Monday, September 15, 2008

Future of Journalism Queensland 2: Students and Editors

Yesterday I wrote about the first session in Saturday’s Future of Journalism Queensland conference at QUT in Brisbane. Today’s post will cover off the next two sessions: “The future as we see it” and “adapt or die: the news managers on their survival strategy”. These two sessions took on the views of those diametrically opposite in the local mediascape. The “we” in the title of the first of these two sessions were three third year Griffith University journalism students whereas the news managers of the second session (Hugh Martin, David Fagan, Stuart Watt and Liz Deegan) are the among the most important media players in Australia.

The university student session was chaired by John Taylor who is the presenter of the Queensland version of ABC TV’s Stateline. The three students were from diverse backgrounds. Amy Bradney-George is from Bellingen, in northern NSW. Tran Nguyen was born in Malaysia and moved to Australia with her family when she was one year old. She is fluent in Indonesian and Vietnamese. Denis Semchenko emigrated from Russia when he was 17 and now edits the Griffith student newspaper The Source.

Taylor began by giving all three the floor to discuss their background, their aspirations and concerns, their media habits and their reasons for studying journalism. Amy Bradney-George began by talking about her home town of Bellingen where there was a “strong sense of social conscience”. But, she said, people were cynical about journalism and this was something she wanted to change. Her media diet was rich and varied, listening to ABC Radio National, watching the various TV news and current affairs shows, reading newspapers and online sites. She was a fan of social network sites as “word of mouth” tools to quickly spread information. Bradney-George liked the “personal trust” aspect of radio, the “visual context” of television and the enjoyment of reading of a newspaper with a cup of coffee. However, she said, the Internet had the potential to combine all three media. She concluded by expressing a concern about the concentration of media ownership, “which is why I get news from different places” she said.

Tran Nguyen began her speech by saying she rarely reads a newspaper or watches television. The Internet was her dominant source of news which she liked for its ease of access and the ability to get news when you needed it. “Generation Y loves instant gratification,” she said, “the Internet gives me news now”. Time was the most important thing for her as a busy university student. “TV news times doesn’t suit us,” she said. However, she acknowledged that when she compared news articles in their online form against the same article in the newspaper, they were often shortened. She also said that online doesn't place as much news value on stories as print, but the Internet was convenient, accessible and up-to-date. Nguyen enjoys working with refugee groups and said because she was also studying International Relations she might not necessarily end up in journalism. “I’d like to work as a communications officer for a regional aid program,” she said.

Denis Semshenko said he too got most of his news information online which he supplements with some newspapers. He was a fan of local bloggers such as John Birmingham. Semshenko is a keen musician and a guitarist in a Brisbane band Dream Sequence, and reads a lot of music street press such as Rave and Time Off. He said he goes online “four or five times a day” to check for news and also subscribes to social networks such as Myspace and Facebook. Semshenko said that community newspapers were important in the way that they introduced stories that often made it into metropolitan and national media.

The students’ views and media habits may not have been music to the ears for the next panel which brought in some of the heavy hitters of the Brisbane media scene. Talking about the survival strategies involved in “adapt or die” were moderator Hugh Martin manager of APN online (“the largest media organisation no-one has heard of in Australia” according to Martin), David Fagan, editor of the Courier-Mail, Liz Deegan, editor of the Mail’s weekend stablemate, The Sunday Mail and Stuart Watt, the web development manager at ABC Online News.

Liz Deegan began the discussion. Deegan edits the Brisbane Sunday Mail which attracts a weekly readership of three quarters of a million people. She defined adaptation not as a threat but a challenge and an opportunity. She wanted to see journalists who were creative, and what was needed was “journalists with passion, integrity and hunger for news stories.” Deegan said we now operate in a competitive media landscape. “20 years ago there was nowhere near the same competition in news delivery,” she said. Deegan believes that newspapers needed to “have innovative product, (be) relevant to audiences and offer the best product they can.”

David Fagan spoke next. The Courier-Mail editor is a little-known but extraordinarily influential figure whose paper reaches one in three Queenslanders and he is the person politicians most fear in a one newspaper town. He agreed that adaptability was one of the biggest issues facing journalism. He said there needed to be a continual push for change and journalists should not be content with “ten pars in the paper” but also look to re-purpose the material online or as magazine pieces. “We need to adapt to audience needs,” he said. “the (key) thing is the story”. Fagan used the example of what he called “a terrific story” in today’s paper Qweekend magazine insert. The story “the six lives of Andre Fromm” about Dieter Fromm whose son Andre died. Dieter now regards the six people who inherited his son’s organs as family. This was a story Fagan heard on the radio. He sent a reporter and a video operator to capture for print and the Internet “the power of this guy with a strong story to tell”. That was the approach we need to take, he said.

Morgan asked Fagan about the difference between the Mail’s print and Internet editions and how much of that was explained by editorial influence. Fagan said ten percent of newspaper content ends up online. He said younger people prefer to read the online edition. It was a matter of experimenting he said, trying and failing new things. While many have complained about the dumbed down content online compared to print (an issue shared by Fairfax Media), Fagan said he was “not uncomfortable” with the difference between the newspaper and the website. “There is a lot of depth in there,” he said. “Don’t judge it on the home page”.

Stuart Watt spoke next. Watt was one of the innovators of the ABC News online website in 1996 and has risen through the ranks to manage the news development team. He said the fundamentals of journalism were the same as they always were. “A good story is a good story (and that has) not changed in a hundred years,” he said. He believed it was an exciting time to be involved in media but it was a case of “innovate or die”. However he was grateful that the “resource rich” 75 year old ABC did not have the commercial imperative of his rivals and it allowed them to experiment with new methods and “try and fail” until they find something that works. “If go down enough rabbit holes,” he said, “you eventually come to a parallel universe”.

Morgan concluded by asking the panel what skill sets new journalists needed in the parallel universe. Watt said it was important they were aware of what was going on in the world. There were too many people who had no idea what was going on. “I’ve had people tell me Brazil is a country in Europe”, he said. Spelling was also important. Watt said those who combine news values with web expertise would also have a future. He wanted to see “digital citizens interested in how it all hangs together and exploring different ways of telling a story.” Liz Deegan said she wanted graduates who have “tested themselves” in work experience, have video skills and are very well read.

All of the panel believed their institutions would successfully adapt to the changing times. And if the impressive quality of the young journalism students at the conference is anything to go by, industrial journalism's confidence in the future may be justified. A bullish Fagan concluded “death is something that is going to happen to someone else”.


Amy BG said...

Hi Derek,

It's good to hear your thoughts on Saturday's conference - there certainly was a lot to digest on the day.

I just wanted to clarify my perspective on media platforms. When you summarised what I said, you say: "However, she said, the Internet combined the best of all the other three media."

I actually said the internet has the potential to combine all three, and what I meant was that it's not necessarily there yet. So while it may have seemed like I was favouring the internet, I actually wasn't because I don't think it's The Best form (I don't think there is a "best form" really, just lots of good forms for different reasons).

Just wanted to clarify in case people got the wrong idea.



Derek Barry said...

Thanks for the clarification, Amy - I'll fix that up immediately.