28 April 2013

Futures of journalism

What follows here is my impression of the PIJF Future of Public Interest Journalism forum at the Old Fitzroy Hotel, Woolloomooloo, on 24 April 2013. I didn't take notes and this is not pretending to be any sort of formal, minuted, or objective account of proceedings.

Having been a critic of the way journalism is practiced in this country, it was incumbent upon me to take an interest in how journalists saw their future and what they were doing to secure it. When the Public Interest Journalism Foundation set up a meet-up and discussion on that future, in a pub of which I had fond memories from my dating days, I was keen to go.

As with many such events, near the entrance were sheets of sticky labels with attendees' names on them. Many were the names of journalists whose pieces I had read over the years. They looked like the place where bylines go to die. Like everyone else I found my name and pressed it onto my chest. Before the panel forum started I met people like Jim Parker (publisher of The Failed Estate), Amanda Wilson (former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald) and Melissa Sweet (who organised the event, runs PIJF and edits Croakey, and is another SMH veteran), Lesley Parker (of whom more later) and others who took an interest in the media and its future.

There were a lot of ex-Fairfax people, small numbers of ex-News, and quite a few academics. It was generally agreed at an early stage that institutional backing was indispensable to public interest journalism; stories need long gestations and journalists need lawyers to protect them from those who don't want stories told about them.

Universities seem to be taking responsibility over elements of journalism that corporate journalism has abandoned (if it ever did cover them), in much the same way that university law faculties stand up for principles in jurisprudence overlooked by commercial law firms. One of the academics, Simon Chapman from the University of Sydney, warned that universities are turning up the heat on academics who publish too little and who aren't great at public engagement. Those hoping that universities will provide the institutional protection that commercial media no longer does (again, if it ever did) were warned to keep that in mind.

With that, attention turned to individual members of the panel in the hope that they might have found a way out of the morass. First was Adele Horin, who wrote about social issues for, yes, The Sydney Morning Herald, and now has her own blog where she writes about general issues affecting people of her age. She couldn't bear to deal with statistics or with comments, and refused to consider such matters until June.

In a corporate media environment there would have been other people to deal with the public and with IT issues. As a blogger she has to deal with them herself. Horin spoke about learning about IT firstly as though it were difficult, but then as though it were a chore, and expressed gratitude to Lesley Parker for her help but still confessed to be reluctant about IT issues, with a real sense of dread.

I work in ICT and thought about this on the way home: Horin seems to be a prisoner of the silly contradictory basis from which most journalists report on it:
  • ICT is overwhelming. It will read your brain! It will cyber-bully you! It will hack into your bank account and steal your money, or send you honeyed emails which trick you into giving it away! In the case of journalism, it will steal your job!
  • On the other hand, IT is trivial. IT is kids' games, and for boys who refuse to grow up.
Thus, ICT is not a serious endeavour, unless it is overwhelming. Horin has a potentially large audience for her blog, and a substantial reputation which is not denied to her by the termination of her employment. The potential for that blog as both a communications outlet and a money-making business is enormous. My guess is that she will take small but sure steps that are strongly backed by moral (and increasingly financial) support, whereupon others will try to imitate her. She does, however, need to get over her timidity toward engaging with both ICT issues and with people for whom she writes. Adele Horin could have one of the strongest supporter-to-troll ratios on the internet today if only she gave her audience a chance.

Anne Summers has both a bigger reputation than Horin and less trepidation. Having run magazines in Sydney and New York, Summers was confident of her ability to set up an serious current-affairs magazine online. She has a blog, and a magazine where she is hedging her bets format-wise; because she likes the look and feel of glossy paper she is keeping that option open, but glossy-paper mags are expensive so she is putting it online too. It deserves credit for actually covering topical issues with well-written articles. She declared that the PDF works perfectly well on computers, and it works as well as any PDF really; but when I tried to read it from my phone whilst on the train later in the week, it was a pain in the arse. Summers told how she had people working for free to set up her magazine, admitting that it was unsustainable. She said that she was working on people who could come up with the sort of money necessary to support the magazine for a year.

The issue of payment for journalism was pretty big. It is not necessarily true that the market will reward good articles and punish the dreck, and nor is the reverse true either. Trust for the market in general, and for building an audience who would then form a specific market for a specific type of journalism, was low. They seemed to regard the online world in the same way Hunter S. Thompson regarded US television in the 1980s:
... [it] is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.
Without the money, perhaps, but you get the idea.

There was a great deal of focus on the journalism aspect of 'public interest journalism', as though it were so special that it could not possibly be compared to other types of work. One journalist present, who had been turfed by a major media outlet, declared that online journalism was insufficient to pay her mortgage. This journalist self-described as both a science journalist and a technophobe, propounding the latter as though it were a Valid Lifestyle Choice like veganism or Shinto. A technophobic science journalist is not just a bit disadvantaged, like a champion swimmer allergic to chlorine, or harmlessly hypocritical like a teetotalling barman, or even absurd like Dave Graney's invisible rock star; such behaviour is self-defeating and only see their credibility suffer (especially in the absence of professional development from a generous employer), like an anorexic chef or a corrupt police officer. I'd suggest that journalist needs to make a choice or one will be made for them - and that with the right choice the mortgage will take care of itself.

It seems that public interest journalism might be usefully compared with public interest education, public interest environmental work, or public interest healthcare. There might be a bit of government money, but not much (and you'll have to hunt for it); a bit of money from private philanthropists and corporate donors, but not much (and again, you'll have to hunt for it); and after all that, anyone still keen on the activity will have to work for little money or none.

The case against working for free is strong, a case well made here and less so there. Around the corner from that pub was the Matthew Talbot Hostel, Sydney's largest homeless shelter. Never mind MEAA pay scales for the moment, and imagine how much you'd want to clean a homeless person who was so far gone they weren't aware they'd soiled themselves. I wish the journalists present would have gone to see what public interest work really looks like, particularly the ones seeking a return to the Circumstances To Which They Had Become Accustomed. Plenty there would have worked for Anne Summers for free - if only they had the IT skills she needed.

Next was Jim "Mr Denmore" Parker. When I met him I was expecting a crusty chain-smoking-and-drinking journo of the old school, but the man wearing that byline nametag more closely resembled a particularly personable financial planner. He made the most impassioned speech, imploring journalists to regard themselves and not their (erstwhile) employers as custodians of journalism; particularly in the case of the Murdoch domination of print and propagandising to get people to vote against their own interests. He made many of the points he makes in his blog, including one that many of us have been making, namely that you can't tell what's going on in Australian politics by consuming only broadcast media, and that this is an inherent failure of journalism which can only lead to the commercial failure of organisations that practice it.

The overtly political aspect of what Jim said, combined with his cheerful admission that he didn't make a cent from blogging, saw many reluctant to engage with what he'd said; [d]isdain, outright anger or more likely an unwillingness to engage indeed: a real pity. There was a real quietism about the broadcast media, as though turfing hundreds of journalists had been done from a position of strength rather than weakness. Older journalists were still looking to get back on the gravy train from which they'd been evicted; younger journalists working on the fringes still looked on a job with those organisations as professional endorsement. They couldn't believe it was really over. They were convinced of the inherent rightness and power of the skills and conceits they had picked up in journalism, but as for applying them in places not at all like the places where they picked them up - well, [sucks air through clenched teeth, rolls eyes, smiles sadly; insert other non-verbal expression indicating lack of both confidence and choice here].

Lesley Parker works for the MEAA providing transition counselling and online skills to shellshocked outplaced journalists looking for a way to practice their beloved craft after being spurned by their employers, including Adele Horin. She's also Jim's wife. She encouraged people to see a future for journalism beyond the majors, and for journalists to use accessible online tools to secure that future - and to trust that an audience will be there if you put yourself out there for them. She gently suggested that it was necessary to take risks to secure that future - even though many participants believed they had taken quite enough risk upon themselves, thanks very much.

There was absolutely no discussion of the sorts of issues that arise from breaking events in the contemporary media environment, like this, where the author underestimates:
  • how much eyewitness activism is part of gathering and promulgating information in the public interest; and
  • the extent to which the noxious toad Col Allan is actually a journalist.
Then there's this, where the writer maintains an employed journo's contempt for social media, one shared by many at that event (including by self-limiting practitioners). She makes a case for that ringing final sentence while assuming that only employed journalists are capable of living up to that standard, and only they are capable of calling out those who fall short (this is a particularly acute calling-out of sloppy journalism by a non-journalist, the sort of thing journo-boosters would do well to examine in making peace with social media).

Summing up, Melissa Sweet said that journalism was in the midst of a revolution, and she was right - however, revolutions require not just the displacement of workers but their arousal, and also:

  • the execution of those who rule now;
  • protagonists to take the initiative (and run the risk that they will not be left standing once the Glorious Day Of Liberation arrives);
  • the understanding (if not dread) that meritocracy does not necessarily prevail, a bit like the fate of Thompson's "good men" above. 
There was a lot of goodwill toward the ventures of Horin and Summers, and if they succeed online they will form a model for what Australian public interest journalism might look like online; if they fail, the despondency and lack of direction among public interest journalists will only increase, and if that happens many big and important issues will escape scrutiny.

I work on the rollouts of ICT projects and am used to seeing change management done badly; I have learned to do what I can to mitigate that, but the sheer degree to which journalists had been misled and continue to kid themselves about the nature and future of their work is genuinely astonishing. Normally I would have thrown my two cents into a forum like that, but where to start?

The pub itself is more a quiet local than a magnet for unemployed theatrical types for miles about. They no longer do their excellent laksas but standard pub food, and some interesting beers. I looked into the space where out-of-work actors put on their own shows and saw rows of pokies: my heart sank, but apparently they still do theatre there. I guess we all react in different ways to changing markets.

The next forum will be organised by Luke Pearson, who cheerfully admitted that he and his friends had all but written off the traditional broadcast media as a means for sharing ideas and getting them across to people who could use them. As he said this I looked at the panel members and others who had been outspoken; they looked like they wanted to call him out on that, and maybe they would have five or ten years ago. I thought about my own experience, where I began participating in social media because broadcast media coverage of politics and ICT was so inadequate: just what is broadcast media for, then? Who even is their audience?

What aspects of journo culture should those steeped in it carry forward once freed from corporate employment, and what should they cling to while buffeted by the storms of post-industrial journalism (thanks to Melissa Sweet for distributing that link)? That should be a corker. You'd be a mug to miss it, and the future(s) of journalism more broadly.


  1. As you say, Horin's blog could be very successful but she's just adopted Wordpress and gone for the flat story, just like in the old days. Summers' magazine is a thing she promotes fastidiously on Facebook but my impression is that she's relying on the strength of the brand contained in her name to egg it along. So far I can't see much to distinguish her venture from, say, the Good Weekend. Magazine editors are notoriously conservative in Australia, and tend to rely on "trusted" names for most of their content, so they miss out on new perspectives and fresh approaches. There's also nowhere here the culture of nurturing writers, as there is in, say, the New Yorker, which leads to such regular excellence there. I believe Horin can make a lot more of her blog if she gets more involved on social media, but she probably thinks it's enough to tweet each post once a day, and leave it at that.

  2. The industry needs a shake up....

    Agree with The New Yorker analogy.

    Australia is full of creative people and ideas

    Status Quo....f....off!

  3. As a journalism start-up founder, I can only watch on and shake my head at the opportunities being wasted. So many high quality assets in the process of depreciation and obsolescence. One wonders if it's worth entrepreneurs picking through the dregs for something of value. Could anyone actually retrain old-style journos to write usefully for new media, or will the old dogs not hunt?

    I bent the ears of all and sundry at a Melbourne wonk drinks last year about how when Fairfax falls over you'll see new startups bloom staffed by the recently retrenched, but articles like this make me wonder if anyone from within the culture has an entrepreneurial bone in their bodies.

    Any entrepreneur actually considering a new startup in the media sector is most likely going to go the HuffPo route, relying a lot on UGC, but HuffPo has always employed some MSM rejects as part of its model too. I hear talk of a local HuffPo occasionally, but no one ever treats the concept seriously enough to do anything about it.

    It's a tragedy which could be saved in small part if the right people got together to solve the problem and create a post-MSM-fall vehicle that might, by the by, rehabilitate a few of these Ellis Redding types. Otherwise it's the knackery for them all.

  4. Excellent stuff Andrew.
    But ICT? 5 mins of head scratching, followed by....PING! (Information and Communications Technology) Thanks Google :-)

  5. Hi, it's your personable financial adviser here. You might like to see my own take on the event that Andrew describes so well above.

    Click here

    1. Never miss a Failed Estate. Valuable advice ;)

  6. I didn't feel the mood in the room was resistant, which I think your post suggests (tell me if I'm wrong). It may be because I ended up chatting to Yvette Nielsen, she who started a business teaching new media skills to old dogs back in the 90s.

    I did sense a couple of other attitudes, though:
    1. Trepidation at the transition from mainstream media to the new world of smaller, alternative (but no less powerful in aggregate) media outlets.
    2. The idea that journalism is an occupation or a 'profession' first (ie a paid position) but an inherent compulsion second.

    The point about whether journalism is a profession I will leave for now because it is technically not but I came away thinking: journalism is not what you do but who you are and if a journalist is not what you are, I don't know what you're doing here.

    Sure, pay is important but it should not be the main issue of this current 'crisis' as you rightly point out. There are non-journalists out there doing better work (according to journalistic principles) than those with a journalist title.

    1. I was going by the general discussion in the room rather than a hard-to-define 'sense'. Like you I spoke with some good people, but the absence of a viable alternative model worried many. I love the idea of journalism as art.

  7. It was a really interesting evening. I'm and academic and I have the same comments thrown my way about my research on social media and public health: "Isn't all a bit of time wasting, people just update what they had for lunch right, not that I ever even use it myself? I mean a tried Twitter, but it was just so hard to know where to begin - but really, any idiot could use it so, what's the point? Sure, I mean anyone could start a Facebook page, but I don't have time for that start of thing."

    Basically boils down to "I am too busy and important to bother with something that is so trivial. Let the silly masses have their social media, its not for intellects like myself."

  8. Anxious to start with, it's true, but now pretty darn excited,encouraged,and enjoying myself.

  9. I'm laughing a bit at seeing journalists becoming like artists with all the precariousness that involves, no simple straightforward employment but the need to scratch together income from a myriad source.

    Basically I really don't think the existing generations of journalists will make it because the new models will require very different personality types capable of much more fluid work processes and attitudes and to be blunt about it, a recognition that they are not special, not part of an exclusive club. Adeline Teoh above has that right.

    And like art, where the boundaries that defined the activity and who was an artist have almost completely broken down (even if in an unevenly distributed way) so too with journalism. However the need to recognise that to some extent your audience is now at times as much a journalist as you are seems to be too great a psychological leap for many.

    If Andrew is correct in reporting the techie fear and loathing then all those people who demonstrate it will fail and thoroughly deserve to fail because they simply do not understand the contemporary world. For that reason I would not trust anything they might have to say as journalists on any other subject either.

  10. And it is also amusing that MSM journos are taking up blogging long after blogging's day has passed and a lot of previously lively blogs have closed eg Larvatus Prodeo. At least Anne Summers has a bit of a Facebook presence, that's closer to the action now.