This is the fifth and final post in a series about the Future of Journalism Queensland summit held last Saturday at Brisbane’s QUT campus. See links to parts one, two, three, and four. The final session was entitled “Tools or toys: techniques and technology for the digital age. The session was moderated by the ABC Landline’s executive producer Peter Lewis. The panellists were The Courier-Mail’s online chief sub-editor John O’Brien, citizen journalist and CEO of Perth Norgmedia, Bronwen Clune and the editor of news.com.au, David Higgins.
The numbers of people at the conference had dwindled significantly by the time of the final session and moderator Lewis jokingly threatened to lock the doors to keep the rest of the audience in. He also claimed organisers had “saved the best till last” and he may have been right. Lewis began describing himself as a Luddite and asked his panellists how do old technologies fit in. Higgins talked about his audience profile and how they accessed news.com.au differed depending on the time of day. He said that between 7am and 9am, it was peak time for mobile phone access with 150,000 people accessing the site via mobiles. Then as people arrived at their work they logged on to the website from their offices. Higgins said the industry needed more tools to further granulate their audience tastes. “We need to figure out what stories fit where”.
John O’Brien from the Courier-Mail’s online team said they needed to be selective about what stories are carried across each platform. He said the important part was getting a good headline to “lock in” customers to their site. Bronwen Clune spoke next. The head of citizen journalism site Perth Norg said that for time-poor people, online was the best way of consuming news. But she said that print still has “a long life” ahead. Clune said that a different writing style was needed for online content, a style that was less formal, more personal and opinionated and not bound by the traditional “inverted pyramid” format of hard newspaper articles.
Clune then talked about Amy Gahran’s article about journalism culture in which she described the "Priesthood Syndrome". This syndrome describes the assumption that traditional journalists are the sole source of news that can and should be trusted. This supposedly gives them a privileged and sacred role that society is ethically obligated to support. Clune said citizen journalism was dispensing with the priesthood syndrome. She said mainstream journalists were allowing comments in their “blogs” but were not engaging with their audiences.
Higgins also said his online organisation was dispensing with traditional journalistic practices such as the “inverted pyramid” (the practice where print journalists write their article paragraphs in descending order of importance so that subeditors can cut from the bottom up if newspaper space is at a premium). Article length varied from print to online but there was no hard and fast rule as which format might provide more information. News.com.au are also experimented with “chat boxes” where audiences can engage with the journalist in the side bar of the screen. The speedier delivery of online news also means that journalists use tools such as Twitter in the field. They then can, and do, go back later to add more information as it arises and in Higgins’ words “craft a more traditional story”. The “day after” newspaper story is no longer straight reportage but has more detail and analysis.
Lewis asked the panel who was “minding the gates” in this new dynamic environment. Higgins admitted that journalists were now doubling as their own subeditors. “You’re constructing the story in front of the audience”, he said. Clune said citizen journalists relied on their audience to pick up errors. She noted the fact that her provocative blog post entitled “A letter to love-stricken Fairfax journalists” (written during their industrial action last week) had incorrectly spelt the title word as “love-striken” until a Courier-Mail journalist pointed out the error to her. Clune’s response was “Thanks for pointing it out. All fixed now…That’s essentially subbing isn’t it?” (For what its worth, I believe “striken” was a totally appropriate word to describe the Fairfax journos!)
John O’Brien said his motto was “your readers know more than you do”. Nevertheless, he said that his comment thread moderators needed to be well trained to deal with flame wars and potential defamation threats. He noted that as a result of Fairfax’s mass sackings, the company got rid of their in-house specialist lawyers which could have an unintended (or possibly intended) “chilling effect” if controversial stories can not be vetted before publication. Lewis said “the law has not caught with (digital) reality”. O’Brien agreed and talked about the importance of cleaning up errors as soon as possible after the fact, however, he said, “mistakes live on in Google cache or if someone has taken a grab”. Higgins said he would advise against the “open moderation” model of the ABC, because “you will get sued and there is nothing you can do about it.”
The panel then took a set of diverse questions from the audience. Clune said bloggers offer a diverse voice, “which we don’t have in the Australian media”. When asked about tools of the trade, Higgins said that the best camera for a journalist was “the one they happen to be carrying at the time”. He did add that PDA devices could be useful for reporting from the field but “what you have in your hand is most important”. Clune said she was a fan of the Iphone which “allowed for participation as well as consumption”. Clune also promoted the micro-blogging concept of Twitter where “disorganised news very quickly organises itself”.
Higgins talked about the importance of Search Engine Optimisation and getting journalists trained in how to attract a high Google rating with their headlines. He said making a story more effective was ‘less about brand, and more about mobilising the story and putting it out there in places such as Facebook”. Lewis asked him whether there were concerns over what effect this would have on the journalist and whether the Internet deliberately attracts dumbed down content. O’Brien said the effect was not all bad. He said celebrity stuff drives other hard news traffic. Higgins also disagreed. “Websites are the way journalists set them up,” he said. “Its not a management decision. He said his team edits the site “in real time with incredible amounts of information”. However, like any other media product, he said, “you place them where you think they will get the most traffic”.
Unfortunately I had to leave as the panel wrapped up and did not catch Chris Warren’s closing remarks to the conference. Nonetheless, I believe it was an extremely valuable day. While the immediate future of the more traditional and hierarchical forms of journalism remains grim, there are a number of exciting avenues and new models available that make me believe a new Gutenberg revolution is at hand. Despite a continued dwindling of resources, there will continue to be, I believe, a home for quality journalism in the big “media of record.” But they will be supported and challenged by a plethora of small independent online media as well as norgs, blogs, micro-blogs, citizen journalism, magazines, non-fiction books, wikis and social media projects that will keep print-democracy flourishing in the years to come. The challenge will be connecting all the dots that lead to the people formerly known as the audience.