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.

4 thoughts on “The Counter Reformation

  1. useful comments. Comparing the new media to the old requires a new set of standards. Reminds me of humans using human standards of intelligence etc to decide that animals are inferior (or whites doing the same to blacks). “commentary.. . was once the preserve of experienced hands” also dirty, bought, hands, all-too-often.

    One virtue of the new media is that it can self-correct, and rapidly.

    Twitter is interesting here, as its style of a networks and nodes acts somewhat like the ‘gatekeeper’ role of the old press, but in a far more flexible and open way

  2. Any establishment organisation or institution loses its authority when it loses the trust of the masses. The medieval church, absolute monarchies, oligarchic governments – history is full of examples. One of the effects of the new media has been to expose the way in which the corporatised mainstream has become part of the establishment and increasingly defends its interests against those of the masses. The abhorent practices, and cosy relationships between News Corp and politicians, exposed by Leveson have accelerated that loss of trust. The Australian’s reporting on tobacco sales is another, relatively minor, example to add to its misinformation peddling on climate change. It is this loss of trust that is the death knell for corporate mainstream media, not the paradigm shift in news delivery technology. Reader survey after survey confirm that corporate print and electronic media are the least trusted sources of news. News consumers are increasingly finding more trustworthy sources and none of these are owned by News/Fox. In general, the MSM has failed to identify its point of difference from its new challengers – the credibility of its content – and has failed to invest and sustain that competitive advantage. Only a few – perhaps the Guardian is one – MSM outlets will survive this massive loss of trust in the news industry and News Corp certainly won’t be among them.

  3. Remember Murdoch’s failure with MySpace. MySpace used to be the largest social media network in the world back when sites like Facebook and Twitter were mere shadows.
    Murdoch threw away $15 billion in share holder money while MySpace was under News Ltd ownership, the reason, Murdoch told contributors that he owned any material they posted on the site.
    Trust Murdoch to do what ever he likes with your stuff?
    Very few people are that dumb.

  4. ” News consumers are increasingly finding more trustworthy sources and none of these are owned by News/Fox.”
    Ain’t that the truth!
    “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”
    I must say I find far more readable content on a variety of blogs, that is informative, erudite, incisive, critical and trustworthy, every week, than in most MSM in a year!

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