Typecast

Posted on Posted in Digital Media, Education, Experimental Formats, Media Business, Staffing and Resources, Technology, Television, Wires

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….|

17 thoughts on “Typecast

  1. You're absolutely right that wire and radio journos (and I'll add IT journos) have had to multi-media-task and turn around copy in an instant, since ever. But this report is specifically based on interviews with newspaper people. They're spend decades in a sheltered workshop where their only task was to turn out vaguely accurate and readable copy the subs could beat into shape for the next day's edition. So it's not surprising they find the new media landscape challenging and a bit threatening.

  2. You're absolutely right that wire and radio journos (and I'll add IT journos) have had to multi-media-task and turn around copy in an instant, since ever. But this report is specifically based on interviews with newspaper people. They're spend decades in a sheltered workshop where their only task was to turn out vaguely accurate and readable copy the subs could beat into shape for the next day's edition. So it's not surprising they find the new media landscape challenging and a bit threatening.

  3. Vealmince, I agree that newspaper journos have never really had to be technology literate. Even at Fairfax eight years ago, there were people who never even used a computer outside work. They were competent on the in-house and antiquated editorial system, but couldn't even use Microsoft Office. My point, though, is it's a bit too late for them all to get digital and funky. The problems facing their business are much bigger than that. And if they haven't tried to reinvent themselves yet, they're almost certainly too late.

  4. Vealmince, I agree that newspaper journos have never really had to be technology literate. Even at Fairfax eight years ago, there were people who never even used a computer outside work. They were competent on the in-house and antiquated editorial system, but couldn't even use Microsoft Office. My point, though, is it's a bit too late for them all to get digital and funky. The problems facing their business are much bigger than that. And if they haven't tried to reinvent themselves yet, they're almost certainly too late.

  5. Jim,
    I worked at AAP from '76 to '85. In the early 80s we were filing news stories for the wire, doing audio grabs for our radio service, writing nightleads and features and even doing talk back radio. AAP had it's first computer system – baudrunner, in 1975! Newspapers just didn't get the message until it was too late. But it's even worse in the public service where the press release still rules and IT security people frighten everyone away from social media.

  6. “… 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…” Exactly. All the rest of it can be learnt, just like shorthand and typing were years ago .

  7. Peter Logue is so right. I remember when I was working in radio in the early 70s, we electronic journalists refused to join our newspaper colleagues who were striking in support of a special allowance to use new fangled VDUs. Our point was that we were using electronic equipment as a tool of trade (and driving ourselves to and from stories and filing on a rolling basis) and we didn't get or expect an allowance for that. Our print colleagues just couldn't understand our position. I'm thinking many still don't.

    I now work in the public service and Peter is right about IT paranoia; although – slowly, very slowly – sections of the public service are starting to get social media.

  8. Agree. Journalism needs to get back to first principles rather than fret about distribution channels.

    Nonetheless, neither citizens nor journalists can afford to ignore the fact that without a decent paymaster, good journalism can't survive.

    Mr D is right; business models without an associated income stream cannot sustain even good journalism. The opening up of the distribution of content has also meant that the old wire services model of relying on (subsidised) downstream retail journalism to pay for wire service subscriptions is dead.

    But we have to separate out good, important journalism from the detritus that has slowly accumulated on its body over, probably, the last century. Maybe this is an opportunity to really get back to first principles by allowing journalism to, not only be freed from pursuing the glittering prize of advertising revenue, but also from the lure of rank popularism.

    Celebrity gossip, consumer affairs and sports news will be fine to stand alone in the commercial world (as classifieds already have), so let’s take this opportunity to liberate quality journalism from its defiling influence.

    The first best option is to ensure that our public broadcasting (which now effectively does what a traditional 'newspaper' did anyway) concentrate less on commercial success and more on what can’t be made on a commercial basis. That is, it has to focus on the two loss-making ‘public goods’ – Australian cultural content and news (including investigative and analytical journalism).

    The ABC already does investigative news pretty well (4 Corners, Foreign Correspondent) but it may be time that the ABC was commissioned a more focused and worthy task.

    In the end, all I’m saying is that good journalism has an employer problem and it’s the ABC that should be hiring.

  9. Agree. Journalism needs to get back to first principles rather than fret about distribution channels.

    Nonetheless, neither citizens nor journalists can afford to ignore the fact that without a decent paymaster, good journalism can't survive.

    Mr D is right; business models without an associated income stream cannot sustain even good journalism. The opening up of the distribution of content has also meant that the old wire services model of relying on (subsidised) downstream retail journalism to pay for wire service subscriptions is dead.

    But we have to separate out good, important journalism from the detritus that has slowly accumulated on its body over, probably, the last century. Maybe this is an opportunity to really get back to first principles by allowing journalism to, not only be freed from pursuing the glittering prize of advertising revenue, but also from the lure of rank popularism.

    Celebrity gossip, consumer affairs and sports news will be fine to stand alone in the commercial world (as classifieds already have), so let’s take this opportunity to liberate quality journalism from its defiling influence.

    The first best option is to ensure that our public broadcasting (which now effectively does what a traditional 'newspaper' did anyway) concentrate less on commercial success and more on what can’t be made on a commercial basis. That is, it has to focus on the two loss-making ‘public goods’ – Australian cultural content and news (including investigative and analytical journalism).

    The ABC already does investigative news pretty well (4 Corners, Foreign Correspondent) but it may be time that the ABC was commissioned a more focused and worthy task.

    In the end, all I’m saying is that good journalism has an employer problem and it’s the ABC that should be hiring.

  10. Re: Government departments and 'social media'…
    I'm currently working in a government department that cannot access YouTube, Twitter, Facebook &c.
    Yet nearly all staff have their smartphones or “fondle-slabs” on the desk with at least one of those connections open and being 'played' with during work hours.

    It's kind of sad, really.

  11. It was a weird report, I thought. Not all bad by any means, but a weird insight into how those surveyed think. The discussion of the r'ship with audience, for instance, just about boiled down to: if only we could elect a better people. In other words, if only we could teach them about how difficult our job is.

    But the overriding sense I got from it was the obsession with platform (new media) as opposed to actual journalism, and the sheer hatred of all things online. All comments seemed to be predicated on either 'we have to save print' or 'we can't save print but online is bad'.

    It's no doubt generational, but the sooner they adjust their mindset the better for everyone. And the sooner they are likely to figure out how to make a quid in the new environment.

  12. You lost any Australian, not News Ltd, journo when you mentioned respect for the truth. That was a bridge too far.

  13. “Our print colleagues just couldn't understand our position. I'm thinking many still don't.”

    Wrongly. Honestly, that was a very long time ago. Things have somewhat moved on, even in the newspaper business.

  14. Maybe they do but management, especially at Fairfax doesn't. Take the poor Canberra Times as an example – the online stories are exactly what is printed in the newspaper the previous day. Old news, cut to fit a print version.

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