Saturday, October 30, 2010

Friday, October 29, 2010

Last and Curious

In journalism, there's nothing like beating the opposition on a breaking story. Having juicy information before anyone else is an adrenalin-pumping, endorphin-generating sensation that is hard to come down from.

In the financial wire services in the 80s and 90s, we fought more competitively than anyone, with timings of news breaks coming down to fractions of a second. A news organisation I worked for got into trouble with the gallery for leaving a (bricklike) mobile phone open at doorstops so a sub back in Sydney could snap quick heads on interest rates.

Now, everybody is doing it - and largely because they can. Online media, 24-hour cable television, wireless technology and hard and soft tools like smartphones and Twitter mean anyone publish anywhere anytime. Information distribution has been democratised as Annabel Crabb rightly noted in her speech this week.

This means the notion of a "scoop" is changing. Beating someone by a nano-second on a story that's going to break anyway isn't really that impressive anymore and often comes down to whether your technology is working.  So journalists complaining about being squeezed too thinly and wondering what value they can add in a world where news is a commodity might like to reflect on whether size speed is everything. More particularly, what is being lost in the obsession with all the new shiny toys?

I quoted from this paper in an earlier post, but in light of the debate this week about the implications of the explosion in online media, I think it's worth repeating. The Columbia Journalism Review recently ran a thought-provoking cover story - The Hamster Wheel - which decried the consequence of this always-on phenomenon in modern media:
"The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no. It is copy produced to meet arbitrary productivity metrics.

But it’s more than just mindless volume. It’s a recalibration of the news calculus. Of the factors that affect the reporting of news, an underappreciated one is the risk/reward calculation that all professional reporters make when confronted with a story idea: How much time versus how much impact? This informal vetting system is surprisingly ruthless and ultimately efficient for one and all. The more time invested, the bigger the risk, but also the greater potential glory for the reporter, and the greater value to the public (can’t forget them!).

Journalists will tell you that where once newsroom incentives rewarded more deeply reported stories, now incentives skew toward work that can be turned around quickly and generate a bump in Web traffic."
As the story says, everybody is a wire service journalist now. There is little time to think or analyse or separate the irrelevant noise from the important signal. It is always about the next thing and the next thing. As the need for speed increases, the resources are also cut from underneath them. They are required to do more with less, filing to multiple platforms and never getting a chance to take a big picture view.

But here's the thing. The media has a choice. Just because online forums and Twitter allow you to publish constantly and in micro-detail about events as they unfold (The Wall Street Journal had seven journalists live-blogging the opening of the Winter Olympics), it doesn't mean you HAVE to do it this way or, indeed, that the public wants you to. The media in many ways are doing it to themselves and mistaking what the public actually needs from journalism:
"Given that the news business has lost an estimated 15,000 journalists since 2000, it does not directly follow to go from 'we’re facing a serious transformation in our industry' to 'let’s write as much as possible as fast as we can'. It’s not hard to understand the impulse to do more with less. Hamsterism is a natural reaction to a novel set of conditions — a collapsing model, a new paradigm, a cacophony of new voices, fewer people filling an infinite hole. And through the haze we can glimpse an online model that equates Web traffic with advertising dollars, though the connection is far from clear.

"But newspapers aren’t wire services, and wires aren’t blogs. News organizations must change with the times, but nowhere is it written in Newsonomics that news organisations should drift away from core values, starting with the corest of core — investigations and reporting in the public interest. These are not just 'part of the mix'. They are a mindset, a doctrine, an organizing value around which healthy news cultures are created....the point."
In the meantime, the unrelenting focus on speed and 'always on' news has real consequences for quality in journalism. For one thing, it increases the leverage of the PR agents and the spinners and the flaks, because the journos, like junkies aching for a fix, are ever more desperate for content to keep the churn churning. So they no longer set the agenda for themselves, the agenda is set for them. And, ever more passively, they flag the copy through.

By the way, this is what is happening to the ABC in Australia, the one organisation we should be able to count on for public interest journalism. It is not an ideological fix-up, so much as a news organisation that is so caught up in the technology of distribution that it forgets what people look for from journalists - not so much speed but context and understanding and an appreciation of the big changes that are often obscured by the day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute and second-to-second noise.

That's the sort of avenue I'd be pursuing if I were still in the industry. The biggest value that journalists can add is through understanding and clarifying and contextualising for their often overwhelmed audiences. Less fast and furious. More last and curious.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Trust Never Sleeps

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.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Play's the Thing

The eerie return of John Howard, more like Banquo than Lazarus, to Australian public life is doing strange things to the heads of the journalistic community. There was Jonathan Green on the ABC's Drum today, fawning over Howard's "steely chutzpah" and contrasting his supposed "conviction" politics with the weather vane-driven, craven populism of the current crop.

Press gallery doyen Laurie Oakes, who just three days before had used his Herald Sun column to accuse Howard of putting his ego ahead of the long-term welfare of the Liberal  Party, immediately chimed in on Twitter urging Gillard and Abbott and "anyone into politics" to read Green's piece.

The inference  in all of this is that the gallery is suddenly nostalgic for the glory days when politicians actually stood for something. Focus groups be damned. These steely-hearted policymakers, epitomised by Howard, had the long-term good of the country at heart and they would not be stooping to the sort of jelly-backed, short-termist political fixes so easily resorted to by the current generation of hollow men and women.

The first point to be made about this was that Howard was never a conviction politician. Aside from the gun buyback and the GST, his record in office was mainly about using the once-in-a-generation windfall from the commodity boom to buy off favoured middle class constituencies, outsourcing his foreign policy to a neo-con cabal in Washington and cynically manipulating the most base prejudices of the community to wedge his political opponents domestically.

What Howard was good at was making people, including the press gallery, believe he was a conviction politician - persuading them that what made him tick was some higher purpose than hanging onto power at any cost. Howard, like all successful politicians, was a myth-maker, a story-teller, a creature that could construct a feasible disguise to mask the grubby business of grabbing, exercising and maintaining political power. Like a good stage actor, he kept an invisible wall between himself and those who reported on him and this helped protect him over and over again when a line was fluffed or an entry missed.

The difference now is the press gallery has decided to stop playing along and is enjoying life backstage with the politicians. There is no separation between audience and cast. The journos see the greasepaint being sloshed on, they see the lines being rehearsed, they are virtual stage-hands, providing a running critique of the play before it even hits the stage.  There is no room for conviction in this production - and claims to such draw the most cynical responses from a press gallery just too smart-arsed for its own good.

With the journalists preoccupied with stagecraft and not the play itself, no politician will actually fight for a position on principle. The press gallery simply does not believe that such a thing is possible. Every interest is a vested interest. And every proposed policy is just another excuse to draw out the possible sources of conflict, thus guaranteeing copy for weeks on end. So we have seen it since the election with the carbon tax (the dreaded 'backflip'), the Murray Darling Basin Plan (too hard) and now the Singapore Stock Exchange merger with the ASX (a xenophobes' picnic in the making).

In this new politics, there is nothing to be gained by leading on principle and policy and everything to be won by just tearing things down. No conviction. No change. Nothing happens. Issues are only of interest to the media  insofar as they generate heat and conflict. The consequence is we see a politics of constant rehearsal for an event that never occurs. Or as Laura Tingle described, in her masterly feature for the Media Alliance magazine on the media's shallow reporting of the resource rent tax debate, policy is never debated in Australia any more, only the politics of it - because that is all that a lazy, inbred and philistine media is interested in.

And so it is that the audience goes home without the play ever being performed. All the action is among a narrow inward-looking group backstage. And it seems the major players, the media among them, are happy with it that way. So much for the new paradigm folks. It's same old same old in Canberra.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Perennial Outsider

"Rupert Murdoch came into this business as an outsider and he continues to see himself as such, no matter that he owns everything, controls everything, and is the central person of our time. He continues to see himself as an outsider and it gives him enormous happiness, joy, and a reason to get up in the morning to stick it to, I guess, the rest of us."
This tart observation by writer Michael Wolff, in promoting his book on Murdoch 'The Man Who Owns the News', came to mind when reading the media accounts of a recent speech in London by the near octogenarian News Corp chairman and chief executive.

Murdoch gave a speech (full text here) in  honour of former British Prime Minister, Baronness Margaret Thatcher, at the Centre for Policy Studies. As a public event, it was well timed, with Murdoch's papers in the UK still trying to shake off a phone tapping scandal , his News Corp empire under pressure to lift its bid for the  61 percent of satellite broadcaster BSkyB it doesn't already own and his business in the US defending $1 million donations to political opponents of the Obama administration.

The great irony is that Murdoch still loves the role of 'the outsider' even when the company he runs is the most powerful media conglomerate on the planet. And so he used his speech at the Thatcher event to depict himself once again as a kindred spirit of the Thatcher revolution, a free-spirited, cheeky, classless and dynamic business pragmatist up against the varicose veins of vested interest, privilege and old money. In the  process, he served a quite reminder to David Cameron's coalition-building Tories not to forget the most successful conservative politician of the post-war era and to remember on which side their bread is buttered.

Anyone who has watched Murdoch at work over the years knows that he likes nothing better than to be seen as the infamous dirty digger at war with exclusive and self-serving interests, his iconoclastic publications refusing to genuflect to the supposed pillars of our modern democracies; and if one of his on-air charges goes overboard once and a while, that can't be such a bad thing.

But it seems Rupert's championing of "independent, enquiring, bustling and free" journalism only goes so far, because he spends part of his speech trying to link the structural decline of the mainstream media and the rise of the blogosophere as somehow serving the interests of the powerful.
"Now, it would certainly serve the interests of the powerful if professional journalists were muted – or replaced as navigators in our society by bloggers and bloviators. Bloggers can have a social role – but that role is very different to that of the professional seeking to uncover facts, however uncomfortable."
By professionals seeking to uncover facts, I assume Rupert refers to Fox showmen like Glenn Beck or the fearless team at The Australian who, in unmasking a public servant blogger, tried to dress up what was a small-minded payback as a case of insisting on the public's right to know.

You see in Murdoch's clannish and inwardly looking editorial world, it's either or. You're either with them or against them. Never does he countenance the possibility that journalists and expert bloggers could work together in serving the interests of the wider population against the rich and the powerful, of whom Rupert strangely never counts himself among.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dark Satanic News Mills

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.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thumb Suckers

The billy's boiling again over at new media upstart New Matilda, which has whistled out to its readers that it's back in business (almost) and looking for financial backers. One can only wish them well, given the dire state of journalism emerging from their mainstream cousins.

Crikey remains our only going concern among new media boutique businesses and even then it's hardly a thriving enterprise. The MSM's ventures into online news commentary - the ABC via The Drum and News Ltd via The Punch - have made this market a crowded one, raising the question of whether New Matilda could make it as a paying site.

Kim at Lavratus Prodeo ventured that journalists these days are so busy opining about the few events they are reporting on that no-one is actually going out there are breaking news anymore - or at least developing new and different angles on developing stories that shed a fresh light on issues of public interest.

 The media's ping pong commentary last week over the Gillard and Abbott visits to Afghanistan was a case in point. All the cheap opinionating and commentary over questions of mind-numbing insignificance (was Abbott too jetlagged?) crowded out any attempt at proper analysis of the progress of Australia's war effort and the foreign policy implications of our responsibilities there.

Making a similar point in Crikey (subscriber only) was former Age editor Michael Gawenda, who questioned why the ABC was spending money on an opinion site when it could be investing in real reporting.  ABC News Radio, for instance, operates largely as a rip-and-read service with 15-minute repeating headlines on news, sport, finance and the weather. And the huge investment in ABC News 24, the television service, seems to be just spreading the meagre reporting resources ever more thinly.

The fact is that good journalism is built on the exercise of patience - in building contacts, establishing trust, developing understanding of complex issues and providing historical context. There is not an immediate return on investment in this business. But in the long run, the value of a media outlet's brand reflects the time and money it takes to create the capacity to break news and forge quality analysis that holds readers and viewers and keeps them loyal.

What is happening now is that the new public spaces generated by evolving technology and changes in consumer behaviour are growing at a pace faster than the ability and resources of media organisations like the ABC to generate quality content that does not devalue their brand.

This is why they are all flocking into the "thumb-sucking" opinion market. It's cheap. It fills all that white space without too much additional effort. And it requires no investment in time, no need to build and maintain contacts, no fiddly research and fact-checking and very little production work.

All that's needed in Opinion World is for someone to say something provocative that starts an online conversation. Of course, there is a role for this sort of thing. But when everyone in the media has got their thumbs in their mouths, there are no hands free to do the digging that the Fourth Estate was built upon.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Click Magnets

Any business or finance editor will tell you that of all the news they publish, the most clicked-upon stories involve mentions of property, house prices and interest rates. No surprise, obviously, given how leveraged the average Australian consumer is to real estate (see RBA chart pack here).

So there clearly is an incentive on news sites to crank up speculation over interest rates, usually by incessantly featuring the rent-a-quote economists from financial markets. These people are paid to market the names of the banks for whom they work and spend their entire time previewing and analysing every partial economic indicator, purely in terms of what it means for the RBA's official cash rate.

With the economists seeking publicity and the media wanting easy cut-and-paste business "coverage" that requires little work and keeps the punters clicking through to see the ads, you can see there are mutual interests at work in reporting the economy purely in terms of whether the central bank will raise interest rates by a quarter percentage point this month or next.

Sometimes - well, actually, pretty often - the economists give the media a bum steer to the point where the news about rates is written before the official announcement actually occurs. While that can be a little embarrassing for all concerned, the humiliation is lessened usually by the fact that both the media and the economists run in packs. When they get it wrong, they all get it wrong together and they can usually count on the punters having short memories and no-one noticing what a pointless exercise it all is.

From a commercial perspective, however, it doesn't matter whether the rate rise happens one month or the the next. What's important is the noise around interest rates and the opportunity to riff off this speculation into boilerplate stories about "struggling homebuyers" and wicked bankers. This is the "hamster wheel" in action, the tendency in the new and commercially pressured MSM to focus more on churn and quick hits (which can be generated almost at no cost and in high volume) than on the traditional deeper reporting. Or as the Columbia Journalism Review put it:
"Journalists will tell you that where once newsroom incentives rewarded more deeply reported stories, now incentives skew toward work that can be turned around quickly and generate a bump in Web traffic."
Web traffic over interest rates doesn't just come from the chatter around month-to-month RBA meetings. Newspapers also frequently turn to the "long-range" forecasters in the industry groups and consultancies, who - seemingly undeterred by the fact that market economists can't pick rates one week ahead - blithely make forecasts about where rates will be three to five years ahead.

BIS Shrapnel's Frank Gelber - "a leading interest rate forecaster" we're told - recently shared with the Herald Sun his prophecy of the cash rate rising to 7.5 percent by 2013 (or three percentage points above current levels). This is the same Frank Gelber who in March 1995 told The Age that 90-day bank bills would hit 12.5 percent by June 1996. This turned out to be five percentage points too high, a bit of a miss in forecasting land. And the same prophet who told us in 2003 that mortgage rates would hit 10.5 percent in mid-2006.  That again was about three percentage points overcooked.

Once again, though, it doesn't really matter whether the long-term forecasts are right or wrong - because by the time three years have gone by everyone will have forgotten what the gurus forecast back then and will be worrying about the next train heading their way. And for the newspapers, there is always going to be another scare guaranteed to get Mr and Mrs Dandenong or Mr and Mrs Penrith reaching for the razor blades, but also conveniently generating bit of web traffic for your MSM publisher in the process.

In the meantime, while pointless conjecture about future levels of interest rates dominate the business sections of our newspapers - real policy issues go under-reported - like why we have a tax system that rewards property speculation and why governments don't level with people that first home buyer subsidies are immediately capitalised into prices and whether our infatuation with real estate is a giant ponzi scheme that poses the biggest single threat to our long-term prosperity.

It's simply easier to bang on about our relatively insignificant public debt of around 8 percent of GDP (compared to a household debt servicing burden of  150 percent of disposable income) and portray the dice-rolling guesses of economists employed by bond-holding banks and publicity seeking consultants throwing darts as the wisdom of Solomon.

Friday, October 8, 2010

State of Play?

On holiday at the moment, I've been catching up with movies I've missed, including 'State of Play' a political/media thriller built around a collaboration between an old school MSM investigative reporter and a blogger working for the same newspaper in Washington.

Behind the main story about dirty dealings in the privatised defence industry is a snapshot of the new tensions between the conventional media and the new media worlds. This is dramatised in this case in the relationship between Russell Crowe's character, Cal Macaffrey a grizzled and cynical newspaper reporter and Rachel McAdams' entertainment blogger.

The editor, played by Helen Mirren, is caught between the increasingly strident commercial demands of her conglomerate publisher ('MediaCorp') and her editorial instincts. The way the wind is blowing is evident in the fact that McAdams' character has a state-of-the-art fully integrated workstation, while Crowe's old school journalist plugs away on a decrepit 486.

Anyway, for anyone wanting an escapist version of the MSM vs Blogging wars we are experiencing in Australia, it's highly recommended.

State of Play