31 August 2006

Hope for the future of newspapers

The media can be incredibly self-involved, attaching an importance to its output that just doesn't exist in the lives of most people. In today's Crikey, Margaret Simons said that the media occupy a "privileged position" - really? No more so than any up-themselves spruiker pushing something I don't want. The Economist recently published a number of stories claiming that newspapers are on the road to oblivion, echoed amongst others by Mark Day. There is a good deal of wistfulness about Ye Goode Olde Days, and a bit of grumpy-old-man fist-shaking at new-fangled technology. What is missing is an appreciation of how media can add value into the future.

Day sees the value of newspapers in providing fresh, breaking news only. There are, it seems, two types of FBN: long-term investigative reporting and daily blah (i.e. recycling of press releases). The traditional economic model for newspapers is that advertising funds the content, and that the cost of the paper itself barely covers printing and distribution; the death-of-newspapers crowd complain that the internet breaks the link between content and advertising, hence newspapers are apparently doomed.

Some people fret about negative coverage in a newspaper article because they think that it will permanently colour people's perceptions of them. Old newspaper hands like Day will self-effacingly dismiss their output as "fish-wrappers", often as a way of limiting libel litigation against them. This self-effacement is quickly dispelled when you see the self-importance media attaches to itself; a change to the regulatory environment of, say, universities or uranium mining is covered much less than what happens when there is a change to media regulations. Imagine a combination of the children's games musical chairs and pass-the-parcel, throw in a flurry of accountants and lawyers, and it's much like a shakeout in any other industry.

Never mind the internet, I would have thought newspapers were used to other forms of electronic media by now. I get my raw information from the radio, supplemented by TV in the evening. If I get time at work I hit the internet. It would be hard for any advertiser to reach me during this process. I make a point of avoiding internet advertising, and will often surf sites from outside Australia. I mostly listen to/watch the ABC.

ABC local radio is basically The Sydney Morning Herald read out, featuring interviews with those quoted in the paper (who, if they are briefed in the techniques of media management, will say nothing more than that which was quoted in the paper: it is the dull and lazy radio interviewer who will be content with nothing more than that). The evening news often carries reactions to the day's newspapers and radio: this is known as "the news cycle" and it starts again the following day. It is the very definition of a short-sighted imbecile who thinks the news cycle is the be-all-and-end-all, and it is an indictment of the political and media systems of this country that these myopic people occupy senior and vital roles in those organisations.

But I need more than raw news: and I'm above-average in terms of education and income, and I'm under 40 - so advertisers listen up. People like Day are worried that Google are bringing out a facility that will aggregate information on whatever you're interested in and spoon-feed it to you. This needn't bother newspapers as much as it apparently does. I read newspapers for the analysis.

Newspapers are almost irrelevant in terms of FBN. There's the occasional long-term investigation which leads to FBN, but you get those from Four Corners and you used to get them from Sunday. They're expensive, claims Day: media organisations have plenty of money so that isn't a problem for most newspapers. What he means is they detract from the bottom-line focus, particularly if said investigations upset advertisers.

Newspapers should concentrate on is longer-term analysis of trends that affect the world; they're good at it and it is helpful in forming opinions to make decisions. I read newspapers and news magazines to get some measured analysis of events in the world. The major difference between Australian media and quality media elsewhere is the lack of this longer term analysis by well-informed people who aren't obviously pushing a barrow.

If newspapers wanted commentary on politics, they shouldn't bother asking Tony Abbott or Tanya Plibersek for a piece: they put out press releases and should be busy doing things that are worthy of reporting. If someone wanted an insight to their thought processes, one would go to their websites or read an interview. The piece in today's Australian Financial Review on opportunities for Australia with India's growing nuclear industry might have made a useful speech in Hansard, but as newspaper content it was a waste of space. Politicians like them may complain about the media but as each of them belong to parties which worked to restrict media diversity, forcing discerning readers onto the web, they can just shut up.

The nearest Australian newspapers get to this is the publication of a diverse range of considered views on fake militant Islam. Some are long-serving and distinguished Arabists, some are Washington think-tankers, some are Russell Hill defence nerds; there is a good range available to find entertaining and informative pieces within Australia and overseas. I am not convinced that a similar range of people can't be found on other subject areas. When you need broad and long-term analysis of a subject of which you have known little, you should have a newspaper to go to.

If the quality of the writing is there, I am prepared to dip into articles about other subjects: wine, opera, particle physics, areas where I can't imagine doing a Google search but where a good piece will get me involved. It would be dreary to read articles which reflected a certain line all the time; I need a provocative article to sharpen my views against, or to reconsider them. I'd subscribe to a newspaper if it did this reliably: I always buy the Fin on Friday for the Review section. I used to buy The Bulletin but it's too hit-and-miss. ACP aren't serious about producing it and neither am I about reading/buying it.

You can't train young journalists to do this analysis, but you can persuade them that it's important. Easier to start off doing that earnest noddy stuff on TV outside a court house, and start doing some reading.

What has been imported into Australian papers from the States is the intellectually lazy ideological shill: Bolt, Albrechtsen and Devine on the right, Horin, Davidson and others on the left, largely ignored by readers and generating heat rather than light only among myopic autistics referred to earlier. These people do not change votes or increase readership and they don't sell advertising. Why are they in the paper at all? Dumbing down hits newspapers hardest - they start competing with junk mail catalogues, which are free. Now, as Margaret Simons pointed out in Crikey today, the same is happening to TV (can't wait for the book).

Newspapers will survive if they're worth reading, and they'll be worth reading if they take a more considered view than is possible in media where time is of the essence. This may mean that old-school dumb-down chuckleheads like Mark Day, David Pemberthy, Peter Blunden or Eddie McGuire may have to go, but we all must make sacrifices. If McDonalds can lift the nutritional quality of their menu, News Ltd can too.

I don't pretend that what I like reading is what everyone likes reading. I think it's risible that people like David Flint or Glenn Milne criticise someone who has won and held elected office for being "out of touch with public opinion", as if they'd know! However, I think the media in Australia and elsewhere is in a state of flux, and hopefully something appealling will come out of that.

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