Judging a book by its cover: Did The Age get it right on day one?

March 4, 2013

The first thing I noticed this morning at my newsagent in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs is that the pile of Herald-Suns is twice as high as the pile of The Age. So the first comparison is easy.

Even in this relatively affluent suburb, the newsagent expects to sell more Herald-Suns than copies of The Age.

The second comparison is also easy and perhaps explains the first: the Herald-Sun is $1.20 and The Age is $2.00. Price-conscious newspaper buyers will probably prefer the cheaper product.

The canny Herald-Sun buyer also gets more bang for their buck-twenty. The Murdoch ‘tabloid’ has 80 pages and the Fairfax Media ‘compact’ has 72, plus a 16 page insert that is numbered differently.

But how do you tell a tabloid from a compact? It’s not that easy because technically they are the same size: 30X40 centimetres.

Perhaps it’s in the layout and use of colour on the front page.

Herald Sun4 March The Age

The Age has retained its signature royal blue, but the masthead is superimposed reverse in white on blue. The Herald-Sun uses a verdant green and a superimpose/reverse white, but it’s masthead block is deeper coming 14 centimetres down the page. The Age masthead is a shallow nine centimetres.

The Herald-Sun also uses its masthead to promote a “Superstar Footy DVD” give-away and incorporates action pics of two AFL stars who I don’t recognize, but who I’m sure would be very familiar to Aussie Rules fans.

As you would expect the Herald-Sun has a brighter more ‘tabloid’ front page with a bold headline in four centimeter solid capital letters: “SECRET TAPES BOMBSHELL”        . Over the top of that is a white-on-red banner also in heavy caps: “POLICE CRISIS ROCKS GOVERNMENT”. Just below the headline is a series of three ‘pointers’ also in block caps: “KEY STAFFER PAID $22,500”; “JOB HELP AT ODDS WITH PREMIER”; “BAILLIEU ADVISTER SLAMS DEJPUTY PREMIER”.

The kicker is that readers are invited to “Now listen to the recordings heraldsun.com.au”

The copy itself, across five columns is about 350 words and the story is continued across four pages (4-7) inside.

At the bottom of the page there’s three ‘skybox’ promos for contents inside the paper. This is a great tabloid front page and if you were buying the paper on its shelf-appeal, you would probably go for The Herald-Sun.

By contrast The Age seems dull, if worthy. Read the rest of this entry »


The future of newspapers: Anybody’s guess at this stage

June 27, 2012

This post is a work in progress; I have published today [June 27] to get the ball rolling, I will be adding to this post over the next 72 hours.

On Monday 18 June the sky began falling in the Australian news media. Within 10 days the world of Australian journalism had changed forever, but the change hadn’t stopped.

Over 3000 jobs were going to be purged from Australia’s two largest news organisations.

The West Australian mining mogul, Gina Rinehart, was poised over Fairfax Media like a vulture over the corpse of a dying baby.

We all knew why she was there; it was just a matter of time.

That was the week that was (June 18-24)

What is the future of newspapers? At the end of a week in which both Fairfax Media and News Limited announced seismic changes to their business – including ditching about 3000 jobs between them – what can we say about the printed news sheet?

Well, it seems that the answer is ‘heaps and heaps’. Millions of words have been written, blogged and spoken on the future of newspapers this week; tens of thousands of them even appeared in the newspapers themselves.

So what do we really know at this point?

Not much more than we did last weekend, is my quick answer.

The ‘perfect storm’ that hit Fairfax Media this week — with Gina Rinehart at its epicentre — has been a long time coming. The Fairfax share price has been on a really steep down slide for the last two to three years.

Today it’s under 60 cents, just three months ago is was over 70 cents. The last time it was over $1.00 was June 2011; it dropped under $2.00 in November 2008. It was last at $3.00 in June 2008 and we have to go back nearly six years to December 2006 to see Fairfax at over $5.00.

In contrast the News Corporation share price on the ASX has jumped from $16 to $20 since June 2011. It has been over $15 for the past three years despite some ups and downs and has risen from a low of $12.91 on 23 June, 2009.

This shows that the problems facing Fairfax Media are commercial and financial, not just or even mostly technological.

These problems are not brand new either. It is not the Internet that has caused the total collapse of the newspaper business model; it has been a long time coming. It is instructive to go back and look at the history of the newspaper industry in Australia to understand why we are in the situation of having the Rupert Rinehart duopoly looming over the news media’s future.

Fairfax has a new model

In the middle of the second week of this perfect storm – June 27 to be precise – things did become a little clearer.

Three senior Fairfax editors had left the newsroom for the last time. It seems that there was a period of negotiation – one incoming new EiC (see org chart below) admitted he had been in discussion with management for about two weeks.

Still, many reporters were shocked and emotional scenes were reported.

News Limited announced around 100 job cuts, mainly in regional areas, including the Gold Coast and Fairfax unveiled a new newsroom model to staff.

The Fairfax model looks a bit like the broken ferris wheel here in Melbourne and I can’t help wondering why some of the content wedges are bigger than others. Is it because they will get more attention in the new system of content brokerage across neutral platforms?

If it is then going ‘compact’, or ‘tabloid’ is about more than just the size of the page.

The Fairfax ferris wheel.
Click to enlarge

The new Fairfax organisational chart is also worth taking a look at.

It’s not that different from a traditional newsroom structure in many ways, but the convoluted explanations of roles and responsibilities that accompany it are straight from a weak MBA dissertation.

Fairfax Org Chart: designed by a poor MBA student?
Click to enlarge

In this model reporters who are covering breaking news are to be known as ‘first responders’, this gives the whole thing the feeling of a medical emergency.

And that’s what this is. It is an attempt to triage a series of seriously wounded patients on a bloodied battlefield.

The Fairfax mantra of journalism and integrity come first is pleasant soothing language that will hopefully comfort the afflicted, but when you rip the heart out of a newsroom no amount of placatory talking can alter the facts.

Then there’s the hovering vulture and her cronies.

In a statement released on 27 June, Rinehart’s advisers conceded that she might be prepared to negotiate and sign a new Charter of Editorial Independence, but this ominous set of phrases is where the really alarming detail bedevils:

“Active consideration of content or a change in content is required to attract readers and advertising revenue in the interests of shareholders, together with other options to increase revenue and hence share value.”

What does this mean?

Well, it can really only mean one thing: shifting the Fairfax editorial culture. But which way will it be shifted?

Most money is on the bet that Gina Rinehart will want to shift Fairfax to the right and into more ‘business-friendly’ reporting. This is assumed to include more climate change ‘scepticism’ and less criticism of the minerals industry.

However, it is questionable as to whether this will attract readers, increase advertising or enhance shareholder value.

It may well have the opposite effect as current readers of the SMH and The Age desert the papers in direct proportion to their rightward drift.

If this happens and the new tabloid-ified Fairfax mastheads begin competing with the Murdoch titles then the next logical step – to maximise shareholder value, mind – would be to merge the titles in Melbourne and Sydney and turn them into one-paper towns in line with the rest of the country.

That is the logic of shareholder value maximisation – or in blunt Marxist terms it is the application of the logic of capital accumulation.

It is also the history of the Australian newspaper industry.

In 1886 – just 128 years ago – there were capital city 48 daily newspapers in Australia. By 1903 that had dropped to 21; it was down to 17 in 1947, 15 in 1950, 14 in 1960 and it has continued to drop since. From the mid 1990s on the present situation became established.

Today there are 11 capital city dailies: two in Melbourne; two in Sydney; one each in Canberra, Adelaide, Hobart, Perth and Darwin and two that circulate nationally.

That is why questions of concentration, ownership and diversity are being talked about again in the context of both the Finkelstein report and the Rinehart push for editorial control at Fairfax.

The giant media fuss about Finkelstein and the frenzied cries of censorship and government control prompted me to look at the last government report into the news media, delivered to the House of Representatives in 1992. [I'll come back to this].

 

News & Fair Facts

Just over 20 years ago, in March 1992, a House of Representatives Select Committee tabled its report into the Australian print media industry. It is worth looking at this report because it had bipartisan support and its findings make it clear that the issues that free speech alarmists are shouting about today have deep roots.

It is also interesting because the free speech alarmists — those who argue that government censorship is coming in the form of the Finkelstein report — would deny some of the language used in News & Fair Facts, particularly about the problems of monopoly and the concentration of media ownership.

For example:

On the basis [of figures given to the committee], the Australian print media industry generally is highly concentrated. In almost every sector of the industry one or two groups dominate in terms of the number of publications and related circulation under their control.

News & Fair Facts, 1992, p.101

Now the Rupert Rinehart apologists deny that monopoly is a problem.


Rupert Rinehart: Australia’s new fair and balanced (free) news media

June 24, 2012

Let’s drop the pretence that there is freedom of the press in Australia.

Let’s also recognise that the Rupert Rinehart media future is anti-democratic and a threat to our collective rights as citizens to have freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

Make no mistake, the Rupert Rinehart media want it all for themselves. Their freedom of the press comes at the expense of our freedom of thought and our freedom of action.

It is a nonsense to pretend that a Gina Rinehart controlled Fairfax represents the exercise of free speech just as it is bullshit to argue that New Limited is a paradigm example of freedom of expression in action.

Tx: Road less travelled – click for link

Murdoch sets the tone at News Limited and it is he alone who has freedom of speech across his newspaper titles. His minions either carry out his wishes or find themselves another job.

If Rinehart gets her way – and she will – then it is she who will set the editorial tone across the Fairfax titles. Her interest in Fairfax is not commercial, its political. The idea that she is a white knight who will turn around the fortunes of the failing company is a fairy tale.

‘What’s the problem?’ the free speech fundamentalists will ask. They will answer for themselves. The owner of the business, or in Gina’s case, the major shareholder, has the right to set the editorial line.

‘After all, it is their paper to command.’ The fundamentalists will then cross their arms with a smug smile of the self-satisfying undergraduate mass debater plastered across their chops.

Unfortunately, this argument is jibber jabber of the worst order.

Read the rest of this entry »


A good start for the Global Mail

February 8, 2012

I’m sure many of us were looking forward to the first edition of the Global Mail this week.

Non-profit online journalism start-up The Global Mail launched today with the aim of providing free, non-partisan coverage of local and international current affairs to a broad audience.

Headed up by Gold Walkley Award-winning journalist Monica Attard as managing editor and former Time Inc. editor Jane Nicholls as CEO, the site will offer features, news analysis and investigations on issues of public interest.

[B&T magazine Monday 6 Feb 2012]

According to start-up editor Monica Attard, the brief is exciting, but tough;

I had long viewed, with a degree of envy, the ProPublica model in the US and wanted to build a site here that carried only public interest journalism — no ads, no subscription, no celebrity stories, no spin, funded philanthropically. So the model was inspired by ProPublica.org, even though we won’t and can’t do investigations alone.

[10 Questions for Monica Attard, The Australian]

I hope this venture into the locally un-proven philanthropic business model of public interest journalism is highly successful.

It deserves to be successful; not least of all because of the hard-work that goes into building something brand-new in as yet unknown territory. I worked with Monica Attard at the ABC and have long admired her work. If the team can hit the ground running this week and next, it could become a must-read site.

It is pioneering in the Australian news market. Perhaps the only previous bench-mark was Margo Kingston’s Web Diary.

The long-term question is really: Can something like the Global Mail sustain itself?

Simply put: How will the reporters, editors, producers, assistants and suppliers be paid?

This is something we all have to turn our minds to at some point.

One way to survive is to become indepsensible and so popular that the concept proves itself worthy of support. But then what do you do?

A sum of capital – as well invested as it can be in these uncertain times – will provide a modest on-going income stream. As long as the balance is maintained slightly in favour of the interest dividend you can continue this way till capitalism freezes over.

It’s anyone’s guess how long that might be given global warming.

I don’t know what the business plan is at the Global Mail, but whatever the idea is, I hope it’s a good one.

The highlights for me on a quick read through over lunch today was a theme of bashing the mainstream media. The writers didn’t do it themselves, but the tone of some chosen quotes gives an indication.

In a Stephen Crittenden story about a blogging theatre reviewer with provocative tendencies, I found this:

One former theatre reviewer for Fairfax and News Limited, who asked not to be named for contractual reasons, told The Global Mail: “The pressure is on reviewers to be polite. We now have a situation where newspapers need arts companies maybe slightly more than the arts companies need them. Editors are far less likely to run a bad review for fear of a breakdown in the relationship in the fight for advertising dollars. They won’t say this publicly, but reviewers ‘disappear’ because they’re too harsh.”

[Now everyone really is a critic]

Oh dear, we can’t even trust theatre reviews in the paper anymore.But what’s this? Public interest journalism and already we have sources being hidden from the reader. Not necessarily a cardinal sin, but interesting.

My favourite was this grab from Richard Ackland in Mike Seccombe’s piece about why we don’t understand the Occupy movement in Australia:

“I haven’t read anything comprehensive or interesting in Australia. You’d think there would be some sort of analysis, some sort of long-form journalism, that looked at these things [equality issues]. But no.”

[Rising with a bullet]

There has been coverage of the Occupy movement in the MSM. but Ackland is right about one thing. It hasn’t been very good.

Seccombe’s piece looks at the statistics about who makes up the ‘one percent’ in Australia, or where, more accurately the dividing lines are drawn. Useful ammunition.

Bernard Lagan’s piece on Gillard’s leadership issues was also a good read. He even wryly acknowledges at the conclusion that it is journalists like him who have previously let the public down in terms of political coverage.

On Friday, Feb. 3, [Gillard] lamented that Bob Hawke had gained more media coverage for downing a beer at the Sydney Cricket Ground during the Australia versus India test than she gained for announcing a $95 million boost to cricket’s infrastructure.

She’s right, of course. And it does people like me no credit at all.

[Prime Minister on hold]

It will be interesting to see how this new and potentially game-changing online start-up works out.


Enter the Argus: a home for new journalism

February 8, 2012

The Argus building in downtown Melbourne was once the home of an important Melbourne newspaper. It’s now on the list of Melbourne history walks. I have a scary hare-brained idea that we might be able to restore, renovate an re-occupy this space as a new hub for new public interest and citizen journalism.

Notable features

This Argus building is a fantastic combination of many of the Interwar styles, a Stripped Classical composition with Beaux-Arts, Chicagoesque and Moderne influences. A stuningly regal classical cooling tower is a prominent feature of the Argus building.

The Argus building cnr La Trobe and Elizabeth sts

History

The Argus Building the former headquarters of Melbourne’s Argus newspaper, one of the city’s most popular until the 1960s.

The Argus newspaper took over Melbourne’s first daily newspaper, the Daily News, in 1852 and took a conservative line until 1949 when it was acquired by the London Daily Mirror group. The Argus closed in 1957.

In the 1980s a cement render was applied to the facade of the building, changing the texture of the stone facade.

In 2004, La Trobe University purchased the building with the view of restoring it and use it as a CBD campus.  The  plans included completing the clock tower of the original design.  However the costs of renovating the building and removing asbestos proved too high and the university sold the building late in 2008.

Architect: Godfrey & Spowers

My attention was drawn to this by Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle. Doyle took listener’s calls today on Jon Faine’s ABC704 program.

He got a question about the Argus building, on the corner of La Trobe and Elizabeth streets, which has been empty and for the most part derelict for some time.

The building has a chequered commercial history following closure of the Argus in 1957.

It has been in a parlous state of repair for a decade or more. Some enterprising explorers have managed to get inside the building at different times and some good pics are around of the cool, but bashed around interior.

No finger prints: the interior of the broken Argus

Argus building expected to fetch $12 million
By Peter Semple
June 5 2002

The building that formerly housed one of Melbourne’s most famous newspapers, The Argus, is on the market again and expected to fetch up to $12 million for owners Ryssal-Three.

The La Trobe Street building seems likely to become an apartment building with the current surfeit of office space either planned or under construction across town.

The Melbourne City Council has approved several applications for residential conversion and the addition of two to four more floors. The latest approval has been for office space and an additional three levels. However, apartments or serviced apartments, or even a boutique hotel now seems more likely.

Owned by the Stamoulis family through its company Ryssal-Three, the property has been on the market twice in recent years without success. In July 2000, it had an asking price of $9.95 million and in September that year the asking price had dropped to $9 million.

The seven-level building on a 2000-square-metre corner site opposite Melbourne Central was completed in 1926, renovated in 1990, and upgraded in 1996. It has a net lettable office area of 10,000 square metres and a frontage of 65 metres to Elizabeth Street and 30 metres to La Trobe Street.

The building is now vacant with the exception of two retail stores – the Argus Cafe and the Genius camera store – on the ground floor.

According to conjunctional agents CB Richard Ellis and Colliers International, the building has been extensively demolished inside, including the removal of asbestos, and is ready for redevelopment.

Ryssal-Three was also the owner and developer of the adjoining building, the Argus Centre. The 34-storey office building (23 office and 10 car parking) was completed in 1991 and sold to Property Income Investment Trust (now Macquarie Office Trust) for $95 million in October 1998.

[Walking Melbourne Argus building forum]

La Trobe University took legal action against the vendor of the property over the 2004 sale. The uni claimed the developer had misled it over the state of the building.

The central issue was the cost of removing asbestos from the old building.

The matter settled out of court.

11 May 2013 update:

I have removed several identifying words and phrases from this piece at the request of one of the business people involved in the 2004 sale of this building and subsequent legal action at the persistent request of the person involved. It shits me to do this and it’s a hassle that completely fucks with the historical record.

I haven’t done it because I’m intimidated, or because I believe in the concept of ‘f0rgetting’ on the internet. I’ve done it because I cannot be fucked with the hassle from the person concerned who badgered me to take it down. I am not going to take it down, and if you want to know any more about the company or individuals involved, you can google the story for yourself

MELBOURNE property developer XXXXXX [redacted] stands accused of misleading and deceptive behaviour over the sale of the historic Argus building on the corner of

The rendered exterior of the Argus bldg

Elizabeth and La Trobe streets that left its new owner, La Trobe University, with an asbestos and lead paint clean-up bill of nearly $16 million.

An environmental report on the building, which once housed the The Argus newspaper, also revealed it was contaminated with pigeon excrement.

The lawsuit takes aim at XXXXXX director XXXXXXX XXXXXXX [redacted], whom La Trobe claims “aided, abetted, counselled, procured and was knowingly concerned” in contravention of the Trade Practices Act when the Argus building was sold in 2004 to the university for $8 million.

Mr XXXXX told BusinessDay he “vigorously denied the allegations” and would “strongly defend the case”.

UPDATE: Federal Court proceedings in this matter were dismissed and there was no order as to costs. La Trobe University is no longer pursuing this matter, and the University and XXXXX have no further comment to make.

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/business/la-trobe-fights-XXXX-over-16m-cleanup-20090331-9idc.html#ixzz1lk6msE2L

Further update: XXXX XXXXX of XXXXXX has made contact with Ethical Martini over this piece. He is at pains to remind us that no action was taken and that all actions against him and against XXXXX for this matter are settled.

Mr XXXXX writes: “an update posted by the Age [shows] the case was dropped by La Trobe University years ago. It was an accusation that was unfounded and was withdrawn, this was unfortunately not picked up by The Age in another article which leaves the accusations open ended on the internet, the best they could do was paste an update across the article when you open it, unfortunately the clarity doesn’t come up in the opening lines only the accusation (as with your posting…see below). The legacy is that the article remains as does your post. It shows up every time you google XXXXXX or XXXX XXXXX I had hoped the article would over the years eventually become “fish & chip paper” (no disrespect intended) however the internet serves as a different platform and it continues to be the feature article when you do a search.”

I am happy to put Mr XXXXXX’ side of the story and wish him no harm, but I am not going to butcher my own blog for the sake of some business guy’s reputation.

The asbestos issue is interesting. The 2002 news report quoted above suggests the asbestos was removed some time ago, but the La Trobe case suggests that the university had to pay double the purchase price ($8 million) for the asbestos removal.

The building still attracts interest from people who think it would be great to live there. But Robert Doyle inspired me to imagine a different future for this building.

What if we could somehow reclaim it and turn it into a new home for journalism in Melbourne. Perhaps it could be a hub for new start-ups. Maybe Crikey could move into one floor and the various Melbourne journalism schools each have space there for student publications and broadcasts.
It would make a great centre for citizen journalism and indymedia-style operations in the heart of the city. It’s a shame that La Trobe abandoned the building in 2008, it would have made a great city campus. It sill could, but the investment would be in the tens of millions of dollars.
However, perhaps all is not lost. In March 2010 it was reported that an ‘education entrepreneur’ had bought the building and it was to become a campus after all.

LA Trobe University has offloaded its asbestos-riddelled Argus newspaper building for $15 million, after spending $34 million trying to get a project off the ground.Education entrepreneur Shesh Gale, owner of the Melbourne Institute of Technology operation which targets international and domestic students, plans to redevelop the 84-year old building into a teaching facility.The Australian reports Mr Ghale will spend about $50 million on the renovation, which should be completed by the end of 2011.It’s expected Mr Ghale will sell a Lonsdale Street office which currently houses MIT students. The education focused property developer is also building an $80 million facility in William Street which also includes student accommodation, The Australian reports.

The building was the scene of a dispute between vendor La Trobe University, and the private developer the school bought the building off, after it was discovered “larger-than-expected” amounts of asbestos.

[Realestatesource.com]

The facade of the building is protected under a 2011 heritage order. But unfortunately the trail goes cold at this point.
I can’t help but wonder what is going to happen now. It would be good to save this old icon, but it would be even better to turn it into an independent news outfit that could rise, Phoenix like, from the dust of the derelict.


Sorry, Mr Hywood – you missed the point: It’s not about quality it’s about money

November 16, 2011

Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood delivered the A.N. Smith lecture at Melbourne University’s Centre for Advanced Journalism last night (Tuesday 15 November).

I’ve never quite understood what ‘advanced’ journalism is supposed to be. Maybe I’ll look it up one day.

According to the mission statement, the CAJ is attempting to improve the quality of journalism through ‘knowledge transfer’

The Centre for Advanced Journalism will contribute to the University’s goal of knowledge transfer through interaction with the public and with journalists and media companies.

The four key questions posed for research at the CAJ are also admirable, if a little unremarkable:

  • How will new media technologies impact on the future of journalism?
  • What is the role of public interest journalism in a liberal democracy?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between government and the media and how does this relationship serve the public interest?
  • Is “the public interest” a concept that is understood by the media and the general public?

I have no problem with that at all and I wish the centre’s new director Margaret Simons all the best. Improving journalism is something that I’m passionate about too; so in that spirit, let’s engage with Greg Hywood’s comments.

I’m not sure of the title Greg gave to his talk, on the National Times site the headline is ‘Rumours of our demise exagerated’ and on the AFR site (behind a Fairfax paywall) the headline is ‘Internet the reason journalism’s future is bright’. So, presumably that’s what the talk was about.

I’ve read the edited transcript of Mr Hywood’s speech on the National Times website and I’d just like to address a few issues.

Strong and trusted journalism has never been more important.

Yes, that’s absolutely right, but it always has been. In any day and age there needs to be a robust public debate informed by accurate and honest information. In a mass society when we can’t all gather in the forum for the daily senate meeting the public sphere is highly mediated. We get our information – on which we base our opinions – from the mass media. A reliable and trustworthy news service is absolutely essential to that process.

I believe the future of journalism has never looked stronger.

This statement needs to be addressed in several ways because Hywood’s qualification is important:

And this is because of the internet, not despite it.

We’ll come to that in a minute, but first a question to Mr Hywood: How can the future of journalism look ‘stronger’ to you when your own company Fairfax Media is busy cutting jobs and the number of working journalists in major news titles is falling around the globe?

This was the situation at Fairfax mastheads in May this year:

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald are preparing for a wave of industrial action after new Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood wielded the axe this morning, sacking over 100 production staff to achieve annual cost savings of $15 million under the cover of an announcement spruiking “quality journalism”.

[Fairfax slashes: 'quality journalism' with fewer staff]

Perhaps Mr Hywood had this in mind when he said in his speech last night:

What has changed is the workload. Forget filing once a day. In this crowded, chaotic environment you have to provide the best, independent news and analysis all the time.

Yeah, that’s right: the old bosses’ mantra of “doing more with less.” Simple physics and quantum mechanics tell us that it it almost impossible to do more with less.

Read the rest of this entry »


News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Internet? Reviews so far

February 3, 2011

Some reviews of News 2.0.
For the record

This is an excellent book, a must-read for every journalism student, tutor, journalist, media manager and academic media-watcher.

Newzwire Jim Tucker

Hirst is undoubtedly the right person to tackle the job, having previously co-authored Journalism Ethics and Communications and New Media and here all that expertise is used to illuminate the precarious state of journalism in the digital age.

Artshub Matt Millikan

Hirst suggests one of the main reasons people turn online for their news is a mistrust of mainstream media by the public. Overall, the book was an interesting read.

The Fringe Magazine Scott Wilson

And the first…Alan Knight, professor of journalism at UTS, Sydney

Mainstream  journalism has failed the public interest, reckons author, Martin Hirst.  Citizen journalism is too feeble to provide a viable alternative. The future looks grim.

Fortunately,  Dr Hirst believes that pessimism of the intellect should be coupled with optimism of the will.

 

 

 


News 2.0 : journalism, wikileaks and beyond the fourth estate

December 16, 2010

It’s not every day that you attend a book launch. It’s a once-or-twice moment to launch a book you’ve actually written.

Today, 16 December 2010 on a pissing-down evening in Auckland is one of those moments for me.

Today is roughly – give or take a week here and there – also an anniversary of sorts. In January 2007 I started here and this is the end of my fourth year at AUT.

More of that later, but first I should probably think about answering the inevitable question I will be asked about the book: “Do you think journalism can survive the Internet?”

So far I’ve usually responded with a qualified “Yes.” Almost a “Yes, but…”

As The Beat tell us: “It’s cards on the table time.”

My considered, thoughtful answer now is: “Journalism must survive.”

The bigger issues are really What? How and Why?

What sort of journalism will survive, or thrive on the Internet?

How will it survive – what changes will finally shape the journalism of the immediate, proximate and distant futures?

And finally: Why should journalism survive when it seemingly has low levels of public trust and it is economically in trouble?

Journalism is too important for the social fabric and the public sphere to be allowed to disappear, because of the Internet, or in spite of it.

The demand for journalism is strong — all sorts of news and news-like information is consumed around the clock by audiences around the world and across many platforms.

It seems obvious that news is a human need. The circulation of news and information is crucial to so much of our daily life; from simple things like weather forecasts and news headlines to more complex decision-influencing interactions with media: taste recommendations, tribal and communal affiliations, social, cultural and political allegiances.

In short, news and journalism contribute to our global world view. Many of these insights, reports and analyses might be partial. Some will appear biased or advocacy-based rather than ‘news’ and some will make our blood boil; but they inform, educate and entertain.

Journalism and journalists have a proud history of – under the right circumstances – speaking truth to power. At the same time, it is criticised for being too close to power. There’s a contradiction in that couplet. This fault line is expressed in many ways:

  • journalists and news represent the fourth estate, based on bourgeois ideals of freedom of expression, rights and democratic representation
  • the Internet represents a new ‘fifth estate’ or sorts that is more democratic, or at least should be outside of traditional media structures and systems of control
  • the news industry is the free market of ideas where the value of an idea can be measured by commercial success
  • #wikileaks is the new journalism – or a threat to national security
  • easy access to user-generated content means that the MSM is becoming irrelevant in many peoples’ lives
  • social media and digital technologies will kill newspapers sooner rather than later and television eventually
  • journalism is a mirror reflecting society back to itself
  • journalists and news cannot be trusted to always tell the unvarnished truth
  • news is compromised by ideological values that support the status quo
  • twitter beats the MSM for speed, but has a low signal to noise ratio
  • journalists are caught in an ethical minefield because of the contradictions
  • the spin doctors are in control – journalism is just churnalism
  • commercial speech is chewing up the space free speech used to occupy in the public sphere
  • which business model is going to work best?

Funnily enough, enough of these common sense insights are true – or, put another way – there’s enough partial truth in these ideas to formulate a greater understanding.

I try to capture some of this in News 2.0 and argue that journalism can survive the Internet. More precisely journalism and the Internet will get on just fine. What’s less clear for me at the moment is the future of professional journalism versus amateur or alternative models; the stability of the industrial news model; and what Rupert Murdoch might do next if and/or when the paywalls fail or succeed.

I am encouraged by experiments in crowd-sourcing and collaborations.

I believe in and will fight for good investigative journalism

I want to encourage greater democratic input to news and journalism and to empower the people we formerly called the audience.

I also want to celebrate and invigorate the fighting, democratic and committed journalism of my heroes, past and present.

I actually got to celebrate my book moment in a different way earlier today. I had a long chat with National Radio’s Mediawatch producer Colin Peacock about #twitdef, which I covered recently. You might recall the incident when a senior News Ltd editor threatened to sue a hackademic blogger reporting on a journalism education conference in Sydney.

Twitdef and The Australian

A week in the Twitterverse

#posettigate as it became known in tweets raised interesting questions about tweeting and blogging and when someone might be considered to be a journalist and able to claim privilege for fair reporting of someone else’s potentially damaging comments.

Did it count in Julie Posetti’s favour that she has been a serious MSM journalist and can claim an understanding of the rules? Did Julie in fact stop being a journalist when she became a full-time educator and academic? She may well argue that she hasn’t given up journalism and I would be among many journalism educators that feel the same way.

Journalists are people like us – trained, schooled in newsrooms, perhaps even university-educated; but at heart a reporter, a ‘newshound’.

Most of us hackademics like to think we still think like hard-nosed journalists; we still have some good news instincts and we ‘get’ journalism.

But we also bring something else to the mix; a fresh(ish) and more distanced, nuanced perspective. We don’t just ‘do’ journalism, or ‘teach’ it; we think it and analyse is and many of us question it too. To some extent, we are now outside journalism, but looking intently inwards.

For the most part our intentions are honourable.

We love journalism and we actually like lots of actual journalists.

We love news and believe in its powers for both good and evil

But do we really know what journalism is today?

This is the question at the heart of the contradictions I’ve been talking about.

You will notice now that I haven’t defined journalism really. Except towards the end where I describe people like me.

I am acutely aware that this is only one definition today.

Seismic shifts in technology and in the social relations of news production have rattled the foundations of the fourth estate and wikileaks is just another example of ongoing after-shocks.

I end my book by arguing we have to move beyond the fourth estate conception of journalism and news in order to save both as areas of professional and intellectual practice.

I’ve begun to look to Gramsci and the history of public intellectuals for some possible clues.

But that’s a project for next time.


A journalist is not a gadget

September 13, 2010

My second installment discussing Jaron Lanier’s You are not a gadget.

In the future, writing might not be something anymore that is entirely done by humans, and that surely needs to be debated.

Mercedes Bunz

The future is crashing in on the present and we are confronted by a world in which it might be ‘OK’ for robots to replace human reporters (Allen, 2010; Bunz, 2010a). Researchers in the Systems Informatics Lab, at Tokyo University, have built a machine that can ‘autonomously explore its environment and report what it finds’. Using an on-board camera to interview people and a Google search to ‘round out its understanding’, the newsbot ‘will even write a short article and publish it to the web’ (Dawson, 2010). At Northwestern University, in the Intelligent Information Lab, scientists are developing a ‘fully automated’ system for creating broadcast news by aggregating material from online sources to ‘drive a set of animated characters who reside in a virtual “news world”’ (InfoLab, 2010).

I don’t know about you, but I am not ready for this brave ‘news world’. Neither it seems is former cyber-guru turned tocsin Jaron Lanier.

Jaron Lanier’s You are not a gadget warns against the dehumanizing effects of ubiquitous computing and of relying too heavily on algorithms. His argument is simple: in order to believe that machines are smarter than us we have to dumb-down our own cognitive and reasoning abilities. He argues that the hive mind is the wrong kind of collective thinking and has coined the term ‘digital Maoists’ to describe the evangelists for a disembodied digital ‘brain’ that haunts the Internet.

Lanier believes the digital Maoists are ‘cybernetic totalists’ whose enthusiasm for algorithms and the ‘digital cloud’ betrays an ‘antihuman rhetoric’. He argues that if we are ‘locked in’ to this way of thinking—a form of technological determinism—we will turn into digital peasants: collectivized into stupidity, enthralled and entrapped by meta-data, algorithms and the aggregation of aggregators.

You are not a gadget is a call to action before it’s too late to stop the dehumanizing effects of too much computing. Lanier rejects the fervid ‘religious belief’ in machine-intelligence evident among the cybernetic totalists. He also believes that ‘aesthetics and emotions’ must compete with ‘rational argument’ in order to extend our humanity. I am drawn to Lanier’s unorthodox approaches and to his critique of the ‘techno-political-cultural orthodoxy’ that expanding computational capacity will somehow solve the world’s problems.

I’m all in favour of improving our lives through the intelligent application of technology, but I am reluctant to put my trust entirely in machines when it comes to news and journalism. We must be alert to the dangers of relinquishing control to impenetrable algorithms. To fail is to risk ceding all decision-making power to the digital Maoists: then it might be too late.

Allen, R. (2010, 23 March). Automated Sports Content: The future of sports journalism. StatSheet Retrieved 3 September, 2010, from http://statsheet.com/blog/automated-sports-content-the-future-of-sports-journalism

Bunz, M. (2010a, 30 March). In the US, algorithms are already reporting the news. PDA: The digital content blog Retrieved 1 September, 2010, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2010/mar/30/digital-media-algorithms-reporting-journalism

Dawson, R. (2010, 15 April). The rise of robot journalists. Trends in the Living Networks Retrieved 3 September, 2010, from http://rossdawsonblog.com/weblog/archives/2010/04/the_rise_of_rob.html

InfoLab. (2010, n.d.). News at Seven.   Retrieved 3 september, 2010, from http://infolab.northwestern.edu/projects/news-at-seven/

Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget: A manifesto. Melbourne: Penguin.


Can journalism survive the Internet?

June 19, 2010

It was great to be on stage at LATE a couple of weeks ago. The panel was talking about the future of journalism and I was there to give the ‘pointy-head’ view. Brent Impey, former boss at Mediaworks, represented the ‘hard-headed’ business perspective; Eric Kealy, head of TVNZ 6 & 7 was the ‘one-foot-in-both-camps’ semi-pubic broadcasting voice and Colin Peacock, MediaWatch presenter, was, as always, the voice of reason and ‘Mr Nice Guy’.

It was a load of fun and the feedback seemed to be it was one of the liveliest panels in a while and a bit of “biff” between the panelists was seen as a good thing. The audience certainly got involved; plenty of laughter and cheers in among the serious squirrel stuff.

The video is now online at the LATE site and on YouTube, so you can watch it without leaving the comfy frontroom of Ethical lMartini

There was a twitterwall too, mostly good comments and one or two snarks.

The possibility that TVNZ might be put up for sale by a second-term National government highlights some of the contradictions in the ‘hard head’ and ‘semi-public viewpoints about broadcasting policy and political economy.

A couple of weeks ago in the Weekend Herald John Drinnan’s column raises the idea of a TVNZ float and current CEO Rick Ellis is quoted giving a personal view that it shouldn’t be sold to foreigners.

Ellis says that the Kiwi-ness of the network might be lost and also its independent voice in news and current affairs; but in fact that is not the real issue.

Foreign or domestic commercial ownership of TVNZ will have an effect. It will no longer be even ‘semi-public’ broadcasting and perhaps the TVNZ 6 & 7 channels will become shell templates into which anything discarded as commercially to hard or not profitable will be dumped.

Eric Keally talked about this model @LATE, suggesting that such a split could work with 6 & 7 becoming the home of public service broadcasting. It seems that the plan being talked about at the highest levels is creating this kind of hybrid public service broadcaster that would include Radio New Zealand, TVNZ 6 & 7 and Heartland channels and (if the real hard-heads get their way) Maori TV.

The only thing stopping the MBS being shoved in kicking and screaming is that it would be a political hard sell to the Maori constituency. But, there’s generally derision and contempt for Maori TV in some circles. Plenty of the good and powerful think it’s a disgrace that the MBS got the Rugby World Cup and there’s a feeling that MTV is totally unwatched.

Patronisingly some folk say it’s good at doing “language” stuff, but that it should leave real broadcasting to the big boys. The same people are also scornful of the MBS ever being commercially viable and they take delight in pointing out that it only survives because of cosy deals with government departments.

You see, even while paying lip service to the ideals of public broadcasting the hard heads and the semi-publics actually want the same thing. To get their hands on more of the broadcasting pie.

As I mentioned @LATE and what got me most passionate on the evening was the whole “dumbing down” debate. The hard heads and sem-publics don’t really get this. They believe in market-choice and “let the audience decide”. They also fetishise the idea of “choice”, but it is the producers who are in charge.

The people in control of production determine the content; not the audience. And while there is a great deal of choice, particularly in the digital age of endless streaming of content via the Web what does it really do for us?

It’s a downside of the “Daily Me” that fragmentation of audiences destroys our collective conversation and shatters the public sphere into millions of sphericules that don’t intersect and hardly ever interact with each other.

A speech that wasn’t given

LATE is not the sort of function where one gives a speech, but I wrote one anyway; mainly to get my thoughts clear. It’s a summary of the arguments in News 2.0, so I thought I’s share it here.

News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Internet?

LATE @ the museum – 3 June 2010

A/Prof Martin Hirst, Journalism Curriculum Leader,
School of Communication Studies, AUT University

I’d like to thank the Auckland War Memorial Museum for the opportunity to speak at LATE on the topic of journalism’s future.

I have been to several of these sessions and I think they are an important and fun addition to the intellectual and cultural life of this great city and of New Zealand more generally.

To be invited here as a contributor, rather than an audience member, is indeed an honour.

Can I start by explaining the title of my forthcoming book, which is in two parts.

Consuming News 2.0

The first part of the title “News 2.0” refers to the emerging paradigm for news consumption and production.

In terms of consumption the key factor in the new paradigm is mobility. We are no longer locked into to only consuming news at certain times of the day.

Typically, people of my generation (I guess I’m a late baby boomer) would consume news in fairly static and sedentary ways.

It might start with reading a morning newspaper – at home or in transit to our place of work – or with listening to a radio broadcast over breakfast, or in the car.

And then we would go into a kind of news-free zone for most of our working day. We might hear some breaking news from colleagues or friends who had heard it on the radio, but by and large, our next dose of news would be the afternoon newspaper (now most certainly the dinosaurs of the analogue age) or we would sit and watch a broadcast TV bulletin sometime in the early evening – typically the lead in to what we still call, but with less conviction perhaps, “prime time”.

For most of the past 20 years we might also – if we were serious news junkies –watch a late evening bulletin before retiring for the night.

We no longer do most of our news consuming in that way anymore. Even us baby boomers have adapted – we’ve become digital immigrants – and we consume our news through wireless connections to our laptops and tablets, on our PCs at all hours during the working day and through our mobile phones.

In fact, it hardly seems fair or adequate anymore to call these indispensible hand-held communicators “phones”.

They are so much more. A phone is also camera for still and video images; they are personal jukeboxes and they are our permanent connection to the world of news and information.

News seems to follow us around like a bad smell. It invades our pores and the membranes of our brains and it seems we can hardly ever turn it off – even if we want to.

But there’s another problem too. The very definition of news – its taken-for-grantedness and the venerated values that turn information into news – is changing too.

With mobility comes mountains of extra choice and an endless supply of news-like information that can be infinitely tailored, redesigned and reconfigured to suit our personal, individual tastes and prejudices.

We have moved from the age of broadcasting to the age of narrowcasting.

This has been described as “The Daily Me”, our ability to customise the news we see through various online readers and aggregators, RSS feeds and by “following” our favourite news sources through social media applications like Twitter or an social networking sites such as Facebook.

Social media has changed the look and feel of news forever.

From consumption to production

I will return to that theme in a moment, but first let’s look at News 2.0 from a production point of view.

And here we can introduce another important thesis from my book. There is a two-fold crisis in the news industry today. It is a situation that many senior news figures, including Arthur Sulzberger Jr of the famous newspaper family, who calls the crisis a “perfect storm”.

The first element of the crisis is about the profitability of media capital. All the major players – from Rupert Murdoch to Mediaworks’ owners Ironbridge – are very worried about declining circulations, ratings, advertising revenues and therefore a shrinking bottom line.

The almost universal response – typical of crisis management in the capitalist economy – has been downsizing. Newsrooms have shrunk, story budgets have collapsed and there are no resources for expensive overseas bureaux and highly-paid senior and investigative reporters.

As a consequence – and a likely cause of the second element of the crisis – audiences are losing trust. We no longer believe in the factual and “objective” values of the traditional news media. Journalists are among the least respected of the professions – beaten into last place in most surveys only by hookers and hucksters.

In addition we are also suffering from an overload of public relations and marketing that is repackaged into a news-like text, but clearly has a commercial, rather than an informational purpose. Most recent studies from around the globe suggest that more than half of what we see in the form of news has its origins in PR and spin.

Journalists are out-numbered by 2 or 3 to 1 in most major news markets and this imbalance is likely to get a lot worse before – if at all – it begins to improve again.

So, a very clear result of this has been the emergence of alternative forms, sources and types of news.

While we have ever greater choice and – until the great paywall comes down – unprecedented access to news sources, we are in fact consuming less of what we might call “hardcore” public interest news and more of the softer, celebrity-focused, opinion-laden and frankly at times highly unreliable forms of news-like information that is generated from the blogosphere, the twittersphere and from the broadcast yourself social media such as YouTube.

Collectively this avalanche of social media is known as Web 2.0 and the first part of my title is a play on that; which brings me to the second part of my book title:

Can journalism survive the Internet?

Why is this an issue?

There’s one very clear and simple explanation for this – the Internet and the World Wide Web (and pedants tell me they are different things) have fundamentally altered the process of news consumption and news production.

There’s obviously a lot more behind this unsurprising observation and I’ve hinted at some of it.

In more pointy-headed terms I would argue that the whole political economy of the news media has changed.

In my book, which I hope is for a general and well-informed readership, I talk about this using the metaphor of the “singularity”.

The singularity is scientifically-defined as that point in time where machine intelligence outstrips the thinking capacity of the human brain.

But I prefer to talk about it in the language of Charles Stross, one of my favourite sci-fi authors whose book, The Singularity Sky tells the story of a hyper-evolved species of machine-dwelling sentient beings who cause a full-scale revolution on an earth-like planet that they decide to visit for a spot of fun.

At one point in the book one of the sentients’ camp-followers makes a telling remark to one of the human leaders of the planetary revolt:

“Talk you of tradition in the middle of a singularity?”

The planet’s ruling elite collapses under the sheer weight of the gift economy established by the singularity’s arrival and, I would argue, we can use this metaphor to examine the news industry’s responses to Web 2.0 – the explosion of social media and social networking across the Internet.

Can journalism survive the perfect storm of declining profits, the suspicion of audiences and the threat “from below” – the millions and billions of bytes of user-generated news-like content that is being published, broadcast, narrowcast, blogged, tweeted, uploaded and downloaded across the planet.

My answer is a qualified “Yes”.

It’s “yes” because I believe that the desire for information, for us to be informed and to want “news” of our neighbours, friends and enemies is fundamental to the human condition.

We have needed and found ways to circulate news-like information from the very beginnings of human social life. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

But I qualify my belief in the future of journalism because, frankly, we just don’t know what journalism will really look like in the future.

There are currently a number of proposals, talking points and even experiments in new forms of journalistic endeavour, but nobody is certain that one or another of these models will actually work, or will be a salvation for the news industry.

I think the news industry is resilient and the signs are that the whole cultural expectation that news on the Web will be free is being worried away and slowly wound back by paywalls – Murdoch is about to close off free access to his news properties and the New York Times will do so from next year.

In New Zealand there is a paywall around the Business Review’s premiere content and we may well see Fairfax and APN follow suit.

Paywalls come with their own particular sets of problems – not the least of which is our resistance to paying and the smaller returns that accrue in online media from both subscriptions and advertising.

Most experts agree that there is a cost to the company when a paywall is imposed and that any gain in subscription revenue could be eaten up by a loss in advertising as the viewing audience is restricted.

But news companies are also finding ways to monetize the clickstream around user-generated news-like content too.

CNN’s iReport is one example of a major legacy media giant adopting some of the principles of “D-I-Y” media culture. User-generated content becomes the property of CNN and any revenue stays with the company.

In political economy terms this is free labour that can be monetized and add to the bottom line for CNN and others who adopt this model – and most large media companies operate this way.

Finally, journalism will survive the Internet but with substantial changes. There is likely to be more UGNC, not less and more audience interaction, not less and more amateur journalism, more blogging, more tweeting and more use of social media to circulate news-like content.

Whether or not this is a good thing in terms of the public interest and the public sphere is yet to be seen.


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