20 June 2009

I resemble that accusation

Christian Kerr took time out this week to criticise blogs, or rather to put words to his unease, and that of his employer more broadly, toward this medium. His piece is here. Breaking the traditions of blogs, such as they are, I have left it a few days to consider the whole issue of blogs and the MSM as presented by Christian and bounced off a few others.
And we have no political bloggers who break stories.

The biggest story in Australian politics last week was broken on this website. Christian himself, and many of his colleagues, have spent years applying all the journalistic arts to get this story, as I pointed out. Christian's employer has incurred thousands upon thousands of dollars in expenses claims in the pursuit of a story that foundered upon a webpage.

The "breaking" of a story is old-school journalism and pretty much irrelevant in an age where all news outlets can publish the same story within a few minutes, rather than have to wait a whole day while the wounds to circulation, influence, revenue and yes ego that came from having been "scooped".

The process by which governments will "leak" details of a budget for weeks in advance of it being delivered is hardly an exercise in fearless investigative journalism, more a stale and courtly ritual with knowing winks and God-knows-what compromises required of journalists to "earn" first dibs on the story. By contrast, neither Bob Woodward nor Carl Bernstein was the first journalist to report on the Watergate break-in in 1972: don't bother digging for the one who was first, it doesn't matter.
What we have on our political blogs is analysis. And talk. Endless talk.

Pretty much all you get from Christian, really. Christian is not a fearless scoop-hound; he is a theatre reviewer for Australia's best-subsidised and most boring theatre.
Some of the analysis [from blogs] is excellent ... blogger William Bowe passes on a poll or throws out a fact to a baying pack of readers.

Some of their responses can be good. At times, though -- Newspolls can bring this mob out -- much of their reactions consists of conspiracy theorising that that would bring a blush to the cheeks of the authors of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

If you want to see baying, accompany Christian to a press conference; and the reference to the dreaded Protocols puts his perilously close to an offence under Godwin's Law.

Let's go with it though: if Christian was a sketchwriter for the nineteenth -century Russian Duma and the Tsarist secret police slipped him proof copies of that tome, do you really think Christian would have turned it down? Would Milney? Would Annabel Crabb or Michelle Grattan ("Tsar must take hard line with Zionists")?
Some are sharp. Sometimes. Others are the online equivalent of soapbox speakers.

Just like News Ltd or any other mainstream media outlet really, except that the web and the rise of blogs shows you don't need a multi-billion-dollar apparatus or "exclusive access" to be entertaining and informative.
Then there is the group that provides the cyberworld's answer to the sad sacks you see on the street holding intense conversations with no one in particular.

How dare you talk about David Pemberthy in that dismissive manner? Seriously though, I thought I was doing that at first and perhaps I was - but with about a thousand or so different readers coming back at different frequencies, I'm at least as widely read as any of those fearless scoop-hounds of yore.
But Australian blogs instead obsess about the mainstream media and their reporting.

Their tone is disconcerting.

Aww, is it blossom?

This is the first time in Australian media history that the sheer inadequacy of Australian political reporting has been exposed; in the olden days it was sustained by boozy newsroom assertions about "the punters" and what they wanted/needed/was good for them. The sort of people who can express dissatisfaction with MSM are those who consume it avidly, and who have the analytical skills that suggest a demographic to which MSM advertisers yearn. Sloppy MSM analysis turns off the very readers and consumers who are vital for their future.
We always hear about "community" ... insular little communities ... Lord of the Flies islands online.

You don't "always hear" that or anything like it here, and don't have to work too hard to escape nastiness or groupthink online. However, in the journosphere it is endemic. There is no escaping either of these inhibitors to effective journalism at News Ltd, the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, or both.
Disagree with the group-think of the tribe and they will chase you over a cliff. In this environment there is not only no room for news, but no tolerance of new ideas.

Pot, kettle: the press gallery is designed to create a "journosphere" that ensures that all ideas are received, that stupid policy can become clever politics with an alchemy called spin, in an environment where information is controlled and deadlines fixed to ensure that all stories follow the same "line". News Ltd would be broke within a week if AP cut its feed off.

And don't whinge about a "24-hour news cycle" when you refuse to run a story that is spoon-fed to you "after deadline" (whose deadline? Certainly not mine pal), or just before a long weekend, or at a time when there is another story that you and your so-called competitors are fixated on. Fair shake of the sauce-bottle and see you at the Holy Grail!
If someone wants to claim the first scalp of the Australian political blogosphere, perhaps they should dig deeper.

Too late - hundreds of such "scalps" can be found in skips behind Fairfax offices in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. David Penberthy has clearly taken the attitude that if you can't beat bloggers, join 'em, with his fancy-lah-di-dah site (well, more fancy than this) - and now that you mention it, he does appear to have less hair than he did as a mainstream journalist.

Another example of such "scalps" can be found in the UK, where thousands of pages of documents on MPs' expenses has been put online and "citizen journalists" can peruse them at will. Readers take different opinions and and apply experiences and expertise that is simply unavailable among the ranks of journalists. This is real news, real analysis, valuable information: compare this with the high point of "news news", the 1970s: "scoops" such as Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, or the various "funny money" scandals of the Whitlam government were sat on, ignored, or doled out by non-analysing drones of journos placed under "deadline pressure", at the whim of the politics of their "proprietors", in their own sweet time.

It may be of satisfaction to some that Christian has scored an own goal, or been smacked in the face with his own boomerang. What such logic betrays is projection through insecurity; by going from Crikey to News Ltd, to walk in a dead man's shoes and be compared unfavourably to Annabel bloody Crabb. Christian Kerr has more smarts under his toenails than Crabb has or can muster; it's tragic that he won't rise to the challenge but is, like Penberthy, sinking into flatulent Mark Day-isms. Christian may have actually joined a sinking ship. Time for Hillary to bray again, Christian; better a bray than a drone, right?

Update: Perhaps this explains the Kerr/News barrage - a pre-emptive strike against any news blogger who might pose a threat. The Times is, after all, a sister paper of the Oz, so any budding NightJack out there can expect to be outed and gutted by those heirs to the Surry Hills razor gangs. News Ltd faces the same fate that Cobb & Co faced with the rise of motorised transport, but it seems they won't go quietly.


  1. I loathed Kerr's article. I do agree that the blogosphere has a great deal of groupthink and abuse of dissenting opinions. However today's commercial media, with all its pandering to popular prejudice, offers no solution to that, and has probably helped to create the culture that encourages that very groupthink.

    What really offended me was when Kerr attacked the Pollytics blog as "over-egging analysis". This was a call to mediocrity in political debate. I don't agree with Scott Steel's politics, which seem to me to be fairly conventional pro-Labor social-democratic. But his blog bothers to provide checkable analysis and an education in statistics, which makes it worth reading no matter what you think of his own views.

    Presumably some within News Limited are still unhappy that Steel has provided a real challenge to their monopoly of analysis of Australia's opinion polls.

    Oh, and by the way? It doesn't mean much, but I "broke" the story of Senator Santo Santoro resigning from the Senate in 2007. Of course, this isn't the same as a scalp - I didn't do anything to make Santoro resign, I was just in the right place at the right time to beat the media by a few minutes. It just further illustrate the poverty of the "who reported first?" argument.

  2. Thanks very much David J,

    I don't believe there is any such thing as a "blogosphere", much less a community of bloggers. The groupthink you describe is prevalent on certain sites and clusters of sites, but it is easy to escape. In the mainstream media it is much more intense, and the penalties for bucking the trend include professional and social suicide. Kerr must know this, but he's taken the cash and it may not be so rewarding as he might imagine.

    Couldn't agree more about Pollytics, it's one of the best sites out there because if you disagree with something Steel says, you have to work at why you think what you think; the sort of experience you get too rarely from the MSM. In terms of "over-egging" as a criticism, this is what lazy monopolists do when they realise a small and nimble competitor has emerged and is eating their lunch.

    In days of old News Ltd would develop their own in-house Possum, who'd use that organisation's clout to build a presence that did everything Pollytics does and more: nowadays they're too lazy to match him or buy him, yet they won't stop whinging. Get about half a dozen niche operators like Steel - say a Hillary Bray on Canberra politics, a Kohler/ Gottliebsen/ Bartholomeusz on the stock market, a washed-up sportsman or a wannabe who can string a few words together on sport - and before you know it, you've outflanked News altogether, and dropped Christian Kerr back onto the street.

  3. Another excellent article.

    I initially read "this website" and thought Politically Homeless had broken the Costello retirement story. I was impressed!

  4. I can't believe any of you actually read the Australian. I'd rather poke my eyes out with a pointy stick.

  5. Pi: I read everything, just incase, to see what people are up to (if anything). We can't all be as pure as you, getting ambushed is so last year.