Body of the Host

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It often takes a crisis for a society to reflect meaningfully on its institutions – their value, purpose, strengths and weaknesses. Do those institutions serve us or do they primarily serve themselves?

The global financial crisis, for instance, exposed how a large swathe of the international banking system had been corrupted by reckless risk-taking and had internalised the view that it could simultaneously privatise its profits and socialise its losses.

The banks, we belatedly discovered, had ceased being mere utilities. They were malevolent credit machines, manufacturing Frankenstinian products, preying on the least fortunate and sending the bill for the resultant mess to taxpayers. Goldman Sachs, said Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, was “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

But the sucking sound doesn’t end with the banks. Much of the commercial media, now drained of any notion of public service, has become a parasitical infection in the body politic, a hookworm that both breeds and feeds on fear, distrust and suspicion in the community and spreads its disease through calculated misinformation and hysteria.

Within hours of the start of the Sydney siege in Martin Place, and with the barest of information, News Corporation’s Daily Telegraph splashed its special afternoon edition with the headline ‘Death Cult CBD Attack’ - the implication being that ISIS-style terrorism had landed in the heart of Australia’s biggest city.

Of course, we now know the perpetrator was a lone-wolf, a sadly deluded and paranoid individual with a long criminal history using the props of Islamist terror to demonstrate his largely personal grievances with the state.

That the Tele rushed to print with the ISIS connection speaks volumes for how deeply invested this despicable publication is in fanning Islamophobia. This, after all, was a newspaper that sent the club mascot of the nutjobs on a daytrip to Lakemba to depict the entire western Sydney suburb as a sort of Kabul on the Cook.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, supposedly professional journalists were shamelessly recycling hearsay, rumour and the half-baked theories of talkback radio blowhards masquerading as public defenders.

Your correspondent himself was holed up in a CBD high-rise during the siege and saw young staff in tears over the reports of bombs all over town. Angry at the half-baked theorising, one high-profile entertainment reporter lashed out at amateur correspondents.

Of course, the problem wasn’t so much the wannabe journos, the problem was the mainstream media itself, ghoulishly exploiting an unfolding human tragedy and urban crisis for cheap ratings and circulation points. The vampire squid again.

And, most tellingly, when the siege ended in gut-churning gunfire and bloodshed in the early hours of the morning, the biggest squid of them all appeared almost immediately on Twitter. In a jaw-dropping display of cynicism, New York-settled Rupert Murdoch used the deaths of young Australians as a cheap advertising opportunity for his media properties and a flippant debating point for his equally crazy ideology.

Yes, but the Tele had got it wrong. Typically, the urge to be first with the news came ahead of getting the story right. Instead, it rushed into print with shameless speculation, innuendo and hysterical headlines calculated to generate fear.

Striking was the contrast between the Murdoch’s shameless exploitation of this event with the understated, intelligent and sensitive rendering on ABC News 24, where veteran journalist John Barron and others did what journalists are supposed to do – report accurately and fairly and with an appreciation of the media’s role as an institution that serves the public, not the other way around.

If ever you want to mount a case for the continued funding of public broadcasting journalism, this siege was it. Journalism, at its best, gives primacy not to advertisers or proprietors or shareholders or ambitious editors, but to the public. Journalists, worthy of the name, serve the public. And they do so by establishing trust, by exercising restraint and, most of all, by respecting the truth.

Elsewhere:

 

Enclosing the Commons

iStock_000017089639_LargeThe existential attack on the ABC in Australia is just the latest extension of creeping libertarianism, imported wholesale from the US and promulgated by the Murdoch press and the now dominant right-wing fringe of the Liberal Party.

For these people, there is no legitimate public space, no community, there is only the market. And anything not given a dollar value by the market must, by definition, have no intrinsic value.

The constant whining about “left-wing bias” in regards to the ABC comes without a shred of evidence and continues despite the public broadcaster bending over backwards to appease its critics. Every panel show is stacked with members of the IPA, a group that refuses to reveal its funding and which is blandly labelled as a “free market think tank”; a group which is ideologically committed to the end of public broadcasting.

The now ritual accusation is that the ABC is the plaything of clubby, inner city progressives pushing fashionable causes a world away from the bread-and-butter concerns of the vast bulk of Australians. It’s a cute idea, but it’s an idea recycled by the reactionary right in many developed economies against public broadcasting in a dishonest attempt to close down or narrow the framing of legitimate debate.

Indeed, the contrast between the rabid paranoia of an increasingly unhinged right and the beige reality of much ABC programming is striking. Where is this left-wing bias? Is it Bananas in Pyjamas? Kitchen Cabinet? Catalyst? Bush Telegraph?

As an experienced former journalist, I’ve frequently turned a critical eye at the ABC News. But if you can accuse it of anything, it is of promoting a bland, fake balance that treats all sides of an issue (such as climate change) as equivalent – of insisting on “equal time” on every issue, even when doing so represents the craziest fringe opinion as mainstream.

This stopwatch-driven manufactured “objectivity” is in itself a consequence of the existential threat against the ABC. But its managers seem unable to grasp that these critics will never be appeased. I wager Mark Scott could air the Bolt Report every day on ABC1 and he would still be ritually tarred and feathered in the Murdoch press.

In the meantime – for all the intemperate ranting against it by silly old men – the ABC remains a hugely trusted institution. It inevitably ranks above the commercial media, including the Murdoch tabloids, in public opinion. After all, as a “public” broadcaster, its role is to do what the commercial media cannot or will not provide.

And keep in mind that even some conservative commentators value the role of public broadcasting, seeing it as providing an opportunity for serious and deeper reflection of issues that do not fit within a mass market commercial format.

Yes, it is true that competitive markets do a pretty good job overall in satisfying the public. But markets aren’t perfect. And there remain issues of importance and areas of interest that private sector media will not want to cover. That’s where the ABC comes in.

If economies must be found, the obvious place to start pruning are the myriad opinion programs and panel shows. I’ve been asked onto a few ABC programs in recent years to opine about whatever was dominating the news that day. Often, though, I simply don’t know enough about the subject or feel deeply enough about it to offer a considered view. And I suspect many other panelists have the same misgivings.

If anything the problem with the ABC (and with media generally in recent years) is an excess of shallow opinion-mongering over thoughtful journalism and analysis. The latter is rare because it costs time and money and can anger the powerful. The former is plentiful for the opposite reasons – it’s quick and cheap to produce and is essentially wallpaper.

So if Mark Scott is looking to concentrate the spending of his increasingly scarce budget on something really useful and valuable, I would put the money into old-fashioned reporting. He needs more of the like of the Quentin Dempsters and Andrew Olles and Chris Masters. That’s a commons worth saving.

 

 

 

Be Afraid, Please

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The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed – and hence clamorous to be led to safety – by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”– H.L. Mencken

In a world in which everyone is constantly distracted, arguably the most valued currency is your attention. Politicians know it. Journalists know it. As Big Idea professions trying to survive in a post-modernist age, they’re drowning in indifference. Terrorists know it, too.

To wake populations from their reality television-inspired ennui, big gestures are required. Existential and sleep-disrupting threats must be summonsed – threats even more sleep-depriving than the anxiety of who might survive the elimination final of MasterChef.

So here it comes down a YouTube channel near you. Disenfranchised and alienated (yet plugged-in) Muslim youth, latching onto their own bogus Big Idea, grab our limited attention with ghastly acts that hint at a civilisation-ending moment. Politicians and media, frustrated that their own fading sideshows don’t grab audiences anymore, grab the brief moment and milk it, mercilessly.

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Does anyone else not feel a sense of ritualisation in all of this? For sure, the brutal and staged murder of journalists and aid workers in Iraq is as real and reprehensible. But the enthusiasm with which the media and political class have seized upon this story as an existential threat speaks volumes about their calculated desperation.

The wonder is this is such a familiar script. Fear has been used to control populations for hundreds of years. Many who grew up in the early 60s and the shadow of the nuclear bomb can recall the missile scares and “duck and cover” exercises. Politicians exploit the fear and then use it to rationalise an erosion of liberties. A compliant media goes along for the ride, using slogans associated with the terror threat as an entertainment opportunity – a way to attract increasingly fickle audiences.

Of course, non-reflective journalists (who curiously pride themselves on their bullshit detection ability) are so desperate for the story that they allow themselves to be co-opted by the state in robbing people of their freedoms for the sake of a non-specific threat. But, as David Altheide argued in a 2006 study, it is impossible for the media to provide proper perspective around these stories because they are so invested in the fear, as are the politicians they depend on:

“On the one hand, the politics of fear is consistent with entertainment-oriented news and mass media, particularly its resonance with ‘victims’ and victimisation. On the other hand, the politics of fear helps political decision makers as news sources and as political actors define social life as dangerous and requiring formal social control and state intervention.”

This is where journalism is supposed to come into its own, challenging political elites and resisting boiler plate analysis of the boogeymen du jour. Journalists’ role is to exercise scepticism and to put the spin through the bullshit detector. At the moment, most of them are failing in that role, choosing instead to blandly and in docile fashion parrot the hysterical announcements of politicians with a vested interest in fostering fear.

In the meantime, the politicians say we must sacrifice our freedoms to fight the hazy threat of terror that would rob those freedoms.

Something doesn’t add up. But don’t rely on our Failed Estate to be able to count.

FURTHER READING:

West Side Tories

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“When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way. From your first cigarette, to your last dyin’ day.”

The mainstream media is deep into its ‘Me’ phase. Despite the world going through enormous change and upheaval, a large chunk of our media is talking more about itself and its competition than it is about anything that might remotely impact on its audience.

The story isn’t about the civil war in Syria, but about the failure of the “green left” of the ABC to condemn extremism in strong enough terms. The story isn’t about destructive climate change (that conservative ex-US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson says poses a bigger threat than the GFC), but about the “warmist believers” of Fairfax.

What’s behind the self-obsession? There are a couple of possibilities. One is that is that the scale of the media and culture wars testify to the importance of the issues at stake – issues like the future of democracy, freedom, journalism and Fourth Estate.

A second possibility is that the media’s internal focus is a symptom of of its growing irrelevance to the real conversation.  With their circulation and revenues shrinking along with their stature, media poohbahs stand on their tippy-toes and pompously proclaim their importance each day to a diminishing crowd. When that fails, they descend to juvenile name-calling and start fights over not much at all. “Hey look over here guys!” No thanks.

Think about this: Apart from a hardened core of cranky, reactionary old men vainly trying to assert their diminished authority on the basis of nothing more than their age and gender, who bothers to read The Australian? What does it say beyond its catechism of entirely predictable tribal utterances? Essential reading it is not. And the numbers show it.

One can leave the country for a few days or switch off local media for a while, confident that upon one’s return the same ever-diminishing, ever-narrowing media conversation will be droning on. Each week, Q&A ( the ABC’s Punch and Judy show) features predictable pugilists fitted up to the banal binary “left-right” conception of politics imported unthinkingly from an impossibly partisan US media landscape.

The vacuous, insular nature of “the debate” was seen recently on another ABC program, Big Ideas. The show was nominally about media bias and the impossibility of pure objectivity, but the panel format (featuring some of the usual suspects) just ended up being another Jets-v-Sharks choreographed rumble with each punch telegraphed a mile off.

The News Corp partisans and IPA “freedom” scouts line up each time to complain of ABC bias without ever providing substantial proof – and despite their being ritually invited onto ABC shows to bag the broadcaster for not including their views. (On the Big Ideas show, prominent conservative Tom Switzer served up as an example that Lateline in 2004 had downplayed Ronald Reagan’s death, preferring instead to “browbeat” the then Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer about Abu Ghraib. What quaint news sense by the ABC, preferring to investigate the torture of prisoners in a war Australia was a party to over running a hagiography on a 94-year-old former US president who left office in 1988).

But you get the picture. The dreary, circular, insular nature of Australia’s media conversation  - with Team Red and Team Blue posing from their predictable corners over each and every issue – tells us nothing except about their own irrelevance. It’s like Broadway playing the same half-dozen  shows over and over again.

No wonder anyone with any intelligence or world interest is going off Broadway and seeking out new sources and new voices in social media both within and outside Australia.  That’s where the ideas are. And that’s where real change will come.

Blurred Lines

There are some astute observations in this brief video on the increasingly blurry distinction between “old” and “new” media. I especially like the line from one journalist about it all coming down to trust.  Ultimately, trust is the currency of good journalism. And without trust, you really are reduced to being a ‘content producer for an advertising platform’ (to quote former Fairfax CEO Fred Hilmer’s notoriously reductionist definition of a journalist) The video comes from the Aspen festival of ideas and is courtesy of The Atlantic.

Approved Targets List

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One consequence of the death of the mainstream media’s business model and the commodification of news is a corresponding increased reliance on provocative commentary that generates page impressions.

News Corp’s Andrew Bolt is the poster child for the success of professional trollery as a revenue generator and brand differentiator. He has clear targets, strong opinions  and he succinctly expresses them. He has a fiercely loyal audience and equally fierce enemies who despise him with similar force. Bolt is now parlaying this approach of calculated outrage on commercial television. And good luck to him.

The simple truth is that in a hollowed-out media confronted by a myriad of other distractions, sane and sensible, measured and thoughtful, and sober and reflective are not desirable traits for successful journalists. To survive commercially in a disintermediated world, one must generate a response – good or bad, it doesn’t matter.

Most of the successful provocateurs and templars of intemperance  crowd the right of the political spectrum, which may partly reflect the utter dominance of News Corp and its proprietor’s radical right-wing views in the Australian media landscape.

On the left, Mike Carlton has been one of the few counterparts whose copy is not blighted by the exceedingly hand-wringing reasonableness that blights so much ‘progressive’ opinionating. Carlton speaks plainly, hates openly and hits a few targets in the process.  Like Bolt, he understands his job is to entertain as much as inform.

Expressing the views of many, including a good deal of Jewish people, Carlton wrote a column recently that strongly criticised the state of Israel for its actions in bombing civilians in Gaza. The column attracted a huge response, which Carlton noted – some people supportive, others highly critical but reasonably so and others just completely intemperate, accusing him of outright anti-Semitism and worse.

Then News Corp piled in. The story ticked all the boxes for its own professional trolls. It offered another front in the manufactured rolling ‘culture wars’. It provided an opportunity to bash Islam and tar any criticism of Israel, however reasoned and even-handed, as anti-Semitic. And it was a chance to kick the “leftist” Fairfax.

The ostensible issue that forced Carlton’s eventual resignation from Fairfax was not the column itself, but his intemperate emailed and Tweeted responses to the some of the apparently coordinated abuse he received for the original piece. Some of these emails mysteriously were delivered to his arch enemy Bolt.

There are a  few observations to make about this.

Firstly, while not seeking to defend Carlton’s abuse of readers, one can understand how he might have felt unfairly attacked for a column which was merely expressing what many world leaders, including Obama, were saying about Israel’s actions.

Oddly, some supporters of Fairfax’s action say no company would condone an employee talking to ‘customers’  that way. But this wrongly assumes that a commercial media outlet’s customers are its readers. On the contrary, its readers are the product it sells to its real customers – the advertisers. And what advertisers value is eyeballs, which is why trollumnists and provocateurs are now the bread and butter of the dying media business.

In any case, Carlton did not make those comments in his official column. He did so on Twitter and email after highly personal attacks on him. And anyone who has followed him in social media knows that he uses colourful language and expresses himself directly. This is not a surprise.

Secondly, Carlton might also feel rightly aggrieved at the gutlessness of the Fairfax management in the face of what appeared a coordinated campaign of intimidation by powerful interests in Australia and elsewhere seeking to shut down debate. Traditionally, one of the first duties of an editor is to defend his staff and paid contributors, however unpopular their views, against efforts to shut them up.

In this case, though, a rather inexperienced editor, who came to journalism relatively late and was promoted quickly, backed the corporate line against editorial independence, which is really where a newspaper’s brand value resides. So Fairfax, having already lost quality writers like David Marr, Richard Ackland and Paddy Manning, just shot another large hole in its foot.

Thirdly, one is struck by the total lack of awareness of the irony of Carlton being silenced after years of pious speechifying about press freedom and free speech by the Murdoch press to stymie efforts to introduced better accountability for shoddy journalism. It seems ‘freedom’ in their world equates to the right of their side of politics to express their views unfettered and to silence those with whom they disagree.

Fourthly, is the irony of this happening straight after the 18C saga. We have just witnessed an entire government and media apparatus spending significant time and effort trying to change the law to accommodate one News Corp columnist’s sloppy journalism in attacking Aborigines. The difference is that individual is lauded by the government as a freedom fighter, gets his own TV show and receives cosy phone calls from the prime minister advising him that “we just couldn’t get it through this time, mate”.

If the issue here was about intolerance for intemperate and tribal attacks on people, much of the media (particularly the News Corp media) would cease to exist. No, the issue here is clearly about who was on the receiving end.

The hypocrisy of it all is gobsmacking. Indeed, it is hard not to conclude that though a revenue-deprived media is becoming ever more reliant on eyeball-grabbing, hard-talking provocateurs to generate page impressions, they require their professional haters to restrict their calculated outrage to the approved targets list.

(Recommend also this analysis by Mark Day in The Australian)

 

The Counter Reformation

163821058“What is happening is…a revolution in the way young people are accessing news. They don’t want to rely on the morning paper for their up-to-date information. They don’t want to rely on a God-like figure from above to tell them what’s important. And to carry the religion analogy a bit further, they certainly don’t want news presented as gospel.”

When Rupert Murdoch delivered that speech to the American Society of Newspaper editors in Washington a decade ago, he was seen by some as a Martin Luther figure, challenging centralised authority and nailing his 95 theses to the digital wall.

Print journalism was dying and a new generation of “digital natives” was seeking out news on demand in formats and narratives that suited them.  Newspaper editors, having distractedly plastered their content on the web less than 10 years before only to see sales and advertising continue to decline, were at the point of despair.

But Murdoch, having overcome great odds so many times in his career, was having none of that. Figuratively lifting the luddite editors by the lapels, Rupert said his company had challenged media orthodoxes over the years and could do so again with the web. “Today, the newspaper is just a paper,” he said. “Tomorrow, it can be a destination.”

Well, actually, more of a point of departure really, because nine years on, Murdoch’s vision looks more like a hopelessly naive misunderstanding of what the media reformation is all about. In retrospect, his rallying call to editors was more a rearguard action, a heroic attempt to reassert the authority of established media at a time of extraordinary technological and cultural change.

To his credit, Murdoch threw the dice and experimented with digital applications, the tablet-oriented The Daily representing a noble attempt to monetise traditional journalism on the web. It failed, reaching only 100,000 paid subscribers when it needed at least 500,000 to break even.  Like so many attempts to launch subscription media on the web, the content was simply not distinctive enough to tempt people to pay for it.

With his real-world efforts falling short of the vision of his digital proseltysing and his traditional dead-trees journalism fighting off scandal, Murdoch has regrouped around his legacy media brands and is fighting for tradition. His loyal lieutenants regularly declare war on Twitter, popular bloggers, public broadcasting and digital upstarts generally. Chris Kenny, who recently successfully sued the ABC, over a silly satirical joke at his expense by The Chaser, believes the digital revolution in relation to journalism has gone a tad too far.

There is a case to be made that digital journalism is distracting from substantive reporting and even distorting mainstream coverage. Digital-first publication has lowered the entry barrier for commentary, which was once the preserve of experienced hands. Young journalists knew their sole job was to report news, until much later in their careers when age and experience deemed them sufficiently worthy to offer analysis or comment.”

Kenny has a valid point about the speed of social media leaving little room for sound analysis and he’s right about the tendency for young reporters to be pushed into commenting on news before they’ve learnt to report it straight. But his pitch is a bit rich coming from a representative of a company that regularly puts its “straight news” coverage through the spinmaster to serve its political and commercial interests. And it blankly assumes that anyone not earning a living as a journalist in dead tree media is not qualified to comment on politics or anything else.

Witness the insane circling of the wagons by The Australian recently after it was found to have been blatantly spinning for Big Tobacco industry by printing incorrect claims that cigarette sales had increased since plain packaging laws began. Every characteristic Murdoch said the digital revolution had overturned – ex-cathedra pronouncements in contravention of the facts, a pompous presumption to being the final authority and a condescension toward other voices – was on display. Add to this its characteristically vicious personal attacks on those who dared question its dishonest ‘journalism’ and you have a case study in old media digging a deeper hole for its remaining credibility.

The alternative explanation for the sudden antagonism toward alternative media in the established outlets is that this is a commercial strategy.  By engaging in skirmishes on Twitter and elsewhere with new voices not part of the mainstream media, the dead trees brigade muscle in on the upstarts’ small, but growing, audiences.  In effect, the long-time party hosts are miffed that the guests and the advertisers have moved on elsewhere, so they’re crashing the joint. In the process, basic journalistic principles of fairness, accuracy and a respect for the truth are being trampled in the dirt.

A decade after Murdoch’s ‘digital natives’ speech, it appears the media reformation is giving way to a counter-reformation. In this, Murdoch is revealed not so much as an iconoclastic Martin Luther nailing his theses to the wall, but as a Pope Paul III, ordering an inquisition against the new media heretics.

Stuck Inside of Mobile

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Photo Courtesy The Guardian

The digital revolution will not be televised. And it’s not in the newspapers either. In fact, media companies don’t seem to get the revolution at all.

A decade and half since newspapers started distractedly plastering their content all over the internet (mistaking the web as just another publishing platform), the media owners are getting whacked anew.

The revolution has now gone mobile. Users are spending more time accessing and sharing news on their phones than they are on traditional desktops or tablets. And having spent fortunes designing funky iPad editions, the media finds that that the people formerly known as the audience have moved on, again.

Two recent reports –from the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard and the Reuters Institute at Oxford – have identified this second wave of a revolution that threatens to upend newsrooms only just getting back to their feet after the first.

“Aren’t phones just web browsers with smaller screens?” says Nieman. “Not really. Smartphones are personal, social machines, optimised for communication and entertainment. The tap-and-scroll interface works beautifully with social networks like Facebook and Twitter — less so with old-fashioned news presentation. And an interface built around apps and icons can make it a challenge for any single news source to earn a prominent spot on someone’s home screen.”

In its third annual ‘Digital News’ report, the Reuters Institute says the speed of change in digital innovation and consumption patterns around news is such that media companies frequently find themselves two or three steps behind.

Covering 10 countries (the USA, UK, Germany, France, Denmark, Finland, Spain, Italy, Brazil and Japan), the Reuters report found rapid growth in mobile and tablet use for news, with 37% of the sample accessing news from a smartphone each week and 20% from a tablet. While Australia was left out of the Reuters sample, digital trends here are similar.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Reuters found younger people (18-35) increasingly have little loyalty to any mainstream media brand and tend to rely on social sources like Facebook and Twitter to discover news stories.

And, again, there is still little sign that more people are willing to pay for news. In the UK, the proportion who said they had paid for digital news in the past year was just 7%. The authors suggested this may be due to the “abundant supply of quality free news from the BBC, Sky, Mail Online, and the Guardian”. (This partly explains why News Corp spends so much of its time fighting media civil wars).

The usual response of journalists to these sorts of numbers is to rail at the audience (“What’s wrong with you people! Pay up!”), though the truth is the cost of good journalism has never been covered by subscriptions, even in the analog days. The vast bulk of media revenues (80% or more) have traditionally come from advertising.

What is starting to dawn on traditional media executives now is that digital advertising dollars are shrinking both in absolute and relative terms. The advertisers won’t pay print rates for digital. But not only that – the money being spent on digital ads is overwhelmingly going to Google and Facebook, not the old intermediaries.

The fact is the “audience” is not passively consuming the SMH or The Australian as it once did. Instead, they are on their phones, actively engaging with Twitter or Facebook feeds and sharing and riffing on what they see. And, naturally enough, the advertisers will go where the audiences are.

Stepping back from it all, media companies for 15 years have mistaken the information revolution as purely a technological change. We were switching platforms, so that just meant shifting the journalism from print to desktop to tablet.

But this revolution is as much a cultural one. The media has been disintermediated, which means a journalist’s role shifts from institutionalised “Voice of God” handing down tablets of stone to freelance curator and explainer, working with the community to do what journalism has always done – to get to the truth of things.

The mistake people make out of all this is to conclude that the destruction of the media’s business model destroys journalism. In fact, it merely destroys an institutionalised and industrialised concept of journalism formed in the 20th century.

Quite understandably, working journalists will respond to this notion with “that’s all well and good, but how do I get paid for what I do?” On that score, the Reuters report cites a number of strategies for media companies, including soft and hard paywalls.

We’ll see how that plays out. But for now, the more interesting development is the rise of entrepreneurial journalism. With the cost of distribution now nil and scarcity no longer a driver of price, individual journalists can separate from the institutions that once cossetted them and become their own media “brand”.

In the US, there has been a mini-boom in analytical “wonk” journalism, led by writers like Ezra Klein and Nate Silver, who have tapped a growing need for someone to make sense of the sheer volume of data and information coming at us.

Here in Australia, we have in that role someone like Greg Jericho, who has worked backwards from popular blogger to mainstream media figure.

Of course, this is all happening at the edges. And none of it will bring back the heavily staffed newsrooms of the 20th century. But changing technology and changing news consumption patterns in the mobile age will nevertheless require a level of fleet-footedness and entrepreneurship on the part of journalists.

One astute observer of these trends is Professor George Brock, head of journalism at the City University, London. In a recent presentation, Brock urged journalists to stop trying to prescribe their predicament before they diagnose. They need to accept that their dominant position in the information chain has been lost, he said. The next step was finding out what value they can add in a world where anyone with a smartphone can summon up information instantaneously.

“What we used to call ‘news’ was once prepared like a conjuring trick or play behind a curtain and revealed at a fixed time,” Brock said. “Now, new information flows in a liquid torrent down many routes, propelled by the partnership of the internet and mobile phones. In this context, any ‘newsroom’ has to be completely clear about what value it adds to a story. Valuable information is discovered, published, aggregated and given extra value by individuals and organisations who aren’t interested in whether they’re ‘journalists’ or not.”

The instant availability of more and more information heightens the importance of verification, of the need to structure information so that it makes sense and of the need to provide explanations that resonate with people’s lived experience.

Journalists have the skills to do all of that, but they need to back to the first principles, experiment and see what works.

In the meantime, last word to His Bobness…

The Other Side of the Rope

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Journalists traditionally pride themselves on being outsiders. They’re not corporate types, they’re not joiners, they’re square pegs. So why are they suddenly dictating the terms in which everyone else can express their displeasure with the government?

The most divisive, contentious federal budget in decades – one that even former Liberal Party leader John Hewson says “screams inequity” – has drawn students into the streets in numbers not seen since the Vietnam war, before the fog of 80s consumerism snuffed out any principle other than the shallowest acquisitive materialism.

Yet the former outsiders of the media, despite their own craft being in peril, are lining up to identify with the power elite. So we see Annabel Crabb beumused that the students are favouring ‘outdated’ Soviet-style protests over other means of expressing their views – presumably, in her case, having cosy afternoon teas with their  mates.

Over on the ABC, Q and A host Tony Jones, on his $350,000-a-year salary, goes out of his way to side with the establishment, telling students who disrupted a recent program

“That is not what we want to happen on this program. That is not what democracy is all about. And those students should understand that.”

On a subsequent program, in which a beleaguered Joe Hockey sought to defend the budget against a hostile crowd, Jones was no less a supplicant to the powerful, telling a rowdy audience they were there to listen and essentially shut up.

And, of course, we are talking here about moderate, supposedly centrist media figures. If you take into account the hysterical reactions to protests by the likes of Alan Jones and Miranda Devine and the legions of Murdoch serfs that call themselves journalists, you find an Australian media which sees its interests as identical to those of the politically powerful.

Partly driving this ingratiating behaviour on the part of media figures is clearly outright partisanship (or doing what Rupert requires), but part of it reflects a desperate and pathetic attempt by journalists (fearing the loss of jobs) to position themselves as ‘balanced’ and outside the political debate.  As Tim Dunlop observed:

It is not just that there is a right wing media that dominates and is biased. It is that the opposite of right wing media isn’t left-wing media, it is sensible journalism.

Sensible journalism is what you get when media organisations or individual journalists try self-consciously to be neither of the right nor the left. They try instead to be “balanced” or “objective”. They see this as being professional. But what they end up doing is simply discounting left wing positions and arguments and thus by default give credence to right wing ones.

We saw this same panicky, existential attempt by the media to frame the debate in conventional, ‘objective’ terms quite starkly in the attempts earlier this year to downplay or completely ignore the significance of the March in March protests.  Any political expression that comes from outside the narrow Canberra-defined world of ‘politics’ is discounted as naive or wrong-headed or a throwback to a quaint 60s idealism.

It’s hard to escape the view that with the public losing faith in institutions, including the media itself, journalists are subconsciously fighting a rearguard action to seize back control of the narrative and cast it in a comfortable framework that suits them and the political classes they report on. In this, they are betraying the principles of their craft – representing the powerful to the public rather than the other way around.  Worse for them, they’re also missing the bigger story.

It’s why social media is now where the conversation has moved. The media has been disintermediated. It is talking to itself and the powerful. It is on the other side of the rope, like the favoured head prefect who takes tea with headmaster and then finds on returning to the dorm that no-one takes them seriously anymore.

And the longer they stay there, the less able they are to do their real job – to ask the right question, to be provocative, to make the powerful squirm, to represent the public and to take nothing for granted.

That’s what journalists do.

(See also: Mark Bahnisch: ‘Post-Budget: What Happens Now?‘)

His Master’s Voice

His_Master-s_Voice

A common defence of Rupert Murdoch’s overwhelming dominance of the Australian media is that it reflects market forces. His papers account for 60%-70% of newspaper sales because they are popular, goes this line.

A second defence is that the multiplicity of new platforms for news and information and the proliferation of blogs make Murdoch’s stranglehold over traditional media, particularly newspapers, less of an issue for democracy.

These arguments are now well rehearsed among Murdoch’s loyal foot soldiers and were ritually recited on a recent Q and A on ABC Television by Sarrah Le Marquand, opinion editor of The Daily Telegraph.

“When people are talking about this much-touted 70% and who controls it, well I’ll tell you who controls it – the news-buying public. So if you have any issues with that, you need to take it up with them,” Le Marquand trumpeted.

The News Corp editor’s comment was made in response to a question from an audience member about the determinedly partisan stance of the Murdoch press in last year’s federal election. This coverage included deliberate distortions in supposedly straight news reports and the manipulation of photos to depict the prime minister as a Nazi.

The sophistry of Le Marquand’s response (‘the people buy it, so it must be right’) was repeated by another audience member (apparently one of the Sydney University Young Libs bused into the studio):

“The fact is people bought the papers, people wanted to vote that way. There’s nothing stopping someone starting another newspaper and selling that. It’s not so much that that the (Daily Tele) dictates the views, but they’re mainstream people’s views.”

Under this argument, journalism is merely another commercial enterprise. You start your newspaper (an industry with massive barriers to entry), hang your shingle out, hire a willing (and desperate) editorial team and begin manufacturing a view of the world that suits your proprietor’s commercial and ideological imperatives.

If people don’t like your brand of journalism, they can buy one that fits their prejudices more neatly. And if they can’t find one, they go off to the bank manager and build one from scratch. If they can’t do that, they start a blog and broadcast to the world what they think.

The Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, also on the Q and A panel, is a disciple of this view – that the multiplicity of voices in the digital space makes Murdoch’s traditional media dominance less of an issue and, in any case, his power and influence is over-rated. If people don’t like Murdoch’s editorial line, they can DIY.

This all sounds extremely reasonable, apart from a few small points. One of them is that news is not a product and the Fourth Estate is not purely a commercial enterprise. Call me old fashioned, but journalists have civic responsibilities beyond their obligations to their employers.

And just as the news is not a product, readers are not merely consumers. They do not “buy” the news but rely on it to help them make decisions as citizens. Yes, sales departments will seek to maximise audiences to sell to their customers (the advertisers). But the priority (and obligation) of journalists is to put the public interest first.  If you’re not doing that, you’re not a journalist.

Putting the public interest first means employing the standards and principles of the profession – exercising an obligation to accurately report the truth, being primarily loyal to citizens (not consumers), being an independent monitor of power and giving a fair hearing to all.

The currency of journalism is not sales or page impressions or television ratings. The currency of journalism is TRUST. And the reason we are having the discussion about Murdoch and his newspapers is the erosion of trust, the perversion of news values by the market and the loss of journalistic independence.

As to the other point, that the proliferation of blogs and Twitter feeds make up for the dominance of the News Corp tabloids and shock jocks, when was the last time a leading political figure gave an interview to, say, Crikey or Independent Australia or even The Guardian?

The News Corp tabloids, along with commercial television and radio, continue to set the news agenda in Australia. You don’t see Tony Abbott or Bill Shorten knocking on Bernard Keane’s door.

This humble blog, for instance, gets about 35 thousand impressions a month. The Daily Telegraph receives about 54 million a month. I’m sure Crikey receives a couple of million a month, but its audience remains too small and narrow to justify much attention from politicians.

So it is not just the number of voices, but the comparative clout. Any analysis of media that overlooks relative power in terms of scale, influence and reach is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst.

But don’t take my word for it. Also on the Q and A panel was the veteran British journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil, himself a former editor of Murdoch’s Sunday Times and one who well knows the capacity for his former employer to accumulate power to an unhealthy degree.

“You’ve allowed big organisations to get too big in controlling the news,” Neil said. “When you allow companies to get too big, to be owning television stations and newspapers and radio stations, it is anti-democratic because then they start to control the politicians and they start to control the police and before you know it they are controlling the government as well.”

In the final analysis, the traditional media’s business model may be busted, but the accountability structures still reflect the old world.  That may be changing, but digital media advocates should not kid themselves.
There may be a multiplicity of voices. But some voices still speak much, much more loudly than others.