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.
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
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.
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.
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.