24 June 2012

Journalism beyond newspapers

I watched with glee while your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades for the gods they made
I shouted out, "Who killed the Kennedys?"
When after all it was you and me

- Mick Jagger and Keith Richards Sympathy for the Devil
If you're just a little fish within the Main Stream of The Narrative, then your sacking would not constitute "loss of diversity". If you've ever complained that anyone can get a blog without so much as a by-your-leave from MSM HR departments, then your removal from a non-job does not constitute any threat to democracy.

Gardeners know that newspapers make excellent mulch. Pet owners use newspapers to line their pets' beds or cages. When I was a child, fish shops wrapped their products in newspaper (it's against health regulations today). There's no doubt newspapers have their uses. Now that the twin towers of Australian newspaper journalism, Fairfax and News Ltd, are finally crumbling both the nostalgics and denialists are having their day. The question that needs asking now is: what should be pulled from the wreckage? What can be safely left there as economic and journalistic mulch for another time and purpose?

Just because the business model of newspapers has been declining for quite some time now, this does not mean the end of journalism; people might miss a particular restaurant when it closes, but they don't starve. It doesn't mean the end of a diversity of voices; the diversity of voices available to Australian media consumers has never been greater, so long as your definition of "media" isn't restricted to platforms available fifty or a hundred years ago.

It doesn't mean the end of a well-informed populace in a democracy, because journalists are no longer gatekeepers of important information. Go through each article in a newspaper and consider: is there a way that I can find this out without having to rely on a journalist to tell me? Sporting results are available from the websites of the contest organisers or even the clubs involved. Press releases and other information is available from the websites of government, companies and interest groups. Business news is required to be reported to the stock market and other regulator authorities under disclosure requirements - very rare is the business news story (or any other kind of media story really) not cobbled together from publicly available information.

In many cases newspaper articles, and spots on radio/TV news, are nothing more than rehashed press releases - once you have read original sources the magic goes off journalism quite a bit. The bombastic insistence that everything the media does all the time constitutes "high quality journalism" (this assumption underpins media organisations' reluctance, if not refusal, to admit error) is fatally exposed.

This story is an example where professional journalists abused the respect and trust that is due to those who put in the work and report from where the action is. The sad thing is that these jokers assumed nobody (let alone Annabel Crabb!) could ever - or would be able to - call them on their bullshit. With this, Dennis Shanahan's reputation for veracity is gone. In 2007 he became a laughing stock for insisting that Howard's poor polling would turn around, an error of judgment compounded over at least a year and still unaccounted for. Nowadays Shanahan is cited by right-wingers keening for validation; but after putting words into the mouth of the EU President he is not just past his best, but finished as a reliable source of information about federal politics. Add him to your list of departees, Mr Williams, and choose some other old lag to mentor the youngsters.

This report provides another example, without the integrity issues of the previous example. The news that Julian Assange was holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London was available from numerous sources - e.g. the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry. By standing outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Lisa Millar was doing what she was assigned to do - but she added nothing to the story by being there, another example of the sort of waste that has bled private media to the point of unsustainability.

Political journalists relying on anonymous sources may have the only stories that cannot be obtained other than by journalists, so they'd want to be good - and mostly they aren't. So, the same half-dozen Labor MPs who are hard-core Rudd fans are worried about the enduring unpopularity of the Gillard government, again? So senior Coalition figures are worried that the public have twigged to the fact that Tony Abbott is a boofhead? Is this a make-work scheme for the mutually irrelevant, or are the journalists right and this is the very essence of high quality journalism?

Compounding this lack of judgment is the delusion that only journalists can judge what quality journalism is. In every other profession outsiders at least have a seat at the table. Indeed, journalists insist on scrutinising other professions: Michelle Grattan has never been a politician, Greg Sheridan no diplomat, Francis Leach never played top-level football; I could go on but basically all insist on their right to scrutinise and their expertise in having done so. Look at how they carry on at the prospect (the spectre!) of any form of government regulation. Any journalists who so much as questions my right to scrutinise their output can go and boil their heads. If journalism is important then it is too important to be left to its practitioners, however their number might decline.

This explains why the ABC's Media Watch can only be presented by somebody who is or has been a journalist. The fearless independent broadcaster would collapse in on itself were that show to be fronted by someone who is well-read and has a broad general knowledge of government, business, sport and entertainment, and who is eminently capable of sorting shit from chocolate when it comes to media output without resorting to the snobbery we have come to expect from Stuart Littlemore or Jonathan Holmes. Journalists have a hard time accepting Media Watch at all, and any journalist involved might face accusations that they are letting the side down; but a non-journalist would send the poor little petals into meltdown.

Let us have no more nonsense about charters of editorial independence, because that is just a licence to bullshit on the part of journalists. Fairfax's heterodoxy produces only slightly more reliable news and opinion than the Juche-like orthodoxy of News. Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood is a former journalist and News Australia CEO Kim Williams isn't, yet both find themselves in a similar place in terms of their impact on journalism and journalists.

The economic historian Robert Heilbroner wrote that Schumpeter "was the most romantic of economists, and capitalism to his eyes had all the glamor and excitement of a knightly jousting tourney". The same can be said of Sinclair Davidson, a tax-eating ivory-tower academic with no more practical idea about business than the most committed Marxist, as seen from his statement that:
One of the benefits of a takeover is that inefficient and ineffective work practices get abolished.
Former Fairfax and now ABC journalist Jonathan Green skewers this pointy-headed dreaming with two decades of practical experience at Fairfax. Going into debt to fund media takeovers is itself an inefficient business practice. Assuming that rationalisations that apply to other industries can simply be applied to journalism while maintaining sales and "quality" (don't get me started) is inefficient. Decisions about what is or isn't efficient are distorted by the very process by which those so deciding came to be in a position to make such decisions.

One decision that successive middle managers made was to allow PR people to pitch stories to journalists. The reason why this made journalists so angry isn't because the assumptions are behind it are offensive, but because they're true. As Yes (Prime) Minister is to public servants and executive government, as In The Thick Of It is to press secretaries, so there is a darkly humorous TV sitcom to be written about PRs and journalists. Tina Alldis could be the person to write it.

Middle managers could have decided that if PR people wanted their message in the paper, they should pay for it, and had they stuck to such a principle the financial positions of media companies would be better than they are. Media content would be more reliable than it is, and the demand for an objective source would sting less than it does. Too late now. Why did middle managers wreck their employers' value proposition in this way?

The decline in newspaper organisations correlated with a rise in middle management. Old-school newspapers were fairly flat organisations, with journalists having few layers of management between them and their editor, and between editors and owner/managers. An increasing number of middle managers faced decreasingly realistic career prospects within newspaper organisations, so they built bridges to PR companies across which many travelled to greater reward and less stress than allowed in traditional editorial careers.

The great trick that media middle managers made in encouraging PR dollies to pester journalists with prefabricated stories which bore or mislead readers is that they made journalists accountable for those problems. Journalists do not tell PR people where to go because of the pressures placed on them by middle management - and because they too might need to step across to PR career-wise when newspaper middle-managers reveal themselves to be so inefficient as to send Sinclair Davidson into a tizz.

Getting back to political journalism, I know I was meant to be appalled by this but like Oscar Wilde at the death of Dickens' Little Nell, I laughed:
You probably missed this story, on page 15 of today’s Australian Financial Review, overshadowed by all the big media moves and staff cuts:
“The parliamentary bureau of the 86-year-old Canberra Times will close as part of the restructure of Fairfax Media … Journalists were told The Canberra Times’ ‘focus in future would be on more local news’.”
Let’s parse that news. The only daily newspaper in Australia’s capital city, where politics and government is the main industry, will no longer have its own bureau or its own dedicated journalists covering federal parliament and all its entrails.

Of all the white flags raised by Fairfax this week ... the decision to close the parliamentary bureau of the national capital’s proud newspaper is, in symbolic terms, one of the most depressing.

This is newspaper that, in its heyday, attempted to model itself on the Washington Post as a serious broadsheet that covered the capital’s local news and national affairs for a unique audience in the company town of politics ... The unravelling of quality journalism doesn’t get much closer to home for federal politicians than this.
Oh, please.

Firstly, no amount of hype casts a shadow. That's what distinguishes hype from its opposite, substance. Secondly, the notion that even though we don't deserve to be in the club of those hand-wringing about the future of journalism (the patronising if statistically-verifiable assumption "You probably missed this story") but we're being invited into the club anyway, by the sheer good grace of the editorialist.

Thirdly, in Canberra many of the decisions that affect locals are taken by "the permanent government"; senior public servants who serve both Labor and Coalition governments equally, rather than blow-ins who are foisted upon Canberra from elsewhere in the nation. These people wantonly blow away painstaking work by legions of honest Canberrans with ill-chosen remarks or parish-pump campaigns against "tax-eating shinybums with no idea about the real world". If The Canberra Times turns its back on standard "political journalism" and builds a substantial practice examining government as it is practised then it will put the press gallery to shame.

If scrutiny of government processes rather than press gallery hoo-ha is what The Canberra Times means by local news (and truly emulating The Washington Post at its best), that can't be a bad thing. If it's not, and if that means The Canberra Times is just going to become another suburban rag, it will be eaten alive by The Riot Act - a case of the MSM delivering itself up to its worst fears about the internet.

Crikey's notion that Canberra is "closer to home" for federal politicians than their constituencies (and particularly suburban rags therein) is telling.

Morning radio and TV largely reads out stories from the newspapers. These media will have to develop their own journalism to get stories that enfeebled newspapers can no longer provide.

How to be a journalist

To do journalism today, the first thing you have to identify your sources. Link to or nominate a press release, a wire report, whatever. No journalist should expect to be taken on trust. Anyone who gets up on their high horse against this is not some noble defender of Truth, nor even an analogue Quixote; they can just piss off.

The second thing is that you have to develop the courage that no jobsworth has: the courage to say that your boss lacks judgment, and that you are going to pursue journalism without their imprimatur because your judgment is better than theirs. I don't know how to pay for it either.

The third is to find a way of linking your story back to people's lives. I don't care if you have a killer quote or inside tip, if you've got 600 words of bullshit you can keep it.

Yes, yes, there's more to it than that; but if you've seen so-called professional journalists at work, not much more; not nearly enough.


  1. Journalism has been going downhill ever since every one got a byline. Made worse when journalists started getting colour pictures of themselves in the paper.

    1. The paper is wrecking their own brand by emphasising undistinguished reporters.

  2. Great piece Andrew. Brings to mind the final season of The Wire in terms of "rationalisation" in print media.

    Disgraceful decision re The Canberra Times.

    One minor correction, it's just "The Thick of It".

  3. Linking. God that would be nice. Or as Grog Gamut or Matt Cowgill does and provides pretty graphs for easy learning. (I could have said understanding instead of learning, but learning is key to a good news story.)

  4. It was a very comprehensive takedown of Shanahan by Grog but I'm not sure Shanahan has had much of a reputation for veracity for a very long time. I was surprised to see that he actually kept his job after the 2007 election. The fact that he did was a bit of an eye-opener for me as to what The Australian truly was - a partisan rag who wouldn't recognise truth if it ran out of the long grass and bit it on the arse. As far as I was concerned from then on anyone associated with The Australian had no reputation for veracity.

    (By the way, thanks for the great blog. At the moment it's the most interesting and intelligent commentary going about contemporary Australian politics)

    1. "By the way, thanks for the great blog. At the moment it's the most interesting and intelligent commentary going about contemporary Australian politics"

      Hmm. Yeah I reckon I'd probably go along with that.

      May I recommend Gary Sauer-Thompson's "Public Opinion" as worth a long look?


    2. Thank you both, haven't seen GST's site for a while.

    3. Spot on. Shanahan, like Steve Lewis, is paid good money by News to attack the Labor government, not to tell the truth. Lying is just standard practice.

      Remember that just before Shanahan's lies Gillard had opened up a handy lead over Abbott as PPM. Cue a week of Gillard attacks - while she was overseas, mind - across all News titles, and bingo: that lead comes back a few points.

      Personally, I'm not so much angry as embarrassed to live in a country where such primary school tactics are so successful.

      Well, slight correction, I'm angry at the ABC for blindly following the News lead every day without checking anything themselves. Time for Mark Scott's golden watch, I think.

  5. Another corker of a post ... the 9th paragraph stands out as to why it's hard to have sympathy for journos and their managers right now.

  6. Absolute Power covered the PR/journo relationship pretty well.

    1. Meh, I wasn't impressed. It wasn't as clever as it thought it was.

  7. I wish the MSM would hold the criminally negligent Greens and ALP coalition to account for their pro-death refugee policies. I find it very sad that The Greens and The ALP would support the continued people smuggling trade undertaken by organised crime.

    1. As long as you regard refugees as helpless victims, and you know nothing about them than what gruntback radio tells you.

  8. Telugu journalism-a war of words between newspapers