Sunday Thoughts about Journalism

“Oh no, here we go again!” I can hear you say. “Stilgherrian’s kicking off about ‘the awful journalists’ again.”

No. This is just me pondering five stories about journalism this week. Grab yourself a cuppa and follow the links before tackling my discussion, because this’ll be a long, meandering essay — one in which I’m exploring my thoughts rather than reaching any conclusions. Yet.

  1. Veteran columnist Frank Devine used the pages of The Australian to attack Crikey publisher Eric Beecher in Keep Beecher from the hack lagoon (yes, every newspaper headline must be a pun, or the sub-editors are whipped), and Beecher responded in Beecher v Devine: The threat to public trust journalism.
  2. Another veteran journalist Mark Day (interestingly, also in The Australian) regurgitated a variation of the standard journalism versus blogging debate in Blogs can’t match probing reports. Stephen Collins’ excellent response is The Hamster Wheel.
  3. I was taken to task for my “unbalanced” commentary on Senator Stephen Conroy’s keynote speech at the Digital Economy Forum. Read the comments.
  4. The Rocky Mountain News was taken to task for (mis-)using Twitter to report a child’s funeral.
  5. The MEAA held The Future of Journalism conference in Brisbane yesterday, and from first reports the usual journalists vs bloggers “debate” emerged.

OK, back? Cool. Here we go…

I’ll dispose of the dinosaurs first, 1 and 2.

The media students amongst you might care to run through Mark Day and Frank Devine’s pieces and catalog the logical fallacies and cheap rhetorical tricks. Here’s what I found after just five minutes on Frank Devine’s piece:

  1. “Thomas Jefferson would be horrified by Beecher’s proposition,” an appeal to a long-dead authority in a claim which can’t possibly be substantiated;
  2. “Beecher is a serious individual, gleaming with the dark radiance of gravitas. However, this does not impose on the rest of us any obligation to take him seriously,” i.e. a claim that we shouldn’t listen to Beecher. Similarly, we’re under no obligation to take Devine seriously just because of who he is or where he writes;
  3. “The notion of further involving government in Australian media is preposterous,” which simply asserts the point he’s trying to prove;
  4. “Newspapers do not set the agenda, [News Corporation CEO John] Hartigan said. People think for themselves,” which ignores the fact that almost every talk radio production office and every TV newsroom does rely on the agenda set by the newspapers to frame their day’s media output. It also ignores his own proprietor Rupert Murdoch’s obvious use of agenda-setting newspapers to gain influence — otherwise why sink money into such barely-profitable mastheads as The Australian, the London Times or the New York Post?
  5. “Agenda journalism is a dangerous pursuit. It makes newspapers tediously predictable at best and, at worst, cumulatively untrustworthy.” I agree 100%. During Australia’s 2007 federal elections The Australian‘s own Dennis Shanahan consistently mis-reported polling figures, giving them a pro-Howard spin when a more reasoned analysis by the likes of Possum Comitatus showed the opposite. Shanahan’s response, of course, was to attack the messenger. This is precisely why I don’t trust The Australian‘s political analysis.

That’s enough Frank Devine for now. Eric Beecher’s rebuttal covers the remaining key threads.

Now Mark Day’s piece poses relevant questions, but I think he draws the wrong conclusions.

The most valuable role of journalism in a democracy is to peek behind closed doors, to keep a watchful eye on the workings of politics and power.

Agreed.

By definition this is a job for private enterprise because governments cannot reliably scrutinise themselves. Journalism that reveals information that some people do not want you to know is time-consuming and costly to sustain. Therefore it can be supported only by a profitable business.

“By definition”? Investigative journalism is expensive, yes, and the money has to come from somewhere. But in addition to a “profitable business” it could come from, say, a public trust like the UK newspaper The Guardian. A properly-funded, independent ABC could also continue its fine tradition of holding governments accountable.

(My gut feeling is that Day’s article is part of a Murdoch campaign to argue against the ABC getting additional government funding. I’m sure Mr Murdoch prefers to minimise his competition in the provision of “quality news”, and with the Fairfax broadsheets in decline and Channel Nine’s bean-counter owners having dumped journalism in favour of cheap game shows, the ABC and perhaps Crikey are now seen as Murdoch’s main threats. But I digress.)

Day continues…

There is only one model I know, or can see, that can do this, and that is the traditional advertiser-supported model that has sustained newspapers for more than a century.

Ah, the argument from personal ignorance! A classic logical fallacy. While Mark Day is undoubtedly intelligent, the fact that he, personally, doesn’t know of any other business models doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

The challenge… is to transfer the workings of newspapers to a web-based delivery system while maintaining the journalistic standards and characteristics that made them profitable businesses.

No. The challenge is not to transfer “the workings of newspapers” to the hyperconnected online world, but to transfer the trust and authority of “real journalism”, the art and craft of finding The Truth.

I suspect that a successful business or other institution which delivers investigative journalism online will look nothing like an industrial-age newspaper.

Unfortunately Day then descends into a predictable anti-blogging waffle, to which I responded:

Here we go again! Sigh. Blogging is all poor quality drivel. Journalism is all deeply-investigated, cross-checked insight. There’s a patronising “blogging has its place”, but with a sneeringly implied “but of course we journalists know better”.

We. Have. All. Seen. This. Before. So. Goddam. Many. Times.

Like most of these repetitive false-dichotomy blogging versus journalism waffles, this one provides no new insights. The headline sets up a tautology: “Blogs can’t match probing reports.” No. Of course not. Folk tales can’t “match” Hollywood blockbusters. Cheese on toast can’t “match” an 11-course degustation menu. And no, an individual writing with nothing more than their own resources (which is how legacy journalists usually frame the evil bloggers) can’t match the output of a trained investigative journalist who’s backed by the resources of the largest media empire on the planet.

Sorry, Mark, arguing that “A does not equal B” doesn’t cut it. You can do better.

You’re right when you say that news is “created”. But “news” has never been the only thing in “newspapers”. Legacy journalists, it seems, get stuck thinking that the specific way they crafted specific media products in their “traditional” media factories is the only way of doing things. It’s not, but it seems to be the only way they know how — and that’s why so many of them (including yourself, Mark?) find the changing world of the digital age so, so threatening.

Picking a soft target like “bloggers” and blaming them for this is an understandable psychological reaction, but all it really shows is traditional journalists’ failure to adapt.

Yes, this is all very tedious. After July’s Future of Media Forum, Hugh Martin, GM of APN Online, wrote from his perspective as one of the panellists in Blogging Future of Media 2008.

Here was a bunch of passionate and intelligent new media consultants and proselytisers who believe deeply in the inevitability of the digital media future, who appear not to have the first clue about the way MSM actually works, and who cling violently to a set of pre-ordained notions about said MSM. So the minute any capital “J” journalist makes a disparaging remark about bloggers or blogging they leap on it and shout “told you so!”

I reckon Hugh’s first paragraph could have been turned around and been just as accurate:

Here was a bunch of passionate and intelligent journalists who believe deeply in the sanctity and nobility of their craft, who appear not to have the first clue about the way blogging actually works, and who cling violently to a set of pre-ordained notions about said blogging.

Hugh is right to say this continuing argument isn’t constructive. Anger at the sheer repetitiveness here is what inspired my polemic Note to “old media” journalists: adapt, or stfu! Yes, the time really has come to move past all this crap.

There was a wonderful discussion between Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York’s new Graduate School of Journalism and Jay Rosen who teaches Journalism at New York University at Jarvis’ blog in a piece called A cure for curmudgeons.

Jarvis writes:

I was on a panel with Terry Heaton at the Public Radio News Directors’ annual confab in Washington. Topic: blogging. Terry and I were almost through with opening tap dances when a hotheaded curmudgeon in the third row interrupted — which is fine; we like conversation — to go on the attack and save the world from these horrible blog people. He spat out all the usual lines, including how terribly busy he is being a news director (his italics) and how this is such a nonsense and a bother. My favorite sputtering: “I have a job. Do you have jobs?”

To which the proper response should have been, “Go fug yourself.” But I didn’t say that… I’m tough. I can take it. This is hardly the first time I’ve heard everything he had to say (but he seemed so proud, as if he’d just thought it up himself; the only thing he didn’t say was that he didn’t want a citizen surgeon, either).

Jarvis’ policy is to fight curmudgeonliness with curmudgeonliness.

I told this fool that if he didn’t want to see the opportunities to do things in new ways, fine…

[T]he hour is far too late and the state of the industry far, far too desperate to waste time with these sideshows. They had their time and the objections needed to be addressed in that time. But I haven’t heard fresh objections in a few years. What I want to hear instead is fresh ideas; we must have more of those.

Jay Rosen declared this war over in 2005 but he tweeted: “I’ve since realized that they are each other’s ideal ‘other.’

The rest of their exchange is well worth a read, as are the comments. I particularly like Corky’s reply:

One of my favourite replies to that sort of curmudgeonly blather is “Lead, follow, or get out of the way”.

Frank Devine and Mark Day, you can probably get out of the way now, because you certainly aren’t offering any leadership.

My third and fourth little yarns both illustrate the changing media landscape…

Despite being “on the web”, Crikey is really an old-fashioned print newsletter delivered via email. When I wrote about Senator Conroy’s speech and speculated about the rest of the day to come, it made sense in a lunchtime email. But at 10.30pm or whenever, George Fong complained that I didn’t cover the rest of the day. He quite rightly expected the story to have changed as the Forum unfolded.

Crikey is an established brand. But like every other brand it needs to keep evolving rapidly to preserve its ecological advantage in the rapidly-evolving mediascape.

The new Crikey Blogs, to be formally launched next week, are a great step. Bringing established political bloggers The Poll Bludger, Possum Comitatus and former senator Andrew Bartlett under the Crikey umbrella is an inspired move. I look forward to further moves into Web 2.0.

Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain News did try to keep a story going by using Twitter from a child’s funeral. Mediamum summarises the controversy. The Colorado Independent was scathing:

Whatever their rationale, it’s unconceivable. Utterly, and unforgivingly, inconceivable.

I disagree. This was a legitimate news story. A community was shocked by the death, and recording its grief is appropriate — if done with tact and respect. If I were a newspaper editor I’d certainly have assigned a journalist and a photographer. What makes the Twitter coverage inexcusable is not the supposed “intrusion” — I doubt whether anyone even noticed at the time — but its sheer banality.

RMN_Berny: people gathering at graveside
RMN_Berny: coffin lowered into ground
RMN_Berny: rabbi zucker praying
RMN_Berny: rabbi recites the main hebrew prayer of death
RMN_Berny: earth being placed on coffin.
RMN_Berny: rabbi chanting final prayer in hebrew
RMN_Berny: rabbi calls end to ceremony
RMN_Berny: family members shovel earth into grave

This, Berny Morson, is boring as batshit! A community’s grief at the death of a child is being portrayed with less emotion than the call of a horse race. Wrong.

The editor’s response to the criticisms is worth quoting at length:

Ultimately, to me, it’s all about execution. Poorly done, such journalism might very well feel inappropriate. Done well, I don’t think so.

Some criticism of the short blasts our reporter sent may be justified. They can seem cold, even crass. But I am responsible for that failing. It is my job to make sure our staff is trained properly…

But to claim there is something inherently wrong with the idea is to make too sweeping a judgement. Everything from services for major public figures like presidents and popes to ceremonies for victims of tragedies like the one at Columbine High School have long been covered by TV and radio…

We must learn to use the new tools at our disposal. Yes, there are going to be times we make mistakes, just as we do in our newspaper.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try something. It means we need to learn to do it well.

I’d actually like to congratulate the Rocky Mountain News for trying something new. OK, you fucked up. But editor John Temple has taken responsibility and we’ve all learned something.

And that leads nicely into my last piece, yesterday’s Future of Journalism conference. While I wasn’t in Brisbane and could only see a few tweets and blog posts, it does sound like it was — once bloody again! — the old versus new, journalism versus blogging conversation.

The Podcast Network‘s Cameron Reilly had this to say:

[M]y comments were not well received. As usual, I tried my best to explain that the economics of media have fundamentally changed and that means all bets are off. But, as usual, nobody listened and I was accused of being a “shock jock” espousing “revolutionary rhetoric”. Jean Burgess from QUT used the old line about “we’ve had technological shifts before and it didn’t cause the end of the industry”, completely missing the point that this is NOT about a technology shift — it’s about an economic shift…

Fifteen years ago, if I wanted to publish something to a wide audience, the financial barriers were extreme. The cost of owning a newspaper or magazine were (and still are) very high. So very few people were able to own one. It was a limited playing field. Consequently, the people who em own a newspaper had the market to themselves. There was limited competition for people’s attention. As a result, they could carve their local market up between themselves and fund their business through advertising.

However, today, anyone can publish something online. The economic barriers have been removed. Consequently, there are 75 million active blogs that I can read, not 4 newspapers. And so audience attention is fragmenting and the traditional news companies can’t control it. As they lose audience, their ability to generate advertising revenue diminishes. As revenue declines, they can’t afford to maintain their old cost structures, so they start downsizing. Sound familiar? It’s a negative spiral. And there is NO. WAY. OUT.

As I said in the essay I posted this morning, I don’t think the most dynamic new media factories will emerge from the old. And I don’t think the existing media factories will bother trying to re-train their old curmudgeons into new jobs. They’ll just hire the people who are already doing things “the new way”.

Or, as @earleyedition put it, and I paraphrase here, “If journalists wait for their current employer to organise their job for them, they will, it just won’t won’t be with the current incumbent.”

I repeat my challenge from this morning’s essay. If you really are so good at storytelling, start creating these new forms. Off you go. Now.

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