There's been plenty of hostility from the mainstream media reacting to Flat Earth News. Here's what they don't tell you - that the people who work for them recognise the picture which the book paints. Below are extracts from some of the emails which have been sent to www.flatearthnews.net, subbed for relevance and to conceal the identity of their authors. Note that words in round brackets are part of the original message, while words in square brackets have been added here.
Senior journalist with experience of Sunday Times and Associated Newspapers
I made time for myself last week to read your book and was delighted to read page after page of wonderfully pungent stories and an excellent analysis of the malaise that is now deeply rooted in our profession. Your descriptions of the regimes at both the Sunday Times and at Associated are spot on. If anything, you could have been harder on them, for example, by outlining in greater detail what those newsroom pressures do to journalists in terms of alcohol abuse, mental breakdown, etc.
I also read Peter Preston and Magnus Linklater’s reviews and have to say that they offer a very poor defence of the profession - and a poor critique of you. It has not, as Preston argues, “ever been thus”. Preston says that you suggest that 400-plus journalists on the Guardian and the Times produce only 20 stories a day, when you stated nothing of the sort. He seems to be living in a time warp and does not understand what is happening to journalism as a result of the pressures you outline so well.
No doubt your inbox is now full of further appalling stories – so many came to mind as I read the book – from reporters sick to the back teeth of being forced to compromise their own beliefs and values. We all owe you one for making such a great job of recording what is really happening in Fleet Street.
Former PA trainee -
I think you are right to focus on the PA where so few others do. PA have developed a racket in training for some of the national papers. They have somehow convinced the papers that they could not possibly train new recruits themselves, so they should hand them over to PA. After (admittedly excellent) training, we were farmed out to PA offices and PA-favoured regional papers for months. We received no further training and were instead treated as full-time flexi-labour for PA, parachuted into wherever there was a gap in staffing. Our newspaper paid our salaries while the PA got a rolling pool of free journalists, allowing them (and certain regional papers) to slash more and more permanent staff. None of us knew the patches we were sent to, meaning we constantly struggled to make contacts/prevent errors in reporting local detail. Just as we started to feel like we were integrating with the area, it was time to move on, churning out more PR in a brand new area.
Former reporter with local news agency -
I just wanted to take the opportunity to say how much I enjoyed Flat Earth News and what a timely, if not overdue book it is.... What I couldn't believe, as a wet-behind-the ears young hack out of college, was that you could put all sorts of spin on a story, usually plucked from magistrates court, 'sprinkle it with stardust' (as the agency boss said), then the next day it would appear in The Mail, The Times, even Time magazine, often with its own spin, so it had as much relationship with the truth as my jumper has with the sheep whose wool it was made from. At the time it was great fun - it was unreal almost - though I knew when I left for London to work on the nationals to check every piece of agency copy twice. Few others did.... I hope your book makes journalists and their editors think. But, you know what? I doubt it will. Sadly.
Freelance agricultural journalist -
Even as a humble freelance agricultural journalist I heartily agree with the premise in your book that much of the news isn't original anymore because journalists just don't get out into the real world. Here is an example that happened on the very day I bought your book.
[He then referred to a story on the website of the Guild of Agricultural Journalists, which is an example of an insidious new trend for journalists to be replaced by automated news-sifting services of the kind which, as Flat Earth News describes, is already used by Google News. Here is the Guild's story]:
The switch to an automated news gathering system for the Farming Online website has resulted in the effective closure of the IFBN (Independent Farm Business News) reporting service provided by a number of Guild members.
In addition to Alan Stennett, who took over management of IFBN from founder George MacPherson three years ago, Guild members affected by the change include Roger Abbott, Alison Lea, Chris Lyddon and Gaina Morgan.
The contract to supply Farming Online’s editorial content expired at the end of January, says Alan Stennett.
“IFBN journalists have been supplying the great majority of Farming Online stories since it started more than 10 years ago, providing a daily duty editor and up-to-date news, which often was fed directly from major agricultural events,” he adds. “It was a bespoke news service using experienced journalists, focused on UK farming matters; now its place is being taken by less-selective news-gathering computer technology.”
Simon Bradley, a director of Farming Online, explains that editorial input for the site has switched to an automated system provided by a specialist Internet database agency that harvests material published on other websites.
“We can obtain a wider range of stories from different sources at lower cost,” he says. “We’ll soon be adding a corporate service whereby advertisers will be able to display their own press releases and news stories.”
Sources used so far include the websites published by Farmers Weekly and Farmers Guardian, NFU Countryside, news agencies Bloomberg and Reuters, and UK newspapers The Scotsman and The Times. International sources include the business news aggregator websites Silobreaker and environment specialist site PlanetArk and newspapers published in the United States.
Industry news website FarmingUK.com also recently changed to an automated news gathering system but Stackyard.com, with Jennifer MacKenzie at the helm, and magazine websites such as FarmBusiness.cc, Fwi.co.uk, TheScottishFarmer.co.uk and FarmersGuardian.co.uk, along with all regional farming publication websites, continue to use content managed by journalists.
Former businessman with experience of PR -
I found your book disturbing and yet I was not really surprised by what I have read. Perhaps the scale of the problem was surprising. I worked for a number of years as a public company director and the impact of PR and things like the 'weekend drop' was clear, especially during a takeover. I was obviously naive not to understand that similar and much stronger influences are in play across the board.
Thanks for writing your book. I am going to make sure my teenage kids read it and as many friends as I can.
Freelance writer -
Just wanted to say how much I'm enjoying the Flat Earth News book... Tremendously well researched and level-headed. Not sure about the
connection you make early on between the anti-nuclear lobby and Dirty Bomb propaganda - but I'm not really in possession of all the facts to say one way or the other for sure.
Quibbling aside though - it is a truly great achievement and long overdue. Loved the story about Paul Hucker. Classic.... It's simply been a huge relief to know there are people like yourself out there scraping away at the veneer and making some noise. It's a much more serious issue than people seem prepared to realise.
Freelance journalist and specialist journalism trainer -
It's a fantastic, brilliant piece of work. (Hell, I even liked the jacket design!)
Local newspaper reporter -
Your book made me think hard about journalism, especially the way I practice it - even as a local reporter in deepest, darkest [county]. Although I disagree with your implication that the reporter's interpretation of events is somehow priviliged - while accepting all your very well made points about propaganda etc - I can see most of what you said happening at first hand.
[This reporter then provides an example of his writing a story quoting a local dignitary only to discover later that the facts offered by the dignitary were almost certainly second-hand and unfounded.]A PA story came through a day later, with the same quote, so I guess it will have spread it even further. At first I was oddly delighted to see your thesis demonstrated so clearly and obviously - but now I am rather depressed at how easy it is to get caught up in the churnalism merry-go-round, and disappointed at my own naivity. I hope many other journalists read your book and take a step back from the conveyor belt.
US local newspaper journalist
I'm a U.S. reporter who just noted reviews of "Flat Earth News." I plan to get a copy, though I can't imagine you'll be showing me anything worse than what I've seen first-hand in my short time in the business.
I work for a little paper owned by a major public newspaper company that has a relentless focus on shoveling whatever it can online and into new products. We're completely abrogating our First Amendment responsibilities while taking for granted that our right to publish garbage is protected.
There would be a great opportunity to improve things at this paper - a two-sided crime story would shake the local police department to its foundations - but the bosses here are timid, stupid and probably corrupt. The journalism school in town is crap, and I'm not aware of anyone in my area to turn to for guidance if I were to seriously pursue pushing the paper toward a more journalistic course.
Many congratulations on your book. The chapter listing the "rules of production" (the electric fences and ninja turtles and whathaveyou) is so accurate. I normally lend books to one of the chief subs I work for but on this occasion I told him to buy it, which he has.
Just finished your book this weekend. I thought it was a great expose of shocking behaviour... The book has reinvigorated me to continue in my own small way trying to be a better journalist and help others, so thank you.
I heard your interview on the radio this morning and just wanted to say how spot on I think you are! I have been getting increasingly depressed about having to be tied down to the phone and internet to find stories, when I used to get out and about loads.
Freelance writer -
Unfriendly fire from disgruntled journalists shows you've done a good job - congratulations would be an insult.
Fleet Street specialist reporter -
When I first started in the business, a solid apprenticeship on weekly local papers was required before even getting a job on an evening, let alone a news agency or a national. This no longer applies. Freelance agencies now take on kids who provide the often inaccurate raw material which wends its way up to Fleet Street. If the basic stuff is wrong, no wonder what finally appears in print is also wrong.
Oddly enough the current management at [national newspaper] - despite all the difficulties we face - give me a surprising amount of freedom to find my own stories as [specialist reporter]. But the root problem remains the lack of a traditional craft apprenticeship in the industry. The skills I learned covering [local district] council in the late 1970s were invaluable.
Even if it makes me sound like an old fart, I would scrap post-grad schemes and not take on anyone until they had learned the job properly in the sticks.
Senior journalist with international wire agency -
I previously spent some years in Britain, working on a local weekly, a large regional daily and then [a national Sunday newspaper]. The pressure to push stories beyond the truth towards what the editor thinks a story should be, undoubtedly increases in proportion to how big the paper is. Sourcing was considered vital on the regional daily I worked on, but less so on a large Sunday.
I agree with 99 percent of what you say in the excerpts from your book, but I think you've been a bit dismissive of wire services. There is a perception, which I once shared, that wires are a poor substitute for staff reporters. Having spent the last year working with bureau chiefs, news editors and reporters from as far afield as Afghanistan to New Zealand I can confidently say such a perception is bollocks. On the wire, a good one at least, sourcing is everything. Quotes are rigorously attributed, intros are factual rather than sexed up and stories avoid spin. Our reporters find things out and get the news out fast. When they err, mistakes are transparently corrected on the wire, whether it be minutes, days, or even months later.
In contrast, I know reporters on national papers who generate no original material, have few or no sources and spend most of their day tinkering with wire copy. This in their mind makes them "writers", when as you rightly assert they are just churnalists. What's worse is that it's becoming the norm. Papers also routinely do anything to avoid owning up to a mistake.
Having experienced both systems I don't think I'll work for a British newspaper ever again, though I know there are good news editors out there who believe in the fundamentals. They're few and far between though. On the fundamental point you're right. The big papers employ too many executives who couldn't care less about accuracy as long as the book is full. They publish stories they know to be untrue or at least partially untrue on the basis that as long as it's not disproved today then no one will care. In summary, they're crap journalists working for crap papers. It is in their interest to maintain the status quo and all of the shortcomings that you have exposed. Good that you've blown the whistle on this folly.
Congratulations. Now all you have to do is tackle the same but even bigger story over here.
National newspaper columnist -
I'm reading your book. It's brilliant. Absolute congratulations. Very well-written, too.
Veteran local newspaper editor -
A thousand thanks for your new book, which so brilliantly hits the bullseye on a subject some of us have been trying to tackle for some time, and with miserable results. That's mainly due to the fact that politicans are obvious cowards when it comes to tackling the freedom of the media - because they fear the consequences of Fleet Street retribution. So we have ended up with politicians and the press being jointly responsible for the mess you depict so well.
Norwegian journalist -
I think you have written an excellent expose of British media... We find the same tendency to cut staff and make churnalism with fewer local offices and fewer foreign correspondents in Norway. The tragedy is that corporations (Montgomery has bought up a series of Norwegian papers) take over and they are more loyal to shareholders than their staff. Good luck with your book.
As director of a video production company who works in PR, I found your book absolutely marvellous; right on the button with regard to how video is used to create 'pseudo events' and 'astroturf' campaigns. But I had no idea how the press (doesn't) work and I am still coming to terms with that element."
Can completely identify with the description in “The Workers” chapter.
In my experience things were going down hill from the early 90s with more pressure to produce stories, and fewer “old hands” staying around who had the local knowledge. I got out in the late 1990s just as the Internet was becoming widely used and although it is useful, there is far too much reliance on “desk research”.
Former senior civil servant -
Excellent book, so well researched (it will have lasting historical value for that reason) and wonderfully bleak. If I were a journo, having read it, I would just go and cut my throat. But then it's no different for a civil servant... I suppose you are now living in a safe house?