If you could pay directly for the work of a journalist. says Annabel Crabb in a widely applauded University of Melbourne speech on the sorry plight of her trade, you would be buying the individual journalist's time, research and writing.
"You are taking out a time share on all the stuff that the journo remembers, an infinitesimal slice of the mistakes they’ve made, and what they learned," she says. "You are buying a tiny shred of the moment when Laurie Oakes got leaked the whole Budget, or a millionth of a sesame seed on the bread roll of the lunch that Laurie deserted on the day of the Whitlam dismissal, to sprint back to Old Parliament House."In a rousing address that already seems to have her under-appreciated, under-paid and over-worked press gallery colleagues hooting and air punching and settling down to watch All the President's Men for the 100th time, Annabel tells us that people have to realise that information that's for free is rarely much chop. You have to pay for the the good stuff. And to back her case that it's worth paying for, she paints a gritty picture of the life of a journalist, doorstopping reluctant politicians, staking out meetings and digging into dry reports - all for the sake of unthankful readers who only see the glamorous side of the industry.
And to News Corp's dizzy delight, she sings the praises of media paywalls, seemingly unaware that marketing and advertising groups in Europe are already asking some fairly tough questions about about the success of this strategy with The Times and Sunday Times.
Journalism in Australia is in crisis not because the media's classified advertising business model has been blown apart. It is in crisis because the product is simply not very good. And suggesting now that people pay for the product directly does not advance the arguments of recent months in the blogosphere one iota. It is something like musicians, no longer able to sell CDs because everyone's downloading music for free over the internet, complaining about who will pay for their guitar strings.
That she has to hail back 35 years to the sepia-toned memories of The Dismissal (sorry, I don't think Laurie Oakes getting leaked the budget a day ahead of release is particularly noteworthy in public interest terms, much as it excites journos) to come up with example of journalism that might inspire the public to pay for it directly speaks volumes for the quality of the current product.
"Why is my intellectual property suddenly worthless, while the guy who invents hilarious ring-tones is still entitled to the customary presumption that his day’s work warrants some kind of commensurate recompense?" Ms Crabbe ponders. "The answer is that journalists have already ceded the field. We’ve already given our stuff away."Or perhaps the answer is that your product is deemed not worth paying for? Put another way, are you, Ms Crabb, seriously suggesting that the Australian public would fork out its hard earned to pay for the sort of "coverage" we saw in this past election - where the press gallery was either shadowing every move of a former Opposition Leader moonlighting for a tabloid current affairs show, opining on the size of the prime minister's ear lobes or doing half-arsed "analysis" of opinion polls generated by their own mastheads, who create these polls as a marketing peg?
Let me answer Ms Crabb's question of what people would and would not pay for if they did have to pay for journalism directly. They would not pay for time spent at doorstops. They would not pay for the boredom of stakeouts and lock-ups and estimates hearings. They would not pay for the ink in the journos' printer cartridges or their USB sticks and cabcharges. They would pay for a product they could trust. They would pay for RELIABLE information in historical context that might impact on their roles as citizens and consumers and taxpayers and shareholders and all the other things they do in the public sphere.
They would not pay for News Ltd's ideological barrow pushing and distortion or the ABC's futile attempts at bogus balance or for the commercial "cross-platform" ambitions of Channel Ten or anyone else. This confuses what the seller thinks it can "price" and what the buyer "values". Ultimately, what drives the quality of the relationship between a journalist and his or her readers and viewers is TRUST. That is what good journalism is worth. If journalists stopped feeling so sorry for themselves, got back to their knitting and focused on that - restoring trust - the money men could take over from there and fiddle with the business model. That's the discussion that Ms Crabb's speech, as amusing and feel-good and rousing as it was to nostalgic-at-the-pub journos, did not tackle. And it is one we badly need.