets oversubscribed: new roads that instantly fill with traffic are usually cited. That doesn’t seem likely to apply here. It is just daftness. And because these are mostly small places with little clout, I doubt that much will ever be done about it, and they’ll remain in the odd limbo position of having a station but no transport system.
2 July The banking blame game
The state of my own bank accounts would tell you that I'm not vastly qualified to be talking about the current crisis in UK banking. And though I'm a "business journalist", whatever that means, I've specialised in manufacturing and related issues, where banking comes up as a source of aggravation, and not much otherwise. But lack of knowledge doesn't seem to deter others... including, it seems, some you would expect to know.
Take, for example, Sir Mervyn King. As governor of the Bank of England he is pretty much the UK's Mr Banking. Surely he should know what's been going on. But no, it appears not. "Something went very wrong with the UK banking industry and we need to put it right," he said last week. Too right, Merv. You got it pretty spot-on there, mate. Difficult to disagree with any of that.
But hang on a minute. Sir Mervyn obviously sees himself as part of the solution to the problem – "we need to put it right" – but isn't he also part of the problem? Where's his statutory duty of care to stop the "industry" of which he is the figurehead from doing the "something" that got itself and all the rest of us too into this "very wrong" position? I'm a bit unclear what the duties of the governor of the Bank of England are, but I'd have thought setting the tone for banking in the UK might well figure somewhere in them. But through this crisis, Sir Mervyn's reputation has remained spotless: to the point where he can get away with sanctimonious twaddle like this, faithfully reprinted on newspaper front pages. Merv the Swerve, eh?
No? Oh well, let's move on, then, to the other end of the spectrum, to the folk who seem to get blamed no matter what – the regulators. I hold no torch for the Financial Services Agency which, like most police forces that police their own misdeeds, has sometimes seemed a bit of a pushover in terms of its judgments and less than tough on those it regulates. However...
Try comparing views on the FSA's role in detecting banking malpractice with rather more sympathetic views of the detection of other types of anti-social activity. If this was malicious software creation that we were talking about here, there'd be an assumption that the "criminals" were always going to be one jump ahead of the investigators. If it was terrorism, we'd presume that nasty people were devising ever more devious ways to do their wicked deeds.
Why, then, should we be surprised that clever people in banks whose job it is to dream up ever-more complex methods of diverting money into their own coffers shouldn't be equally adept at outflanking regulation? And remember, an awful lot of what's gone on, unlike computer viruses and terrorist acts, isn't obviously illegal. The FSA's so-called "failure" has been in not anticipating things that may not, by the letter of the law, actually be wrong. It strikes me that's a very difficult game for the regulators – any regulators – to win.
There is in all of this, of course, an overtone of ghastly, creepy moralising: I do rather think Sir Mervyn might be a good candidate for the next Archbishop of Canterbury. There's also a big danger of looking for scapegoats rather than looking to put things right. But maybe that's just because no one really knows how to put things right.
I don't know how to make it better, aside from a vague feeling that the straightforwardness of business dealings in areas such as manufacturing, where there are strong elements of "value-add" underpinning transactions, might perhaps be a model with wider application. Sir Mervyn doesn't seem to know either. Do you?