Breaking news: The news business isn’t dead. But that’s not because the news business was ever alive on its own terms. It’s because news was never a business. In fact, the idea that you can make a living out of news is a dream that many people have yet to wake up from.
Journalists leaving the industry – and there are hordes right now walking the streets like extras in a George Romero movie – talk up the prospect of setting up collectives that “sell” breaking news directly. The truth is, however, the audience isn’t buying. People won’t pay for general news. They never have….directly anyway.
In his recent Andrew Olle Media Lecture, ABC broadcaster Mark Colvin – a man more than any other in the local mainstream media to have embraced the potential of Twitter – mused on this issue as one of four major crises concurrently hitting journalism.
“The digitisation tsunami…means that mainstream media…face not one, but several crises at the same time,” Colvin said. “There’s a crisis of consensus, where journalists find it increasingly difficult to find a common ground from which to write. There’s a crisis of authority, in which institutions that have tended to hand down pronouncements like stone tablets from the mountaintop now often find themselves subject to disagreement, abuse or even ridicule. And there’s a crisis of credibility, as, Wizard of Oz- like, the curtain is pulled away from so-called authorities like News Corp and the BBC to reveal the sometimes despicable reality. Looming over all, though, is the fourth crisis, the biggest of all – the crisis of finance. How, in the age of creative destruction brought on by digitisation, can we make journalism pay?”
The short answer to that question is I’m not sure you can. As I write, respected former mainstream media journalists like Fairfax Media’s Adele Horin and News Ltd’s George Megalogenis are retiring to their suburban garrets to power up their laptops and start writing for their audiences unmediated. But having spoken to a few of these veterans, I am fairly sure none is expecting to make any money from their craft. At best, they will cover their costs.
Colvin’s point – and one many of us have promulgated incessantly in recent years – is that journalism of vigour and probity and integrity is a public good irrespective of the tedious spread-sheeting of McKinseyites and the other legions of MBAs that have infested newsrooms this past decade or so. Journalists, almost by definition, are among the least commercially minded people you will meet. Their currency is the story, they have little patience with business school speak and they have an inbuilt sense of social justice that does not fit well with the view of the world that says success is all about producing more widgets for less.
The irony is that this Schumpeterian period of creative destruction is happening as we emerge from a 30-year era in which “value” has been determined almost exclusively in monetary terms. Every public good has been defined in terms of what it adds to the bottom line (which is why we have this ridiculous charade in national politics right now where the Gillard government chooses to live or die on the basis of whether the federal budget this fiscal year falls a cent on the side of surplus.)
Perhaps now we should be waking up and asking ourselves where real value lies. Is it about the health of our balance sheets or the health of our institutions? Is it about freedom of shock jocks to intimidate, bully and vilify or is about giving people access to reliable information? It is about capital markets or the rebuilding of social capital and the virtues of trust? It is about shareholder value or citizen value?
“Monetising” journalism is problematic. What dollar value do you put, say, on Nick Davies’ relentless investigation for The Guardian into the News Corp hacking scandal or the inquiries by The Australian’s Hedley Thomas that led to the dismantling of the case against Mohammed Haneef? Who funds the asking of questions about issues the establishment finds inconvenient or impertinent? Journalism, when it works, usually gets up the nose of somebody rich or powerful, or both. It is hard to build a business model around it now that anyone can publish for nothing. (And bear in mind The Guardian and The Australian both run at a substantial loss).
Good journalism may no longer pay. But it is more valuable than ever. There’s the rub.