Sunday, July 12, 2009

Dear John: A letter to Pollyanna Hartigan

Dear John, On a long driving journey on Friday I was listening to a Radio National discussion about the efficacy of feedback. There was much feedback on feedback within the hour. What struck me most was what people thought the ratio of positive to negative feedback needed to be. One expert said that for every piece of criticism, you have to give 11 items of praise to compensate for the damage caused. Though others say three is sufficient, you strike me as feeling a bit vulnerable. So before I criticise your recent hand grenade speech to the Press Club I’ll go with 11 compliments.

Here are eleven reasons why I like your speech.

1. You are the head of the largest non-government media organisation in Australia. As such you have a powerful voice and one that deserves an honest hearing when used.

2. I still pay to read your newspapers so I'm interested in your philosophy.

3. For all its faults and shrieking opinion, I find The Australian’s news content usually authoritative.

4. While I’m not a huge fan of your online content I like how you don’t break stories into separate pages to inflate page impressions like "Firefox" Fairfax

5. I love your vigorous work leading the Right to Know Coalition. Censorship, almost without exception, is insidious and evil. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

6. I like the fact you still spend money on large newsrooms. Long may that continue.

7. I like your national approach to stories. The commercial television stations are locked in parochial city rivalries. The Australian is one of the few organs that consistently takes a broader stance.

8 I agree with three of the elements in how you defined good journalism: "something that was original, highly relevant and genuinely useful to your audience". I didn’t like the fourth one: exclusivity. Nor was I totally happy you chose a diet as the best example of news that met all four of your criteria, but I’m dealing with that.

9 I also agree your berating journalists for being negative is timely. There is a future and it needs to be carved out not thrown out. News Limited has a talented pool of people that can help show the world that journalism is a valuable part of our society. A bit of optimism doesn't hurt.

10 I am also pleased to hear that newspaper ad revenues are growing in Australia. Long may it remain a profitable business. I’d hate to have to do the Sodoku online with my cuppa.

11 so I thank you for opening this up for discussion.

Call me Pollyanna, you said. Are you sure? Pollyannaism describes the tendency “for people to agree with positive statements describing themselves”. Not sure how well they deal with the negative.

But sure, be Pollyanna as you desire. Like the character in the Eleanor Porter novel you want your optimism to be infectious. You like to see the best in things. Can you accept, therefore, that some things could be better?

Let me start with the extraordinary sight of Fox News asking their (and your) boss about his opinion on the News of the World wire-tap story. Murdoch hid behind the likelihood that it could become a legal matter and refused to comment. Though the interviewer somewhat ruined the effect by becoming sycophantic when Murdoch wouldn’t answer, it was a surprisingly ballsy question for a usually undemanding and compliant network.

Because if the charges against the News of the World are true, then this is a significant ethical failure on behalf of News Ltd. None of these phonetapping targets passed any “public interest test” in destroying the privacy of their conversation. The effect of this behaviour will be twofold: Firstly it will further increase public cynicism and disillusionment and hardens the view that journalism is an amoral and a despised occupation. Secondly, it loses political trust as it shows how media companies will take increasingly desperate measures to generate sensational and salacious content.

But John, I'm sure you know these risks already. Some of the stuff you put out under such brands as the Daily Telegraph (Sydney) and are as desperate as they come and a disservice to the craft. Your way is to “manage” tastelessness and turn it into just another aggressive marketing strategy. And anyway, let’s face it: NOTW is not your problem.

What is your problem is the need to keep Australian eyeballs and influence at News Ltd in sufficient numbers to counteract the inevitable migration to digital content. Overall sales are flat, you concede, and as you say yourself the online reader generates about 10 percent of the revenue you can make from a newspaper reader. So you’ll have to find eleven times as many people online to make a buck. Well, go find them - I just gave you eleven compliments with which to start.

The eyeballs are certainly out there and with them, the influence. Appetite for news is not on the wane. Google thought it was being attacked in the half hour after Michael Jackson died. You said yourself you had bumper editions after the bushfires. International audiences now available to you increase your potential reach from 20 million to several billion. Advertisers will eventually pay big dollars if they think they can get access to this level of influence.

But of course, you decide that three billion is not worth aiming for with free content. You think it might be time to make people pay up front. With this approach, those numbers are back around the 20 million reach again (probably even a lot less than that) but that might be enough scraps to survive on. So you throw a fence around your “premium content”.

Let me remind you of the decision by Encyclopaedia Britannica to turn down Bill Gates' offer to build a CD of their product because they thought it might interfere with their book sales. Instead Gates teamed up with Encarta and blew Britannica away with a $49 CD. Wikipedia then went a step further and put it all on the Net for free. The premium of the data was no longer in the price but in the use. The sooner News Ltd understands this, the less it will be like Encyclopaedia Britannica unable to understand why their fence fell down.

And then there's the journalism. I mentioned earlier I did not like exclusivity among your four goals. While the scoop has some merit as a competitive tool, its effect in the commercial world is to hide information from competitors (and sometimes readers) in an attempt to reveal earliest. It is this inherent rottenness that can infect the “chase of the story” at the expense of the overall truth. In the speedy world of internet connectedness, the fact that you come out a minute or two before the opposition is irrelevant.

Because information is not like a service. A service is exhausted on consumption. Information, like the recipes in the diet you so gladly defined as news, is reusable. The blogs reuse your news because they can. Taking that ability away won’t make News Ltd any better. One of the blogs you mentioned at the shorter end of the long tail was Crikey which does has a subscriber model. I subscribe to it more because of its packaging (a useful daily email wrap) than its decision to put content behind a paywall.

And then there's the bloggers. As the world moves away from being a market economy to being a networked economy, you should be looking for allies. Treating bloggers with contempt is not a wise move and tarring them all with the one dismissive brush is a bit silly. You are setting yourself up as a judge of intellectual value, which itself could be construed as being barely discernable from massive ignorance.

Instead of attacking them, why aren’t you asking for their assistance? Look at the sorts of things bloggers do well such as conversation, debate, and creating social networks as well as the things they don’t do so well (rounds, international news and straight reportage). Make sure your skilled journalists can out-blog the bloggers. You say citizen journalists don’t have the resources to bring us reliable news yet you ask for people to send in their photos and videos all the time. News Ltd needs to understand that the roles of producers and consumers is becoming increasingly complicated and interconnected in the digital economy.

Yes, amateur journalism is capable of trivialising and even corrupting serious debate but so is professional journalism. I’d even argue corruption is more of an issue in the professional field. Phone-tapping is much more capable of causing democracy to degenerate into mob rule than the opinions of bloggers, however hyperventilated some of them might be.

I do like your “future world view [where] good journalists will be very well paid, valued by their readers, and the envy of their colleagues.” But even here, I somehow think the manager in you will always begrudge those pay increases.

Anyway Mr Pollyanna, never mind the bloggers and the low paid journos. News Ltd has more to worry about from Google - and more to learn too. “Do what you do best, and link to the rest” is a philosophy News should cherish not criticise. What is needed is imagination to design new ways of connecting ideas and news in a distributed environment. Otherwise, you’ll eventually be left behind. And no-one will miss you.

By the way, if you want an example of a story that meets all of your criteria, try this one at EngageMedia about the Indonesian Government banning Al Jazeera from showing a Melbourne film makers documentary about West Papua. Its even got a local angle.

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