18 August 2009

What's wrong with newspapers, Part I

The good news is that there are only two things really wrong with newspapers today, and with Fairfax in particular. The bad news is that these two things take up most of the content of any edition of a Fairfax paper.

The Wire Service in the internet age

In the olden days, Australian newspapers did employ real life journalists. They'd be rolling around on the company sixpence, drinking with Chow Hayes or Bob Askin, getting all the inside goss and printing none of it, because youse can all get stuffed.

For news that readers wanted, but for which neither Sir Vincent nor Sir Frank were prepared to trust to one of their beer-sodden hacks to gather, they'd call in what's known as a Wire Service. Look at the very name, a Wire Service: the very name rings of bakelite and brown paper. Wire Services carried news of fighting at El Alamein and Bradman's cover drives down to the river end, pictures of the elegant Princess Elizabeth and dapper President Kennedy, all printed in Australian newspapers with a grudging acknowledgment at the end of the Wire Service.

Today, the internet is one big wire service, and you can bypass Fairfax to get it directly. There's just no point taking content from somewhere else and stuffing it into your paper, hoping it will attract the ad revenue that might justify (in news terms or sheer damn revenue) the rest of the paper. It might have impressed readers in 1960 to have a reprint from The Times or The Chicago Tribune, but in 2009 you can and do go straight to the source if that's what you're after.

The poor dears at Fairfax think they're being terribly clever by publishing celebrity news on their web-site. The young persons are interested in celebrity news, the reasoning goes, and so we'll get some in from the Wire Service. The trouble with this is, both the ubiquity and the better information available elsewhere. If you truly were interested in Brad & Angelina, why would you go to The Sydney Morning Herald? It just doesn't make sense.

It doesn't make sense, and people don't do this. The media are kidding themselves about consumer behaviour vital to their operations. At best, Australian media sites that carry celebrity news are jumping-off points to other sites were more and better information can be found. Who reads the ads at the jumping-off point? Who remembers them toward the end of the internet session, when you have to go out and buy something? Avoiding those questions is not only a failure of those responsible for declining newspaper revenue, it is a question that those controlling marketing budgets should consider before they even go to the same people they always deal with at Fairfax to get their message out.

The warmed-over press release

Most news content is initiated with a press release, or some other device like a choreographed announcement or a press conference. Usually the journalist will reword the press release. Maybe the journalist will include a quote, or get a quote from some real or perceived "opposing view", and that will be an article worth publishing. Again it presupposes that the press release is unavailable to readers, or that "opposing views" haven't already had their share of the media, too.

The warmed-over press release makes up most of the front of a paper and almost all the "lifestyle sections", travel etc.

Even more strange is the "going to announce" story: nothing has happened, but the story is that an announcement is to be made, and that we readers a) are meant to be impressed by the journalist's "insider access" necessary to get such a story, and b) should be impressed by the very fact of the announcement, rather than what the announcement is about (if anything) or any impact it might have on the way we live our lives.

The "going to announce" story is not impressive on either count, it's rubbish journalism. It should be seen as a sign that the journalist concerned is tiring of their beat and wants a change, preferably a radical one involving personal danger and a reconsideration of what it means to be a journalist.

Tomorrow: Je Suis Un Journalist

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