Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In praise of countrymindedness Part 1

The back of the Wallumbilla grain shed (Derek Barry)
What lessons do Australian country newspapers offer to the wider industry? Rural newspapers are the poor cousins and the entry rung to the profession. Numbers of staff, audiences, resources, profits and influence are all small compared to the national and metro dailies. Their digital imprint and reach is also tiny compared to the big metro companies (Nguyen, Ferrier, Western, and McKay, 2005). Many regional papers (like the the Western Star until recently) do not have a content based website[1]. Practitioners in rural journalism tend to be new to the industry, most are young and inexperienced and low paid. Academically the sector is under-researched. 

Yet there are subtle differences in media practices in country areas that warrant closer attention.  Some of those differences are cultural. Though urbanisation has been the dominant experience for a majority of Australians since the 19th century (Glynn 1970, pp.76-77), Ward's classic The Australian Legend (1958) argued the Australian bush has always informed the national character through its notions of egalitarianism. In the US, Putnam has shown country areas, small town and rural people are more altruistic, honest and trusting than their urban counterparts (2000, p.205). Australian studies show similar findings with more community involvement in non-metropolitan areas (Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics 2005, p.xix).   

There is also a strong bond between Australian country papers and their audiences (Bowd 2010). That bond was initially formed by, as Kirkpatrick (1999) put it, “countrymindedness” which was born of the isolation of country areas - “the tyranny of distance” (Pretty 1993, p.77). Newspapers loudly articulated their editorial support for the country lifestyle. Writing four years after Ward, McLuhan (1962) [2]) predicted a move away from 20th century individualism and fragmentation towards an inter-connected global village. Today’s Internet, fast broadband and social networks are enabling McLuhan’s global neighbourhood where Ward’s sense of bush egalitarianism and country trust could turn out to be useful assets.

Kirkpatrick’s countrymindedness also has other global parallels, particularly with development journalism in non-western countries where newspapers still thrive. Development communication sees mass media as agents of social change (Stevenson 1994, p.232) based on a foundation of respect for local knowledge (Loos 1994, p.2). Country journalists live and work closely among their readers and are impacted by them.  Readers know their local journalists and are in a position to form bonds of trust for mutual gain. In this situation, journalists are not neutral observers but communicators who change themselves as much as what they effect (Loos in Bowd 2003, p.126). The news is still reported fairly, but the newspaper is clearly on the side of its community than in urban areas and the community is on the side of the newspaper. Readers can and do still find fault with rural publications. But no matter how bad the papers are, they will always belong to the readers.

Part 2 will look at the international scene.

[1] The Western Star is now online with fellow SW Qld papers at www.suratbasin.com.au. However a Google search for the Western Star online will return an APN (publishers of the Western Star) website with information about the paper but no editorial content.
[2] The Gutenberg Galaxy was originally written in 1962.

Bowd, K. (2003), “How different is ‘different’? Australian Country Newspapers and Development Journalism”, Asia Pacific Media Educator, Issue No 14, December 2003.
Bowd, K. (2010) “’Did you see that in the paper?’ country newspapers and perceptions of local ‘ownership’”, Australian Journalism Review, 31 (1) pp. 49-61.
Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics (2005) Focus on regions no. 4: social capital, Department of Transport and Regional Services, Canberra
Glynn, S. (1970) Urbanisation in Australian history, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne
Kirkpatrick, R. (1999) “House of Unelected Representatives: The Provincial Press 1825-1900” in A. Curthoys and J. Schultz (eds.) Journalism: Print, Politics and Popular Culture, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.
Loos, E. (1994) “Teaching development journalism in the reporting of cultural diversity”, Australian Journalism Review, 16(2) July-December 1-10  
McLuhan, M. (1971 edition - originally 1962), The Gutenberg Galaxy: the making of typographic man, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
Nguyen, A, Ferrier E, Western, M and McKay, S. (2005) “Online news in Australia: Patterns of use and gratification”, Australian Studies in Journalism, v.15   
Pretty, K. (1993) “Dusting off the grassroots: A survey of Australian country journalists”, Australian Studies in Journalism, Issue No 2 75-123.
Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community, Touchstone, New York.
Stevenson, R. (1994) Global Communication in the 21st Century, Longman, New York 

Ward, R. (1958) The Australian Legend, Oxford University Press, Melbourne

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sport and Politics: an Olympic history

Munich 1972 was the first Olympics I remember. Aged 8 I have hazy memories of Olga Korbut in the ring, Lasse Viren and Valery Borzov on the track, Mark Spitz in the pool and hooded men in the Village. The Palestinian involvement was an early indication to me the Olympics was about far more than just sport. Here in the middle of the Cold War, the US and USSR were once again battling for supremacy in Germany.   

Only six nations nations have topped the OIympic medal tally: USA (16), Soviet Union (7), China (1), Germany (1), France (1) and Britain (1). The US dominated most of the 20th century but the Russians beat them in 1956 and 1960. As the space race intensified, the US regained control in the 1960s.  By Munich it was the turn of the USSR to come out ahead again. I remember this strange thing called “East Germany” with their forbidding looking athletes running a very creditable third well ahead of their western rivals despite a population of just 16 million people to the West's 50 million plus. They would rub salt in fellow German wounds with another home soil victory in the World Cup two years later in the only time they would ever meet (the West lost that battle but won the war against the Dutch in the final). 

With the pride of communism on the line, the 70s and 80s were the glory era of East German sport. It was the German College for Physical Culture which produced with ruthless efficiency the coaches, trainers and sports medicine personnel responsible for East Germany's remarkable success. There was drugs and cheating there but there was also genuine success. The problem was, as 1980 Olympic 110-metre hurdles gold medallist Thomas Munkelt said, “we ran our sports by the performance principle, but not our economy."

The 1980 Olympics was East Germany’s first high water mark. It was also the year any doubt the Olympics wasn’t political was wiped out with the west’s boycott after Afghanistan. Without the US, the East Germans ran second to the Russians. The Russians got their own back and boycotted Los Angeles in 1984. They cited “security concerns, chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria whipped up in the United States” but no one was in any doubt it was tit-for-tat. 

Little brother East Germany wasn't there either but Ceausescu’s Romania was the one Communist Bloc that ignored Konstantin Chernenko’s directive and they finished second to the Americans. 1984 was notable for another reason. Five years earlier, the IOC decided to rename the Republic of China to Chinese Taipei. With Taiwan downgraded, China would not lose face by competing for the first time since 1952.  They finished a creditable fourth in their first outing.

The Seoul Olympics in 1988 was the first truly global Olympics. It was also the first since Montreal to feature the US and the Soviets. East Germany were there too and they forced the Americans into third place. Other eastern bloc countries in the top ten were Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. The Chinese dropped to 11th.  But East Germany’s second high water mark was to mark a rapidly changing tide. 

The stunning collapse of Eastern bloc Communism meant the medal table in Barcelona looked radically different. The USSR was the last to go in 1991 so there was still a strong “Unified Team” consisting of 12 of the old 15 Soviet republics. They were still unified enough to win the most medals a year later. It would be the last time Moscow would finish in front. East Germany was gone and China was back up to fourth behind the united Germany. There was still an East German clone in Barcelona as one of the last of the Communist countries Cuba finished fifth.

There was further change in the New World Order of Atlanta 1996. On home soil, the Americans finally beat the Russians for the first time since 1968. China stayed fourth but cut the gap on Germany as they were doing in the real world. In Sydney, China beat Germany and got the same amount of medals as the hosts (58) but with 28 golds to Australia’s 16. At Athens, China went clear as number two to the Americans. They got fewer medals than the Russians but as they did in Sydney, they knew how to get gold.

In Beijing they did to the Americans what they did to the Russians four years before. The US had 110 medals to China’s 100 but it was 51-36 to the hosts in golds.  China’s remarkable powerhouse economic advance was on display in Beijing and the last four years have accelerated the trend. it will be no surprise, that even without home advantage, they get more medals and golds than anyone else in London.

Sure enough, they have won the first gold of the 2012 Olympics (though arguably that honour belongs to Specsavers). Top-ranked Yi Siling of China captured the first gold medal of the London Olympics in the women's 10-metre air rifle at Royal Artillery Barracks on Saturday. Another Chinese woman, Yu Dan won the bronze.  If the 21st century is the Asian century, then the place to watch for proof will be the Olympic Medal tally. It won’t be too long before the likes of India and Indonesia become the new East Germany – but getting the economics right as well as the sport.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Changing you bastards: On Seven and Molly Lord

After I read of the news of Seven 7’s social media blunder today, I sent out an email to my journalists. I gave them a link to Mumbrella’s story on it and told them this: Channel Seven are in the poo after deleting comments from their Facebook page. Lesson for us: Never delete a user comment from Facebook (or any social media) just because it is critical of us or our actions. Hiding criticism only makes matters worse – and it becomes the story.  Instead, we should address any criticism directly.  There is only two good reasons to delete Facebook comments: they are either defamatory or are offensive to community standards (if in doubt, let me know).

Later on, I thought of at least two more reasons to delete comments. Firstly, if there is an obvious unintentionally blunder on your own copy found immediately (call it the five second rule). Secondly if the comment is spam.  I’m sure there are other rules out there, but I stand by what I wrote to my people: don’t hide criticism. Criticism is a central plank of media behaviour but everyone notices the industry has a glass jaw when the tables are turned.

Channel Seven had the tables turned in a big way yesterday. Their Seven News Sydney Facebook page received a comment from Linda Goldspink-Lord. Goldspink-Lord announced herself as the mother of Molly Lord who was killed in an accident last week.  Molly was just 13 when she came off a quad bike in Kembla Grange, NSW. Most of the press called a “freak accident”, but as someone who has ridden on these things, I know it could easily happen. 

Goldspink-Lord said Channel Seven had found out very early on about the accident and their reporter was on the scene while the girl was still laid out on the ground.  While up to this point,  the reporter was doing his job, he overstepped when he went around the grounds – without permission. He was looking for an angle as was the Channel Seven helicopter overhead. It grabbed pictures of Goldspink-Lord sitting with her dead daughter which it aired before she had time to notify relatives. Goldspink-Lord was incensed. Channel Seven didn’t care – after all, they had all this great footage.  But they were not prepared for Goldspink-Lord’s public rebuke. “Channel 7 you are a disgrace and what should have been a private moment between a mother and get (sic) daughter was exploited for the sake of a story. You Bastards."

Channel Seven may not have liked it but its Facebook audience lapped it up. The comment was liked by 32,000 people. There were almost two thousand comments as the story span out of Channel Seven’s control.  Then they deleted the comment.  It was far too late, many had saved it for posterity and other media were onto the story. And on every story on Seven News Sydney’s own Facebook page, the conversation was hijacked by those pointing out the network's sordid role in the Goldspink-Lord business. 

Around 11am today, Seven admitted defeat.  Chris Willis, Director of News, 7 Sydney issued a statement. It read: Ms Goldspink-Lord’s comments were removed from our site in error. We apologise for that. Taking into account her understandable distress over the coverage of Molly’s death, I did ask for the footage to be taken down. That happened but unfortunately her remarks were deleted as well. They are now being restored to our Facebook page. I would also like to stress that we have re-examined our reports into Molly’s tragic death and can find no video showing Ms Goldspink-Lord hugging her daughter. We were not the only television station to visit the family’s property. Our reporter did go to the house but left immediately he was told the family wished to make no comment. Our reporters and camera crews know that grieving families have to be approached with sensitivity and compassion.

Social media commentator Lauren Papworth was spot on when she said this was corporate karma. “Transparency & accountability arent just nice to haves they are part of everyday reality,” she said. But she was on less certain ground to hail Seven’s defeat as the end of “news gathering in its traditional form”.  Seven may be a little more careful in future but in their desperate battle for ratings with Nine, will still most likely stop at nothing for a story. They will remain "you bastards".

The behaviour of these juggernauts is one of the main reasons why the Australian public’s trust in the media is the lowest in the developed world.  It is also why I see trust as the number one issue facing the industry.  Forging trust, particularly in social media where it is second nature, is critical to ongoing health. There is nothing substantial wrong in news gathering in its traditional form (other than there is not enough people to cover all of the news that needs covering) – it is dealing with the commercial pressures that dictate the selection and presentation and distortion of that news where the major problems lie.  That is where an inter-active audience can be of most help. Social media can shame wrongdoers of journalism – and we shouldn’t flinch from it.  But it remains a long way from replacing it.  

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Dark night rising

Photo: Barry Gutierrez/AP
It was impossible not to think of the Denver shootings as I attended the new Batman movie at the local cinema tonight. This latest random mass murder could have been scripted in the film itself, though it would have been the work of a cardboard-evil mastermind rather than just an unhinged student. While I'm a fan of the work of director Christopher Nolan, this latest effort was turgid twaddle. The plot was so predictable I left after an hour of tedious violence, with the hero in a bit of pickle but assured that the good guys would "win" in the end. 

I came away thinking it was folly to believe there is no connection between the film and the murders.  Guns and the power they confer are at the heart of the Batman movies – as they are at the heart of most Hollywood blockbusters. Guns are the ultimate deus ex machina plot device. Whoever is holding one, calls the shots. The drama moves towards the pivot where either the tables are turned or someone is shot. In the Dark Knight Rises, guns were everywhere and only “superhero” powers can overcome them. When the real murderer went loose in the cinema, many in the dark assumed the noise was from the film and paid no attention.  James Holmes called himself The Joker for the stock Batman villain. He painted his hair red and used tear gas before opening fire.  There was no superhero to stop him.

The film producers’ coy reaction showed they are part of the problem. Warner Bros said they took “the unprecedented step” of delaying revealing “eagerly awaited weekend box office figures for Dark Knight out of respect for the victims and their families."  How the box office news would affect grieving families is beyond immediate comprehension, though there was no sign any of the record takings would be used to compensate victims or be put to a campaign against weapons.

America’s “foremost defender of Second Amendment rights”, the National Rifle Association were as quick as I was to blame the culture.  The problem was caused, they said, by “violent imaginary movies", many of them like Batman having, perish the thought, “absolutely no patriotic value”.  As NRA’s Wayne Lapierre deadpanned when wheeled out to defend their position, "Guns don't kill -Batman kills.  Had someone in the audience been armed, this tragedy could have been averted."  Multiplexes, were according to Lapierre, death traps.  Lapierre may have preferred a good old fashioned saloon shoot out where everyone could have taken a pop at the dark knight.

Lapierre is of course right on the point of violent movies, though somewhat muddled about multiplexes and patriotism.  The culture promotes death and violence, as do the movies of many other countries  But there is one big difference about America compared to nearly every other first world country. There, guns and weapons are as easy to get as movie tickets and popcorn.  The major reason the unhinged Holmes had no difficulty in acting out his fantasy was because he was able to accumulate a formidable collection of weapons and 6,000 rounds of ammunition.  None of the journalists baying at Lapierre for answers picked him up on his glib lie: Guns do kill and the tragedy would have been averted had no one in the audience been armed.

As the New York Daily News said, Holmes did not act alone. Lapierre was at his side as were Obama and Romney both cowed into silence over gun control for fear of unleashing NRA’s mighty political wrath.  “(Also) Standing at Holmes’ side as he murdered 12 and wounded 59, were the millions of zealots who would sooner see blood flow and lives end than have to check a box on a gun registration form,” the Daily News said. It wasn’t just about the occasional newsworthy massacre but the “day-to-to-day mayhem of street-crime shootings, responsible for more deaths than all the mass carnage combined, (that only) makes it to the police blotter, the courts, the newspapers, the emergency rooms and the cemeteries.” 

The Daily Beast's Adam Winkler said mass shootings don’t lead to gun control. Colorado has some of the weakest laws in the land despite the Columbine High School massacre 13 years ago. Winkler said the radicalisation of the NRA in the 1970s stalled American gun reform. He quotes Bill Clinton as saying the Brady Bill (named for Reagan aide shot in the 1981 assassination attempt) cost the Democrats the control of the House of Reps in 1994 and neither party has mounted any gun control since, despite America having five murders for every 100,000 people. 

The NRA vigorously defends its stance at every opportunity against every perceived threat to its clout. This week they attacked Obama signing a UN Arms Treaties because they might “trample our Constitutional right to bear arms.”  The 18th century need for a well-regulated militia remains a holy cow despite bearing arms now sounding as ridiculous as arming bears.  America deserves a referendum on the “right” but in the unlikely event it happened, the majority of Batman watchers across the land would probably vote against change. Violence is endemic in the culture. Unless one of the dead in Colorado had a well-connected senior operative in the Republican Party for a relative, this latest massacre won’t change anything after all the hand-wringing is completed. Superheroes are as thin on the ground in Washington as they are in Aurora.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Watching the Watchman: Swearing and 14-hour days

A couple of weeks ago my mate Glenn alerted me to the next episode of Australian Stories called Letters to the Editor. Sounds like you,” was Glenn’s succinct summary and he sent me the blurb from the ABC website. It read:  
James Clark enjoyed a successful life in Paris when he decided to put his future, his relationship and the family sheep station on the line to chase his dream of running a little local newspaper in outback Cunnamulla, Queensland. 

I didn’t know the ABC were featuring Clark, but I was intrigued by someone I instinctively liked as a rare beast:. He is the owner and editor of a country newspaper, the wonderfully-named Warrego Watchman.  The Watchman is a competitor to our papers and I’ve yet to meet James but our enormous territories of coverage roughly overlap and we’ll had dealings from afar.  I’ve known him for over a year and he kindly offered his help in my masters on country journalism. Given his knowledge of the topic I regret not finding the time to take up his offer in my last-minute rush to finish.  

Despite Glenn’s reminder, I also regretted missing the show on the night it was broadcast but I was able to watch the 30 minute documentary later in the week on the website. I really enjoyed it and felt a deep connection with most of Clark’s responses to his experiences (though my own experiences were very different). I also felt I got to know him a lot better.

After watching it, I immediately emailed Clark to congratulate him on the success of the show. “Keep up the great work for journalism in the south west,”  I told him. His response was almost sheepish. “All pretty embarrassing but about 1.3 million apparently now know about the rag who didn't previously.” As a journalist, Clark knew well how the journalists at the ABC put together the show to get the most emotional impact – by making his relationship with wife Josephine Birch central to the tale. But having the world see inside your marriage is perhaps a small price to pay, when the Warrego Watchmen’s audience expands a couple of hundredfold – at least temporarily.  

My mate Glenn is right up to a point - his story has many similarities to my own.  I don’t know how old Clark is but I suspect he is not too many years younger than my 48. He left high-paid journalism Europe to (eventually) take on a small South West Queensland paper, while I quit high-paid IT in Brisbane to (eventually) work for a slightly bigger small south West Queensland paper.  Clark and I both believe strongly in the future of country media and our towns and see newspapers as important cornerstones of the community and chroniclers of its adventures.

But there were massive differences between us too. Clark had huge roots to his paper. He grew up on a sheep and cattle property of 160,000 acres near Cunnamulla and his family still farmed 60,000 acres at Pabra ranch south of town. I grew up in a small house in a small town half a world away from Roma. Though 20 years in Australia, I’d hardly ever set foot in south-west Queensland until I started working there. I had no idea of rural issues and I’m still green around the agricultural gills two and a half years later. Clark’s intimate knowledge of the land gives him a real grounding to  his writing that is impossible for me to replicate.

But Clark was no country yokel either. He rebelled against farm life as a young man and lived a full and varied career as a journalist across the world – another difference to me, barely two and a bit years in the craft. He got his break with a year on Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “Once you get a bit of experience on a newspaper that's recognised around the world, you're in, you're away,” Clark said in Letters to the Editor. Clark later worked in Fleet Street and was in France freelancing when his brother asked him to come back and look after Pabra.  He and Birch were beginning to forge a relationship and on impulse he invited her to join him in Cunnamulla. That is another major difference – I don’t have a glamorous French actress for a wife.

Birch said her introduction to Cunnamulla was Dennis O’Rourke’s controversial documentary made in 2000 called, simply Cunnamulla. Clark showed it in Paris to a collection of French friends, including Birch. O”Rourke’s film is an Australian classic but is not an easy watch. It is hated in the town itself  for its unflinching hardness and brutal honesty of its portrayal of remote small town life and its torturous race relations. 

Clark himself wrote an article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald talking about O’Rourke being lynched if he ever showed up there. O’Rourke’s cinema verite style should have struck with Clark's French audience but all were bewildered by the strange Queensland accents and the apparent lack of action. All that is, except Birch, who thought it intriguing.  She followed Clark to Australia but said her destination wasn’t Cunnamulla but Clark.  The pair took on the paper as well as Pabra and were suffering until they decided they could no longer print the paper themselves. Birch said their printer breakdown saved them from their own breakdown and they face the future with optimism, now printing has been outsourced.

At the “happy ending” of the ABC show, Clark and Birch got married (in April this year). At the very end Birch spoke of their dreams to be “Murdochs of the South West”. While she said it in jest, it reminded me of another difference between Clark and I. He is an owner-editor, I’m just an journalist-editor. I don’t want to be a Murdoch, I’d just be happy to be the Harold Evans of the South West. I don’t have the capital to buy a paper and I don’t have the business acumen and way with money to run one successfully anyway.

Clark would probably also see me as part of the problem, working for the man (the Western Star is published by APN) and producing corporatised papers.  But his goal to make the Warrego Watchman a “lively read” is one I share for the Western Star. It’s just that unlike Clark, I haven’t fully torn myself away from the need to be impartial. And I will never tear myself away from the need to be trusted.  

Yet of the entire documentary, it was one comment, again by Birch, very early in the piece where I most identified with Clark and where my friend Glenn was right on the money. Working on bush newspapers, Birch said, meant “a lot of swearing and 14 hour days.” I squirmed in immediate acknowledgement. Country papers don’t pay much so you must be passionate about them to enjoy them. That means dealing with pressure and long hours. Embarrassed or not, Clark, Birch and the ABC did well to shine a rare light on newspapers in this part of the world.