Note to “old media” journalists: adapt, or stfu!

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[I promised Crikey that I'd write something about the Future of Media Summit 2008. This rant is what emerged. You can also read it over at Crikey, where there's a different stream of comments.]

What is the future of journalism? To judge by the discussion at this week’s Future of Media Summit held simultaneously in Sydney and Silicon Valley (and every other “new media” conference I’ve been to lately) it’s endless bloody whingeing. Whingeing about how journalism has standards and bloggers are all “just” writing whatever they think.

The panels in both cities covered the same, tired old ground. The new “participatory media” and “citizen journalism” would never be Real Journalism, because Real Journalism is an Art/Craft/Profession. Real Journalism involves research and fact-checking and sub-editing. There’s a Code of Ethics. But “these people”, as bloggers get labelled, these people just sit around in their pyjamas and write whatever comes into their heads.

Bollocks.

What’s tiring about this false dichotomy is that it compares the highest ideal of journalism with the lowest grade of personal blogging about what the cat did yesterday and — lo and behold! — they’re not the same. Gosh.

How much everyday journalism actually conforms to the high ideal? Not much. For every Walkley-nominated episode of Four Corners there’s a hundred tawdry yarns about miracle fat cures or shonky builders with a camera shoved in their face. For every investigative scoop there’s a thousand mundane little 5-paragraph yarns that merely quote what someone said at a press conference, and then quote their opponent. Or recycle a media release, putting the journo’s byline where the PR firm’s logo used to be. Or misappropriate statistics to beat up some shock-horror non-existent “crime wave”. Or either fawn or tut-tut over some “celebrity” and their antics — more often than not because that same celebrity is appearing in a TV show or movie that’s completely coincidentally owned by the journalist’s employer.

And you know, some “bloggers” actually know what they’re talking about, interview people, and link to their references to boot.

Dear Journalists, how can you spout all that stuff about “standards” and then go back to your mucky business?

Oh, that’s right. You’re a proper journalist. It’s all the others

Actually, I know why you’re so bitter about “those bloggers”. You worked hard on that student newspaper or street rag while living in uni-student poverty, put up with the abuse of grumpy old chain-smoking subs who bawled you out over trivial spelling mistakes, put up with the unpredictable patronage of editors who promoted everyone else to A Grade but you — you endured all of that hoping that one day you’d get the plum posting. But no! The newsrooms are now being decimated, and the masthead’s adorned with photos of celebrity chefs. And bloggers — bloggers! People with no professional training are leaping into the limelight. Some of them are even being paid! How dare they!

Dear Journalists, in case you hadn’t noticed, the internet and pervasive mobile digital communications change everything.

The shape of your craft and the form of your stories was determined by the technology used to deliver those stories. Newspapers, for instance, worked to their daily cycles, and stories had the length and structure they did, because of the physical and operational constraints of putting ink onto paper. Some bloke called McLuhan said something about this, ages back — but I wouldn’t know for sure, because I’m not a proper journalist. Still, it strikes me that the very industrial scale of printing a metropolitan daily or producing a 6pm TV bulletin also shapes the way you go about making your stories: all that mechanism between you the journalist and your audience.

Well, that’s all changed.

We all have keyboards now. We all have mobile phones with cameras, or soon will. We all have publishing and distribution tools like WordPress and YouTube and Ustream.tv and Qik, or soon will.

[Update 22 March 2014: Technologies come, and technologies go. Qik is no more. Its video messaging functions have been absorbed into Skype, and Qik will cease to exist on 30 April 2014 -- although videos embedded in websites are replaced with the message "video unavailable".]

We don’t need a third party in The Mainstream Media to bring us mass-produced stories for mass-produced audiences when we can tell each other our own stories. Stories that are directly meaningful to us — like how niece Sarah did so well at the school concert (and here’s a video), or how the factory’s closing down (and here’s the lousy memo the bastards sent us). We’re only just learning how to connect myriad storytellers to myriad audiences, but we’re learning fast.

There’s still a role for Real Journalism, of course, with your research and storytelling skills and, yes, with your Code of Ethics too. No-one’s saying there won’t be. And you know what? You too can use all these wonderful new tools to create wonderful new forms of Journalism — if only you’d stop whingeing about how your world’s falling apart and actually learn to use them. A hint: You don’t have to wait for your grumpy old chain-smoking editor to show you, either, because he’s a dinosaur and will soon be dead.

But nearly every time I hear journalists talking about, say, real-time messaging services like Twitter, it’s about how they can mine it for data, not how they might adapt their craft to this new participatory delivery mechanism. Or they’re waiting for someone else to show them how to do it.

The people already exploring these new media forms will be the leaders. They may not call themselves “journalists” — and they probably don’t want to, since you’re held in such poor esteem these days — but they’ll be fluent in the new media. And you… well, you’ll be stuffed.

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  1. Danu Poyner’s avatar

    Such passion! Methinks all those conferences you’ve been going to may be finally getting to you. Hilarious of course, and accurate too. I’ll link to it on my blog after I’ve finished writing about my cat’s distemper shot.

    Reply

  2. Cassie ST’s avatar

    You only have to have watched the Denton episode with Helen Thomas or read the transcript, to know what power the “mainstream” stills exerts.

    And let’s face it, most of us still watch TV and buy newspapers and read magazines and listen to radio.

    They may not not have the same number of eyeballs watching or ears listening they used to have, but they still have reach (distribution) and penetration (authority) beyond the wildest dreams of most “citizen journalists”.

    Professional journos and the media that employs them are still a vital part of our communications media.

    I don’t have the resources or time to do the in depth research, face to face and footwork that is still and will always be the hallmark of excellent journalism and reporting.

    And it’s just a matter of time before the proprietors and unions figure out how to remunerate the “professionals” for publication via the “new media” channels.

    And then we will see standard affiliate and paid content sharing programs that even you’ll get some moola for your blogging sweat and tears Stil! ;-)

    Meanwhile, that’s why we see the growth online in the aggregators and collators of the information published in the blogosphere, as was search engines for web pages.

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  3. Simon Mansfield’s avatar

    Fuck the facts — just make it up and call it participation. Christ what a boring fart you are. Old before your time and as stupid as the aussie press pack. Seriously just because a bunch of lazy old journalists cannot be bothered to do the job they are paid to do, does not equate to an open license for another bunch of lazy farts to call themselves citizen journalists and just make up shit. Do the job properly yourself or stop pretending you any better than the slugs that infest the Australian media scene.

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  4. Stephen Stockwell’s avatar

    Let us march against Philip!

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  5. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Danu Poyner, @Cassie ST and @Stephen Stockwell: Thanks for your comments so far. Rather than respond individually, at least for the moment, I’ll amplify the key issues.

    1. The whole notion that “blogger = (mere) opinion” or “blogger = makes stuff up” is a lazy, ignorant straw-man argument. Yes, some if not many blog posts are merely repeating what they find elsewhere, or offering unsubstantiated opinion, or are poorly written or whatever the criticism is. But so are many pieces produced by people purporting to be journalists. There are also many fine blogs — do I actually need to link to them to make the point? To compare the very best of journalism (a standard which little journalism actually meets) to the worst of blogs (or an imagined worst-case blog) and come to the conclusion that journalism is “better than” blogging is simply an unsound argument.
    2. There seems to be a lot of confusion between the methodology (whether an article is the result of research, fact-checking etc or not) and the medium (published in a “traditional” media outlet like a newspaper or a “new” form such as a blog/website). They’re two separate axes of measurement. What annoys me is that many “old media” journalists seem to think the traditional media format automatically means that “proper” research is done, and that a new media outlet automatically means that it hasn’t been done. This is pure ignorance. And to say that all traditional media is produced to these quality standards is a lie.
    3. The very word “blog” seems to cause upset. “Blog” comes from “weblog”, a log or diary published on the web. Log, diary, journal… it’s all the same thing: writing about current events. The specific forms of writing currently manufactured by “professional journalists” are merely those which are required by the media factories they work for. I challenge these journalists, as professionals, to come up with new journalistic forms to reflect the wonderful new opportunities — not to just slag off the newcomers as lesser beings. If you can’t adapt, if you can’t be creative then, as I say, stfu.
    4. Without a doubt, traditional news outlets like newspapers and network TV are not dead. Yet. However they’re under assault from every direction. I’m astounded that so many journalists are still in denial, and think their problems will be solved by fiddling with some organisational details. I’m disappointed that most journalists who’ve moved past that are still only up to the anger stage: lashing out at the evil bloggers and those who, like me, are pointing out the approaching tsunami. Guys, this is the biggest change to hit your profession in, oh, 200 years! Things are changing fundamentally. Please, please, please take that on board and start suggesting fundamental changes to your craft to take it into the 21st Century — or just piss off out of the way and leave it to those who seem to have a clue about what’s going on, or at least are willing to try.

    @Simon Mansfield Yeah, I’ve never met you either, nor read anything you’ve written, and I reckon you’re a stupid, boring old fart too. Gosh, that creates clarity, doesn’t it!

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  6. Mazarine’s avatar

    Glad you can see yourself that this was all a bit of a rant. There are plenty of ‘traditional’ journalists, myself included, who also appreciate blogging and bloggers, and who do think of many bloggers as journalists. But as you’d realise yourself, there are many bloggers out there writing unedited, unattributed rubbish, and they bring down the reputation of other bloggers, in the same way as Today Tonight manages to consistently lower the reputation of all journalists. There is always going to be an old guard that struggles with any and all signs of new times. Have you seen the uproar at any well known broadsheet when even just the layout is changed? But that said, so few champions of new technology or new methods show any respect at all for the old vanguard — are you surprised they get upset? Seems to me you’re just wheeling out the same old-same old generational conflict whine…

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  7. stlg48’s avatar

    What a rant… thanks for sticking up for the likes of us.

    And yes I do endeavour to ensure that all that I write is accurate and hope it meets someone’s need.

    Cheers for the info and chuckle!

    Reply

  8. Simon Mansfield’s avatar

    I find the whole citizen journalist tag as boring as whale shit. It’s so utterly contemptuous of people who actually do their job as a reporter be it for TV, Newspapers, Magazines, Radio or gee golly a website. Yes the Canberra press gallery is a vile cesspit of lazy men and women — with barely 3 worth employing.

    But that does not equate to a license for bloggers to pretend they are any better.

    I see no difference between the right wing and the left wing blogosphere. They are both polluted with ignorance and arrogance.

    How anyone can write the term citizen journalist in a western country and expect to be taken seriously simply points to the underlying hubris of so called “bloggers”.

    I’m a free citizen just like every other reporter, journalist, editor and publisher — none of us under contract to a military authority to do the bidding of some general, king or emperor — not even the Sun God himself.

    But you happily contend that as a so called “citizen journalist” you are some how better than regular journalists.

    The truly funny thing about your piece in Crikey is that the only blogs of value are the ones about “cats and dogs” and other everyday activities — and which have NOTHING to do with public policy debates. They often have incredible information based on years and years of experience and make a worthy contribution to the spread of knowledge and ideas.

    However, in my experience of reading blogs is that the more they are about politics and policy issues — the less value they contain.

    I’m a Crikey Lifer having helped pay out the former Senator from SA, and I quit mainstream print media over 12 years ago — so I ain’t no apologist for the MSM.

    The other day I heard the story about Riot Act running some story about pineapples coming out of the bin. At no stage did Riot Act get a comment from the restaurant in question and simply ran some rumour about pineapples being recycled from bin to plate. What an appalling way to run a media service. Get some quote from Joe Blow and then not even bother to get a quote from whoever you are accusing.

    Problem is this is the perfect example of how many many bloggers operate and then expect to be taken seriously and then get all upset when called out.

    And as to the Straw Man. Isn’t that the guiding motto of the blogsphere — anything you don’t agree with is automatically labeled a straw man argument. Wow what a way to conduct a debate. And then there’s the final chestnut of the blogger — ‘it’s my blog and I’ll decide who says what – when and how!’

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  9. Wolf Cocklin’s avatar

    “And then there’s the final chestnut of the blogger – ‘it’s my blog and I’ll decide who says what – when and how!’”

    And this is different from the editor of a newspaper saying what letters do and do not get published how? At least in the blog’s case, the author of the article is making the decision, not some one far removed from the journalist!

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  10. Simon Mansfield’s avatar

    It ain’t no different — hence the blogosphere is no better. It’s just ether to delete rather than fish to wrap. And besides more and more of the major media is becoming open slather publishing and the two are merging into a grey sludge of real time nothingness.

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  11. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    I’ll be heading to the gym and dinner shortly, so there’ll be a delay before comments from new folk are approved and I respond to what’s been written.

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  12. jason’s avatar

    What strikes me also is the move by media organisations to reduce the number of journalists and re-purpose and distribute articles more widely.

    Makes your local paper seem as if it’s been vacuum sealed, with half the local colour sucked out of it.

    Blogging seems to be a nice counter to this movement.

    And regarding the Pineapple Affair. That’s a great point. But, generally, trashy blogs tend to be known as trashy? If it’s the same blog I’m thinking of, with the Storm Trooper costume currently its homepage, I’d say it is exactly that!

    Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch’s blog has this excellent bit of hear-say journalism on the homepage! http://www.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/story/0,22049,24027045-5006002,00.html

    (yes I’m quitting soon)

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  13. Scott’s avatar

    I think what “proper” journalists are worried about are the declining standards stemming from lay-offs and cost-cutting etc in most media organisations. There is a place for everyone… bloggers and reporters. But when I report on something (yes, I am a journalist) I rarely see many bloggers asking questions or “reporting” on the event. Bloggers to me offer opinion as evidenced with this piece.

    The problem is that journalists are now required to cover on more and more… in a less in-depth way. Bloggers need to know that the fears journalists hold have nothing to do with them but rather the declining standards of their own publications. I still believe most people (including bloggers) interested in news and current affairs will still read online newspapers etc. I doubt people will ever trust blogs as a primary source of news.

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  14. Allison Reynolds’s avatar

    There’s a great deal of high road taking here, with many astride their very tall ponies.

    In the end the populace are stupid and want only to read salacious crap. Arguing that journalism is a noble profession is as out-dated as arguing that the man who sells those newfangled machines called automobiles, are honest and trustworthy.

    If you are writing for the populace then you need to let them get their mouths as close to the excreta that you are pumping out of your nether regions. Whether that is via blogging or online broadsheets *shrugs* I don’t know or care. Just stop trying to tell me that what you produce is fabulously researched or crafted.

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  15. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    There’s a few interesting comments over on the Crikey thread, too, though one tedious pedant thinks I don’t use “decimate” correctly. He’s just a killjoy who doesn’t understand that language evolves. In the interests of “balance”, which is what journalists do instead of “analysis”, here’s the guts of two.

    Steve Carey writes:

    Journalists are generally grumpy, cynical and suspicious — news is what someone somewhere doesn’t want you to know, and finding it out while coping with insufficient resources would make almost anyone grumpy and suspicious. And if you worked for the Dirty Digger, Kerry Packer or Robert Maxwell do you think YOU’D be a bundle of joy? They inhabit a world of bad news, so they don’t easily see the upside in things like web 2.0 or blogs. Their grumpiness, cynicism and suspicion serve a useful social function, so don’t be too hard on them. But it’s not the whole story, either. People really ARE relating to each other in new and interesting ways, and Blind Freddy could see that the old media models (free TV, print newspapers) are irreversibly broken. And after all, there was a time before they were around — TV’s only been around for half a century or so — so it’s not as if they have a God-given right to exist (which journos sometimes appear to believe). Stilgherrian is right, folks (can’t call you ladies and gentlemen since so few journos are): evolve or die.

    And Connor Moran says:

    Stilgherrian doesn’t understand what journalism should be. I recommend he and anyone interested in the subject have a read of Flat Earth News by Nick Davies.

    Bloggers provide poor ratios of dribble/crap you have to read through to get to anything worthy of your time to read it. The content of their “love to hear my own voice” material is tedious and very very very rarely of any importance. What they write doesn’t matter, it isn’t important. Anti-”matter” if you will.

    As another poster nearly said “Journalism is something that someone, somewhere, doesn’t want published. Everything else is advertising.”

    In the new media world for Lord Northcliffe’s quote, you could replace “advertising” with “blogging”.

    I’ve also been directed to Amy Gahran’s article Journalism: A Toxic Culture? (Or: Why Aren’t We Having More Fun?). I particularly like the idea that journalists have “Priesthood Syndrome”. Indeed, I think her comments about “toxic culture” help explain why this journalist vs the rest argument has gotten so heated at every conference I’ve been to lately.

    @Simon Mansfield: I’ve never been, nor claimed to be, a journalist — “citizen” or any other kind. And you say…

    But you happily contend that as a so called “citizen journalist” you are some how better than regular journalists.

    … but that’s not being claimed by me nor anyone else. I suggest you do refresh youself on what straw man actually means, because right now you’re textbook.

    @Mazarine: There is perhaps an element of intergenerational angst here, but I think there’s one key difference. This time the new generation is hyperconnected and they really do have new and radically different tricks up their sleeves.

    @jason and @Scott: Absolutely, journalists are in fear of losing their jobs. But going on about the noble craft of the farrier didn’t stop the horseshoe industry collapsing either.

    Actually that’s wrong. There will always be a need for people to help us observe, summarise and make sense of the daily world around us. However I keep getting the feeling that “journalists” are hung up over their specific ways of doing this which were developed to serve specific industrial-age media models. And, yes, they’ve got Priesthood Syndrome. That disappoints me immensely. And it annoys me that at three conferences in a row the same arguments get repeated.

    Everyone else: This is triggering a lot of thoughts. I will do a follow-up. Thanks for your comments.

    Reply

  16. Christie’s avatar

    This whole debate seems a little archaic don’t you think?

    It reminds me of being at university and arguing with my boyfriend about the media’s use of binary assumptions, good vs. evil, men vs. women, east vs. west, journalist vs. blogger.

    Haven’t we heard all of this before? I could substitute the terms journalist and blogger for east and west and could be reading an old debate about the future of car manufacturing in the US. As far as I know the car industry has adapted and is worth a crap load in both the US and Asia and the consumer just has more choice.

    The disappointing thing is that out of all the interesting points that were presented at the FUTURE of media conference it’s this old hat argument that is getting the eyeballs.

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  17. Fiona’s avatar

    I believe part of the issue is that the education system has also changed. Critical literacy is being actively taught in our schools and kids are encouraged to form opinions and voice them. When I studied ‘The Media’ in year 5 we looked at mastheads and how a newspaper was set out and how to write a ‘proper’ report. My daughter is currently in year 5 and they are taking the rest of the year looking at ‘The Media’ exploring their voice in society and how different organisations share the news and the slant they place on it.

    10 years ago I watched the evening news and had the paper delivered daily- 2 papers on Saturday. Today I would rather lie in bed with my laptop than a newspaper. More convenient and more sources for me to form my own opinions from.

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  18. Fiona’s avatar

    Oh and @Christie I don’t think ‘bloggers’ see a binary at all.

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  19. Michael Meloni’s avatar

    News.com.au is linking to their Pope Twitter feed off their front page at the moment: http://twitter.com/popedownunder

    Adapting?

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  20. Chris Loft’s avatar

    Excellent commentary – even if I don’t agree with all of the rant – the views shown by everyone are as enlightening as they are diverse. Especially the blogger/journalist binary opposition. Journalists are, indeed, taking up and adapting to new technology, although I doubt if every journalist in Australia is really reading Crikey.

    The death of the newspaper, the journalist and even the end of book production has been anticipated for some time, but there are a few years left in the old beast yet.

    Education is changing. Are today’s students really becoming more informed and critical? Most of them can’t spell and a classical education is an odessy from the past. Most students I have come across don’t read newspapers anymore – they are too busy participating in the beer swill of our cafe society.

    This ‘old media’ and ‘new media’ binary oppostion is perhaps a red herring too; media is always changing – it has done so every time a new technological development occurs – that’s almost on a daily basis. We are just finding smarter ways to sell the same message, or the same product or the same lies; anyone with a keyboard can do that now. Remember when the journalists displaced the typesetters?

    The medium is still the message, as McLuhan said; both the message and the messenger are being massaged into constantly changing, interactive and participatory new forms, that are a product of our own imaginations, greed and inventiveness. Ha.

    This is a great debate Stilgerrian, keep taking those punches. But please try not to shoot too many of the enemy; we might need them. Crikey, next week they might be fighting on our side; what could we call them then? Taxonomists?

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