Cast your mind back 17 years. A Reuters journalist prepared a report on the jobs data. loaded his script on the autocue, turned on his TV lights, positioned the ISDN camera, loaded his DIY graphics and went live to air on a digital feed to Tokyo. Afterwards, he wrote 800 words for the wire, recorded and cut a radio interview and turned around a 2-minute package for conventional TV.
Yes, that ‘multimedia’ journalist was me, which is why I’m surprised to read that “everything has changed” in the last 10 years and an entire new skillset is now required of journalists. Writing quick updates for the web is a huge imposition, it seems, and a radical departure from what came before.
The technology shock is detailed in a comprehensive new report from the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance – Journalism at the Speed of Bytes – about both the business and craft challenges brought on by the digital revolution. The report is the work of researchers from the University of Sydney, University of New South Wales and The Walkley Foundation.
The project involved interviews with 100 editors, deputy editors and senior editorial staff from all major Australian metropolitan and national newspapers. According to the blurb, “they found an industry struggling to maintain quality in the face of aggressive cost-cutting measures by media organisations, measures that have led to the loss of up to 1500 editorial jobs and increased workloads for those left behind.”
It is completely predictable that the quality of the media inevitably will be (and is being) compromised by asking fewer and fewer journalists to do more and more. And that’s exactly what the survey finds. Of the 100 respondents, 62 per cent described the current quality of print journalism as poor (28 per cent) or average (34 per cent), mainly because of resource and staff shortages. About the same proportion (67 per cent) described the quality of internet journalism as poor (29 per cent) or average (38 per cent), but not because of staff levels but due to dumbing down and content dumping.
All this I completely agree with. Where I differ with the findings in the report is that this has something to do with journalism having fundamentally changed in the last decade or so. For someone who spent most of his career outside print (in radio, the wires, television, and online), I find it quaint that people would think filing real-time copy and doing audio, video, text and graphics is somehow “new” or related to the digital age.
Radio journalists have been filing quick turnaround copy and live-to-air reports for 60 years or more and most are equally capable of writing longer analysis if required. Wire service reporters work under incredible time pressure to deliver accurate, balanced and cohesive news and analysis to all media in real-time. This is not new and not something that has cropped up with the birth of the internet.
Yet the MEAA report is full of hand-wringing quotes about the difficulty of adapting professional skills to meet the needs of “digital platforms”. When asked about the preferred skills and attributes of recruits, almost half (46 per cent) of the editorial executives interviewed nominated “digital media skills” as the top priority. Other desirable skills were news sense (36 per cent), writing skills (28 per cent) and personal qualities such as initiative, energy and enthusiasm; courage and persistence; maturity, and curiosity.
“Digital news skills” are listed as blogging, twitter, Facebook and putting video on the web. Honestly, if you’re a journalist and you can’t do any of those things, I would argue you really have no business being in the profession in the first place. And I’m 53 years old. Starting a blog is hardly rocket science. Digital video? Hit record on your iPhone, plug it into your USB port, go to YouTube, upload. How hard can it be? Twitter? Please! Twitter is MADE for journalists, particularly headline writers.
The fact is journalists have been adapting to new technologies ever since Paul Julius Freiherr von Reuter sent stock prices between Berlin and Paris via courier pigeon in the mid-19th century. From that was borne the Reuters news agency, the world’s greatest news organisation to this day.
My take on the MEAA report is that technology is the least of journalists’ worries. The internet is just another platform. The real problem is the business model and unless they are a genius MBA with a breakthrough idea that millions haven’t already thought of, I wouldn’t be spending long hours worrying about doing courses in cutting video. There are zillions of kids coming out of communications courses every day who can do those things. You could employ all of them and teach every old hack how to run digital forums and do video mash-ups and nothing would change. The key challenge remains – how to convince people to pay for journalists’ work now their newspapers have lost the advertising that once subsidised them.
Nope, good journalism is still about good news sense, intense curiosity, an ability to tell a story, a respect for the truth, a crusading mentality and a capacity for sometimes telling people what they don’t want to hear. That hasn’t changed. And it shouldn’t change. My advice is to let the business brains work out the money side and stop beating yourself up about your digital nous or lack of it.
But for godsake, get a Twitter account.
In the meantime, jaded newspaper journalists tired of all the ‘let’s go digitally native! rhetoric might enjoy this rant from The Guardian’s David Mitchell….|