In Aaron Sorkin's new drama The Newsroom, idealistic twentysomethings rush about with BlackBerrys plastered to their ears, creating a groundbreaking quality TV news show, pausing only long enough to give set speeches about how to make quality journalism.Really? The above pretty much describes the outward appearance of activity from the ABC's Mark Colvin, who is widely regarded as one of the nation's leading journalists. His Twitter feed @colvinius shows him devouring The Guardian and The New York Times and then - having consumed all the journalism and passed it on, cementing his reputation as Mr Journalism - he then produces a radio show where he interviews journalists and asks them to summarise the press conference they attended/other original journalism they did.
For those running journalism degrees, like me, it's manna from heaven. No doubt when it's aired it will do for journalism degrees what the Indiana Jones films did for archaeology degrees.
There's just one problem: there are hardly any journalists in it. Aside from the crusty anchor Will McAvoy and his executive producer, MacKenzie MacHale, the newsroom is made up of producers, bookers, researchers and a blogger. They're adept at reading a news wire, but no one seems to have any ability to produce original journalism.
Soon enough, Colvin is to deliver this year's Andrew Olle address, which will follow this formula:
- He'll tell us all what journalism is (basically, it's what he learned as a copyboy; he'd never have made it beyond that rank had he believed otherwise. Insert nostalgic yarns about media in the 1960s/70s here, none of your e-Internet back then!);
- How journalism is under threat by various forces the journalist has scarcely bothered to investigate in depth (is Murdoch a help or hindrance to Australian journalism? Pussyfoot around this question without resolving it, and make sure to cauterise the local operation from the UK despite all evidence to the contrary. This will make your address 'daring' and 'controversial', etc.);
- But for all that, insist journalism will survive, oh yes;
- Declare that all journalism is High Quality Journalism (in the same way that driving a bus is Precision Circuit Driving Of An Unwieldy Public Service On Which The Australian Public Relies), and any diminution of which is A Threat To Our Democracy; sonorously serious, a jarring departure from the waggish tales of a Working Journo that led up to this;
- Take a swipe at those bogans on commercial radio/television (oh, except you Laurie), whose output is not at all like the waggish hi-jinks of the speech-maker's younger days; then
- Shake a defiant fist and weep a few tears, pay due credit to what a top bloke and excellent journalist Olle was, and see you next year for more of the same.
Perhaps, with Fairfax and News recently announcing huge staff cuts, a newsroom without journalists is a sign of things to come. Where, then, does that leave journalism degrees?Where does that leave Fairfax and News? They can't do just-the-facts reporting, because there is so much stuff coming out that each gobbet of mere reporting might please purists but it is just another drop in the tsunami. Besides, you can get just-the-facts reporting from plenty of other sources, including viewing the very press release that gave rise to a particular story.
But where does this leave journalism degrees? Sitting pretty, it would seem:
Journalism continues to be one of the most popular courses in universities and many attract the brightest students.Sounds like you don't need that Indiana Jones boost, then.
The rise of journalism courses may seem counter-intuitive, given the state of the media business, but it's not as paradoxical as it sounds. The same forces that are disrupting the news business are also driving the popularity of journalism courses.They have also meant that MSM companies can no longer provide comprehensive journalism training in-house, because they don't take the time to get across new systems and tools, they don't have the resources to use them if they did, and stories like this just frighten them. These organisations gained a lot of credibility within and beyond journalism for the provision of comprehensive journo-training. Old-timers who regard journalism as a trade rather than a profession, to be learned on the job and not in an ivory tower, have to face realities such as technologies (and other social changes, e.g. the pub is less of a happy-hunting-ground for stories than it might have been).
The development of freely available web publishing systems, free and low-cost video hosting platforms as well as social media - read "audience building tools" - have stripped traditional media companies of their monopoly on the production and distribution of content.
Will Sorkin's characters be using Blackberrys next season?
In many cases, the content on these sites is awful.In many cases, MSM content isn't much chop either. To what extent are journalism courses responsible for this? To what extent do they, or can they, make things better?
But for more skilled and savvy producers, these platforms offer new opportunities to communicate directly with audiences.This is all very well across multi-platforms, but there is not a lot of two-way engagement going on here. That's the main 2.0 difference that old-timey journalists can't and won't get, and it is doing a disservice to teach budding journos that communication is a one-way process.
Most medium-sized and large organisations now have dedicated media production teams. The university where I work produces its own content, including interviews with academics, short documentaries and opinion articles. In the past they would have distributed a press release and tried to get newspapers or TV stations interested in running the story; now they publish themselves.
Some will claim this is public relations, not journalism. In most cases, that's true. But the skills of a journalist and a PR professional are largely the same. If you doubt that, look at the revolving door between journalists turning PR professionals and, in some cases, back again.Scanlon might be right here, but this isn't sustainable. Journalism used to be just about finding things out in an environment where information was scarce. We're in a different environment now. We need trusted advisors to help us through the information available, and show us what's bullshit, what's the good stuff.
In other cases, though, the content is journalism - or at least a form of journalism. It's simply storytelling about new developments. Most science reporting falls into this category, as do most human-interest stories. These are not insidious forms of PR that seek to manipulate people; it's just sharing stuff that people want to know. That's what most journalism is.How do you know what people want to know? In PR you might know what people might need to say, which is why most PR reads like talking at an audience rather than to or with it. This perpetuates the old Voice From Nowhere style of journalism, where you can't tell whether or not the journalists/editors have an interest in the material presented in the story, and you can't engage with them anyway (particularly if the material is both fabricated and ethereal like the stuff Twitter users refer to as #leadershit). PR stops stories from happening in many cases; if journalists are taught how to get around PR to get their story (if there is a story to get), then they are educated well.
Does that mean everything is hunky dory? Not exactly. On a recent episode of Media Watch, Jonathan Holmes lamented the AFL setting up its own news service. Holmes doubted that AFL "journalists" would - or could - provide truly independent coverage of their employer. I share his doubts.Sure, so long as neither Holmes nor Scanlon actually look at patterns of behaviour in sports journalism.
The number of journalists covering AFL is four times greater than there are covering federal politics. In many cases, they slavishly report whatever Andrew Demetriou says. In many cases, they bag the guy equally consistently. In many cases, they play favourites in overlooking outrages here and excoriating minor issues there. There is not a lot of fearless, investigative journalism going on into any aspect of AFL; everyone who covers it is a fan with their own loves and hates about particular facets of it. To get a clear picture of what is going on in AFL you have to wade through a great deal of crap and hype.
Scanlon and Holmes are wrong to imply that the quality of journalism in AFL will necessarily decline as a result of AFL bringing its media in-house. Having observed them up close the AFL has clearly decided that it can't be too hard to do what the MSM does. There might be some 1984-style alarmism over the control of information coming from an organisation about which there is a great deal of public interest, and it will be interesting to see whether or not this info-control freakery will damage the game as a whole. There is no reason why AFL is obliged to have big media companies siphon money from their product, as happened to rugby league at the hands of News Ltd.
What would Scanlon advise a student of his who went to work for AFL Media? That student would appear on the right side of graduate-employment stats that would flatter Scanlon and his employer, so what's the problem?
There are also real concerns about what happens to a democracy when large metropolitan newspapers cease to function in the manner to which we have become accustomed. The gaps they leave are not going to be filled by niche news services, no matter how well-intentioned.Far more urgent are the concerns about what happens to a democracy when large metropolitan newspapers (and other media outlets) continue to function in the manner to which we have become accustomed. They ignore great swathes of facts about how we are governed, are too lazy to do analysis or even develop the skills to do so, and overstate the effect of corridor tittle-tattle on the ways we are governed and that our public services are delivered. The idea that they award one another prizes and engage in mutual reinforcement through poor education and circle-jerk events like the Andrew Olle, the Midwinter Ball, the Walkleys or [is there an awards ceremony for AFL journos? I bet there is. Insert it here] is revolting. Scanlon needs to investigate his role, and those of his colleagues, in perpetuating this toxic occupational environment.
If Scanlon was seriously concerned about threats to our democracy he should have made it more important in the story, and more evident in other aspects of his work. It's the act of a dilettante to go on about Indiana Jones and cool new technologies, and then casually drop threats to our democracy as a by-the-way down the end of his article.
The gaps they leave are not going to be filled by niche news services, no matter how well-intentioned.They're a sign that Traditional Media ain't cutting it, Scanlon. You should be learning from those organisations, not treating them/us like a disease to which you have the cure.
The trick for journalism courses will be to work with news organisations to keep a robust ethos of news reporting alive, so that we will continue to have journalism in all its forms.The trick for journalism courses (insofar as it is a "trick", rather than a challenge or a responsibility) is to be clearer about what the value proposition is for journalism for those who consume it, not just for those who produce it. Surely there is some university by-law where a student who writes as badly as Michelle Grattan should have to show cause why they should not be expelled. This will make for better PR too, as graduates would be better prepared to push back against poor strategy and accept the consequences of doing so, rather than just taking all those info-turds and rolling them in PR-glitter on the basis of what people like Christopher Scanlon have taught them.