31 March 2009

What is the media for?

I read the transcript of the speech given by John B. Fairfax about 'quality journalism' (not so much a contradiction in terms as an irrelevant modifier, a bit like 'fresh organic shit'), and thought that it represented the ramblings of an old man confused about the world in which he finds himself.

I was going to link to it and pick it to bits, but it was only available on Fairfax sites as a pay-per-view item so stuff that. It was available, however, here on Margaret Simons' Crikey blog. Simons' intro is instructive - she correctly points out the contradiction over training, but isn't too precise in her critique about why Fairfax (company, and man) has disappointed her so.

First, I'll address Fairfax, then Simons' introduction:
Graham Perkin was a great editor. As written in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Graham’s success as editor “owed much to his ebullience, to his infectious enthusiasm for journalism, to his dominant - sometimes domineering - personality, and to his willingness to bear the heat of criticism.”

One from the heart there, JB. I could have looked up the Australian Dictionary of Biography myself. I would have been interested to find out how a domineering personality could prepare a paper that anyone other than he would want to read. Three cheers for the boofhead!
Graham did not believe that training alone produced good journalists - “Intuitive ability runs first for me, intellectual capacity second, training third”.

Nowhere is there any mention of the role training plays in sharpening the first two qualities. I read in the Australian Dictionary of Biography that Graham Perkin is dead, yet what lives on apparently is the idea that skating across the surface of an issue, scattering references like an undergraduate without anything at the core is good enough for the likes of you:
One of the less known philosophers, Anaximenes ... “quality alterations” or “quality butcher”. A shoe shop states: “quality at your feet”. Another boasts “quality you can taste”, “quality you can trust” ... Quality for one person may have a totally different meaning for another. As Robert Pirsig points out in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

This is the sort of thing you'd expect from a 20-year-old aesthete, not a man in his sixties who's running a large company and who is trying to convince his employees that it isn't dying under him. At least he dropped that Zen/Motorcycle reference, what a groover!
When I was a schoolboy at Cranbrook in Sydney, a fellow student was struggling to give an answer to what I thought was a fairly simple question. I called out across the classroom, “use your gumption,” an utterance which brought about subsequent punishment.

A bit like 'What is quality journalism?' or 'What is the future of journalism?', questions that can apparently be evaded with a bit of ebullience and gumption, or just sheer bullshit. Looks like the punishment didn't work, JB.
Perhaps quality is only achieved when you have the time to produce it. The current trend to do as much as possible as quickly as possible, denies the investment of heart and soul in a work of truth and quality.

Any examples of where you yourself have taken journalists off the treadmill JB, and seen quality skyrocket?
So often quality is in the detail; and the precision; and the execution.

Quality is often a matter of taste and for this I revert to my “quality butcher”. Sometimes the sign will say “quality meat”. Frankly there is not much point in having a quality butcher if you do not consider the meat to be to your taste. And tastes differ.

Any reflection on the notion that the stand-alone butcher shop is struggling to survive, JB, the very position in which Fairfax is increasingly often regarded as being?
... suddenly there was a smell that quality journalism from the great Fairfax organisation - the largest media organisation in Australasia and still mostly in the hands of Australians - was about to die. I have no need to tell you who was expressing those sentiments. They are best ignored.

A bit of ad-hominem work, expressing both sensitivity to criticism and a contradictory wish to ignore it; this would lead a journalist to identify a sore point, a real issue covered with bluster. Thankfully journalists are the passive recipients of this rather than using it as a start for further investigation.
Reporting in my days was strictly facts; no interpretation; both sides of the story; no embellishment. But even today, facts are not out of fashion.

They're not out of fashion, JB, merely insufficient. It is not enough to report what was said; NSW State political journalists, from Fairfax and elsewhere, have dutifully reported the empty rhetoric of successive Labor Premiers since 1995 and the Opposition response. They have not helped us understand that one of the world's great cities is a mess because the rhetoric counted for nothing, and that those who keep piling on the rhetoric and those who dutifully report it add no value whatsoever.
In a wonderful book called The Elements of Style published as recently as 2005, it says: “Unless there is good reason for its being there, do not inject opinion into a piece of writing. We all have opinions about almost everything and the temptation to toss them in is great. Opinions scattered indiscriminately about leave the mark of egotism on a work.”

So it's a matter of quality, then, as to what's a good reason and what isn't. Any word from Anaximenes, or Graham Perkin, on this?
I doubt there is a media person anywhere who really knows the destiny of news and information. In a world where the Internet barely existed 10 years ago, who among us has the temerity to tell us what will be 10 years from now? We are all in a learning process, but more in a state of uncertainty. I am not prepared to make predictions about the future because technology moves so fast that almost anything is possible.

In that case, you have no business being anywhere near the head of a media company. I bet your idea of "a learning process" is not having your emails printed so that you might read them.
More and more, I find, people go on to the net not to see what is different, but to find that which conforms to their world view - to see news, and views that reinforce where they already are.

Depends which people, really, and whether they're the consumers to whom you want to appeal.
It is hard to imagine that for reliability and quality of whatever sort, the pool of journalists that now scan the screens and tap the keyboards at newspaper offices, will not continue to provide well-written, accurate and properly assessed reports and opinion pieces for the consumption of an increasingly intelligent “readership” throughout our communities.

It might be hard, but for someone at the head of a media organisation it is necessary - particularly when you've put so many off, it shouldn't be that hard to imagine at all. You've made them sound like drones at a call centre rather than investigators and explainers. It might be hard to imagine that high-quality farriers and blacksmiths might have been made redundant by the motor car, JB, but that's what happened.

Fairfax then goes on to quote a piece which quoted a piece by "Milanda Rout - surely a pseudonym" - a simple Google search reveals that Rout was a Fairfax employee. Nice own-goal there, JB (you can ask one of the young persons in your office what an own-goal and a Google search are).
Probably the most guilty of bad language are the sporting commentators: “Now Brett Lee is real quick”. I think you know what I mean. They get away with some appalling use of grammar, and yet it is the newspapers that are accused of losing their quality! How often do you see mistakes on television captions?

Sporting commentary and caption-writing are not meant to be reflective, nor to provide context like you'd find in a newspaper. Crimes against grammar might have been punished at Cranbrook but a knowledgeable commentator of a particular sport my be forgiven the odd lapse - or have it attributed to colour - if the sentiment expressed is clear and true for all that. Jack Gibson's "played strong, done fine" is regarded as high praise for a masterful coach who gave it sparingly, and those who titter at it reveal themselves as lacking affection and understanding for which no grammar can replace.
Quality is derived from the basics ...
The basics are:
” Rigorous factual accuracy
” Completeness in reporting
” A sense of expertise in the subject matter so that the reader has a sense of learning something new
” Strong concern and empathy for the community
” Clear sharp writing for news; inspired and creative writing for features
” An absolute separation of reporting from analysis and opinion
” An editorial sensibility driven by a sense of intellectual curiosity

This puts the lie to Simons' assertion that Fairfax failed to define quality, but he did muck about in getting there. It is, however, difficult to apply: many people praise Michelle Grattan for the first two points, and very occasionally she'll do the third if she's been well and truly duchessed briefed, but in no sense does she have the fourth quality unless you define "the community" as wholly covered by membership of either the House of Representatives or the Senate. The idea of "news" separate from "features" or "opinion" is also nonsense - you can link to the straight dope (or original sources like press releases), the opinion and the context are all-important.
My personal view is that journalism will not suffer through restraint. It will in fact force mediocrity to retire to the bench, leaving the best players to operate for the occasion.

No, in this case you have winnowed out the wheat from the chaff but only the chaff can survive in a dull and uninspiring environment, one lacking utterly in vision. What you get is people playing a game for a market that you don't understand, don't participate in and which, once the sepia mirage before you becomes unfulfilling and unsustainable, won't save you.
We live in a special country with comparatively few restraints. We must never fail to fight for our freedoms and in particular, freedom of the press.

We live in a country where constraints grow by the day, particularly over information. As a whole the Fairfax press rarely strains against the tethers upon public information. Matthew Moore's occasional column for FOI nerds isn't enough, what's needed in every article are examples where information that should be public knowledge was sought and blocked.
We can be like Norman Mailer who said arrogantly in relation to his writing: “I’m going to be the champ until one of you knocks me off.” The Mohammed Ali of writers. I think I can safely say that on behalf of Fairfax Media, we want to be the champ - the very best there is.

The above paragraph is a triumph in self-delusion: the verbal equivalent of throwing out a boomerang and having it smack you in the back of the head. Fairfax is saying he wants his company to be arrogant? He wants his company, like Ali, to accept that its day has passed and to present to the world as a shambles? To be the "champ" [/irony], like the very best farrier or Cobb & Co racing a Qantas plane?
My hope was merely to “keep your attention.”

Well, in the absence of information hopefully the delivery of the speech was sufficiently compelling.

Simons complained about Fairfax's definition of quality, while going on about how Fairfax had disappointed her. The model of the old-fashioned media proprietor was one where perceptions of quality were always shifting, as per the Potter quote at the end, usually to set an intelligent workforce on edge and to avoid any progress on their part not subject to whims and fancies by senior management like JB. The nostalgic nonsense with which Simons attributes Fairfax, ink-in-veins and so on, is only possible if you ignore what Fairfax did to Rural Press (or if you continue to think, in the way that city people patronise the country, that it doesn't matter). JB Fairfax has shown great determination in getting back into the family firm, a bit like a salmon returning to die in the stream where it was spawned - you had no right to expect it would be anything other than self-referential.

Nobody wants immediacy from Fairfax, mere relevance will do. As Gandhi said of Western civilisation, I think that would be a great idea.

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