02 July 2009

Night thoughts from John Hartigan



I read the John Hartigan transcript. Two things struck me:

  1. it was exactly like John B. Fairfax's back-to-the-future routine; and

  2. how utterly clueless it is; talking about thinking outside the box while at the same time insisting that anyone outside the box is gone for all money.

It started with contradictions: rousing words (if you read the transcript, which Hartigan controls), timidly delivered (if you saw the video, which he doesn't control).
What it will take is a complete rethink of the very essence of what is “news”.

We have never been challenged as we are now, to justify why someone should pay for our content.
I believe people will pay for content if it is:

- Original...

- Exclusive...

- Has the authority

- and is relevant to our audiences.

Journalism that doesn’t help people live their lives is going to be a low-value commodity.

The boldness of the demand for a rethink is completely undermined by the clich├ęs that followed:

  • Paying for AP/Reuters/[other News Ltd franchises] content isn't original, and neither is rehashing a press release - but it is the very essence of journalism.

  • Nobody gives a damn about "exclusive", as I've said earlier. Old wankers like Hartigan who could spend a whole day skiting and taunting the opposition value this highly; the rest of us, not so much.

  • By "authority", Hartigan means "bombastic" or "sneering". Fuck that.

I'll give you the last one: but how would Hartigan know? Focus groups? Editorial-office bull sessions: "Nah, what the punters really want is ...". You don't stampede your way into a position of market dominance and then go all soft about what the punters want. The punters will take whatever News Ltd bloody well feels like printing, that's what made this company and this country.
How many journalists in this room have written a story recently that was original, exclusive, highly relevant and genuinely useful to your audience?

I’m not saying there haven’t been stories like this. But, there have been too few.

This is where you need leadership, Hartigan - from yourself, and those snivelling bums you call your editors. Tomorrow's Daily Murdoch will be full of the very stuff you decry, and next week's, and next year's - and if you try to change it you are history, because you didn't get where you are by bucking the culture of News Ltd.
Newspapers in the US are disappearing left, right and centre.

Fewer papers are being sold and in my view it’s because many of them are largely boring and irrelevant to their readership. Their content is ubiquitous rather than unique.

If you listen to breakfast and morning radio in the capital cities - directly, in the case of 2GB/3AW/etc. and indirectly on the ABC, you can pick up the audio version of The Daily Murdoch.
It has been assumed, without any rigorous scrutiny, that Australian newspapers will go the same way as their US and British peers.

Some say the trends are the same; we are just a year or two behind.

Frankly, I’m dismayed at how many Australian journalists seem to accept this. Some are even willing to stick their byline on this opinion.

I mean, at its most basic, it’s just bad reporting. There’s almost no evidence.

There's some harsh language there, an opening barrage designed to dissuade scrutiny of what follows:
Even in the past year, the decline in ad revenue in Australia is a fraction of what’s been happening overseas.

The falls in circulation and readership here are very modest compared to American and British papers.

In the latest Australian audit, when you’d expect a big drop, overall sales were flat.

Readership in Australia has been relatively stable over 10 years, but, as I said earlier, it’s been decimated in the US and the UK.

When Hartigan said "there's almost no evidence", you'd expect him to go all stat-happy like he was with his outline of the decline of US and UK newspapers. If The New York Times want to announce that it has lost $70m, that's up to them - but don't expect Hartigan to announce how much his own papers are haemmorrhaging, and don't expect the bluster to convince you otherwise. To say "there's almost no evidence" is Hartigan's way of saying, "there is evidence, but if I don't show you then you probably won't find out", which is the opposite of the sort of journalism he'd want you to think he's offering.
... what about the journalism?

If I had a Power Point presentation I could summarise this whole speech with two points on one slide:

1. If you want to attract readers, break stories people want to read.

2. Give them something they can’t get anywhere else, make it relevant and useful and let them get involved.

See that: let them get involved. Careful, big fella - if people want to get involved they'd be independent bloggers. Perhaps you think that you can determine what it is that they're involved in?
There are plenty of examples.

The British MP expenses scandal has sold an extra million copies of the UK Daily Telegraph since the story broke in May.

It wasn’t simply because the Telegraph paid for a leak.

It assigned dozens of people to the story, spent weeks preparing its coverage and had a brilliant strategy for breaking and then staying in front of the story. It broke it online and then really went to town in print.

Without question, the moral authority of the paper and the depth and quality of its coverage made it a story that only a newspaper could own in this way.

London's Tele is not a News Ltd paper. If it was, it would never have put the raw files on its website an invited the public to do their own trawling, thus getting details out earlier. Instead, Hartigan would have kept it all in-house and released the info when he was good and ready - and he'd be playing favourites with it, too, rather than the admirable let-the-cards-fall-where-they-may attitude of the Tele.
In Australia we had the Victorian bushfires. It wasn’t exclusive to News obviously. But our coverage was unique.

We sold an extra half a million newspapers in the week following Black Saturday. Our website traffic more than doubled ... Who can forget the images of the fireman sharing his water bottle with the Sam the Koala, perhaps the iconic image of the tragedy?

The images that appeared on television around the world carried the water mark not of Seven, Nine or Ten but of heraldsun.com.au.

That'd be the image insinuated into the February story, even though that koala was injured two weeks or so before those fires? Sneaky and dishonest, just what you'd expect from News - iconic all right.
Three weeks later, we published a book which immediately became the number one non-fiction best seller with every cent going to fire victims.

Flatly untrue.
The Australian relaunched its business section online last June. We hired people, spent some serious money.

Since then unique visitors to the site have more than doubled. Page impressions have increased seven fold. Advertising revenue has already recouped the investment.

True, they have stolen a march on The Daily Fairfax - apart from Ian Verrender, none of them are much chop. Ross Gittins has gone off the boil and Dizzy Lizzie Knight (Kath's sister) was never any good.
Pumpkin soup is very big on Tuesdays.

This is an incredibly powerful proposition to take to an advertiser.

But, as journalism, it absolutely nails the criteria I mentioned earlier. The content is original, it’s exclusive and people actually use it.

Good luck with patenting "pumpkin soup", Hartigan. Good luck with selling advertising space when people are reading the means to avoid having to buy the product. Just because you think your customers and advertisers are dills, doesn't mean they are.
In return for their free content, we pretty much get what we’ve paid for - something of such limited intellectual value as to be barely discernible from massive ignorance.

Andrew Keen, in his book The Cult of the Amateur, cites Hurricane Katrina as an example when:
“reports from people at the scene helped spread unfounded rumours, inflated body counts and erroneous reports of rapes and gang violence in the New Orleans Superdome – all later debunked by mainstream news media”.

First they were spread by mainstream media, and then they were debunked - it's all about churn, Harto! Yesterday's fishwrappers and nobody remembers, eh!

The other thing to point out here is how Hartigan blasted those who thought US media = Australian media were lazy, yet here he's found some peanut who says US blogs = Australian blogs, and he's fine with that. He has no idea about Australian blogs - excellent!
Citizen journalists, he says, simply don’t have the resources to bring us reliable news. They lack not only expertise and training but access to decision makers and reliable sources.

Anyone can crunch a press release down, you don't need "access"for that. The fact that I don't go drinking at the Holy Grail means that I'm more likely, not less, to break a political story that might discomfit denizens of that bar. You don't need access, and access isn't that valuable - it's the consequences of the decisions made that counts, and the consequences of those decisions are often imperceptible to those with "access". Perspective is more important than "access".
The difference, he says, between professionals and amateurs is that bloggers don’t go to jail for their work

No, bloggers are a bit smarter than that. It's the job of editors and lawyers to get the story out without the journo having to do time - but that would require innovative thinking, wouldn't it? You'll note, Hartigan, that it is Godwin Grech rather than Steve Lewis who is in the gun at the moment.
Like Keating’s famous “all tip and no iceberg”, it could be said that the blogosphere is all eyeballs and no insight.

Other way around. If it was no insight, you'd let the story stand. The whole idea of this post, this blog and others like it is to provide the insight that the original source has failed.
As Robert Thomsen of The Wall Street Journal says: “The blogs and comment sites are basically editorial echo chambers rather than centres of creation. And their cynicism about so-called traditional media is only matched by their opportunism in exploiting it.”

Tonight for dinner I ate some fish - this does not make me an "echo chamber" for fish and nor does it make the fish more important than me. You're fodder for this blog Hartigan - it may be the most important thing you do.
It started as a moralising soapbox; boasting about its lack of standards.

Almost all news outlets do this, boasting that they are not bound by the standards of truth to which they hold interview subjects.
In the blogosphere, of course, the mainstream media is always found wanting. It really is time this myth was blown apart.

Blogs and a large number of comment sites specialise in political extremism and personal vilification.

"Blogosphere"is such a silly expression: blogs are far more diverse than the groupthink in the journosphere. How can you be innovative when your thoughts are hobbled by silly expressions? Are all blogs everywhere as politically extreme as The Australian?
Radical sweeping statements unsubstantiated with evidence are common.

It sure is, Johnny boy - but then, that's what you get for reading News Ltd.
One Australian blogger who shoots first and checks facts later is proud to boast that his site is “Not wrong for long”.

Mainstream media understands, most of the time, that comment and opinion is legitimised by evidence.

And when that evidence comes in after News Ltd has gone to press, it conducts ad hominem attacks and ignores the correction, only to print it months later at the bottom of an obscure page if forced to do so by the Press Council. I prefer “Not wrong for long”: it is another nail in the coffin of the "scoop". No blog would have printed the Pauline Hanson pictures, or failed to pull them once the error became clear.
Good journalism is expensive.

The Huffington Post recently announced it will spend $US1.75 million on a new investigative journalism unit to produce original content.

But it is not being funded by subscribers or advertisers, it’s being bankrolled by philanthropy.

The Australian has never made a profit: it is underpinned by philanthropy from the Murdoch Family, and produces second-rate journalism at best.
Take this list of important stories of recent years:

- John Howard’s leadership promise to Peter Costello;

- Marcus Einfeld’s downfall;

- Bundaberg Hospital’s trail of death;

- Tougher restrictions on P Plate drivers;

- New laws that mean rape victims don’t have to give evidence in open court.

These stories had two things in common.

First, they had serious impact and influence – on everything from a change of government, to the conviction of criminals to new legislation.

Second, they were all broken by tabloid newspapers.

Mostly bullshit:

  • Howard-Costello? Oh, please. The biggest load of bullshit, utterly empty of content and importance.

  • Einfeld? Political gloating, and vastly overstated in its importance. Just because Einfeld lied about his driving doesn't mean he lied about Toomelah.

  • P Plate drivers? Vilification pure and simple. The roads are no safer and those people are no better drivers.

  • Evidence in rape cases: I think Paul Sheehan at The Daily Fairfax had a hand in that. Just a bit.

That leaves Bundaberg Hospital: sure, but who gives a shit who broke that story? It only became an issue once it got too big for one outlet to "own" it.
In recent years, many of the most important national stories were the fruit of time-consuming, expensive, painstaking investigative journalism, predominantly by The Australian.

Stories like:

- The Australian Wheat Board scandal;

- Children Overboard;

- Mohammed Haneef;

- the tragedies on Palm Island and at Arakun.

It is no coincidence The Australian broke these stories and produced coverage of national significance and impact; because The Australian has made the biggest investment in journalism of any paper in the country.

It is no coincidence The Australian broke these stories because it was so embedded with the Howard Government that it leaked those stories to its house organ.
People will pay for it if it is good enough. By good enough I mean that it will have to be:

- well researched;

- brilliantly written'

- perceptive and intelligent;

- professionally edited;

- accurate and reliable.

This is not the territory in which aggregator sites or amateur bloggers will do well.

This is the natural terrain of the well-trained, professional, experienced, clever journalist.

Hartigan's vision is the very sort of thing of which Australian journalism falls short in every way but rhetoric. It's back to the future for News Ltd. None of the above describes The Punch, for example. They're paying journalists more but imposing the same standards that current staff seem to limbo under with ease.

To see the bankruptcy of Hartigan's case, see this non-story. Christian Kerr's basic value-add is to say: "yeah, what he said", after the boss has spoken. Bloggers are readers, discerning readers, and people like Hartigan are intent on patronising us. Some future.

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