“Trouble at t’paper”

[I wrote this essay “on spec” for Crikey a fortnight ago, just when the Fairfax journalists were going on strike. It wasn’t published: Crikey had commissioned other yarns about this story, and some bloke called Obama had just given a speech. I’ll publish it now because it informs an essay I’m writing today and it needs to be online first.]

Australia’s Fairfax media empire is sacking 550 staff, including 120-odd editorial staff, and the journalists went on strike. Well, off you go, petals. You can stamp your feet and turn blue in the face too, for all I care — because a strike is just plain wrong.

The MEAA‘s Chris Warren reckoned the anger behind the strike was driven by not just the jobs cuts, “but the clear view that there’s no strategy behind the job cuts.” Agreed. As Crikey reported, Fairfax’s message to staff didn’t articulate any kind of vision, and didn’t even mention journalism.

But journalists haven’t exactly provided vision either.

Humans are inquisitive, social critters. We’re hard-wired to seek out an understanding of the world around us, to find out what others are up to and slot it into a coherent narrative. Society has always provided mechanisms to meet that demand.

At one end of the spectrum there’s the folk craft we call “gossip”. Granny bubbles over the dinner table about little Sally’s wonderful performance at the kindergarten concert, sharing the joy of her delight and reinforcing the narrative that we’re a good family and Sally’s doing well. There’s Brian at the pub, seventh beer in hand, asking if we’ve heard the news, “Davo’s banging that new bird Sharon in accounts”, reinforcing the narratives that David is a bit of a larrikin and that I use outmoded sexist stereotypes.

Up the other end we’ve got big institutions like the Church, Science and the Fourth Estate of The Media constructing narratives which they call, respectively, Belief, Knowledge and News. All of them, when feeling threatened, start referring to their narratives as “The Truth”.

Between them, the folk practitioners and the professionals (and everyone in between) manufacture enough news to fill our recommended daily intake. Yes, manufacture. A TV newsroom, for example, makes 15 minutes of news each evening to fill the gap between fanfare and sports desk, choosing from the myriad of events those which best support the narrative they wish to construct.

Back in the Industrial Age, only the big end of town was visible, with its cathedrals and newsagents. Everything else happened in small groups, and was ephemeral. Once Brian had made his drunken announcement, we laughed and smirked and, later, exchanged knowing winks, but it wasn’t written down anywhere.

But now, Quelle horreur!, the means of (media) production are literally in the hands of the peasants. Even Brian’s shaky mobile phone video of Sally’s Gimme more is on YouTube for Granny to show us — not just over dinner but also to relatives across the globe. And to complete strangers, too, who wear either a happy smile at the innocence of a playful child, or a creepy leer because they reckon they can just see Sally’s knickers when she bows at the end.

(Brian’s phone also came in handy re Davo and Sharon, but I digress…)

Journalists’ union thug Jonathan Este is right. He responded to my polemic against “old media” journos by reminding us that “whingeing, old son, is the past, the present and the future of journalism… It’s what we do. Journalists love whingeing and we’re pretty damn good at it.”

Yes, you are. But what else can you do?

By an odd coincidence, as well as the Fairfax sackings, Tuesday also brought Sydney’s first Media in the Pub night. Subject: The new shape of media careers. I bought Jonathan that beer I owed him and we both watched as the usual complaints about “citizen journalists” soon emerged — that “anyone with a computer” could now “just write stuff”.

Yes, that’s precisely the point, and why I reckon going on strike is precisely the wrong thing to do.

A strike reveals that you only see your craft as doing a particular kind of cog-in-the-machine job in a particular kind of media factory, manufacturing a particular style of media widget which your colleagues in the factory reproduce, distribute and sell. Well, those factories are in decline as people explore the wider range of narratives on offer, including those constructed by their family, friends and random strangers.

Journalism is, above all, storytelling. Journalists even call each other’s best efforts “good yarns”. The human passion for hearing good yarns isn’t going away, it’s just that factory-based employee-journalists are facing increased competition for everyone’s limited attention. New kinds of media factory are emerging too, requiring different skill sets.

Journalists should be fearful for their jobs. But as I told Media in the Pub, I don’t think your current employer will show you how to become gainfully employed in the new media factories.

I also suspect the most dynamic media factories won’t emerge from the old. After all, you can’t turn a steamship into an Airbus A380, you have to start from scratch. Maybe the 5% of Fairfax’s professional journalists facing the sack should see this as an opportunity, not a threat. Maybe the other 95% could join them and create something new and wonderful.

But no. What happened is a strike. A fight for the ever-shrinking supply of deckchairs on a sinking ship. 1500 people joined a Facebook group to “save journalism”. Once more the craft is confused with the factory where it was practised.

The euphemism for “going on strike” is “taking industrial action”. Dear Journalists, how about taking some post-industrial action? Or are you saying you’re not up for it?

3 Replies to ““Trouble at t’paper””

  1. “…reinforcing the narratives that David is a bit of a larrikin and that I use outmoded sexist stereotypes.”

    Comedy gold.

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