19 November 2009

Christopher Dickey tells students of key moment in journalistic career

Christopher Dickey

Award-winning writer Christopher Dickey told Sheffield students of the time when he briefly became the most famous journalist in the world.

Dickey, visiting professor at the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield, recalled how he was the first journalist to reveal the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, during a live telephone interview with the cable television station CNN.

He was living in Paris at the time and been hauled out of bed by his editors in the US after news of the crash and Diana injuries began to filter though in the early hours of August 31, 1997.

Dickey told students during a guest lecture that he first went to the tunnel under the Place de l’Alma, where the accident happened and witnessed the wrecked Mercedes being recovered.

Later at the hospital where Diana was being treated he was ushered into a news conference where a doctor announced Diana’s death and Dickey was able to pass the news on via an open telephone line to the world.

“I became the most famous journalist in the world for about 15 minutes,” he said.

“But everyone there – the journalists, the police, the doctors – could see that this was just a tragic accident.

“But news organisations kept the story alive, even a year later when I returned to the scene and there were more journalists there than mourners.

“It became a media event because it was generating revenue. The media were pandering to the soap opera mentality because it made money.”

Dickey, the Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Regional Editor for Newsweek Magazine, and previously Cairo Bureau Chief and Central America Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, outlined some of the challenges facing mainstream media organisations.

He said the advertising revenue based model that had sustained journalism for decades was finished but it was not clear what, if anything, would replace it as a business model.

The current trend, he said, was not about bringing people into websites, but pushing content out – to YouTube and similar content sharing sites and allowing people to cut and paste content to use on their blogs.

“It is a way of building reputation,” he said, “but not necessarily building revenue.”

The trick, he said, was creating new products that users would be prepared to pay for - because it is clear they are not prepared to pay for the old products.

One idea he suggested was a “Virtual Paris” channel on a website including articles, travel services, address books that would be funded by a hybrid of micropayments, subscription and advertising.

He also said the immense power once wielded by the press – as exemplified during the Watergate scandal when the Washington Post brought down the President of the USA – was a thing of the past that had been diluted by the multiplicity of news sources including cable news and the internet.

One trend he identified was the growing strength of individual journalists who were building their own brands – but he argued even the influence of the most successful would never match the power of the old media empires.

He said: “The question isn’t whether people want news – they clearly do.

“It isn’t whether we have people skilled in portraying the news – you are.

“The real question is who is going to pay for it?”