The inner life of the tabloid journalist

By Kevin Bloom 21 July 2011

What’s it like to be a tabloid journalist? After a day spent rifling through some celeb’s trash or hacking a murdered teenager’s phone, how do you unwind? The death of Sean Hoare earlier this week suggests that the internal conflicts suffered by the men and women who work for the tabloid press are severe, especially since they sometimes do perform a service for society. By KEVIN BLOOM.

As a non-tabloid journalist, it’s not too tough to imagine the outer life. All the trappings of the job would be there: the insistent editors, the cluttered desks, the phones ringing off the hook, the beast that constantly needs to be fed. There’d be the smoking room, where the most harassed of the tribe would be sucking on nicotine as if their salvation depended on it. There’d be the local up the street, from where a comrade would sometimes manage to get home before his wife left for good, sometimes not. There’d be reputations shattered and reputations made; everyone on the same team until the breaking story hit, when jealousies and in-fighting would reduce the newsroom to a kindergarten sandpit at play time.

Such is the classic view of life at a newspaper, and despite the corporatisation of the industry in the last decade – a trend brought on by declining revenues, staff cutbacks, and deadening missives from head office – in many places it still holds true. The job hasn’t changed, even if the stakes have.

Thing is, nowhere in the sphere of newspaper journalism have the stakes been raised as high as they have at the tabloids. Traditionally more profitable than broadsheets (all you have to do is compare what News of the World used to make for Rupert Murdoch to what The Times fails to make), tabloids are the newsprint business on steroids – and in Britain, where competition for readers and revenue is the fiercest, brinkmanship has reached the stage where the kids in the sandpit have turned feral and commandeered the playground.

Which means the inner life of a tabloid journalist is slightly more difficult to imagine. The best we can do is read their memoirs, such as Tabloid Prodigy by Marlise Elizabeth Kast, a book that opens thus: “It wasn’t as if I intentionally set out to work for one of the lowest forms of media. It just sort of happened. As a 21-year-old communications and English major, I longed to carry a business card that would label me as a high-profile reporter. I envisioned that I would be surrounded by ringing cell phones, my hair tied loose in a bun with a stylish pair of gold-rimmed glasses dangling from my lips. I wanted to be the one searching frantically for the taped interview for tomorrow’s cover story. I wanted to be Katie Couric.”

Did Sean Hoare, the News of the World whistleblower found dead earlier this week, also set out to become a respectably famous journalist? As a young man, did he harbour aspirations of telling truth to power in a manner that would do credit to both himself and his profession? Or did he maybe dream of illegally hacking phones at the behest of his employer, and then getting fired by that same employer for drink and drug problems?

The common-sense answer, the empathetic and intuitive answer, has got to be the former. No evidence of third-party involvement was found at Hoare’s post-mortem; contrary to the suspicions of many – in these heady days, almost every new revelation about the company seems unbelievable at first – he wasn’t killed by a News Corporation hired gun. The subtext in the reports, rather, is that he drank himself to death.

In a column for the Guardian in April, well before the mass public revulsion brought on by the Milly Dowler allegations in early July – allegations that initiated the implosion of the Murdoch dynasty – Charlie Brooker had portentous words for Hoare’s caste: “Successfully forging the belief that tabloid journalism is a worthwhile use of your brief time on this planet must require a mental leap beyond the reach of Galileo. This is one reason why so many tabloid stories are routinely peppered with lies – if their staff didn’t continually flex their delusion muscles, a torrent of dark, awful self-awareness might rush into their heads like unforgiving black water pouring through the side of a stricken submarine, and they’d all slash their wrists open right there at their workstations. The newsroom hubbub would be regularly broken by the dispiriting thump of lifeless heads thunking on to desks. Each morning their bosses would have to clear all the spent corpses away with a bulldozer and hire a fresh team of soon-to-be-heartbroken lifewasters to replace the ones who couldn’t make it, whose powers of self-deception simply weren’t up to the job. Who couldn’t cope with the knowledge that they were wasting their lives actively making the world worse.”    

In hindsight, the above does read a bit on the cruel side. Especially since suicide has not been ruled out in Hoare’s case. Also, as an op-ed column in the New York Times recently pointed out (in an argument similar to the one at the opening of this article) the difference between tabloid journalism and “real” journalism is a difference in degree, not kind. ”The tabloids are the newspapers most dutifully dedicated to ideas of exposure, and are willing to take risks in the service of that goal. It may be the case that much of what they expose is perhaps of little social import, but this is more a matter of taste, and the tabloids certainly never claimed to be tasteful. Certainly the fact that the American tabloids first broke important news stories, like the extramarital affair of John Edwards, the former United States senator and Democratic vice-presidential nominee, suggests that they are not merely peddling insignificant gossip.”

Nobody, least of all the New York Times, is arguing that the News of the World acted legally or honourably; Murdoch and his top lieutenants are rightfully being called to account. But if the outcome of this sordid affair is that tabloid journalism in the US and Britain is neutered, we’ll all feel the effects. While the inner life of the tabloid journalist may be tragic, the death of the genre itself would be cataclysmic. DM

Read more:

  • “The real victims of the phone-hacking scandal are the tabloid hacks,” in the Guardian;
  • “Why We Need the Tabloids,” in the New York Times;
  • “Sean Hoare postmortem results confirm death not suspicious,” in the Guardian.

Photo: Former News of the World journalist Sean Hoare is seen in this undated handout picture released on July 18, 2011. One of the sources for early newspaper stories on the News of the World phone-hacking scandal was Hoare. British media said he was found dead at his home on Monday, but police did not believe the death was suspicious. REUTERS/The Sun/Handout


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