Sunday, May 04, 2008

Who cares about the future of journalism?

“No-one in the Australian media”, seems to be the answer to that question. In the wash-up of an important two day “future of journalism” conference organised in Sydney last week by the Australian’s journalist union MEAA (Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance), there has been almost zero coverage of it in any of the mainstream media. Despite having luminaries such as Philip Meyer, Jay Rosen and Roy Greenslade address the conference on such matters as the funding of quality journalism, the digital challenge, and the future of newspapers, none of the Fairfax or Murdoch dailies has shown the slightest inclination to even acknowledge the issues after the event (the Sydney Morning Herald printed one article beforehand). It is astonishing that very few of the journalists who attended the conference, could be bothered to describe what happened there.

This point was picked up today by the Australian Newsagency Blog which contrasted the very public debate about these matters in the US and UK compared to the dearth of discussion here in Australia. While the newsagency blog is clearly a vested interest, its point is totally valid and a condemnation of the apathy of local journalists towards the future of the industry. “Here,” said the blog, “it appears to be the topic of which we do not speak, certainly not in the mainstream press.”

The newsagency blog did point out a couple of honourable exceptions to the code of omerta that seems to have descended on the conference. The most notable coverage came from Crikey’s ever-excellent media commentator Margaret Simons. Writing in Crikey's daily email on Friday, she reported the conference’s opening speech by ABC boss Mark Scott who discussed impending areas of market failure including the production of local drama and the support of investigative journalism. She also reported on Jay Rosen who spoke to the gathering from New York. Rosen used the metaphor of journalists as migrants to a digital age. According to Simons, Rosen said that like all migrants we need to think carefully about what is really essential to us in our old traditions and culture, and what we should leave behind in the old country.

Simons not only reported on the conference, she was also a participant. In the Thursday afternoon session, she was “in conversation” with British media commentator Roy Greenslade. Greenslade is a former editor of the Daily Mirror and now blogs for the authoritative Guardian Media site. Simons asked Greenslade whether he had any comment on the editorial independence dispute at the Melbourne Age. Greenslade admitted that the Age’s Scottish editor Andrew Jaspan was a friend but wondered “how a man of limited talent had risen so high”.

Greenslade’s own take on the conference was that “Australian journalists are both facing up to the digital challenge" but were "fearing its consequences". He said the key question discussed was how journalism would be funded as both ad revenues and sales decline. He thought that Rosen's injunction to the conference not to care about commercial considerations was “hopelessly idealistic”. Greenslade had no easy answers to the problem but thinks advertising “will still raise a lot of money, enough to fund small staffs.” Perhaps Greenslade needs to look at the explosion of media in the United Arab Emirates and the rise of the new daily The National for a less pessimistic view of the future of print. There it seems that if the advertising dollar is available, it will always seek an audience.

But if these questions are seemingly lost to the Australian press, there was some interest in the blogosphere. The influential Mark Bahnisch did not discuss the event in great detail but generated some debate among his Larvatus Prodeo commentators. He also pointed to Simons’ articles and another by Rachel Hills in New Matilda. Hills quoted Crikey editor Eric Beecher’s prediction that Sydney and Melbourne would soon become one paper towns and Philip Meyer’s arbitrary deadline for the death of newspapers in the 2040s. She saw the three major issues for journalists as: building communities, making connections between macro and micro interests, and role convergence (where journalists write, edit and present the one story). She came out of the conference “excited by the possibilities” for the journalism industry. Despite Hills’ own optimism, she also reported how one depressed attendee told her she felt like stabbing herself during the final debate of the day.

My personal view is that this conference on digital futures was crying out to be blogged about. I would have loved to performed that role myself but with the conference cost set at a prohibitive $660 for non MEAA members, it was clear that only insiders were welcome. And if most of these insiders are seemingly uninterested in the changing face of journalism, then I’m glad to be outside the tent, pissing in. As Greenslade, Rosen, Beecher and others seem to agree on, this tent is about to collapse. But there is little consensus on how the sky will look in the brave new world that replaces it.


Ann O'Dyne said...

since you mentioned journalists as migrants ... may I proffer that Greenslades journey from the Daily Mail to the Grauniad must have been as a refugee.

Derek Barry said...

Good to see Media Watch give the issue mileage tonight. Story is not yet online, so can't link to it.