Who decides what's news?
Further to the fallout in the journosphere over Lindsay Tanner's Sideshow, two recent articles show that the victims/perpetrators still don't understand the nature of their dysfunction, let alone how to address it. One blames money, the other blames the audience with which journalistic professionals have to work - both come from the same source but they reflect wider opinions held throughout the journosphere. Both light all fools in the journosphere the way to dusty professional death.
First, the poster-girl for Doesn't Get It, Annabel Crabb. Like Richard Wilkins a generation ago, Crabb is an older person's idea of a hip, with-it young person, rather than an authentic representative of a connected and intellectually omniverous generation who happens to be employed in journalism. She did not get where she is by traducing the "realities" of journalism but by absorbing and living them, such that she can create the appearance of identifying the trends that are eating her "profession" alive but not do anything, y'know, too radical.
Crabb talks about having to pay for journalism online. She gives a number of excellent examples and ignores the lesson they are teaching her. Basically, you have to pay for journalism up front, but you can't judge the quality and value of the information until after you have received it. There is no recourse when paying for information that was not of the quality that you might have come to expect: as Tim Dunlop points out (more on his piece later), journalism is one aspect of our consumer society where The Customer Is Always Wrong.
To be fair, the ABC sub-editors haven't done Crabb much of a favour with their headline: "Finding a coin for the journalistic juke box" in the era of Gnutella and iTunes is an irony, probably unintended.
... how can a market evolve to allow for this rather ornate variation; that 500 words from an antagonised correspondent will necessarily be more expensive than the same 500 words from a happy volunteer? Is it any wonder that readers are unwilling to pay for content, when the pricing structure is so random?
Clearly, not every lot of 500 words is equally valuable, regardless of journalistic pay scales. To presume otherwise and then focus on the emotional state of the writer, as Crabb does, is clearly a mistake.
She compounds it by a frankly silly assessment of what her value proposition is:
A journalist's main professional advantage over a blogger, increasingly, is that we have the luxury of being paid for what we do, and the privilege of some years' experience of this pleasant arrangement.
The latter is as much a curse as an advantage. Crabb is so stuck in a mental rut as to what news is or isn't that she regularly missed big developments in Australian politics so that she could indulge her interest in, say, Julia Gillard's earlobes, Chris Pyne's vocal timbre, or Bronwyn Bishop's hair. This meant that Crabb engaged in low-quality journalism; yet if you accept journalism's own rules (foremost among them: only journalists can judge other journalists), then Annabel Crabb is a very fine journalist indeed.
As to being paid for "what they do": plenty of people in modern Australia get paid to seek information from various sources and explain it in a coherent way. Pretty much everyone with a university degree who is employed in the sort of job where a degree is required does this. One such is Greg Jericho; he is not a journalist but an economist employed in the public service. He also runs the famous Grog's Gamut blog, where he demonstrates that ability as part of contributing to public debates.
Let's be clear: the idea that journalism practiced by journalists is a unique value proposition in itself is unsustainable. Greg Jericho is a better writer than Annabel Crabb. He explains important issues in an interesting way. Crabb is flippant about everything, great or petty, and has no ability to demonstrate that she understands what she writes about. In some Ayn Rand dystopia where nobody did anything for free, Jericho would be a wealthy writer and Crabb - well, let's hope she has a lovely singing voice. Because you have to pay for it up front but can only assess its value after you've read it, then Jericho at $0 is much better value than Crabb at $[insert Annabel Crabb's TEC+expenses here].
Media organisations would be better off hiring intellectually omnivorous and high-quality writers like Jericho and leaving flippant and shallow writers like Crabb to their own devices. If they won't do that then they can't complain when they have overestimated their value proposition, which is the central problem faced by media organisations across Australia and beyond.
The internet has corroded so many of the structural basics of the journalistic transaction. Our monopoly over basic source information is significantly undermined, seeing as anyone can now watch parliament, or press conferences, or go through company reports online or tinker around with the websites of government departments. Our monopoly over the dissemination of information is damaged too, seeing as anyone can now set up a cheap publishing platform.
The challenge remains to pull all of that information together into a story that is both compelling and relevant. That's the real value proposition of journalism, Annabel.
Part of that challenge, however, involves telling experienced editors and other people who control the careers of people like Annabel Crabb that they don't know their own jobs: that what they believe to be a story may not, in fact, be a story.
Compelling and relevant: that's the challenge. People who run news organisations don't think you can do both, and so will settle for compelling over relevance. Grog's Gamut and other blogs show that you can be both compelling and relevant. High-value journalism is both compelling and relevant. Alan Kohler does this with business and finance news, and most sport journalists know that most of their job consists of letting the game tell the story. That's the standard: clear it, or shut up shop.
Journalists are directed to go out and get compelling content, but what they provide (and what publishers publish) is hype. In the journosphere, the Federal Treasurer breaking a drinking glass is a huge story. To most people, it isn't. Because most people aren't editors, the broken glass is the story. There are plenty of things that the Treasurer did which just get ignored. What happens then is that politics becomes irrelevant to people, and lazy journalists don't think it's important to write about relevant issues in a compelling way: people like Annabel Crabb don't even try. She says:
But I'd love to hear what you think about all of this.
Nowhere in the comments that follow is there any engagement with what people think about her writing or the issue she raises. She should have been honest and said: "I don't care what you think, if you do think at all. Nothing you say will make a blind bit of difference to what I do or how I do it".
Marius Benson at least pays lip service to the idea that not all journalism is of the rolled-gold variety:
The media and politicians do have much to answer for. Their self-serving world of half truths, beat-ups, misrepresentation, slogans and fudge is a poor substitute for reality.
But much of the blame lies elsewhere. The real problem is not the media, not the politicians; it is you - you the voter. The level of knowledge that lies behind the average vote is distressingly slight.
We're informed by the media, Marius. It's not a substitute for reality, it's a misrepresentation of it. The first paragraph is the problem, it's not something you skate over on the way to somewhere else. I'm doing my bit by going around the media, and identifying poor examples of journalism on the way through. What are you doing - the same old same-old?
Carbon sequestration is a clumsy term, but the idea of storing carbon in the ground is a relatively simple one and it is often referred to in the carbon debate.
It's also bullshit, Marius. Just because you can explain it in a press release doesn't mean you can do it in practice. Nobody has said or demonstrated how it can be done, or whether doing it would cause more harm than good (what would be the impact on the water table?), so it's just an example of bullshit that you don't need to worry about because it won't make much difference anyway. It's another example of the difference between what fascinates journalists and what's relevant - and the difference is the journalists' fault.
The Rudd government promised $heaps toward a Carbon Capture Storage Institute, Marius, so seeing as you're interested in that sort of thing why don't you just toddle off and find out what happened to our money? You've clearly got nothing better to do.
Faced with this level of indifference and ignorance what are politicians meant to do beyond picking three slogans, repeating them endlessly and hoping something will get through to people who only hear them accidentally when they tune in too early for Master Chef and catch a political grab on the news headlines?
Fuck you, Marius Benson, and fuck everyone who made you like that - particularly clowns like you who decide what "the news headlines" are (which are in themselves "three word slogans").
Benson describes the recently departed NSW Labor government as:
a government that had long outstayed its welcome, that was caught up in frenzy of back-stabbing, maladministration and personal scandals and which provided the electorate with riveting images like ministers dancing on the parliamentary furniture in their underwear. Even the most inattentive voter took a clear view to the ballot box in NSW, and it was not uninformed.
To get there, a great deal of misinformation was necessary, and was provided in spades. Journalists like Marius Benson were impressed that Bob Carr had been a journalist but nobody else was or is: this is why journalists gave Carr and his attendant bullshit a better run than it should've enjoyed.
People not very different to Marius Benson attended over sixty announcements during the 1990s about the Parramatta to Chatswood rail line, taking the press release at face value and expecting that the rest of us did too. People realised much sooner than journalists that the line was hype and bullshit, and extended this opinion to the media outlets that promulgated it. There are other examples, and while journalists quailed at being threatened with loss of access to a bullshit government, people came to ignore the media and vote said government out of office. In its final days, in the interests of "balance", journalists continued to report Kristina Keneally's announcements as though they were valuable.
In the interests of balance a word in defence of the disengaged voters.
After regaling us with anecdotes of randoms he has apparently met to make a self-serving point (Marius Benson will keep doing what Marius Benson has always done and the rest of you can rack off), he makes up quotes from a non-existent person.
"Besides, a lot of the stuff is beyond knowing. A lifetime of study would not provide a definite answer to issues like global warming and what is the best way to deal with it - or how best to equip the country for the future of technology."
What's needed here are journalists who can explain these issues, rather than giving in to hype about broken glasses or carbon capture. What's needed are politicians who appear sufficiently sensible to be trusted to deal with this stuff. Marius Benson can't be trusted to help us out with either, so to hell with Marius Benson.
I agree with every word in Tim Dunlop's piece on "quality journalism":
Journalists need to get over themselves. Their industry is in decline and the people who care most about that are the very ones, over the last decade, they have gone out of their way to demonise and ridicule. To some extent their defensiveness is understandable (and sometimes even justified) but, as reaction to Lindsay Tanner’s book shows in spades, journalists are still too much inclined to dismiss legitimate criticism out of hand.
It is hard to think of an industry more entrapped by what it considers the untouchable verities of its craft, or one that thinks it can so blithely ignore complaints from its customers. In fact, there is a sense that journalists see criticism as an indication that they are doing something right, not something wrong, and it produces a bunker mentality that makes them all the more determined to continue on the same course.
Bravo! This piece started off cheering for Dunlop without adding much, so now Dunlop appears at the end without much added. You'd be better off reading his piece than wading through that shit from Crabb and Benson.
The good news is that I have a copy of Sideshow. The bad news is that I have not started reading it because my wife has taken to it. There shall be a review in due course.
Update 20 May: Mr Denmore's The Failed estate is highly commended to those interested in this stuff - particularly my Anonymous friend in the Comments.