An extraordinary thing happened in the reporting of this year’s Australian Federal election. A blogger's shot across the bows of journalists hit its mark. The anonymous Canberran blog Grog’s Gamut was responsible for drawing blood with his post on Friday 30 July about media waste and mismanagement. Many others have written about the shallowness of media election coverage, but Grog struck the biggest chord yet when he said 95 percent of the journalists following Gillard and Abbott around the country were not doing their job properly and should come home. He backed up his comments with a personal story that rung deeply true.
Grog's post was important reading. But in the past such criticism would have been buried in the wastelands of cyberspace. What made this one different was the power of Twitter, where so many journalists keep their alter egos. Instead of killing blogging as many predicted, social media has instead “deepened it, [and] given it more clarity and heft”. At the time of writing, Grog’s post has been re-tweeted 266 times with many influential people including ABC boss Mark Scott, Lateline host Leigh Sales, The Chaser’s Chas Liacciardello and The Australian’s media writer Amanda Meade chiming in. As a result Grog caused journalists the most severe bout of introspection seen in this country since blogging took off in the early 2000s.
As James Massola wrote in the Australian on the weekend, not all journalists (including his own dismissive headline writer) liked the criticism. Herald Sun political reporter Ben Packham took issue with some of the assertions contained in the piece, as did the Sun-Herald's Jessica Wright. “Across Twitter a conversation bubbled and crackled as journalists and readers debated the merits of reportage from the campaign trail,” Massola wrote. “Such a public conversation about journalism was unimaginable five years ago.”
Indeed it was only three years ago in the last federal election campaign, that Massola’s bosses at The Australian penned the most infamous denunciation of bloggers this country has seen. The editorial of 12 July 2007 righteously thundered about “the self appointed experts online...from the extreme Left, populated as many sites are by sheltered academics and failed journalists who would not get a job on a real newspaper.” At the time, The Australian was defending its interpretation of opinion polls which were coming under increasing attack by knowledgeable bloggers such as Possum’s Pollytics, The Poll Bludger, and Mumble.
Three years later all three of those bloggers have been co-opted into the mainstream (the first two at Crikey, the third at The Australian). Corporate media has bigger issues to worry about than bloggers, plagued as it is by falling circulations, declining ad revenues and the trivialisation of online news. Those journalists who follow politicians around the country are in all likelihood overworked and underpaid. In responses to Grog’s post (though neither acknowledged him) the ABC's Annabel Crabb and News Ltd's Sally Jackson defended the press pack. They said the problem was caused by secretive politicians, fast-moving campaigns, 16 hour days and the lack of time to absorb important decisions. Neither put it down to any failings by the journalists themselves.
Scott Rosenberg, writer of the best book yet on blogging (“Say Everything”), suggests journalists are incapable of handling public criticism. He quotes recent US examples of reporters both snapping and sneering when attacked. He points to a common complaint journalists don’t like being held to the standards of accountability they expect from other office bearers. Rosenberg puts it down to the profession’s “pathological heritage of self-abnegation”. When something goes wrong with the system, they count on the edifice they are a part of to protect them.
By contrast bloggers have never been beholden to a bigger system and therefore find it easier to accept complaint. They are used to relying on crowdsourcing to make up for the lack of an editor. Rosenberg says this accepting attitude is now more common in younger journalists who have a different relationship to their own work and the public. Most journalists are also now getting used to the idea of reading blogs or better still running one themselves, changing attitudes towards the medium and those who write in it. The “running, linked blog” was one of Guardian editor’s Alan Rusberger’s ideas for how journalism might reinvent itself as it faces up to 21st century uncertainties.
But there are few Rusbergers in Australia. Most editors here are still wedded to old ways and remain a critical stumbling block to any reform of media reporting. It is important to remember Grog’s post was not addressed to journalists at all. His first sentence read: “Here’s a note to all the news directors around the country: Do you want to save some money?” Among the many incisive comments (which is another wonderful thing about blogs - their ability to generate excellent user generated content) the post got was from an anonymous member of the travelling press gallery. “There is no time to eat, to find a bottle of water, to go to the toilet,” the commenter wrote. “Just a relentless demand for more and more copy, faster and faster.”
Writing in Crikey on Monday, Margaret Simons said we perhaps had to have some sympathy for the journalists actually on the campaign trail who rarely have time to think. Simons said editors are not exercising enough independent judgement about what is worth reading and the stories (such as the weekend’s Latham debacle) descend in to solipsistic nonsense. “For goodness sake, get the reporters off the bus!” Simons wrote, exasperated. “Refuse to let your staff be treated with such contempt. Tell them they should not let it happen.” She then suggested the people formerly known as the audience solve the problem themselves. Taking her cue from Wikileaks' success, she asked “Could there be an election wiki, perhaps, giving the policy information the media is largely failing to provide?”
Over to us.