Conspiracy to commit journalism | Pressthink

Investigative journalism and the secret state are natural enemies. Even with an enlightened government and relatively untroubled times, their relationship will be uneasy at best.

Today, they’re in a state of undeclared war. Surveillance states and most of their fellow travellers are in too deep to pull back voluntarily. Some will be uneasy about how far things have gone but changing one’s mind is never a comfortable business, particularly if it has to be done in public.

Those opposed to overly intrusive and secret surveillance need to figure out the best ways to increase that uneasiness and offer palatable means for players to defect. The playing field needs to once again be tilted towards openness as the primary operating principle. To do that, unearthing secrets, valuable though it may be, is not enough.

It’s exactly these issues that Jay Rosen takes up in this recent piece at Pressthink.

A conspiracy to commit journalism has to operate in the open. Its methods go beyond investigation, careful editing, truth and accuracy, telling a good story that brings complex issues home. There is inescapably a political element. Release-the-information coalitions can only form around broadly shared goals. People who disagree on other things are likely to agree on the need for sunlight. Continue reading

Print media: It’s not management’s fault

Here’s a short note to everyone I know in the print media industry; Please, when you bemoan the state of media today, do not tell me that it’s “management” that has got the industry where it is.

I hear this all the time, particularly from Fairfax staffers and ex-staffers. If only Hywood or one of his predecessors had taken the opportunity to do X, everything would have been better. Hilmer should have bought Seek. David Kirk should have committed to quality journalism. Brian McCarthy should have fixed afr.com. News Limited people frequently have the opposite problem: when Fairfax cuts are in the news, they tend to suggest that News knows much more about digital product. But when News Limited cuts make it to the outside world, they too mutter darkly about the “wasted money” spent on digital media ventures like The Daily, which News closed this week.

The print media industry is in transition everywhere in the developed world. That transition results from changes in the economics of media. Journalists, who are paid to understand their society, should have noticed this by now. If you think print media’s problem is that it has somehow selected all the very worst managers in the world, and that this is why the industry is struggling, then please, ask yourself: how likely is that, really?

I like print a great deal – I’m currently editing a print magazine – and it has a future as an effective media form. But it’s a smaller future, and it’s less about the mass market than about  niches: the big rises in Australian magazine circulation last year came from Donna Hay, Frankie, Game Informer and Men’s Fitness. You could bring in the lovechild of Albert Einstein and Tina Brown to run a mass-market newspaper or a magazine and it wouldn’t make that much difference to falling circulation.

Printed-word media needs to experiment with new economic models – which is just what News did with The Daily. But most of those experiments will fail.

The economics of media has changed fundamentally in the past 20 years. Technology has made information ubiquitous and cheap and has left general newspaper and magazine advertising struggling to compete. The era of the Few Media has ended and the era of the Many Media has begun. No management genius can change any of that.

The newspaper crisis (and Finkelstein, again)

The graphic below comes from the University of Michigan’s Professor Mark Perry, who runs a libertarian and market-oriented blog called Carpe Diem.

Graph: US newspaper advertising revenue

It shows, essentially, the collapse of the advertising revenue stream in US newspapers. Adjusted for inflation, US newspapers will earn as much from advertising this year as they did in 1950. Note that advertising has historically made up more than half of US newspaper revenues and more than two-thirds of Australian newspaper revenues.

The Australian newspaper industry is not in the same state as the US industry yet, but you wouldn’t want to bet the eventual outcome will be all that diffferent.

I’ve noted this before, but the contraction of the newspaper industry is a huge problem for supporters of the Finkelstein Review’s recommendations for new Australian media regulation. In order to justify its claim that the marketplace of ideas was irrelevant to the Australian media landscape, Finkelstein argued that the press would be a dominant media form for many years to come. From page 101 of the Review:

“The Australian press is in no immediate danger of collapsing. The main media companies appear to be reasonably capable of dealing with the pressures facing them at least over the medium term.”

The Review is not yet a year old, but its intellectual underpinnings are crumbling. Let’s hope the government has noticed.

Newspaper crisis ensuring Finkelstein’s demise

In the torrent of words over the job cuts at Fairfax and News Ltd, not many people seem to have noticed that these events also further undermine the already teetering argument of the Finkelstein Review for a new system of media regulation.

How’s that?

Recall that the Finkelstein Review is founded on a downplaying of print media’s central economic problem. This problem is simply that print circulation and ad revenues are collapsing – and use of print media’s online versions is not close to making up the difference. As information economist Hal Varian noted of the US news industry in 2010: ”The average amount of time looking at online news is about 70 seconds a day, while the average amount of time spent reading the physical newspaper is about 25 minutes a day.”

The Finkelstein Review repeatedly declares this is not a problem:

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Fairfax: Gina Rinehart’s money can’t buy readers

As Ken Parish’s post below shows, there is now a widespread view that Gina Rinehart will win control of Fairfax, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and then seek to move their editorial stances well to the right. From people who believe that, you hear both wails and cheers, depending on their point of view.

Many of these people still seem to believe that rather than customers choosing a newspaper, newspapers shape the minds of their readers*. That’s a little bit true, but mostly wrong, and getting wronger every year the Internet is with us. If a newspaper doesn’t reflect the readers’ world-view and interests, then the readers leave.

Gina Rinehart’s billions might well help shape opinion on a single issue like the mining tax, where they’re employing emotive 30-second TV spots to tap existing beliefs that the mining industry keeps the nation from penury. Those same billions can’t make people keep buying a newspaper they don’t like, though.

There isn’t enough money in the world for that.

If Rinehart does move the Fairfax general newspapers’ political and cultural outlook substantially, she will learn a sharp business lesson.

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Finkelstein media report’s four fatal flaws

“Make the media more accountable for their sins, and worry less about new technologies and freedom of speech”.

That’s a one-line summary of Ray Finkelstein’s Independent Media Inquiry.  It argues for a new system of media regulation to apply to journalists, commentators and most of the Australians who contribute to online news and opinion. It wants a government-created News Media Council to set standards for all media – broadcast, print, online. When necessary, that Council should “require a news media outlet to publish an apology, correction or retraction, or afford a person a right to reply”. And when the media outlet won’t comply? Normal contempt of court rules would apply. So eventually, an editor would spend some time in a jail cell.

The report is already copping it from the management of Australia’s major print media groups, who see themselves as its targets. I’m writing more out of interest. I’m involved in the media, as chief operating officer of the online publishing firm WorkDay Media. But WorkDay Media has always been happy to make corrections and grant prominent rights of reply; it has even tried to join the Australian Press Council. As a business manager, there’s nothing in the report that worries me.

There’s a lot to admire, too. I have done enough report-authoring to be impressed by the speed with which Finkelstein and his team (mostly lawyers) marshalled their arguments into something at once informed and understandable. It’s a good introduction to Australian media regulation issues, it appropriately handballs the issue of print media industry assistance to a Productivity Commission inquiry, and it seeks to align the jarringly different treatments of broadcast, print and online media.

But for all that, the Finkelstein report remains a flawed 468-page attempt to justify new government regulation of media. Four flaws, in particular, make it unconvincing.

1. Deploying the accountability dodge

The first question about this inquiry has always been: why now? Why should Australia introduce new media accountability regulations just when the Internet has delivered a huge new source of media competition?

Of course, one answer might be “because Bob Brown wants to restrict News Limited and the federal government at least wants to frighten it”. But you can’t make that the philosophical basis for a government inquiry. And besides, the fact that an inquiry has a political motive does not prevent it coming up with useful conclusions; all inquiries are founded with politics in mind.

So: why now? Finkelstein’s answer is first that there is an “increasing and legitimate demand for press accountability”, and second that the federal government must accommodate that demand. He has plenty of evidence for the first point, much of it drawn from public opinion research.  Trust in the media is relatively low and may be declining, many voters think the media use their power irresponsibly, most people think various media outlets report inaccurately, journalists often recycle press releases, and sometimes media seem to be pursuing the agendas of vested interests (ranging from poker machines owners to the Victoria Police) or overstating things such as the likely effect of the carbon price on household budgets. The call for accountability is the report’s keystone, the piece of rock which keeps everything else from falling down.

But calling for accountability only suggests we need some rules. It does not tell you what those rules should be.

Setting down those rules is hard. Nevertheless, if you’re serious about accountability, that’s what you have to do.

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The Independent Media Inquiry: Six impossible things by February 28th

Right now Ray Finkelstein and Matthew Ricketson, the two members of the federal government’s Independent Media Inquiry, are trying to finish off their report to the government. It’s due by 28 February.

Writing these reports is frequently difficult, but Finkelstein and Ricketson have a particularly intriguing task. It’s more difficult because they clearly want to rein in a few of traditional media’s worst excesses – and they want to do it just at a time when that traditional media is shrinking in importance in the face of an Internet-driven explosion of information availability:

  1. Finkelstein and Ricketson have to examine what the terms of reference call “the effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia”. That’s tough enough on its own, because it’s hard to think of a more effective system which isn’t also more restrictive of freedom of speech. The head of Curtin University’s journalism department, Dr Joseph Fernandez, has made this point well – see the transcript of his evidence here. Fernandez perhaps understands these issues clearly because he spent 14 years editing newspapers in Malaysia, a country where editors face real experience of freedom-of-expression issues.
  2. They must examine the codes of practice “in light of technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms”. Their problem here is that technological change is leading to an explosion of content that undermines the case for even existing restrictions on publishers. This is a point that Ian Rogers and I have tried to make at length in WorkDay Media’s submission to the inquiry. Traditional media had a level of oligopoly power over information distribution. These days anyone can publish. There is no longer any such thing as “the media” – rather, there is a huge and messy range of information forms, sources and channels with different levels of reach, frequency, engagement, audience trust and motivation. This is great for citizens: the “marketplace of ideas” has never been closer to being fully realised. But it’s bad for traditional publishers – and for aspiring regulators.
  3. They must assess “the impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news”.  For anyone who pulls the economics of media apart, the answer is pretty obvious: printed newspapers mostly won’t survive. They are losing advertisers and readers to a fundamentally more attractive and efficient Internet. The media analyst Roger Colman calculates that “all metropolitan newspapers in print editions will be unprofitable, definitely, by 2020″. But a surprising number of people don’t want to say this. And if Finkelstein and Ricketson do say it, they will instantly raise the question: “so why are we bothering about extra regulation of print media now?”.
  4. They must figure out how investment in quality journalism ”can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment”. This is an interesting question. But as Ian Rogers and I have argued, the answer is less obvious than many people think. The media and those who analyse it are constantly in danger of over-estimating traditional print media journalism’s contribution to the world, and underestimating the benefits of the information availability explosion which the Internet is bringing us.
  5. They must look at “ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to online publications”. The ABC’s Jonathan Holmes has predicted that the inquiry will push from a stronger Press Council with more powers and a much broader remit. And that will bring us back to the inquiry’s fundamental problem: it seems to want a more activist government media body just at the time when technology is making traditional media of all sorts less dominant and undermining the case for media regulation.
  6. They will feel pressure to come up with a solution that fits in with the interim report of the Convergence Review, which has decided the inconsistency of Australia media regulations should be addressed by a system of regulating equally all members of a vaguely-defined group called “content services enterprises”. These firms’ content would be subjected to a public-interest test. The firms covered would include television, radio, newspapers and online outlets – which means print and online journalism would face new restrictions. Finkelstein and Ricketson are at least awake to the freedom-of-expression minefield that such a law would sow. As Jonathan Holmes again points out,  the convergence review’s authors seem largely, weirdly, oblivious to the whole issue.

The Independent Media Inquiry could sensibly suggest that a voluntary body provide reputation indicators for online and offline media. That’s the solution recommended by Monash University’s Dr Johan Lidberg. (The Council could also make it easier for small online media organisations to join.)

But if the inquiry recommends the Press Council or a new media super-regulator starts regulating a much wider group of reporters and commenters, and government follows that recommendation, three things will happen. The council  will be quickly overwhelmed, it will be forced to make impossible judgments, and it will eventually become a joke.

[Update: An hour after first posting, I gave in to the impulse to properly honour Lewis Carroll by adding a sixth point, on the Convergence Review.]

The Amazon future works

The ABC’s Australia Talks program ran a show this week about the troubles of the Australian book industry. Its starting point was that the local bookselling and book publishing industry is in a heap of trouble. Not for the first time, the program did a deal of hand-wringing about the current state of affairs. On its bad days, at least, it really ought to be called Australia Frets.

Few could argue with this particular show’s basic premise.  Online book sales and e-publishing threaten book printing and book publishing. Like many people, I started buying books online in the 1990s – old books, niche books, cheap books. And like many people, I’ve now begun using Amazon’s Kindle e-book system. Amazon has 80 per cent of the e-book market. The Kindle format is annoyingly proprietary and rights-managed but incredibly convenient.

You can see where this is going, for me and others. I have a huge wall of books at home here which I rather like. It saddens me a little, but I will simply not be adding to my collection at such a rate in the future.

But then: so what? Saddle-makers aren’t doing as well as they used to, either. The Australia Talks discussion seemed to hint that the move to digital sales would rob authors of money, but never produced much evidence. Meanwhile, it gave very short shrift to the possibility that electronic publishing might help Australian authors get their ideas and creativity out to the rest of the world. It gave less attention still to the idea that cheaper books might help Australians compete in a global knowledge economy. It gave pretty much no time at all to the notion that an open society and digital technology allow ideas and creativity to flow more freely today than ever before.

This is the same lack of imagination and sheer spinelessness that bedevils the newspaper debate, and that Ian Rogers and I have opposed in our submission to the Independent Media Inquiry. It’s the foolish fear that the moment some familiar artefact disappears – printed book, printed newspaper – people will lose all desire to read, to think, to ask questions about their world. In my experience, people are better and more reliable than that.

The good news is that this as more people use the new technologies and channels, the success stories are piling up. The Australia Talks program’s comments section featured a telling story from an Australian author:

I am the author of 10 books. My books have sold to major foreign publishers and I was able to write full-time. But my disappointment was with the marketing of my work.  The covers too were terrible.

In the last year I have converted all my books into e-books and created my own covers that are a huge improvement on those supplied by the major publishers I was originally published by. I am also responsible for my own marketing and feel so much more in control of my own career. I don’t receive opaque royalty statements that even my agent admitted she couldn’t follow. So instead of relying on publishers who are always looking for the ‘next big thing’ instead of developing writers they already have, I can see with one click how my sales are going. – and I’m delighted to say that my career is flying again and I can access huge markets.

I can only say- thank you Amazon.

Update: Charlie Stross nicely describes Amazon’s strategy in book publishing. Summary: Jeff Bezos wants to crush competitors, and he has a strategy for doing it.

(Regardless of what Charlie says, we probably do need some sort of DRM system if authors are to publish ebooks and be paid for their work. As Charlie notes, there is ultimately no foolproof DRM system for books, or anything else. This is why thrillers are usually offered as e-books, while programming and IT titles frequently are not.)

In (sort of) defence of The Australian

With the Media Inquiry in full swing and the Greens’ Bob Brown complaining loudly about News’s lack of fairness and accuracy, now might be a good time to travel back in time 20 years. Let’s visit another era when a powerful paper was unashamedly boosting one side of politics – the left.

In 1992, Joan Kirner’s government was in its dying days: state government debt had ballooned, and many ministers seemed frequently to be denying reality. One newspaper, however, resisted the consensus that change was needed. The Age stuck by Kirner, took its initiatives seriously, derided the government’s critics and Opposition Leader Jeff Kennett in particular. Some of its best journalists, on beats like national politics and business, looked on in despair. But the state reporters and commentators would not be swayed. Balance consisted of criticising the Kirner government from the left as much as from the right.

The Age had many fine journalists in that era, but working on state issues there sometimes had an air of unreality. When Kennett won the 1992 election in a landslide, some of the paper’s reporters seemed not quite to believe it had happened. Only one of the paper’s Melbourne-based political journalists – the cheerfully professional Sue Neales – appeared to have cultivated contacts within the Coalition. ALP reformers like John Brumby thought the Cain/Kirner government had stuffed up; quite a few at The Age did not. On my third day working for the paper in Melbourne in 1993, I turned down a request from a news editor to write an opinion piece explaining that the new government’s budgetary tightening was unnecessary and dangerous. When Kennett’s initiatives succeeded – he ran one of the most successful privatisation processes ever – many at The Age seemed determined to ignore them. Steve Bracks and John Brumby knew better; on assuming government, they kept the best of the Kennett government reforms firmly in place.

Alan Kohler, appointed editor in 1992 to bring the paper back to a more centrist line, struggled against the power of the paper’s welded-on sympathy for the left. Kohler’s successor, Bruce Guthrie, an aggressive newsman, made Kennett the target of much of his aggression.

The point is not that The Australian’s frenzied campaigning against the current federal government is warranted. (I don’t think it is, and neither do many journalists at The Australian.) It’s not even that The Age’s approach in the early 1990s damaged democracy (the News-owned Herald-Sun was pro-Kennett, and frequently manically so, throughout this period). The point is simply that newspapers have campaigned against governments at regular intervals in Australian history, and campaigned at least as hard as The Australian is campaigning against the federal government now. If a newspaper or an owner has a duty to be even-handed, no-one noticed in the early 1990s. Certainly not Bob Brown.