I suppose it isn’t surprising that sentiment among media professionals about the future of newspapers is so negative. Fairfax’s recent culling of several hundred journos in the face of a collapsing revenue bottom line has brought the whole issue into sharp focus, as have similar events at overseas newspapers generated partly through competition from a proliferation of online and multi-media news and opinion sources including blogs.
However, the public nature of this pessimism and the lack of any clear sense of direction as to what can be done about it is puzzling. ABC Managing Director Mark Scott had an opinion piece published in yesterday’s SMH which exemplifies the mindset:
Through all the turmoil within the Australian media industry, there is only one print mogul who has diversified his portfolio enough to offset the costs of quality journalism against profits made elsewhere in the business.
And yes, that last, best hope for newspapers is Rupert Murdoch. The world will be listening as he presents the 2008 Boyer Lectures on the ABC later this year. As Michael Wolff recently put it, Murdoch “may be the last person to love newspapers”. But is this one exception to the rule enough?
Now Rupert Murdoch might live forever – but in case that doesn’t happen, will whoever inherits the business still wear the cost of quality journalism in his unique, old-fashioned way?
Scott implicitly answers his own rhetorical question in the negative, and then predictably uses the opportunity to tout for more money for the ABC as an answer, so it can develop a public affairs channel. It isn’t immediately obvious how this would address or compensate for the demise of newspapers, but you can’t blame Scott for trying.
Former Media Watch host Richard Ackland and Crikey proprietor Eric Beecher had a crack at the same topic recently on Lateline, and exhibited a similar mix of pessimism and cluelessness:
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Richard, the Wall Street theory that’s defined the funding of modern journalism since the decline of the great publishers is that profits can be maximised if you minimise the product. Now, if that’s the philosophy here in Australia – and it seems to be – what’s the future of newspapers under that regime?
RICHARD ACKLAND: Well, it seems to be pretty bleak. If the corporate imperative, as you suggest, is to keep making profits in a market that is declining, the market for this particular product declining, then the imagination of the people that run these enterprises seems to be to say that the only solution is to keep cutting costs and they haven’t come up with another idea yet, which always strikes me as a bit odd. I mean, these are the executives that are paid a lot of money and handsome bonuses and all of that sort of thing. You’d thing they’d actually come up with some ideas about how to weather this transition and move journalism into the next phase.
Veteran journalist Mark Day at least advanced a limited if equally pessimistic vision for the future of newspapers in an article published in yesterday’s Daily Rupert:
It is probably inevitable that one day we will switch to a full electronic delivery of news, but before the last presses stop rolling, newspapers are likely to get slimmer and become more expensive.
Circulations will be lower, but they will be aimed atand edited forthe top end of the market, the people who demand deep and credible information about their world. This narrowing of market focus will promote more specialist advertising aimed at the well-heeled group that reads the publication, and that advertising will be sold at premium rates.
Strangely, the main focus of Day’s article was to slag bloggers and deny blogs any role in the future of newspapers or media in general. However, like many MSM journalists, Day seems to have little understanding of what a blog actually is or who bloggers are. He seems to think that “bloggers” are the mostly thick-headed commenters at News Ltd “blogs”. Presumably this flows in part from the practice of most Murdoch hacks-turned-“bloggers” of referring to their readers as “bloggers”. Fellas, “bloggers” are the people who write blog posts, not the readers who occasionally add comments at the end of them. Judging the quality of a blog by the standards of its commenters’ contributions inevitably results in a negative evaluation, just as judging the quality of a newspaper like the Oz by the quality of its “letters to the editor” in-tray would.((Not that I’m meaning to denigrate blog commenters. Troppo especially attracts some great comments. Sometimes comment threads are considerably more erudite and entertaining than the post that provoked them; some commenters go on to start their own blogs while others really should. Nevertheless, labelling commenters as “bloggers” is either ignorant or dishonest or both. ~ KP))
It’s difficult not to conclude that wilful ignorance about the blogosphere on the part of journos like Day flows in part from an irrational and rather short-sighted feeling that blogs and Web 2.0 pose an existential threat to the media world as they know it, a threat they fail to understand because they haven’t taken the time to explore the blogosphere and acquire some understanding of what it involves.
However, anyone who really sets about trying to envision a viable future for newspapers, especially “quality” ones that engage in news and political analysis and critique and sometimes even investigative journalism, would surely see Web 2.0 and blogs in particular as an opportunity rather than a threat. It’s a measure of the lack of creativity or imagination of most journos and media proprietors that hardly any of them seem capable of embracing that thought.
How could anyone of goodwill fail to perceive the extraordinary richness and potential of the Australian political blogosphere if they had taken the time to subscribe to and read Troppo’s Missing Link roundup on a regular basis? ((incidentally, I hope ML will be back in action next week ~ KP)) Indeed that was Missing Link’s purpose; to expose the richness and diversity of blogosphere writing for people who don’t have the time to spend in sifting through the huge mountains of opinionated garbage that admittedly exist in the blogosphere in order to uncover the quality writing.
I wonder why some media organisation hasn’t taken the opportunity to use Missing Link to locate and republish excellent blog writing? The major functions quality newspapers provide are editing, filtering, (sometimes rudimentary) quality control and content certification for the material appearing in them. Readers are hopefully given some measure of minimal assurance that the material they read in a reputable newspaper has been edited and fact-checked and isn’t complete garbage.
That assurance doesn’t exist in the independent blogosphere (despite its somewhat self-correcting nature through the operation of comment box discussion). However, the blogosphere’s very lack of certified quality assurance provides the MSM with an opportunity. There’s no reason whatever why the MSM couldn’t source significant parts of its critical, analytical and opinion content from the blogosphere, providing editing services to polish off any rough edges. Of course, that would potentially reduce the number of full-time paid journalists they’d have on staff, which is probably why journos like Mark Day feel threatened. However, those staff reductions are happening anyway. What we’re talking about here is a way newspapers could survive financially and continue delivering quality analysis and investigative journalism.
One cogent criticism made by people like Day is that bloggers seldom if ever engage in large-scale investigative journalism (as opposed to nitpicking “gotcha” fact-checking, which is important but not the same thing). However, it’s possible to exaggerate the extent to which newspapers engage in investigative journalism in any event. Commentators like Lowell Bergman and John Pilger argue that investigative journalism only really became a significant feature of newspapers in the mid 1960s with the Profumo Affair in Britain and Seymour Hersh’s investigation of the My Lai massacre, peaking in the 1970s with Woodward and Bernstein’s celebrated investigation of the Watergate Affair and then gradually subsiding as old-style media tycoons sold out to corporate beancounters.
Investigative journalism and indeed in-depth political analysis have never attracted large paying audiences to newspapers. They’ve been effectively cross-subsidised by more populist content like sports coverage, cartoons, crosswords and gossip and “advice to the lovelorn” columns. That may not have been so apparent before the advent of the Internet which now allows beancounters to measure precisely which articles and features attract the most “page reads”. Moreover, in pre-Internet days it didn’t matter much anyway because readers didn’t have a wide range of media choices. Now, however, advertising revenue, at least for online versions of newspapers, is dispensed scientifically in accordance with the readership each page attracts.
In this Brave New World, detailed analysis and investigative journalism are luxuries the beancounters increasingly conclude can’t be afforded. Nevertheless, and as Day argues, there is still a premium audience demographic that demands “deep and credible information about their world”. Day argues that it can only be serviced by charging premium prices for such content, now that it can no longer be cross-subsidised by more populist content. He’s probably right to an extent, but there’s also no reason why an innovative newspaper proprietor couldn’t harness Web 2.0 and the blogosphere to assist in delivering quality analysis and investigative reporting both more cheaply and effectively than at present.
One possible (if somewhat old-fashioned) model is currently being tried in the US, where a new philanthropic foundation is aiming at delivering investigative journalism to newspapers as a public service:
Paul E. Steiger, who was the top editor of The Wall Street Journal for 16 years, and a pair of wealthy Californians are assembling a group of investigative journalists who will give away their work to media outlets.
The nonprofit group, called Pro Publica, will pitch each project to a newspaper or magazine (and occasionally to other media) where the group hopes the work will make the strongest impression. The plan is to do long-term projects, uncovering misdeeds in government, business and organizations.
Whether the likes of Dick Smith could be persuaded to fund a similar operation in Australia, where a culture of philanthropy by the wealthy has never really developed, remains to be seen.
Specifically Web 2.0 initiatives that newspapers could and should be using and developing much more effectively include Wikileaks, which provides an anonymous online conduit for “whistleblowers”, and SourceWatch, which adopts a collaborative citizen journalism approach to scrutinising the activities of thinktanks especially corporate “astroturfing” operations.
Finally, and a suggestion I haven’t seen advanced anywhere else, why doesn’t the MSM or an Australian version of Pro Publica (or for that matter the ABC) enlist the services of academics for specific investigative journalism projects? Many academics, especially academic bloggers, have highly developed research and writing skills that would be incredibly valuable for in-depth investigative journalism projects. If projects could be structured as “research consultancies” then it might be possible to obtain the services of highly qualified academics at minimal cost to the newspaper. DEST research points, and therefore Commonwealth funding for the academics’ universities, can be earned by such endeavours as long as the consultancy results in one or more published and refereed papers. It might sound a tad cynical and exploitative at first blush, but in fact investigative journalism is and always has been much more a vital public service in a liberal democratic society than a profit-making activity for corporate media, although that fact was disguised by the cross-subsidisation that occurred before the advent of the Internet. It’s appropriate that such activity be funded (albeit independently and at arm’s length) by the state, in the same way as democratic checks and balances like the Ombudsman, FOI legislation and independent administrative law merits review tribunals.