18 August 2009

What's wrong with newspapers, Part II

Bill Wyman has written a widely-praised article on the failure of newspapers in the US.

His main argument, on newspapers as monopoly conduits for ads into people's homes, is important. When I lived in Sydney's eastern suburbs, we got a free local paper fuelled by real estate ads. The glossy presentation of the paper was so much nicer than the Herald or the Tele: it looked nice and it was nice. Readers hated controversial stuff like politics, or scandals affecting local schools. You couldn't threaten to cancel your subscription because it was all free anyway.

Then, there's the killer idea that all that tailoring of "news" content to advertising was really an exercise in spending media company money on content that advertisers should have been paying for - there's your exercise in hubris right there. What was venal now just looks pathetic.

His point about consolidation also applies: the strange aggregation of once-different papers The Sydney Morning Herald and The Melbourne Morning Herald is almost designed to render both irrelevant to their markets. This, however, was for me the most impressive thing about the piece:
The commentators most caught up in the romanticized notion of newspaper cite the potential loss of the newspapers’ “watchdog” function. Let’s be honest. Most newspapers in the U.S. aren’t watchdogs, and most of the rest don’t spend an inordinate amount of time being watchdogs. Most papers are instead lapdogs, and the metaphorical lap they sit in isn’t even that of powerful interests like their advertisers. (Though they definitely have their moments.)

Then, however, came old-fashioned journosphere blame projection:
The real tyrant the papers served was the tender sensibilities of their readers.

Oh, piss off. This is old-fashioned gutlessness, you can't handle the truth, combined with patronising nonsense about "the punters". It's true that too little journalism worth the name has been produced in this country (I'm still waiting for our Watergate, surely all those Canberra newshounds will be able to come up with something), but where it is produced, it is read and read avidly. What doesn't sell is spiels with nothing behind them - that's just business as usual.

The news sites such as smh.com.au or the News Ltd equivalents (ninemsn gets its clout in terms of hits from the fact that Australians who log out of Hotmail are funnelled straight to that site) are the jumping-off points to the wider web for most Australians. There was no AOL to suck the traffic away from these sites - but in the same way that the city of Split grew out of Diocletian's palace, so too the traditional media sites can claim no credit for the fact that Australians use their sites simply as conduits to other, more interesting and detailed sites - and that their significance will only decrease over time as the blandness of their fare makes them less compelling.

More projectionism came, however, with his attack on IT staff:
Journalists like to affect a garrulous Ludditism — “Just give me an old Royal.” It was charming and romantic and directly led to the less charming and romantic concussion of waves after waves of buyouts and layoffs we’ve seen over the last few years. The attitude ate journalism away from the inside in two ways: It put journalists physically and psychologically out of touch with society and hampered its coverage; and it devolved into a head-in-the-sand response to the challenges facing the industry.

Now, when it comes to the antiquated, hobbled equipment Old Media news organizations invariably use, an IT person will tell you there are cost considerations and important security issues at stake. Of course there are. But these same IT specialists rarely (in my experience, never) take affirmative steps to educate newsroom staffs with a view to putting new and important tools into their hands safely. And management, inexperienced themselves with technology, rarely made such initiatives a priority.

Picture this: you're working in IT for Fairfax, News, or [insert Australian MSM organisation of your choice]. You spend your life teaching people how to use email - no, not the washing-machine company - and nobody ever comes to you and asks about Blackberries, let alone Web 2.0 ("I was still getting used to version 1! When did this happen? Oh really, I never read emails ..."). Every time there's a new buyout you get replaced, only to be hurried back when contractor costs blow out and nothing works anymore. You never get any funding for infrastructure, despite making the business case in clear English because the new directors want rosewood rather than mahogany panelling in their offices and the printers have gone on strike. The website is an absolute sh-sh-showcase of what not to do in online design. After all that, you're expected to convene a meeting of these luddites and teach them how they could use new tools to do their jobs better.

Yeah, right. Watch the charm evaporate.
All they needed is some media-savvy employees to show them the way through the mess.

What makes you think they'd listen? This is a question about what's cheaper and better over the long term, for people who talk about the long term but are scrambling to deal with the short term (and are incentivised for the short term only). It's ultimately easier just to eat their lunch and sell it back to them - more lucrative, too.

As to Wyman's nine points at the end of his article, I'll give him 4), 6) and 9). I'd give him 2) but as a business analyst it would be a bugger to spec out. This leaves us with a number of issues worth chewing over:
1) Go hyper local; devote all resources, from reporting to front-page space, to local news. No one cares what the Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch has to say about Iraq.

Maybe not, but what The New York Times says about this is not necessarily useful to what The Sydney Morning Herald should be printing. There is a call for Australian perspectives on foreign affairs to appear in the Australian media. It would be cultural cringe at its most absurd to rely exclusively on American or British reporters to tell us about, say, Papua New Guinea or Indonesia. Wyman may be content to leave the big issues to the big players but I'm not so sure.

Wyman may have a point though. I can't believe that Australia's significant Iraqi expat community has not been tapped at all in terms of telling us:

  • what life under Saddam was like;

  • to what extent the casus belli in 2003 was or wasn't a crock;

  • what life is like now for those who stayed behind; and

  • why you'd pay people-smugglers to come here.

You may need to hire someone other than BA (Syd) MMediaSt (UTS), i.e. break the culture of Fairfax/ABC recruitment to do this, but we all must make sacrifices.
3) Tell the union you won’t be touching salaries, but that all work rules are being suspended, including seniority rights. Tell all reporters that they’re expected to post news if word of it reaches them in what used to be thought of as “after hours.”

As if. We still live in a country where an important news story can be "buried" by having a press release issued at 4.30pm on a Friday before a long weekend. I wish, just once, an Australian news outlet would have all hands on deck on such an occasion and dare to run a "bumper edition" with all that bad news in it, analysed and put in people's faces. Just once. Those old newshounds may actually earn their bragging rights if they did that, just the one time.

We have a generation of journalists who can't begin a news story without a press release - their idea of investigative journalism is to hit the Send/Receive button on their email (no, not the washing-machine - oh, never mind).
5) Create chain-wide coverage of all areas where it can be done. It’s sad, but it means laying off a lot more film critics and dozens of other duplicated positions. For such positions, do this. Hire two people to cover the beat for the chain. Make them into sparring partners, arguing about each new TV show, movie, CD, traveling Broadway show, concert tour etc. Get out of the business of being promotional. Give your readers sharply argued opinions, something fun to read they can’t get anywhere else.

Bernard Zuel is becoming a slightly literate Richard Wilkins, but he does make an honest effort to keep up and earn his keep. As film critics, Sandra Hall and Paul Byrnes are hardly Stratts & Pom and there is a place for reviews of an individual event to be contrasted with longer-form essays on What This All Means, as happens with political coverage where reportage nestles up against Comment: Comment gets warmth while reportage gets a context. There should also be an effort to capture up-and-coming artists in their various teeth-cutting exercises, and colour pieces on suburban triers might be cross-fertilising in all sorts of ways.
7) Devote as much manpower as possible to creating must-read local news blogs. Tell the bloggers to work the phones and IMs, finding out about every personnel change, every office move, any tidbit. Support and cite local bloggers in the same areas. Yell at staff members if they are consistently being scooped by (unpaid) competitors.

Or just take credit for others' feeds and roll on, whatever works really.

Seriously though, this works for towtruck companies - miss the local events and you're gone. Fairfax are way to snobby to do this, but there should be more of a career path from the suburban papers to the broadsheets. Betcha that those who set up their own blogs get there ahead of the suburban toilers: sometimes reform from within is a waste of time.
8) Create and maintain a wiki designed ultimately to function as an encyclopedia for the town, from neighborhoods and politicians to every retail establishment. Let it become the ultimate guide to the area. Like Wikipedia, it will inevitably contain information that is controversial. Cover the controversies with alacrity.

With Good News Week of old and America's Jon Stewart, this would only work if it were funny. Some old journo with access to the Fairfax archive could have a field day with this.

Never happen though.

To this, I'd rearrange rounds so that press releases and video feeds of press conferences came straight into head office. In Australia, media have Canberra bureaus and they all stay in the Parliamentary press gallery; in the US, there are separate correspondents for the Pentagon, the Congress, the White House and the State Department, and something similar has to happen with Canberra. Follow a piece of legislation through the interest groups and lobbyists, rather than having Annabel Crabb titter about it and put it out of mind.

I have no idea why the prospect of healthcare reform is not at least as big a story as the ETS, but I'm pretty sure it is laziness.

If you're going to cover rugby league, do the NRL thing from the press box and run to get some breathless inanity in at full time - but also stand on the hill at Henson Park or Raby and tell us about the game at the community level. Unlike Wyman I don't mind corporate promotion but if you can't tie it to a genuine community activity, forget it. If you're going to quote the AFL's big ups on a Western Sydney AFL team, go and find out how it might affect the Emu Lions/Glenmore Park JAFC, if at all.

See, I'm being constructive about the meeja. Watch me leverage this into more consumer outrage. If they would give themselves away they can give me some.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't even read your article and I'm thanking goodness for symphonies in brown! I was going to blame you, under my breath, for getting glasses before my time. Martha Maus.