19 May 2011

Who decides what's news?

Further to the fallout in the journosphere over Lindsay Tanner's Sideshow, two recent articles show that the victims/perpetrators still don't understand the nature of their dysfunction, let alone how to address it. One blames money, the other blames the audience with which journalistic professionals have to work - both come from the same source but they reflect wider opinions held throughout the journosphere. Both light all fools in the journosphere the way to dusty professional death.

First, the poster-girl for Doesn't Get It, Annabel Crabb. Like Richard Wilkins a generation ago, Crabb is an older person's idea of a hip, with-it young person, rather than an authentic representative of a connected and intellectually omniverous generation who happens to be employed in journalism. She did not get where she is by traducing the "realities" of journalism but by absorbing and living them, such that she can create the appearance of identifying the trends that are eating her "profession" alive but not do anything, y'know, too radical.

Crabb talks about having to pay for journalism online. She gives a number of excellent examples and ignores the lesson they are teaching her. Basically, you have to pay for journalism up front, but you can't judge the quality and value of the information until after you have received it. There is no recourse when paying for information that was not of the quality that you might have come to expect: as Tim Dunlop points out (more on his piece later), journalism is one aspect of our consumer society where The Customer Is Always Wrong.

To be fair, the ABC sub-editors haven't done Crabb much of a favour with their headline: "Finding a coin for the journalistic juke box" in the era of Gnutella and iTunes is an irony, probably unintended.
... how can a market evolve to allow for this rather ornate variation; that 500 words from an antagonised correspondent will necessarily be more expensive than the same 500 words from a happy volunteer? Is it any wonder that readers are unwilling to pay for content, when the pricing structure is so random?

Clearly, not every lot of 500 words is equally valuable, regardless of journalistic pay scales. To presume otherwise and then focus on the emotional state of the writer, as Crabb does, is clearly a mistake.

She compounds it by a frankly silly assessment of what her value proposition is:
A journalist's main professional advantage over a blogger, increasingly, is that we have the luxury of being paid for what we do, and the privilege of some years' experience of this pleasant arrangement.

The latter is as much a curse as an advantage. Crabb is so stuck in a mental rut as to what news is or isn't that she regularly missed big developments in Australian politics so that she could indulge her interest in, say, Julia Gillard's earlobes, Chris Pyne's vocal timbre, or Bronwyn Bishop's hair. This meant that Crabb engaged in low-quality journalism; yet if you accept journalism's own rules (foremost among them: only journalists can judge other journalists), then Annabel Crabb is a very fine journalist indeed.

As to being paid for "what they do": plenty of people in modern Australia get paid to seek information from various sources and explain it in a coherent way. Pretty much everyone with a university degree who is employed in the sort of job where a degree is required does this. One such is Greg Jericho; he is not a journalist but an economist employed in the public service. He also runs the famous Grog's Gamut blog, where he demonstrates that ability as part of contributing to public debates.

Let's be clear: the idea that journalism practiced by journalists is a unique value proposition in itself is unsustainable. Greg Jericho is a better writer than Annabel Crabb. He explains important issues in an interesting way. Crabb is flippant about everything, great or petty, and has no ability to demonstrate that she understands what she writes about. In some Ayn Rand dystopia where nobody did anything for free, Jericho would be a wealthy writer and Crabb - well, let's hope she has a lovely singing voice. Because you have to pay for it up front but can only assess its value after you've read it, then Jericho at $0 is much better value than Crabb at $[insert Annabel Crabb's TEC+expenses here].

Media organisations would be better off hiring intellectually omnivorous and high-quality writers like Jericho and leaving flippant and shallow writers like Crabb to their own devices. If they won't do that then they can't complain when they have overestimated their value proposition, which is the central problem faced by media organisations across Australia and beyond.
The internet has corroded so many of the structural basics of the journalistic transaction. Our monopoly over basic source information is significantly undermined, seeing as anyone can now watch parliament, or press conferences, or go through company reports online or tinker around with the websites of government departments. Our monopoly over the dissemination of information is damaged too, seeing as anyone can now set up a cheap publishing platform.

The challenge remains to pull all of that information together into a story that is both compelling and relevant. That's the real value proposition of journalism, Annabel.

Part of that challenge, however, involves telling experienced editors and other people who control the careers of people like Annabel Crabb that they don't know their own jobs: that what they believe to be a story may not, in fact, be a story.

Compelling and relevant: that's the challenge. People who run news organisations don't think you can do both, and so will settle for compelling over relevance. Grog's Gamut and other blogs show that you can be both compelling and relevant. High-value journalism is both compelling and relevant. Alan Kohler does this with business and finance news, and most sport journalists know that most of their job consists of letting the game tell the story. That's the standard: clear it, or shut up shop.

Journalists are directed to go out and get compelling content, but what they provide (and what publishers publish) is hype. In the journosphere, the Federal Treasurer breaking a drinking glass is a huge story. To most people, it isn't. Because most people aren't editors, the broken glass is the story. There are plenty of things that the Treasurer did which just get ignored. What happens then is that politics becomes irrelevant to people, and lazy journalists don't think it's important to write about relevant issues in a compelling way: people like Annabel Crabb don't even try. She says:
But I'd love to hear what you think about all of this.

Nowhere in the comments that follow is there any engagement with what people think about her writing or the issue she raises. She should have been honest and said: "I don't care what you think, if you do think at all. Nothing you say will make a blind bit of difference to what I do or how I do it".

Marius Benson at least pays lip service to the idea that not all journalism is of the rolled-gold variety:
The media and politicians do have much to answer for. Their self-serving world of half truths, beat-ups, misrepresentation, slogans and fudge is a poor substitute for reality.

But much of the blame lies elsewhere. The real problem is not the media, not the politicians; it is you - you the voter. The level of knowledge that lies behind the average vote is distressingly slight.

We're informed by the media, Marius. It's not a substitute for reality, it's a misrepresentation of it. The first paragraph is the problem, it's not something you skate over on the way to somewhere else. I'm doing my bit by going around the media, and identifying poor examples of journalism on the way through. What are you doing - the same old same-old?
Carbon sequestration is a clumsy term, but the idea of storing carbon in the ground is a relatively simple one and it is often referred to in the carbon debate.

It's also bullshit, Marius. Just because you can explain it in a press release doesn't mean you can do it in practice. Nobody has said or demonstrated how it can be done, or whether doing it would cause more harm than good (what would be the impact on the water table?), so it's just an example of bullshit that you don't need to worry about because it won't make much difference anyway. It's another example of the difference between what fascinates journalists and what's relevant - and the difference is the journalists' fault.

The Rudd government promised $heaps toward a Carbon Capture Storage Institute, Marius, so seeing as you're interested in that sort of thing why don't you just toddle off and find out what happened to our money? You've clearly got nothing better to do.
Faced with this level of indifference and ignorance what are politicians meant to do beyond picking three slogans, repeating them endlessly and hoping something will get through to people who only hear them accidentally when they tune in too early for Master Chef and catch a political grab on the news headlines?

Fuck you, Marius Benson, and fuck everyone who made you like that - particularly clowns like you who decide what "the news headlines" are (which are in themselves "three word slogans").

Benson describes the recently departed NSW Labor government as:
a government that had long outstayed its welcome, that was caught up in frenzy of back-stabbing, maladministration and personal scandals and which provided the electorate with riveting images like ministers dancing on the parliamentary furniture in their underwear. Even the most inattentive voter took a clear view to the ballot box in NSW, and it was not uninformed.

To get there, a great deal of misinformation was necessary, and was provided in spades. Journalists like Marius Benson were impressed that Bob Carr had been a journalist but nobody else was or is: this is why journalists gave Carr and his attendant bullshit a better run than it should've enjoyed.

People not very different to Marius Benson attended over sixty announcements during the 1990s about the Parramatta to Chatswood rail line, taking the press release at face value and expecting that the rest of us did too. People realised much sooner than journalists that the line was hype and bullshit, and extended this opinion to the media outlets that promulgated it. There are other examples, and while journalists quailed at being threatened with loss of access to a bullshit government, people came to ignore the media and vote said government out of office. In its final days, in the interests of "balance", journalists continued to report Kristina Keneally's announcements as though they were valuable.
In the interests of balance a word in defence of the disengaged voters.

After regaling us with anecdotes of randoms he has apparently met to make a self-serving point (Marius Benson will keep doing what Marius Benson has always done and the rest of you can rack off), he makes up quotes from a non-existent person.
"Besides, a lot of the stuff is beyond knowing. A lifetime of study would not provide a definite answer to issues like global warming and what is the best way to deal with it - or how best to equip the country for the future of technology."

What's needed here are journalists who can explain these issues, rather than giving in to hype about broken glasses or carbon capture. What's needed are politicians who appear sufficiently sensible to be trusted to deal with this stuff. Marius Benson can't be trusted to help us out with either, so to hell with Marius Benson.

I agree with every word in Tim Dunlop's piece on "quality journalism":
Journalists need to get over themselves. Their industry is in decline and the people who care most about that are the very ones, over the last decade, they have gone out of their way to demonise and ridicule. To some extent their defensiveness is understandable (and sometimes even justified) but, as reaction to Lindsay Tanner’s book shows in spades, journalists are still too much inclined to dismiss legitimate criticism out of hand.

It is hard to think of an industry more entrapped by what it considers the untouchable verities of its craft, or one that thinks it can so blithely ignore complaints from its customers. In fact, there is a sense that journalists see criticism as an indication that they are doing something right, not something wrong, and it produces a bunker mentality that makes them all the more determined to continue on the same course.

Bravo! This piece started off cheering for Dunlop without adding much, so now Dunlop appears at the end without much added. You'd be better off reading his piece than wading through that shit from Crabb and Benson.

The good news is that I have a copy of Sideshow. The bad news is that I have not started reading it because my wife has taken to it. There shall be a review in due course.

Update 20 May: Mr Denmore's The Failed estate is highly commended to those interested in this stuff - particularly my Anonymous friend in the Comments.


  1. Space Kidette19/5/11 8:10 pm


    Nailed it. Insight is in short supply in this industry and analysis has become a dirty word. What passes for news in this country is out and out bullshit.

    Tanner invoked a look in the mirror, but the journo's all believe Tanner was talking about someone else.

  2. Cracking good rant Andrew. After reading this and Tim Dunlop's piece, I'm even feeling vaguely optimistic that we might be seeing "real" change in the air.
    Heck, in less than 30 mins today,Bob Brown left the MSM in total disarray. :-)

  3. Look forward to yr review of Sideshow.

    And yr response to Sen Brown confronting News Ltd.

    Generally I don't blame journos per se - they are time poor and stretched - the problems are institutional, editorial and economic. But the shrill reactions of the hack at the presser were on a par with my six year old at her worst. The Australian has the subsidized luxury to be a decent news source, but is lost in it's self-image as a political 'player'. For two years post Rudd PM, it (counter-productively, in partisan terms) played Liberal internal politics. Now it just death-rides Gillard and monsters the Greens regardless of the merits of any issue.

  4. Andrew, it's great that you love Jericho and hate Crabb, but your claim that Crabb's editors don't know what they are doing only indicates that you don't understand the mass media. Each writer serves a different purpose, and there's simply a bigger proven market for Crabb's approach.
    Your quote from Dunlop suggests that you seem as excited as he is by the prospect of the collapse of professional journalism. There is, however, a fallacy of negation behind this thinking – a belief that because there are non-jounalists whose writing you prefer the world would be better off without those journalists.
    What commercial news has shown us is that if you take away popular politics you don’t necessarily get deeper policy discussion, you just get more celebrity diets.

  5. Thank you all.

    Graeme, I'm time-poor and stretched too. I think editors should use their resources better is all.

    Anonymous, it's great that you're patronising and that you think that I have to adapt to the media when the reverse is true.

    The market for relevant-and-interesting hasn't been tried. If you think that "political debate" consists of Chris Pyne shrieking "No, you are!", then as I said Crabb is the business. If not, then she's inadequate. You might care how popular she is, but I don't: I think she doesn't understand what she reports on.

    Get over the idea that politics as it is done by the MSM is popular. It isn't. Celebrity diets aren't popular either. When consumption is on a longterm downward trend, don't talk to me about popular; and don't imply that non-journalists aren't "popular" or that only I prefer them, as you seem to imply.

    If you read Tim Dunlop's pieces over the years, you'd see that he's appalled by the idea of the collapse of professional journalism, or the lame output that "professional journalism" consists of. Why can't they lift their game? It's an idea that's never been tried, these people are sleepwalking to oblivion. That's not exciting, Anonymous, not at all.

  6. Good piece Andrew. The world has moved on and the media hasn't.

    Marius Benson's piece was typical of the condescension that exists among many journalists toward the public.

    He's saying, essentially, "we keeping feeding them crap and they keep buying it! How stupid can they be!"

    The truth is, as Tanner's book observes, the media-political game is a sideshow. It's just that the participants haven't twigged to that yet.

    I disagree that Annabel Crabb isn't a talented writer. I think she found her niche at Fairfax when she was writing sketches. Since then she's being adopted by the ABC as some sort of spokesperson for hip Digital Youth Media (even though she's in her late 30s and by her own admission is late to all this digital stuff).

    My blog The Failed Estate is essentially a call for more voices in media and more owners. We need some creative destruction and we need to destroy the anachronism that is how media reports politics in this country.

    Fortunately the media are doing a good job of that themselves.

  7. Terrific rant Andrew.
    I'm also looking forward to your take on Sideshow. Even Hartcher got it all wrong and reviewed the book for what it wasn't rather than what it was; I know you won't make that mistake.

    Crabb: well, I know a few people who think her work is really clever, but I find her irony and flippancy quite enervating – a waste of pixels. But as she isn't doing celebrity interviews yet she's not as ubiquitous as Richard Wilkins.

    Marius Bensons non-existent voter was misquoted. I'm sure he would have finished by saying "why would I bother with politics the way you guys write about it?"

  8. I think the thing that bothers me the most is that the two journalists with their heads firmly planted up their own arses, both work for the ABC!!

    Also noticed your missing the word word from "three word slogans". Might put this comment on my resume and apply for a job at Pagemasters.

  9. The only basis you have for your vision of a utopian media is the longterm decline of political journalism. And we agree that there is such a decline, in serious analysis and audience. We agree with Tanner and deplore empty stunt politics. But there is no phoenix return, there is only further atomisation and specialisation. I think it is possible to admire Jericho for his insight, as well as Crabb for the way she makes politics palatable to people who'd otherwise ignore it altogether. But one is not going to replace the other, as much as we'd like to see a wider acceptance of serious political analysis. In fact, I fear that as the mass media declines, the people who remain interested in politics will only access writers who confirm their pre-existing views. We're seeing it already.

  10. Well said, Andrew.
    I wouldn't pay a cracker to read Crabb. I found her extremely irritating and gave up reading her, even for free, ages ago.
    I do pay to read Bernard Keane, and I would pay to read Greg Jericho.
    I hope there is a future for journalism, but I don't know how we are going to get the changes needed. Over to the Julie Posettis of the world, I guess.

  11. Spot on, thank you for putting into words what I have been thinking for some time.

  12. Mr D, it was remiss of me not to mention your most excellent blog in all the above. Crabb is a talented writer - a few little phrases really stay with you, which is more than can be said for Michelle Grattan - but she's a poor journalist.

    PeterH, polyquats & Notus, thank you.

    Bob, I'll give you a reference.

  13. Anonymous: now to you.

    "The only basis you have for your vision of a utopian media is the longterm decline of political journalism."

    Crap: it's not utopian, and the longterm decline has happened already, despite my efforts rather than because of them.

    "And we agree that there is such a decline, in serious analysis ..." - Ye-e-es,

    "... and audience".

    No! That is where you're wrong. The audience is better educated and more time-poor, so there's a market that journos (including people like Hartigan and Hywood who still consider themselves "working journalists") could fill, but can't be bothered. Much easier to sneer at your audience, the meat on which you feed.

    "But there is no phoenix return, there is only further atomisation and specialisation."

    I'm sorry to hear that. I bet you're wrong, though.

    "I think it is possible to admire Jericho for his insight ..." - Yep.

    "... as well as Crabb for the way she makes politics palatable to people who'd otherwise ignore it altogether" - but I don't think what she does in politics. It's a spectator event rather than something that involves us all, the only amateur theatre production that has paid reviewers.

    "But one is not going to replace the other" - it doesn't have to. You just have to respect professional analysis and call fluff for what it is, rather than treating the latter like professional journalism and the former like amateurish ranting.

    "... as much as we'd like to see a wider acceptance of serious political analysis". Hmm, serious political analysis - that's be a great idea. Would you know "serious political analysis" if it bit you?

    "In fact, I fear that as the mass media declines, the people who remain interested in politics will only access writers who confirm their pre-existing views."

    You were going so well until you said "only". I had no pre-existing views on climate change, other than an innate tendency to work toward some sort of middle ground. I had to educate myself because the media sucked so hard at explaining what was going on, let alone helping me form an opinion. I seek out writers who work at least as hard as I do in finding stuff out and explaining it clearly.

    "We're seeing it already" - You see what you want to see mate.

  14. Grog can think and lay out an argument; he has an analytical mind, which he applies to the issues in question. Annabel is more concerned with selling her own image as a kind of zany sage than she is in doing her job, which should include making complex issues easier to understand.

  15. Should, but doesn't. You can't convey issues you don't understand.