Anyone who has worked in the production side of a wire news service (AP, Dow Jones, Reuters, AAP, Bloomberg, AFP) will tell you the atmosphere in those always chaotic newsrooms can feel something like an 18th century mill where the machines never stop.
Reporters, chief reporters, sub-editors, news and picture editors work in a 24-hour assembly line producing widgets called 'news'. While the level of intensity has undoubtedly increased in the past decade, the factory mentality was always dominant in the wires. And this explains why the usual career progression was from the break-neck speed of wire service journalism to the more leisurely world of newspapers and not vice versa.
What's changed in recent years is a gradual transformation of daily deadline newspaper journalism to the constant deadline imperative of the wires. This evolution has been wrought by new technology and new digital publishing platforms that allow for continuous updating of stories. Even radio, which always had the capacity for going live on a breaking news event, has experienced a ratcheting up in the level of intensity thanks to online production.
This progression would be all very well but for the fact that journalistic resources have been cut back at the same time, so that fewer people are being asked to do more and more. As a journalist, it was always interesting to watch the legions of business types and consultants brought into the industry, all vowing to improve "productivity" by having journalists produce more widgets with no increase in capacity.
The most famous example of these was Fred Hilmer, who had chaired the National Competition Policy Review Committee, under the Keating government in the early 1990s. After a stint running the Australian Graduate School of Management, Professor Hilmer was drafted in by the board of newspaper publisher John Fairfax Holdings (now Fairfax Media) in 1998 as CEO to try and wave his productivity wand at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Hilmer immediately got the journos offside by famously describing them as "content providers for an advertising platform", which while essentially true, left out the inspiring bit about the integrity of the content and the elevated role of journalism in speaking truth to power.
Two years after the end of his often difficult seven-year stint at Fairfax, Hilmer was asked by ABC broadcaster Geraldine Doogue in her Saturday Extra program whether he had concluded that the media was a dysfunctional industry. His answer was instructive:
Well it's a dysfunctional industry because there's a business and there's the journalism. And the two are dependent on each other. You can't have a good business if you haven't got good journalism, but you can't have good journalism if you don't have a good business.As Hilmer explained it in reference to the Fairfax metropolitan newspapers, their problems weren't due to bad journalism; their problems were due to the fact that classified ads - the famed rivers of gold - were leaking
to the internet. In desperate pursuit of new sources of earnings growth to satisfy impatient shareholders, he tried to fix loss of advertising by creating a separate online business called F2 (later Fairfax Digital). The problem is he never found a way of successfully integrating this new, essentially marketing-run business with his editorial mastheads in an effective way so that journalists 'owned' the new sources of distribution.
The upshot of all this is that Fairfax and many other traditional media companies are still caught between their print past and digital futures and are failing to adequately resource and train journalists for the newer demands they face. Instead, they ask the same group of people to do more with less. The need for speed is now paramount, such that the focus is more on churn than quality. Everyone is a wire service journalist now and there seems little scope for reflection and depth. In their book 'No Time to Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-Hour News Cycle', Howard Rosenberg and Charles Feldman cite an infamous memo sent by BBC executives to their journalists about the need to file for online:
Your story MUST be accurate, impartial, balanced and uphold the values of BBC News. NEVER publish anything that you do not understand, that is speculation or is inadequately sourced.....(but) get your story up as fast as you can. We encourage a sense of urgency. We want to be first.One imagines our own ABC editorial staff in Australia are receiving similar contradictory memos. Speed, churn and quality are not necessarily compatible concepts. Wire services manage it because their focus is on ensuring the bare bones of every story are covered in sufficient detail so their media clients can add the colour and analysis and depth. But with overworked and underpaid journalists in the dark satanic mills of the MSM now themselves just trying to shuffle enough content out the door to meet the needs of voracious, 24-hour content machines, something has to give. And we're now finding out the consequences of that.