Sunday, September 14, 2008

Future of Journalism Queensland 1: The state of the global news media

The QUT Gardens Theatre was the venue yesterday for an all day summit devoted to a discussion of the Future of Journalism sponsored by the journalist union MEAA and the Walkley Foundation. It follows on from the successful Sydney summit in May and about a hundred journalists, managers, bloggers, educators and students came along to listen to the words of wisdom of many of Brisbane’s key media players. The day was broken up into six sessions that covered the state of global media, media students’ vision of the future, news managers’ survival strategies, future business models, blogging, and techniques and technologies. I will cover off my notes on these sessions in a series of articles and this first post is about the opening session entitled “the state of the global news media”.

The session was a discussion between MEAA federal secretary Chris Warren and media academic, journalist and author Margaret Simons. Warren began by hailing Simons’ 2007 book The Content Makers as “the text that summarises where we at” with the Australian media (an assessment I fully agree with). He then asked her where she thought the local industry was headed. Simons said that the industry had gotten industry into dire straights in the last twenty years and “it would get worse before it got better”. She said new media technologies (Internet, mobile, digital broadband) had put a bomb under the establishment and we had reached the “end of Empire” stage of the two major powers in Australian media: Murdoch and Packer.

But Simons did not necessarily want to put the boot in; she said it was almost a situation of “what did the Roman Empire ever do for us?” Both Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch supported unprofitable outlets but both The Bulletin and the Sunday program were killed off after Packer died and the same may happen to the loss-making The Australian when the “old man” Rupert Murdoch dies. Nevertheless there remains an “embarrassment of riches” available in terms of media content which is being repurposed in different places and different times. The problem is that the business of selling has changed as the classified ads migrate to new digital homes. “It is possible now," said Simons, “to buy a house or a car without buying Michelle Grattan.

Simons said the audience is fragmenting but that represents an opportunity as well as a threat. She believes we need to rethink what quality means and said that interaction with the audience is necessary. Some journalists are struggling with this concept. Mark Day wrote off bloggers this week in The Australian while George Megalogenis told the Byron Bay writers festival he would only allow “expert” opinion in his blog comments. But while some Australian journalists were dismissing the hoi polloi, over in the US Jay Rosen was an “exciting pioneer” with his pro am experiment Assignment Zero and its wisdom of the crowds approach.

Simons also noted how that approach influences newer media where there is “instant redaction” when there is an error. Simons said journalists need to acknowledge when they get something wrong. “It is a very human, but extremely destructive, impulse to back away from error.” But fixing it was “something we are bad at doing at the moment”. Simons also stressed the need for journalistic independence. By this she didn’t necessarily mean an independent voice but the ability to stand up to their editors when asked to provide objectionable reporting. She said those who criticise bloggers for their partisan positions should realise that this is also how the newspaper industry started. It wasn’t until the 19th century and an increasing reliance on advertising revenue that the notion of objectivity took hold.

Warren then moved on to ask Simons for some scenarios of the future for mass media. She said mass media would survive with “bite size” chunks of interactive news. However Simons was doubtful whether there would be enough of a mass to support national news journalism in Australia. She said high quality journalism will migrate to other platforms but won’t appear in the mass media. But she said other avenues were opening up for quality journalists to make a living. Simons said the non-fiction market has thrived in recent years and books such as “Dark Victory” by David Marr and Marion Wilkinson have achieved commercial success. Simons noted also that this type of journalism follows a true “user pays” approach where people who want a product pay full price for it.

Simons went on to discuss the importance of the national broadcaster. She said that if Jay Rosen was Australian, he would probably be working for the ABC. They have 3,000 content makers who are paid by what Rosen called “The People formerly known as the audience” (a slogan that several speakers would return to, as the day progressed). Simons said it would only be a slight step to make that process more direct and she believed ABC is moving towards the model. She said ABC boss Mark Scott is aware of the issues. While not totally in agreement with the way he is running the corporation, she said she was “glad ABC was aware of citizen journalism and what the challenges are.”

Warren asked about her views on how journalists should adapt to the changing landscape. Simons said that an increasing number of journalists were starting their own business. Stephen Mayne was a pioneer with Crikey and since he sold it, it is now making a small profit. Mayne is now involved a new video journalism experiment The Mayne Report. Meanwhile Alan Kohler and Stephen Bartholomeusz quit Fairfax to start their own subscriber-based “Eureka Report”. She said it was important to note that journalism and media were not the same thing and advised those at the start of their career to put together a business plan not necessarily to make huge profit but at least to pay a salary. She said small niches were the way to attract dedicated readership “but the challenge is connecting the niches”. Simons wondered how democracy would function if people only read their own niche.

Warren then expanded the democracy question to ask what role journalism had in the post-nation state era. Simons stated that the invention of the printing press caused democratic forms to change. She said there was 200 hundred years between Gutenberg’s press and the rise of the newspaper. “But only 30 years has passed since the invention of the Internet and we don’t know where it is taking us,” she said. “And democracy is not in great shape now”. But, she said, the growth of literacy and the communication of news in the 16th and 17th century had everything to do with the growth of democracy. What is needed is a return to the “high public purpose of journalism”.

Simons then moved on to the gift economy. She said this was a concept borrowed from anthropology where services are given for intangible rewards. Similar to potlatch rituals, people freely give away their services in return for kudos, pleasure and power. She said most blogs are not written for profit and the best of them, such as Larvatus Prodeo and the (now rebadged) Pollytics have given newspapers such as The Australian a run for its money.

Simons concluded the session by answering questions from the floor. One Courier-Mail journalist asked whether traditional journalism “craft skills” would still be relevant in the future. Simons agreed that the skills of writing things in newsworthy fashion, and extracting information in interviews were difficult to attain. She said that these craft skills were the key difference between journalists and bloggers. But her advice back to the journalist was to find out what your audience needs in terms of journalism and provide it for them.

On other questions Simons said the code of ethics needed to be constantly reviewed and updated, the staged political interview (such as those conducted by Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 report) were a “tired cat-and-mouse game” and there were also hopeful signs for the industry in the Pay TV and documentary sectors. She said we needed to work out where the mass audience will be in the diversified market when analog TV finally switches off. Simons concluded on a positive note. “There was no evidence of declining appetite for journalism,” she said. “It is the business model that is at risk”.

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