Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dog Bites Man News

Life is tough in the news business. Journalists are being asked to do more with less. Print reporters, once required to file once a day, must now produce in real time for multiple platforms. Speed and volume has primacy over care and quality. The noise-to-signal ratio has arguably never been greater.

What to do? The ideal solution is to hire more staff. But we know that's not going to happen. The industry is downsizing faster than a Biggest Loser contestant as migrating audiences and advertisers cut its formerly generously proportioned profit margins to skeleton thin.

Meanwhile, the volume of information coming at us continues to increase. Fewer reporters have to fill more and more space in new mediums where there is no limit on capacity. 'News' (for want of a better word) doesn't so much break anymore as flow. It's like a fire hydrant that you can't turn off. Social media only intensifies it.

So we have a situation where the capacity for 'news' is growing exponentially as the resources to create 'news' shrink at similar rates. What do you think happens?

First, opinion replaces analysis. Second, PR fodder, bogus surveys, shared content and minimalist wire content replace branded news. Third, the voices of journalists are replaced by public actors and partisans presenting opinion as fact. Finally, the commercial and ideological interests of the media outlet are represented as news.

Where media outlets once had the luxury of employing many dedicated specialist reporters to public interest areas such as health, education, finance, the environment and consumer affairs, the tendency now is to employ generalists and "all-rounders" who are employed as fire engine chasers.

Where once, journalists could justify leaving the office for hours at a time to research a story, build contacts and pursue non-traditional sources, most are now stuck in the office on the telephone, or more likely the computer, cutting and pasting from emailed press releases, PDFs and RSS feeds. The primary aim is to feed the beast, not guard the public interest.

A consequence of downsizing is the breadth of issues has narrowed. This is why you are seeing the same topics cropping up over and over. And those topics that ARE 'covered' - the macro economy, climate change, the migration of peoples - are done so in a way that presents them as mere fodder for the predictable opinionating of the same few partisans regurgitating the same tired talking points.

I don't think I am alone in sensing a public weariness with this 24/7 circus and wonder whether the simple answer is for editors (traditionally the people who provided quality control in journalism) to exercise the "well-blow-me-down" principle in judging what goes to print or to air.

Ask yourself how often these days you are listening to the radio or television news or reading the paper and are confronted with a predictable and self-serving statement from someone with an axe  to grind  - usually a politician or a noisy lobbyist. In the olden days, this was known as the "well, he would say that" test. In this category goes:

These are all akin to "Catholicism is the Best, says Pope" or "Guns Don't Kill, says Gun Lobby", predictable and self-serving statements of the bleeding obvious.  To say this fodder, this no-more-gaps gunk that fills the spaces between the ads is 'news' is a very, very big stretch.

News is what's new. It's what's unusual. It's something that sparks conversation or surprise. It's man bites dog. So if times are really tough in the media business, this is where I would start cutting. Enough of the dog bites man news.  What do you think?


  1. I find print, online and tv news coverage is becoming so weak as to now be irrelevant. The only use I have for a news source is when something significant is breaking, and even then, once I understand the facts I move on. Maybe 10 minutes of my time in any one day is taken up by the consumption of news, and that's on a day when something actually happens.

    The rest of what's broadcast is, to me, just filler to get them through the day. It's a problem of media outlets' own doing in the hunt for advertising income. The ridiculous race to be first with an afternoon news broadcast on commercial tv is all about getting the viewers' attention in the hope they'll watch whatever program is on following the news and then stay with them for the evening. As a result, everyone is competing for news eyeballs which means they need more and more content. Poor bastards, I almost feel sorry for them.

    I'm hopeful for the future, however. As newsrooms become more about churning out volume instead of quality, I can see a time when the better investigative journos start looking for new, more rewarding homes. More and more of them may turn to independance online but I'd like to think there will become a pool of disenfranchised quality journalists looking for a well resourced employer serious about slow journalism. Were that to happen, I can imagine a concentration of talent in one or two outlets which would mean we the consumer could afford to ignore all the other outlets instead of having to hunt around for good reporting. There is a demand for good journalism and a market prepared to pay for it.

  2. Your comments about downsizing, lack of resources, life is tough for journalists, etc may be correct for commercial media but they do not apply to the ABC, which has just had a funding boost coincidentally. Nevertheless, your criticisms of the media such as those in the fifth para above apply equally and with conviction to the ABC which has achieved a level of tabloid hysteria equal to anything The Australian may publish in its wilder moments. That's the sad thing, and as a result viewer and listener numbers of ABC news productions are declining.

  3. There is one area that you haven't touched on in this piece and that's pre-packaged news pieces created by vested interests, and in the case of the Bush Administration, by the government.

    These are like manna to the media bosses as they are practically free, requiring as little as a voice over or newsreader introduction.

    George Bush took this one step further and once produced an entire news piece as though it was done by a TV news service, and it was taken up by news bulletins around the country without any explanation that is a fully government produced news piece.

    The reporter asking the questions was an Administration staffer, the camera and sound people were public servants, the person being interviewed was at least introduced as a Bush spokesperson, even the producer and writers were from the Bush administration office. The entire bulletin was a completely in house Bush produced propaganda piece and not one news service around the US revealed that. It was only exposed online and I think that was because someone recognised the reporter as being from the Bush administration.

    1. I watch many ABC News 24 live interviews with Tony Abbott where he starts to stumble and one of his staffers or a News Ltd stooge throws him a Dorothy Dixer. If none are to hand, he just walks away or in one absurd instance, turned to his daughter and asked her to answer - her response "I like hospitals" - riveting stuff.

      ...and journalists wonder why their business model is in terminal decline.

  4. Spot on Grumpy. Fran Kelly asking Wayne (weak as p*ss) Swan if he would guarantee that income tax rates would not increase in the budget did my head in. I admit I was impressed with his 'don't rule in or out' response but then he caved later in the day.

    Bring back John Doyle or, what's Mega doing now? How refreshing would that be?

  5. Agree with all of the above. My only issue is that the ABC should be the one that is not walking in step with the others and unfortunately now it is. Only a few years ago you could watch ABC news and there would be a few items that were the same as the free to air news, though most was not be-laboured and they actually included a lot more news. Nowadays, the only real difference is that the ABC doesn't have as flash a set.

    This saddens me as you see some good investigative reporting still from the ABC but the focus is always overseas, not here. The recent Israeli prison death, Livestock transport, yes they have Australian links obviously, but the bulk of reporting is done overseas not here. I would like them to put that same effort into actually reporting serious issues in this country, about this country, about issues that affect every Australian in this country. That does not seem to be happening, it seems a report from the ABC can only investigate something if it takes them off shore :(

  6. Noely, that's a good point about the ABC's excellent offshore news record. I think that has something to do with the noisiness of local media and the sensitivity of the broadcaster to accusations of bias. It has developed a timidity in covering local news that means it really becomes a pale imitation of the commercial broadcasters, as you say.

  7. I stopped watching ABC news a couple of years ago (never watched the commercial stations, just infotainment rubbish).

    I know I'm not the only one looking forward to the Guardian Australia launching, which shows the appetite for a genuinely independent voice.

    I think you linked to this before, but as Nick Davies says, don't be sucked into thinking the stories a reporter should cover are those being covered by the other newspapers

  8. In the meantime, hooray for Foreign Correspondent! It just shows, it can still be done.

  9. This week Simon Cullen at the ABC reported that some person sent an email to Rudd and others claiming she did not like him.

    Why is that news?


    SMH is showing a series that proposes that the pyramids were built using helicopters and electricity. No warning that this is entertainment and a hoax.

  11. I was wondering whether it was just me getting jaded. I used to be an avid consumer of Fran Kelly, Insiders, Lateline, even Q&A sometimes. Now I can't stand any of them and an taking up online bridge. "Current affairs" is now a boring, repetitive, predictable re-hash of the received journo opinion. Ghastly.
    Now reading your blog in desperation, so that has to be an improvement!

  12. PS But I still like Gerry Doogue and Saturday Extra. They manage to search outside the frame a bit. And she has (for these times) a unique attraction - seems genuinely warm and engaging. It's not fake (or she's very good).
    Maybe less frequent gigs help keep the journo sane. Apropos your point really.

  13. from The Age 18 February. "Amanda Vanstone is an Age columnist, a board member of the Port Adelaide Football Club and a former minister in the Howard government. These views are her own." She's also a commentator on the ABC. These views are her own; who's else would they be?

    Read more:"

  14. Hi Mr Denmore, great piece. I have no issue with any of it. The problem though is not the poor quality of journalism per se but whether the public is broadly aware of this poor quality. I don't think they are. People may be gradually turning off the MSM, but it still sets the agenda in many ways. Most people don't consume media like wine or craft beer, endlessly searching for quality. If a day's papers have a dozen articles screaming 'Abbott calls Govt incompetent & wasteful', it may be a waste of column inches but it does its job - planting the word associations in people's minds. With hardly any counterbalancing voices in the popular media what else are people going to pick up & believe? Who is calling 'BS' on this form of pap apart from passionate bloggers for a few political tragics, and who is hearing the message?