Sunday, October 28, 2012

Down to the Crossroads

Hundreds of young people in Australia enter communication degrees each year in anticipation of securing jobs in journalism that no longer exist. How must that make a journalism educator like Margaret Simons feel?

Well, not as depressed as you might think. In fact, as the title of her new book attests ('Journalism at the Crossroads: Crisis and Opportunity for the Press'), Simons - the director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne -  paints a tentatively hopeful picture of the future of the craft which has been her living for most of her life.

Of course, whether individual readers see it as 'hopefully' as the author will depend on their own circumstances and expectations. For to be sure, the vision of journalism in this book is not one of a return to the large newsrooms of the industrial age in media.
"It is becoming clear that, no matter what business model is adopted, the future for today's mainstream news media organisations is a smaller and less profitable one," Simons writes in her opening chapter.
That is the 'crisis' part of her analysis and it is a familiar one. The business model that supported 20th century mainstream media journalism - one in which the journalism was subsidised by large-scale advertising - is well and truly busted.  Indeed, the fulcrum of Simon's book is the fortnight in the winter of 2012 in which our two major newspaper companies - Fairfax Media and News Ltd - announced major restructurings that resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs.

For many, these were shocking events, unimaginable only a few short years ago. For others though, including this blogger, they were sadly inevitable. In fact, having watched Fairfax Media's stumbling and bumbling adaptation to the digital age - both as an employee and now as an outside observer - it is a wonder it took so long.

Large-scale, mass-market journalism is no longer commercially tenable outside of public broadcasting. And even there, given the high probability of the formation of a Coalition government at the next election, one does not fancy its chances of survival in its present form.

With musings about the malaise of the news business (in reality "the advertising business") well raked over, the more interesting arguments in this book relate to the author's view that journalism should really be redefined as an "act of engaged citizenship".
"Journalism in the future will be as much a practice as a profession, and many citizens may from time to time commit acts of journalism,"Simons says. "Yet the professionals, if they can only rethink from first principles what it is they do, will continue to be important - perhaps more important than ever before."
So we hear of the use of Twitter by journalists to report on the Arab Spring and the growth of citizen journalism - most notably the 'digital first' experiments of the revitalised US newspaper group the Journal Register Company. The readership in that case was given a central role in the production of the papers - from story ideas to research and was further engaged through the use of the company's substantial archives.

Of course, these sort of democratic ideas tend to send traditional journalists running from the room in horror, but the crisis in the profession has reached the point that formerly radical-sounding proposals like crowd-sourcing now seem positively mainstream.

As someone who quit mainstream media journalism six years ago to work in corporate communications, the idea in Simons' book that resonated most with me is the concept that you don't stop thinking like a journalist and doing journalistic things when you leave the media industry.

More and more companies - in telecommunications, banking, sport, healthcare, education and funds management - are doing things that formerly would have been seen as journalistic. I'm talking about writing articles, filming and editing interviews, producing e-newsletters and website communications and running social media campaigns.

Naturally, much of this would be written off by mainstream media journalists as public relations or marketing. Yet, I would challenge anyone to differentiate one of News Ltd tabloids 'people power' campaigns from outright marketing or PR.  Not everything - in fact a decreasing amount - of coverage in the MSM - is public-spirited. Much of it, in fact, is purely about corralling audiences around faked up 'news' and popular prejudices to sell onto advertisers.

My professional role, for instance, revolves around helping academic economists to communicate complex ideas to lay audiences. Yes, there are commercial imperatives here. But commercial imperatives increasingly influence mainstream journalism and in a less open way than what I do. The loss of distinct masthead editors at Fairfax and the move to a centralised multi-platform processing approach where journalists respond directly to commercial management imperatives is potentially such an example.

 Simons touches on this debate by arguing that we need to stop defining good journalism by its degree of 'independence' ( a hazy concept at best) and consider more the notion of 'integrity', a concept that she defines  as "the freedom for journalists to follow the evidence and relay the result of inquiries and investigations to the audience in a way that is not determined by commercial, political and personal interests.
"Journalistic method is a product of the Enlightenment","she writes. It means searching for truth, heeding evidence and disseminating the results. If journalists are not able to do those things, the product is not journalism, but something else.
 'Journalism at the Crossroads' is a vital addition to a growing body of scholarship in Australia and elsewhere about the role of journalism in a democratic society at a time of enormous change.  In many ways, we can ALL now be journalists and we can all contribute to the noble art of finding things out and telling people about them. That has to be cause for hope.


  1. Simons may wish to reflect on the very plausible argument that the enlightenment is dead - evidenced by the widespread acceptance in the United States, and increasingly in other parts of the Anglophone world, for intellectually barren propositions such as the existence of angels and a 6,000 year old world.

    The rise of anti-intellectualism and the valorisation of hubristic populism has been largely enabled by the media - especially the electronic and print tabloid media.

    This has left us with the appalling state of public debate; not just in this country but throughout the West.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again - people aren't stupid, they're just woefully misinformed.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful and perceptive review. Margaret

  3. In reply to Number One Bag, I'd briefly suggest that the issue is actually a weird, and ever-shifting, combination of post-modernism (which declares the Enlightenment is dead after the failures of world-historical movements such as Communism in Practice) and rampant so-called economic rationalism or neo-liberalism which, of course, largely caused the GFC, and contributed to the failures of journalism's funding models, though not exclusively. It suits the Neo-Libs just fine to have a dangerously dumbed down audience, and in Po-Mo, there is no "truth" to be sought after by journalists, so anything goes as "truths".
    Dr Simons, BTW, is IMHO the most intelligent commentator on the Australian media scene and on journalism and has been for many years. Looking forward to reading her next book.

  4. Ah yes, but there is a curse if you go down to the crossroads - your dreams can be granted but Satan may decide to extract his price. (MSM will not welcome your presence)

    Apologies to Robert Johnson and his precedents.

    David Perth

  5. Thoughtful response Mr D. As a former freelancer in corporate comms myself, working with a team heavy with former journalists I find myself nodding at a lot of what you write here.

    Another aspect of corporate comms is internal communications, the area I work in, which is essentially employee-to-employee comms, replete with many of the same questions and goals that my "old" job once had - albeit for, ironically, a much more diverse audience (and often a more diverse subject matter in the big multinational I work for).

    When talking about the future of journalism, it's also worth considering all the former journalists practicing "recreationally", as it were. The establishment is keen to pooh-pooh this activity - naturally - and whilst it's true that blogging etc is rarely analogous to the platonic ideal of press reporting, in my opinion it has far more in common with the practice of modern journalism than journos are comfortable admitting. Additionally, we can see where "recreational" journalism has wholly supplanted many other areas of the paper - book reviews, and most of the lifestyle pages are an excellent example, with sport not far behind - that I suspect it's only a matter of time until people like but not limited to Grog eat away at the rest.

    More generally, I can only hope more projects like The Global Mail get off the ground. It is now officially good enough that I would happily pay for its news - something I haven't said about the SMH in a long, long time.

  6. If the Old Media ceased to exist in its current form, would democracy be better off or worse off? I believe it would be better off. The OM have comprehensively failed democracy in recent years. In their failure to analyse and compare the parties' respective policies before the last federal election, they failed to assist the electorate to make informed ballot box choices. To this day most of them steadfastly refuse to write about policy to any depth, preferring instead the colour and movement of the Sideshow. They failed to cover the leadership transition from Rudd to Gillard till the act was over and done with. They fail (for the most part) to move beyond groupthink and conservative cheerleading. Fail, fail, fail.

    Still, there is the bright side. Out of the debris of the crumbling OM edifice something better will arise. It will be better, because it cannot possibly be worse.


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  8. The post is already a year old but, business in journalism online has become huge in the mainstream. Just like for example Perez Hilton who blogs about celebrity news gained $140 000 per month from ads and banners as well. i would certainly disagree with this quote" no matter what business model is adopted, the future for today's mainstream news media organisations is a smaller and less profitable one," Simons writes