19 July 2012

The trick for journalism courses

This article lifted the lid on how journalism graduates are educated. I have a strong interest in quality journalism and have a professional background in IT training, but this article failed to answer (despite promising to do so) some of the big questions of What Journalism Is or How You Tell Quality Journalism From Crap.
In Aaron Sorkin's new drama The Newsroom, idealistic twentysomethings rush about with BlackBerrys plastered to their ears, creating a groundbreaking quality TV news show, pausing only long enough to give set speeches about how to make quality journalism.

For those running journalism degrees, like me, it's manna from heaven. No doubt when it's aired it will do for journalism degrees what the Indiana Jones films did for archaeology degrees.

There's just one problem: there are hardly any journalists in it. Aside from the crusty anchor Will McAvoy and his executive producer, MacKenzie MacHale, the newsroom is made up of producers, bookers, researchers and a blogger. They're adept at reading a news wire, but no one seems to have any ability to produce original journalism.
Really? The above pretty much describes the outward appearance of activity from the ABC's Mark Colvin, who is widely regarded as one of the nation's leading journalists. His Twitter feed @colvinius shows him devouring The Guardian and The New York Times and then - having consumed all the journalism and passed it on, cementing his reputation as Mr Journalism - he then produces a radio show where he interviews journalists and asks them to summarise the press conference they attended/other original journalism they did.

Soon enough, Colvin is to deliver this year's Andrew Olle address, which will follow this formula:
  • He'll tell us all what journalism is (basically, it's what he learned as a copyboy; he'd never have made it beyond that rank had he believed otherwise. Insert nostalgic yarns about media in the 1960s/70s here, none of your e-Internet back then!);
  • How journalism is under threat by various forces the journalist has scarcely bothered to investigate in depth (is Murdoch a help or hindrance to Australian journalism? Pussyfoot around this question without resolving it, and make sure to cauterise the local operation from the UK despite all evidence to the contrary. This will make your address 'daring' and 'controversial', etc.);
  • But for all that, insist journalism will survive, oh yes;
  • Declare that all journalism is High Quality Journalism (in the same way that driving a bus is Precision Circuit Driving Of An Unwieldy Public Service On Which The Australian Public Relies), and any diminution of which is A Threat To Our Democracy; sonorously serious, a jarring departure from the waggish tales of a Working Journo that led up to this;
  • Take a swipe at those bogans on commercial radio/television (oh, except you Laurie), whose output is not at all like the waggish hi-jinks of the speech-maker's younger days; then
  • Shake a defiant fist and weep a few tears, pay due credit to what a top bloke and excellent journalist Olle was, and see you next year for more of the same.
Where is the journalism student who doesn't want to emulate Mark Colvin, and what's wrong with them?
Perhaps, with Fairfax and News recently announcing huge staff cuts, a newsroom without journalists is a sign of things to come. Where, then, does that leave journalism degrees?
Where does that leave Fairfax and News? They can't do just-the-facts reporting, because there is so much stuff coming out that each gobbet of mere reporting might please purists but it is just another drop in the tsunami. Besides, you can get just-the-facts reporting from plenty of other sources, including viewing the very press release that gave rise to a particular story.

But where does this leave journalism degrees? Sitting pretty, it would seem:
Journalism continues to be one of the most popular courses in universities and many attract the brightest students.
Sounds like you don't need that Indiana Jones boost, then.
The rise of journalism courses may seem counter-intuitive, given the state of the media business, but it's not as paradoxical as it sounds. The same forces that are disrupting the news business are also driving the popularity of journalism courses.

The development of freely available web publishing systems, free and low-cost video hosting platforms as well as social media - read "audience building tools" - have stripped traditional media companies of their monopoly on the production and distribution of content.
They have also meant that MSM companies can no longer provide comprehensive journalism training in-house, because they don't take the time to get across new systems and tools, they don't have the resources to use them if they did, and stories like this just frighten them. These organisations gained a lot of credibility within and beyond journalism for the provision of comprehensive journo-training. Old-timers who regard journalism as a trade rather than a profession, to be learned on the job and not in an ivory tower, have to face realities such as technologies (and other social changes, e.g. the pub is less of a happy-hunting-ground for stories than it might have been).

Will Sorkin's characters be using Blackberrys next season?
In many cases, the content on these sites is awful.
In many cases, MSM content isn't much chop either. To what extent are journalism courses responsible for this? To what extent do they, or can they, make things better?
But for more skilled and savvy producers, these platforms offer new opportunities to communicate directly with audiences.

Most medium-sized and large organisations now have dedicated media production teams. The university where I work produces its own content, including interviews with academics, short documentaries and opinion articles. In the past they would have distributed a press release and tried to get newspapers or TV stations interested in running the story; now they publish themselves.
This is all very well across multi-platforms, but there is not a lot of two-way engagement going on here. That's the main 2.0 difference that old-timey journalists can't and won't get, and it is doing a disservice to teach budding journos that communication is a one-way process.
Some will claim this is public relations, not journalism. In most cases, that's true. But the skills of a journalist and a PR professional are largely the same. If you doubt that, look at the revolving door between journalists turning PR professionals and, in some cases, back again.
Scanlon might be right here, but this isn't sustainable. Journalism used to be just about finding things out in an environment where information was scarce. We're in a different environment now. We need trusted advisors to help us through the information available, and show us what's bullshit, what's the good stuff.
In other cases, though, the content is journalism - or at least a form of journalism. It's simply storytelling about new developments. Most science reporting falls into this category, as do most human-interest stories. These are not insidious forms of PR that seek to manipulate people; it's just sharing stuff that people want to know. That's what most journalism is.
How do you know what people want to know? In PR you might know what people might need to say, which is why most PR reads like talking at an audience rather than to or with it. This perpetuates the old Voice From Nowhere style of journalism, where you can't tell whether or not the journalists/editors have an interest in the material presented in the story, and you can't engage with them anyway (particularly if the material is both fabricated and ethereal like the stuff Twitter users refer to as #leadershit). PR stops stories from happening in many cases; if journalists are taught how to get around PR to get their story (if there is a story to get), then they are educated well.
Does that mean everything is hunky dory? Not exactly. On a recent episode of Media Watch, Jonathan Holmes lamented the AFL setting up its own news service. Holmes doubted that AFL "journalists" would - or could - provide truly independent coverage of their employer. I share his doubts.
Sure, so long as neither Holmes nor Scanlon actually look at patterns of behaviour in sports journalism.

The number of journalists covering AFL is four times greater than there are covering federal politics. In many cases, they slavishly report whatever Andrew Demetriou says. In many cases, they bag the guy equally consistently. In many cases, they play favourites in overlooking outrages here and excoriating minor issues there. There is not a lot of fearless, investigative journalism going on into any aspect of AFL; everyone who covers it is a fan with their own loves and hates about particular facets of it. To get a clear picture of what is going on in AFL you have to wade through a great deal of crap and hype.

Scanlon and Holmes are wrong to imply that the quality of journalism in AFL will necessarily decline as a result of AFL bringing its media in-house. Having observed them up close the AFL has clearly decided that it can't be too hard to do what the MSM does. There might be some 1984-style alarmism over the control of information coming from an organisation about which there is a great deal of public interest, and it will be interesting to see whether or not this info-control freakery will damage the game as a whole. There is no reason why AFL is obliged to have big media companies siphon money from their product, as happened to rugby league at the hands of News Ltd.

What would Scanlon advise a student of his who went to work for AFL Media? That student would appear on the right side of graduate-employment stats that would flatter Scanlon and his employer, so what's the problem?
There are also real concerns about what happens to a democracy when large metropolitan newspapers cease to function in the manner to which we have become accustomed. The gaps they leave are not going to be filled by niche news services, no matter how well-intentioned.
Far more urgent are the concerns about what happens to a democracy when large metropolitan newspapers (and other media outlets) continue to function in the manner to which we have become accustomed. They ignore great swathes of facts about how we are governed, are too lazy to do analysis or even develop the skills to do so, and overstate the effect of corridor tittle-tattle on the ways we are governed and that our public services are delivered. The idea that they award one another prizes and engage in mutual reinforcement through poor education and circle-jerk events like the Andrew Olle, the Midwinter Ball, the Walkleys or [is there an awards ceremony for AFL journos? I bet there is. Insert it here] is revolting. Scanlon needs to investigate his role, and those of his colleagues, in perpetuating this toxic occupational environment.

If Scanlon was seriously concerned about threats to our democracy he should have made it more important in the story, and more evident in other aspects of his work. It's the act of a dilettante to go on about Indiana Jones and cool new technologies, and then casually drop threats to our democracy as a by-the-way down the end of his article.
The gaps they leave are not going to be filled by niche news services, no matter how well-intentioned.
They're a sign that Traditional Media ain't cutting it, Scanlon. You should be learning from those organisations, not treating them/us like a disease to which you have the cure.
The trick for journalism courses will be to work with news organisations to keep a robust ethos of news reporting alive, so that we will continue to have journalism in all its forms.
The trick for journalism courses (insofar as it is a "trick", rather than a challenge or a responsibility) is to be clearer about what the value proposition is for journalism for those who consume it, not just for those who produce it. Surely there is some university by-law where a student who writes as badly as Michelle Grattan should have to show cause why they should not be expelled. This will make for better PR too, as graduates would be better prepared to push back against poor strategy and accept the consequences of doing so, rather than just taking all those info-turds and rolling them in PR-glitter on the basis of what people like Christopher Scanlon have taught them.


  1. LOL Hmm....Not a bad rant Andrew, but it probably needs more bile. :-p

    1. These are the people training future journalists/PR dollies: making things worse

  2. swearyanthony19/7/12 10:22 pm

    while I agree with your despair at the state of political journalism, PM is actually one of the better things in AU right now.

    1. Sure, but dearie me he can get precious.

  3. Oh Mr Elder, I'm only half-way through you description of the Olle Oration, and I've had to come and congratulate you. Nicely done sir.


  4. Great stuff, as usual you've hit the nail on the head. I'm fairly young so i have no idea if it has ever been any different but the sludge that is served up and presented as 'quality journalism' in our media is barely fit to print. Maybe it was acceptable before the internet age when you really had to jump through hoops to find things like accurate statistics/policy studies.

    A number of academics may rail against News Ltd (with good reason) but they ignore the fact that the Fairfax press is scarcely better. Whether it's a lack of resources, intelligence or research (or all of the above) the simple fact of the matter is that most print journalism seems to do little more than take a press release, find an 'opposing view' and make the astounding analytical leap that the truth must be somewhere in the middle.

    I can only hope that our current crop of journalism students are reading people like Matt Cowgill, Bernard Keane, Stephen Koukalas etc. Writers who will wade through the vested interests and misinformation, make a case and present the evidence for their readers to see and assess for themselves.

  5. I wonder if there is a media outlet that would even want to employ a serious journalist. Look at what a travesty Michelle Grattan has turned into. The important question, for me, is she following instructions or has she just lost the plot. She is a disgrace to her profession.
    It is no wonder journalists are held in such contempt.

    Andrew you are doing a great service by holding our servile hacks to some account.

  6. I have had occasion to listen to Colvin in the car in recent times and have not been impressed at all. He seems to have a Simon Sheikh moment each show where his noggin turns off and he has to start his sentence over. His interviews seem to be with the same talking heads over and over, like that bloke from the American research centre.

    A Colvin backlash would be a good thing, I think. The Australian MSM journo Twitterati are an incestuous lot, and the emperor isn't wearing much.

  7. "Besides, you can get just-the-facts reporting from plenty of other sources, including viewing the very press release that gave rise to a particular story."

    Do you really believe that? That seems excesively naive. And yet you're not the only intelligent person taking this line - Greg Jericho said something similar recently.

    1. You'd like to disagree with me, wouldn't you, if only you had some facts and a bit of logic. I know I wasn't meant to be flattered by the Jericho comparison but I am.

    2. No, you're both obviously smart people.

      But this idea that you both hold that fact-gathering journalism can be replaced with press releases is astonishing.

      Do you really trust organisations to put out "just the facts"?

    3. If I was the average Australian journalist my job would depend on it. Their idea of investigative journalism involves hitting Send/Receive on to see if they've been emailed any press releases.

      Rather than acting all incredulous: do you have an argument, or just a pose?

    4. I think the point is that all the MSM really does is transcribe press releases and translate them to fit into whatever the particular narrative of the day happens to be. They don't subject them to any sort of serious scrutiny or analysis, so you may as well just read the press release and see what a blogger with some expertise or knowledge of the subject makes of it.

    5. No, I don't. I'm actually incredulous. Which is one up on being credulous, I guess.

      I don't think we have enough of a framework in common here for me to mount an argument you would listen to.

      You and Jericho both seem to be labouring under a misapprehension about how the mechanics of industrial journalism work, possibly because you're looking at the output of the Canberra press gallery as typical when in fact it is not.

      I don't think there's anything I could say that would convince you you're wrong about how journalism is actually done.

    6. You don't have any credulity, nor any credibility. Perhaps you thought they were the same thing. KnifeySpoony above has shown you up in terms of journalistic knowledge, which doesn't leave you with much given your failure to assess who (and what) you're dealing with her.

    7. Lachlan Ridge22/7/12 12:18 am

      Anon, until October 2010 I worked in the media. I now sort parcels at night for Australia Post. I quit because the workload was exactly as KnifeySpoony and Andrew Elder describe above.

      Anyone who has any interest in any area would do well to subscribe to the media RSS feed for the relevant departments, corporations and NGOs involved in the sector, or simply set up a Google Alert. This allows you to glean more information than if you relied solely on the mainstream media because the latter is not doing its job.

      And the "training" of journalists is a big part of the problem. Frontline is not a satire, it's a documentary.

    8. Here are four news stories, big and small, good and bad.

      Can you identify the press release behind each one?

      Underbelly Inc: gangs muscle in on markets

      Gatto denies bashing rivals

      Mystery bidder for DJs revealed

      Taxpayers fork out for Carl William's daughter to attend top private college

      No, you can't, because in each case there was no press release.

      I'm not going to argue that there isn't too much press release-driven work going on; but in each case above the claim that you can get the facts from a press release is simply factually wrong.

    9. Press-release driven journalism is >90% of journalism, and in the case of the Canberra Press Gallery (the apogee of that profession, just ask them) the rest is just bullshit. As to your examples:

      1) Point taken, but you had to go way back to get that one and you haven't really traced it to the vegie-buying public in any meaningful way; the celebrity is the hook, apparently, the human interest angle: see 2) below.

      2) Non-story, so what? I'm not chasing that fucking rabbit down its hole, even if it is carrying a fob watch and saying "I'm late, I'm late", and I won't pay anyone else to do so either. Wake me when Gatto dies and remind me why I should give a shit. The press release is the first Underbelly TV series.

      3) Here it is: http://www.asx.com.au/asx/statistics/displayAnnouncement.do?display=pdf&idsId=01310018 (all MSM business stories come from ASX announcements, quibble away as to whether they constitute "press releases").

      4) See 1) above, and that part of 2) dealing with Underbelly.

      You haven't had to go back as far as Watergate, the standby of all lazy-arse journalists. You haven't made the case that good investigative journalism is the norm, nor even that it even happens often, nor that it focuses on big and telling issues, which is where you get into issues like Importance To Our Democracy. The fact that Fairfax and News are doing a bit of trimming is not nearly the tragedy you seem to think it is, and it will neither make the examples you cite more or less common.

      At best, you've established that they're not quite all completely and utterly useless all the time, and where does it leave you? On your little mound of yellowed old newspapers, thinking you're Ed Hillary.

      Lucky you haven't put your name to the above, as I have.

    10. Lachlan Ridge23/7/12 8:11 am

      None of those stories introduced by Anon have any significance outside of a narrow coterie of numb-nuts that think The Godfather was a documentary. I've dealt with my share of crims and most are dumb-arse boring as batshit and, when it comes down to it, pretty gutless. It's like the endles stream of 'footballer X got pissed and shat his pants' stories. Who. Fucking. Cares.

      The biggest "news" of the '50's according to Anon's rule was Mrs Petrov being dragged off a plane in Darwin, yet that turned out to be confected tosh while the real story was that indexed rises to the Metal Industry Award and the flow on was what paid for suburban Australia. But, gee, that wasn't too sexy a story now was it.

      Ask yourself this; which has had the greater impact on your day to day life - the death of Azaria Chamberlain or the shifting of cost-risk for public infrastructure from the state to the household sector?

      Go on, ask yourself which is more important, to you?

      Or does the price of a CTP slip and road tolls not worry you? If so, count yourself blessed that you are part of that 30 percent of Australia that earns more than AWE, for the rest of us we need better information on managing in this neo-liberal age, and media is not serving us, apart from offering up this infotainment that makes Entertainment Tonight look like a Ken Loach documentary..

      In the meantime a bunch of wide boys dick-swinging down the markets is the least of my worries. And story four was probably a tip-off from the Police Association, which is as good as a press releasee anyway! And besides, how many of those stories could be written without phrases with wtte such as "it is believed that..." and "sources say...".

      Save your gossip for someone who cares, there's fewer of them every day.

      To put it bluntly, the MSM should grow up!

    11. As I said initially, it is a mistake to view the output of the Canberra press gallery as representative of the media at large. It is not "the apogee of the profession", no matter what its members say.

      As to going "way back" - these are examples that took me about five minutes to come up with. There are plenty more.

      You don't care about Mick Gatto? Fine, then that story's not for you. Still not based on a press release, though.

      Your point re 3 goes to demonstrate my point. DJs was compelled to publish the name of the non-existent public equity outfit because that "UK blog site" report was picked up by Fairfax and published on its websites.

      I don't see anything in the announcement about EBPE being a joke, which is the point of the story above.

      The story was published on the Monday following that ASX announcement and consists mostly of original work debunking the bid. In other words, no, not based on a press release.

      Again, I think the problem is that you don't understand the industrial model of journalism production.

      The way it works is that yes, the vast bulk of news stories are routine. Too many of them are based on press releases (anywhere between 55 per cent and 80 per cent, depending on which study you look at). This is, if you like, the bathwater of commodity journalism.

      The investigative work, the baby, is produced in the same newsrooms. Often by the same journalists, at the same time as they are churning out commodity work.

      Newspapers do the vast bulk of this heavy lifting because, despite cuts over the years, they still have the biggest newsrooms in the industry.

      To say cuts will "neither make the examples you cite more or less common" once again illustrates you don't know what you're talking about.

      Of course it will make such examples less common, as the remaining journalists pedal harder to keep up with the day-to-day donkey work.

      You want to do down industrial journalism? God knows why, the commercial model is broken anyway because media companies have failed to adapt to technological change - you're basically wasting your time.

      But you should recognise that when tipping out the bathwater there is a baby in there somewhere.

  8. "Surely there is some university by-law where a student who writes as badly as Michelle Grattan should have to show cause why they should not be expelled."

    True dat. (I'm excused for making a Wire reference here, considering where the final series was set, but apologies anyway.)

    Who's that freak with the weird hands in the Hun, keeps getting his interest rates predictiongs wrong? His writing is seriously bananas, I can't get enough of it, weirdest stuff I've ever read. It's like an abstract art project from the sixties.

  9. The MSM only employs a third of j grads, so I'm not convinced that j courses should be tailored towards what the MSM wants. Particularly when the MSM benefits enormously from unis doing their training for them - the cost of entry to the industry has been pushed from the media organisations onto the students, who start with a three-year HECS debt, accumulated mostly in training in programs that they won't use because the MSM is too far behind. Hell, if you can't teach someone to be a journalist in six months, then you're doin' it wrong.

    Besides, most of the stuff you read on MSM sites - and in the paper the following day - wouldn't pass a reporting assignment: one voice stories, no fact checking, publishing before getting comment from the other side. There's some research out of the UK (haven't seen any local research on this topic yet) indicating that journalism graduates quickly abandon their ideals and discredit their uni education once they're in a newsroom, in order to fit in. I don't think it's the universities that are the problem.

    1. Sure, but that's where Scanlon's article unravels: he's training journalists, but they're doing things other than what we might recognise as journalism because a) technology and b) there aren't the jobs available; even so, he insists that what those grads do is journalism and that PR=journalism.

      Your second par is telling. Thank you.

    2. Good friend of mine, a working journo, does a bit a mentoring with students. He says when he asks them why they're studying journalism about 90% say something like 'to be on tele'. None talk about a love of writing or telling stories (in the good way, I mean), none have an interest in how society functions.

      It's disturbing. The only conclusion he can reach is the lack of role models. We have a whole generation now who have grown up without reading or listening to any inspiring journalists. The one dimensional tabloid culture and reliance on gossip instead of hard work has infiltrated our whole media landscape (see Grattan et al) and screwed up the future of journalism.

  10. What's even taught in Journalism?

    Research is press releases and manufactured leaks; Insight is credulity rather than scepticism; Stories are written from the above and moulded to fit the "Narrative" (currently: "Julia is Crap").

    Don't get me started on spelling, grammar and punctuation either. How many times do we have to suffer the misuse of "and", "but", "so", "although", etc., which can completely change the sense of a sentence - seems like the current view is you just throw the words together and hope for the best.

    1. See, you think that journalism is all about the reader/listener/viewer. Your hardened old journos laugh at that - until they get sacked.

  11. Is it Terry McCrann you're thinking of? If so, yeah, he reads like a really bad acid trip.

    1. That's him. What's up with his hands? Seriously weird. Bit of a chip on his shoulder, too.

    2. Dunno about his hands. I worked out he had only a tenuous grasp of reality about 20 years ago, when he was writing for The Oz, and have ignored him since (except to point and laugh).

  12. Over the weekend Tony Abbott told a group of journalists that Mal Brough had been 'totally upfront' about his involvement with James Ashby.

    This was reported without one single journalist pointing out that Abbott was lying and that Brough had changed his story twice.

    What other conclusion can you reach from this except to say that journalism in this country is dead?

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