Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Spin Cycle

Any trusting soul who still does not harbour any doubts about the honesty of the media need only examine today's coverage of the latest IMF report on Australia. It's a textbook study in how the facts, readily available online, can be spun to tell any story that suits a pre-determined agenda.

The Washington-based International Monetary Fund issues regular reports on its member countries, based on comprehensive study tours that involve meetings with Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the federal government. Its latest report was released overnight and is available for free online here. 

Anyone can read this document on its release and make up his or her own mind about what the organisation is saying. The tone is fairly matter of fact: Australia was virtually alone among developed economies in avoiding a recession last year thanks to a combination of Chinese demand for commodities and an astutely managed fiscal and monetary stimulus. Its public finances are in remarkably good shape compared to other developed economies, but it has special challenges in managing a mining boom that has driven its terms of trade to historic highs and which are threatening to force its interest rates and currency higher than the economy outside the resource sector might be able to withstand.

So which version of the truth do you want out of the nation's newspapers? The Australian, bless them, came up with the headline "Labor Facing Storm Clouds: IMF", which managed to convey the idea that the world's pre-eminent economic body had criticised the Rudd/Gillard government's economic management. The actual text of the story, by David Uren, wasn't that bad, but one could see the work of the page 1 editors in desparately trying to spin a 'Labor incompetent' angle out of it. The reality is, of course, that most developed economy leaders in the current climate would sell their first born for a report like this.

The better news angle would appear to have been that the IMF had praised the resources rent tax as a step in the right direction. If anything, the fund said the tax should have been applied more widely beyond the compromise deal that limited it to coal and iron ore. But, as you might have guessed, The Australian did not tell its readers that Gillard ended up cutting the legs out from the tax after a virulently misleading campaign by the paper's own writers ahead of the election in which they played up threats of a capital strike if the RSPT went through. Indeed, The Australian's white-anting over the RSPT arguably played a role in Rudd's demise.

But of course in The Australian's latest view of the world, Labor has mismanaged the economy by compromising on a tax that the newspaper campaigned against in the first place. Abbott, we are told today, has "seized" on the IMF report to "sharpen his attack" on the government's economic credentials. Sharpen his attack? Surely, they mean "make a desperate stab"?

And what about interest rates? Well, Bloomberg, which really just assembles news to a template, blandly reported that Australia "may need higher rates" if the mining boom continues. Well yes, and you may need an umbrella if it rains. But if that version of the facts doesn't suit, perhaps you'd like to settle for the SMH's (more accurate) take on the story, that the IMF was in fact urging the RBA to tread warily on rates.

You see how this game works? You take a fairly even-handed economic report, filled with the usual qualifications, and put it through the editorial mixmaster to deliver a story that suits your own news agenda. News Ltd is the worst of them, but all media organisations do it to one degree or another.

By the way, kudos for once to the ABC who managed to pick up the obvious angle, given the palaver ahead of the election from the mining industry: IMF Backs Resources Tax (but needs to widen it).

Now THAT, in my journalistic opinion, was the obvious angle. But if you don't agree, you don't have to rely on me or any one else. You can read it for yourself online in its unadulterated version and make up your own mind. No MEDIAtion required.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Empire Strikes Back

One standard attack line from the mainstream media against bloggers is that they could not deal with the pressures of daily reporting as a professional journalist. According to this argument, there is a chasm between the effort required to casually opine about a pet subject on a hobby blog and the high craft standards demanded of the daily newspaper, television or radio reporter.

My previous blog entry on The Australian's outing of popular blogger Grogs Gamut looked at the business-driven reasons for that newspaper identifying him in such a provocative manner (namely as a trolling mechanism) . But that's not the whole story - because at the individual level, there is more than a hint of the closed shop mentality at work here.

The fact is that many (not all) mainstream media journalists feel beseiged by the social media phenomenon. Their work is coming under scrutiny as never before. Previously, feedback only came through the letters to the editor and you could always count on whoever was editing the leaders page to bin or take the scissors to the ones that might reflect badly on the paper or yourself. Now journos have to cope with unsolicited and unfiltered opinions in real time via social media that redistributes the most devastating critiques almost immediately.

Not only are their professional standards and craft under attack, but they are being told by the accountants and the smartly dressed jargon-spouting 25-year-old consultants that regularly trawl through their newsrooms looking for "productivity improvements" that to keep their jobs they must learn to file for "multiple platforms" and "explore synergies between legacy media and new distribution technologies". Meanwhile, layers and layers of quality control have been peeled away in successive redundancy culls over the past 10 years as the business model underpinning their organisations slowly disintegrates.

Against this background, is it any wonder that professional journalists might look for payback against upstart amateur pretenders?  So they sink their master's boot into blogging poster boy Grogs Gamut and then wheel out self-serving platitudes about the public's right to know and spurious arguments about public servants expressing political opinions - opinions conveniently not shared by their employer.  (Incidentally, one wonders whether the attack on Grog would have been made had he been a creature of the Right. No doubt in those circumstances he would have been cast as a Godwin Grech, a brave and lonely voice of reason in a bureaucracy full of politically correct cardigan wearers, hippies and bearded socialists).

To my mind, I can understand (though not admire) The Australian's trolling on this issue. It drives eyeballs to their site and engages an audience that, while hating what they write, feels driven to click on it. It's why, after all, the SMH for years engaged the services of  trollumnist like Miranda Devine, getting a rise out of the mythical doctor's wives on the north shore by complaining about trees and cyclists.  And I can understand the resentment craft journalists feel at having their livelihood slowly cut away by new technology.

But what's not excusable is the sloppy standards The Australian have employed over this story. In his extremely oily 'why-I-unmasked-Grog' piece in Tuesday's edition, reporter James Massola manages in the space of a few paragraphs to praise, patronise and defame his subject. In this, Massola uses the power granted to him by virtue of working for the world's most powerful media company to essentially trash the reputation of an amateur and very talented writer who had happened to put Australian journalists under a critical microscope during the election campaign.

The lowest blow came when Massola said what had finally made up his mind about identifying the blogger was his suspicion that Grog was skiving off work to attend a New Media conference in Canberra."Was it a sick day, a day in lieu, annual leave, did he clear it with his supervisor?" Massola asked rhetorically, between a pair of cowardly parentheses. But why didn't he clear that up with Grog BEFORE he went to print with this snide remark? Or was the stereotype of the work shy public servant just too delicious to leave out?

Forget the ethical arguments about anonymity over the web. Forget the manufactured left-right culture wars that The Australian loves to plough to pander to its dwindling and aging Tory readership. At heart, this stoush is an extension of the issue that Grog helped bring to the public's attention in the first place - sloppy and self-serving journalism from an industry in terminal decline. It's a point worth keeping in mind next time you hear the "professionals" lecturing the "amateurs" about standards.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Now that We Have Your Attention....

The Twitterverse has gone off like a pokie machine at jackpot time after popular blogger Grogs Gamut was outed by The Australian's James Massola. The latter, who had known GG's identity for the past year, appeared to be under orders from an editor looking to pick a fight with the social media vanguard and spouting the eternal standby 'public interest' test (which can be read as "we're interested, so you should be too").

Just about every tweep and his or her dog has had a say on this issue today, ranging from self-defensiveness among some MSM journos to colourful invective from the more 'iconoclastic' bloggers.

As much as I agree with others that this was typically cheap and self-serving payback from The Australian, it still looks like a very smart media strategy by that particular organ. In one stroke, they have rallied the blogosphere and twitterverse around their masthead, even if that mob looks like a crowd outside the Bastille, wanting to put Mr Massola's head inside a guillotine.

Put it this way. I would wager that the two stories in today's Australian relating to Mr Massola's scoop (the initial shock horror revelation and then the obligatory 'A firestorm has erupted...' follow-up) would have been the most hit-upon stories on that newspaper's website in the past 24 hours.

Think what you like about News Ltd, but like every media organisation, they are in the business of attracting eyeballs to their clients' advertisements. And in an age when people are drifting away from the mainstream en masse, anything that engages participants of the newer forms of media - even in a negative way - is a plus for the dead trees people.

After all, the worst thing that can happen to you as a journalist is not being hated by your readership. The worst thing is not being read. So if I were Mr Massola and his editor right now, I would be feeling that it had been a good day's work. And if you wanted to express your displeasure with Mr Massola, the best approach might be to ignore him.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

News with Attitude

Media organisations, like most businesses these days, like to talk and fuss about their "brand". The idea of the brand is a nebulous concept at the best of times, and journalists are notoriously (and rightly) cynical about such self-serving management psychobabble.

But with the need to differentiate a commoditised  product now a little more urgent and hounded editors increasingly adding MBAs to their professional credentials, brand awareness is starting to creep into editorial meetings and shaping how media outlets cover everyday news - in terms of content, style and overall tone. Call it news with attitude.

Highlighting this trend is CNN, a news organisation that once stood at the vanguard of the new, always-on, globalised news age at the start of the Reagan-era '80s. These days, CNN is struggling for relevance, a fact underlined last week by the dismissal of Jon Klein, the network's US chief, due to plunging ratings and the loss of audience to Murdoch's Fox network.  Determinedly non-aligned and stuck somewhere between Fox's rabid right-wing editorial stance and MSNBC's more liberal tone, CNN's beige output has been accused by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen as "news from nowhere". This is the sort of offend-nobody "NEWSAK" that can safely play as background in hotel lobbies from Bahrain to Bangkok.

But while this rootless cosmopolitanism may work internationally, it seems that to be successful a domestic media business needs to tread on toes and get up noses a little more purposively. With so many more distractions today than 30 or 40 years ago, media organisations have to shout every louder, both figuratively and literally. That means hiring soap box journalists and columnists who excel at infuriating one half of their audience and reinforcing the  prejuidices of the other. Clearly we are talking here about the likes of Janet Albrechtson and Paul Sheehan and Andrew Bolt and Glenn Milne and all the other larger-than-life "personalities" whose job it is to get those prized eyeballs looking at the clients' (the advertisers') products.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. Media organisations have always used iconoclastic, noisy and provocative columnists as differentiators. If anything, the ultra-competitive landscape we are now in makes the need for news with attitude even greater, which is what we are seeing now.

That's all very good. But the flipside of the carnivalisation of news is it makes it even more critical to have a relatively straight, fact-bound and unhyped news provider. Traditionally, the public broadcaster played that role. But now, as we are seeing, even the ABC is starting to put a little more "attitude" into its own news. This can be seen in the increasing use of loaded terminology in leads and scripts. It can also be seen in the adoption of a prematurely cynical tone by even the youngest press gallery correspondents, which usually means they're aping what someone else has told them.  And it can be heard in the ease with which interviewers ask questions that incorporate spin as the assumed reality. It seems pretty clear the word has gone out in ABC Land to commercialise its news, in other words make it look and sound exactly like all the other advertising-driven products.

Which leaves one thinking that our media (and democracy) is suffering from a fraction of too much attitude and affectation and too little old fashioned accuracy, context and information.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Uncurrent Affairs

The first response in the twittersphere/blogosphere to the Kerry O'Brien retirement announcement has been to ask who will replace him. The more pertinent question is what will replace a tired format?

Nothwithstanding Kerry's verbal chess games with leading politicians, the 7.30 Report structure and content is dated and predictable - a longer version of the straight news report on the day's events out of Canberra (supplemented by an inevitable slow-mo montage and 15 seconds of music overlay), a parish pump state story that 80 percent of the country isn't interested in and a worthy-yet-tedious aboriginal/arts/health story told in a robotic manner by a drafted-in news hack padding it out with ponderous filler shots.

ABC current affairs 40 years ago was the preserve of the young, spiky iconoclasts of the national broadcaster (Peach, Carlton, Littlemore, Carleton), taking determined positions on the news of the day and coming at it from unpredictable angles. Those days are long gone and the program has settled into a comfortable rut.

One imagines that the hierachy will take the format to the News Ltd-approved Right, using Virginia Trioli perhaps to curl her lip and write loaded intros over the same elongated news grabs with reporters intoning in Jana Wendt-inspired oddly modulated singsong.

What's really needed is a complete rethink. Perhaps ask guest producers and reporters to take a look at the issues of the day using unconvential narratives and reporting techniques: Chas from the Chaser, for instance, breaking into Villawood and climbing on the roof. Report the GDP numbers by sending an unemployed person to Port Hedland to see what they might command in salary; get kids around the country to keep video diaries on their experiences of climate change; keep a crew tagged on someone waiting for elective surgery in a public hospital; have politicians keep a video diary.

Whatever, they do, they need to throw away the old mould for television current affairs - which is really just hack journalism these days - stilted set-up shots, ponderous searching for meaning and spreading the already formulaic nightly straight news even more thinly.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fairly Unbalanced

"Rupert Murdoch keeps me on air because I have proof that progressives want to control every aspect of your life. Progressives work in the cover of darkness and manipulation. They are using regulation to seize control."

That's the clearly deranged Glenn Beck from America's top-rating Fox Network, a network owned by the same man who controls 70 percent of the Australian print media and who is gradually introducing the same unhinged, crazy partisanship to our media.

Notice Beck's line about "the progressives are hiding the true nature of the debt". And the constant railing against "elites" trying to screw the ordinary working people. It is positively Orwellian and would be funny but for the fact that millions take this stuff seriously...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


"The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of (the corporation), but to make all other modes of thought impossible"
- George Orwell, 1984

Rupert's culture warriors are still circling the wagons, seeking to smear their critics and proving that there is nothing more viciously tribal than a News Ltd newsroom.

In an obviously coordinated move, Murdoch's scribblers are seeking to ridicule what they have been told to say are misdirected and paranoid attacks by respected figures such as AFR columnist Laura Tingle and businessman John Menadue over News Ltd's partisan news coverage.

A couple of weeks ago, Geoff Elliott, Mark Day and Caroline Overington sang from the same songsheet, declaring in one way or another that News Ltd was being assailed for doing its job in applying the unflinching scrutiny to the government demanded by its membership of the Fourth Estate.

Now it's the turn of Janet Albrechtson, who predictably seeks to tag anyone campaigning for higher standards of journalism as a "leftist". For someone accusing her critics as "Orwellian", this is as about as close to 'Newspeak' as it gets. There is only one planet in Janet's universe and that is the one that sees any criticism of her proprietor's standards as compromised in some way, as if Murdoch's minions were the final arbiters of objectivity. Oddly, News Ltd's histrionics grow ever stronger in direct proportion to the length of the list of those who believe it has abandonned any pretence of undertaking fair and balanced journalism.

Wouldn't it be braver for Rupert's scribblers - for once - NOT to put on their flak jackets and start fighting from their dug-in positions and entertain the possibility that their organisation's overwhelming dominance of the news landscape in Australia and the aggressively partisan nature of its news coverage are working against the possibility of a properly functioning democracy?

Instead, true to News Ltd's tribal form (see 'Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism'), Albrechtson seeks to smear Menadue (funnily enough a man who spent seven years as general manager of News Ltd in Australia) as one of the feared "elites" so out of touch with The Australian's noble causes that we are told sit "at the pragmatic centre" of Australian politics.

That's how they construct reality at News Ltd. We're normal. Everyone else is out of step:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Boredom Killing Business

There's nothing that current affairs television likes more than a good stoush, particularly if its a debate between polar opposites over issues touching on religion and culture. For producers, it's easy: Just bring the warring parties into the studio, light touch paper and stand well back.
SBS Insight showed how it was done this week when it invited Young Liberal pin-up boy and noted dog whistler Corey Bernardi to sit alongside fervent Muslims in a live on-air debate about banning the burqa. This was rather akin to asking British historian David Irving to a roundtable with Holocaust survivors. One knew before it began that it would not end well. And sure enough, there was lots of shouting and popping of veins.

60 Minutes pioneered these "mixing-fire-with-gasoline" community hall specials many years ago and was widely condemned for exploiting emotionally charged community issues for entertainment value. So it was rather sad to see the ethnic broadcaster provoking a fight for the sake of it.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with television current affairs shows tackling difficult issues. But this approach of just sticking extreme advocates together in a room and having them scream blue murder at each other in front of a live audience does seem a tad, well cynical.

It's also cheap. Instead of going out into the field and interviewing the protagonists separately, providing background and historical context and aiming primarily to inform, discount broadcasters like SBS can put the whole thing together in the studio with no script, no editing and little research. Best of all, it rates its little socks off, while cementing every viewer's existing prejuidice, for or against.

Thinking about this television ethic of entertainment above everything, it is rather reminiscent of what that great mythical broadcaster 'Howard Beale' said on a fictional TV network 34 years ago:
"Television is not the truth; television is a goddamned amusement park; television is a circus, a carnival, a travelling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, actors, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players. Folks, we are in the boredom killing business. You won't get any truth from us."

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Numbers Game

In a time of extraordinary complexity, the idea of what makes a great journalist is changing. It is not just about telling stories well - there are any number of great writers out there. Being first with news is not enough either, unless you define great journalism as beating the opposition by a seconds on a story that will break anyway.

Arguably, the best journalists now, the most valuable journalists, the ones we need the most - are those able to deconstruct lies and spin and self-serving publicity through the use of data. Think of George Megalogenis at The Australian or Laura Tingle at the AFR or Peter Martin of The Age. But most of all think of someone not considered a journalist in the traditional sense, Scott Steel AKA blogger Possum Comitatus.

Possum has had more 'scoops' than most journalists have in a lifetime. And by 'scoops', I mean analysis that completely lifts the lid on a contentious story through old fashioned techniques like, err, uncovering facts and evidence and numbers that wreck a pre-ordained media narrative. Possum's modus operandi is deconstructing self-serving spin or, more usually, ripping to shreds the lazy journalism behind half-baked 'analysis' of stories based on numbers. Think of his expose of the media's complete misrepresentation of the inquiry into the BER program or his detailed analysis showing how much of a wilful beat-up was the "pink batts" scandal.

In an election campaign dominated by often bogus and distorted claims over numbers - think of the federal budget position or the resources tax or refugee statistics - it is Possum's combination of sceptical intelligence, determination, literacy, humour and a mastery and understanding of data that is most vital in journalism. And we need more of him.

Anyone who doubts this trend should read a commanding report, released last week at the annual congress of the International Press Institute in Vienna. Among many things, the 152-page document, "Brave New Worlds: Navigating the New Media Landscape," (PDF) charts a potentially fruitful new era for journalism based around collaboration between traditional journalists and a new breed of "data" journalists, like Possum, that can challenge power through the use of freely available data over the web.
"Data journalism takes in a huge range of disciplines, from Computer Assisted Reporting and programming, to visualisation and statistics. If you are a journalist with a strength in one of those areas, you are currently exceptional. This cannot last for long: The industry will have to skill up, or it will have nothing left to sell.

"Because while news organisations for years made a business out of being a middleman processing content between commerce and consumers, and government and citizens, the Internet has made that business model obsolete. It is not enough any more for a journalist to simply be good at writing or rewriting. There are a million others out there who can write better - large numbers of them working in PR, marketing, or government.

"While we will always need professional storytellers, many journalists are simply factory line workers. So on a commercial level if nothing else, publishing will need to establish where the value lies in this new environment, and where new efficiencies can make journalism viable. Data journalism is one of those areas."
It is not clear whether this particular penny has dropped in the minds of local mainstream media editors. But it will. For now, it seems clear that for journalism to succeed in this new age and to rediscover its traditional role of speaking truth to power, it will have to embrace the numbers game. The business model will come later.

See also Nieman Lab's analysis of how The Guardian is using data journalism.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Usual Suspects

When the ABC's Lateline told its audience on Friday afternoon to tune in that night for a review of the week in politics with Tony Burke and Scott Morrison, a collective groan was almost audible on the twittersphere.

We immediately knew what to expect - another vapid, predictable and non-informative on-air clash between political partisans mouthing hackneyed talking points

So when does this groundswell officially become a story? When does the media ditch the usual suspects and start inviting fresh voices onto its panel shows to start talking about the real issues - the ones the politicians don't want to talk about, the ones the media don't want to talk about, but the ones the public desperately need to hear?
Don't hold your breath.

See also Professor Jay Rosen's new piece on how journalists operate within the "sphere of consensus" - excluding interesting and non-mainstream voices from issues of public interest.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Speed Quills

One memorable image from the media's coverage of politics in recent months was from Sky News during the Labor leadership challenge.

Comperes David Speers and Kieran Gilbert were gassing speculatively with their guest panel, whilst frantically scanning the incoming tweets on their mobile phones - seeing who would get the word first on what was happening in caucus.

To a viewer watching this circus, it was hard to know how any of this related to journalism. Those of us who follow any one of the Canberra press gallery twitterati or, indeed, Labor caucus members who tweet could have done exactly the same thing without turning on the television. But rest assured, Sky constantly reminded us that we were watching news being made.

The obsession with speed in breaking news that is going to break anyway is one of the consequences of new technology that allows any of us, not just the media, to announce live events to the world in real-time. We saw it too the night before this episode when the ABC, beat its chest about getting the challenge on Rudd a few nanoseconds before the other networks.

For those who did their news apprenticeships in radio or the wire services - where constant deadlines were a fact of life - the mainstream retail media's sudden infatuation with instant communication is rather quaint. But it's worth reflecting about what we might be missing when all of the media are focused on speed.

The Columbia Journalism Review this week carries a fascinating cover story - The Hamster Wheel - which decries 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."
Bingo. 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. The journalists defend themselves, as we have seen from Annabel Crabbe and Tony Wright in recent weeks, telling us how hard they work and how the pressures only ever get more intense. 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 the Web 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 are doing it to themselves:
"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.

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, so caught up in the technology of distribution, that it forgets what people look for from journalists - speed, yes, but also 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.

Against that background, is it so surprising that the media, now the biggest generator of the noise, should fail us so very much and when when need it most?

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Boiling Frog

Confirmation this week of how metro newspapers in Australia are over-cooking their published circulation figures is a sign of how desperate things have become in MSM land.
It's been plain for a while that Fairfax and News Ltd have been giving away newspapers faster than they can print them in an effort to stop their circulation numbers falling to levels that threaten their advertising rates.
After all, it's difficult to walk through a gymnasium, airport lounge, hotel lobby or university cafe these days without tripping over large piles of unread broadsheets, dumped on them by newsagents like cluster bombs from a B-52.
The economics of why media companies are clinging so desperately to their anachronistic distribution model is nicely explored by Alan Kohler in Business Spectator today. Essentially, a newspaper reader is worth around 20 times the value of an online reader in advertising alone, and more than 100 times once you take the cover price into account.
While it's hard to feel sympathy for the likes of News Ltd, whose national daily The Australian struggles with a circulation of only around 125,000 (and that's almost certainly an exaggeration), there is a public interest in what these trends mean for good journalism.
The publishers have known for years that their business model is unsustainable, but it's still too damned profitable for them to give up on. So it's in their interests to cling on to the old model for as long as they can. In the meantime, the standard of journalism (like the fabled boiling frog), shrivels under the heat of online competition.
So while we've all had felt some catharsis in the past week or two putting the boot into the press gallery's miserable efforts in the election, sooner or later we'll have to ask ourselves what price our democracy puts on good journalism - irrespective of the plight of the dying press monopolies.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Futures Market

With news now an easily accessible commodity and the power of social media robbing journalists of their former monopoly in analysing events in real-time, newspapers increasingly are in the forecasting business.

In other words, they no longer are journals of record, but of prophecy. It's an understandable trend, given yesterday's news is no longer, well, news, by the time they get around to printing it. Everyone has read it online via Twitter or Facebook or Google.

But at least those who publish a record of past events can be judged for accuracy against the memories of others. With forecasting, you can say what you like. And you can always count on no-one remembering what you tipped, a year, six months, a month or even a week later.

Cast your mind back to late 2007 just after the election of the Rudd government. The newspapers were full of analysis saying that Labor had begun a new era of dominance that would cast the Coalition into irrelevance for a generation or more:

Welcome to the Rudd dynasty. With his thumping election victory and a new-look frontbench which blends experience, talent and fresh blood, Kevin Rudd has a golden chance of locking in a decade of Labor rule.

That was News Ltd's Steve Lewis, riffing in the Daily Telegraph on November 30, 2007, on the startling supremacy of Kevin Rudd and his astounding political acumen in ridding the nation of Howardism and creating a team for the ages.

But surely, you might say, that perpetual 'seer' and sage of political journalism, Paul 'Polonius' Kelly, would have a keener sense of the ephemeral nature of political fortunes and sound a more cautious note in his commentary?:

The Kevin Rudd era has begun. It is expected to last a long time. Rudd offers a new brand of leadership for Australia that breaks not just from John Howard but from Labor's past. Rudd enjoys a big majority, an unqualified mandate, a growth economy, a Labor Party invigorated by a surge of fresh talent and a demoralised Liberal Party that will take many years to recover.
Yes, that was Father Kelly, pontificating from his lofty pulpit in The Australian, on November 26 2007. His pitiful record is worth recalling as the self-appointed experts of the press gallery line up to share with readers their wisdom in the coming weeks and months about the likely fortunes of the new minority government.

The truth is nobody really knows what will happen next. But if you have to say something interesting every day, or every hour, you're going to stretch for significance, mistake noise for signal and start believing your own bullshit. The good news is we don't have to read it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

His Master's Voice

Along with the rest of the media, The Australian completely failed to prosecute the case against the putative government during the election campaign about their dodgy election costings.
Yet the Murdoch machine winds up its fearless media editor Geoff Elliott today to assemble some carefully selected quotes from "senior media professionals" backing his proprietor's "robust" editorial stance against the Greens.

Well, actually, these quoted pros (Nine Network news boss Mark Calvert and former Age editor Michael Gawenda) were not actually backing The Australian's jihad against the party commanding 11 percent of the vote in the last election; they were merely supporting the right of newspapers to run strong opinions on its editorial and opinion pages.

Which is rather beside the point, because the case made by Media Watch last Monday was not that News Ltd had no right to hold editorial opinions, but that these opinions - as is the tradition in good journalism - should be kept separate from its news coverage.

What was clear from Media Watch's analysis is that true to form, News Ltd is campaigning through its "straight" news coverage - digging up supposed dirt on new Green MPs, sledging the party through vested interests in the fossil fuel industry (see "Dog Bites Man Journalism"), and implying that the Greens were seeking to force through same-sex marriage against community opinion (when the evidence is most people back the concept).

This wasn't "robust" editorial. This was a stitch up and further evidence, if any more were needed, that Murdoch's newspapers (publications that dominate our media) see themselves as players, not observers in the political game. Brave journalism for The Australian would involve putting the neo-cons who lap up its spin under the same microscope it applies to the Greens.
See also Bernard Keane on this topic in Crikey here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

S-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the News

It’s not often appreciated by the public, but one of the biggest dreads of editors in the mainstream media is not being able to fill those acres of white space and dead air time each day.

And those dreads have become more intense in recent years as editors have been squeezed on the one hand by wave after wave of cuts to their reporting resources and on the other by a multiplication of outlets and platforms.

While we don’t have reliable figures for our market, this widely respected annual report on the US media market by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism provides an indication of which way the wind is blowing.

According to Pew’s findings, the US newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in reporting and editing capacity in the past decade. Television network news resources are estimated to be down by more than half since the late ‘80s. Roughly, six thousand jobs disappeared in American newspapers last year, on top of a similar number in 2008. Advertising revenues collapsed by 26 percent, while industry wide circulation fell 11 per cent.

While audiences are shifting from traditional newspapers and network television to online media and cable programs, this is not sufficient to preserve the profitability of the industry and stimulate investment. The growing gulf between the ability of media professionals to supply well resourced, well researched and high quality content and the demand of investors, increasingly from private equity, for an adequate return is at the heart of the malaise that many of us now see in the media.

While new technology, such as social media and broadband, magnifies the opportunities for media distribution, the lack of a decent return on equity works against investment in new resources.

This is why, in a nutshell, the front pages of our formerly “quality” broadsheet press are dominated by trivia and recycled PR material and endless opinion polls and forecasts and cheap opinion from people who never leave the office.

In television, the much hyped “24/7” phenomenon has stretched already thin production resources to breaking point, resulting in rolling “rip-and-read” headlines, repetition and talking head forums full of the usual suspects. (Surely, the worst job in TV is being a “talent” booker on Sky or ABC 24.)

The old layers of quality control, provided by seen-it-all sub-editors (many of whom are burnt-out reporters), are no longer there. This leaves newsrooms at the mercy of the infamous spin doctors, mostly ex- journalists adept at creating ready-to-publish material that digs desperate editors out of a deadline hole.

A conference in London last year on journalism’s crisis summed it up this way:

Newspaper readership is falling, the audience for television news shrinking, and young people in particular seem to be less interested in traditional forms of news consumption. 24-hour news channels on shoestring budgets fight over tiny audiences while even well established and committed news organisations like the BBC and New York Times are cutting budgets and laying off journalists.

Those that remain complain of increased workloads, lack of resources, insecurity of employment, greater dependence on news agencies and PR handouts, and lack of training opportunities. There are accusations that serious journalism, with in-depth coverage of important issues that can hold the powerful to account, has given way to a toxic mix of infotainment, sensationalism and trivia.
And don’t we know it. This is a global phenomenon, not just an Australian one. What to do about it is the subject of future posts. But in the meantime, spare a thought for all the hard-working journalists in newsrooms around the nation, pushing the proverbial up hill, getting paid a pittance and continually asked to do more with less.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Media Wars

Rupert's paid poodles are circling the wagons, proving once again that there is nothing more viciously tribal than a News Ltd newsroom.

In an obviously coordinated move, Murdoch's scribblers sought to ridicule what they clearly had been told to say was a paranoid attack by Fairfax columnist Laura Tingle and the blogosphere over News Ltd's partisan news coverage.

Geoff Elliott, Mark Day and Caroline Overington sang from the same songsheet, declaring in one way or another that News Ltd was being assailed for doing its job in applying the unflinching scrutiny to the government demanded by its membership of the Fourth Estate.

Elliott poured on the snark, implying that the criticism of News amounted to a kind of attempted censorship and castigating Tingle for not standing on the side of her big business readers; in other words, joining News in vowing to "destroy the Greens". So Tingle was less of a journalist, according to Elliott, because she failed to piss in the pockets of her readership.

Elliott's colleague, Overington, meanwhile, showed her journalistic bravery by standing squarely with the interests of Rupert. Overington used her media column to accuse Tingle of hypocrisy, pointing out that News' Sunday Telegraph broke from the Murdoch line and backed Labor in the campaign, while Tingle's AFR pinned its colours to the Coalition.

This rather misses the point, of course. The complaints about News are not about its opinion pages and editorials, but about the skewing of its "straight" news coverage to run the daily news agenda. Even insiders at The Australian wince at the newspaper's partisanship. So for these columnists to question the integrity of Laura Tingle, probably the best political reporter in the country, speaks volume for how low they will stoop in their master's bidding.

None of this bullying, hectoring behaviour by News Ltd should surprise anyone who has seen the 2004 documentary 'Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism', a film which exposed how Murdoch's outlets use smear, manipulation and misinformation to further their proprietor's ideological and commercial interests..

When News Ltd applies the same scrutiny to the Opposition as they have to the Greens and Labor, they can start lecturing others about journalistic standards.

PS: On the same subject, see Media Watch's neat expose of The Australian's use of its news pages to run a vicious political agenda against The Greens.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Opposition Says....

An aspect of the ABC's faux balance of recent years has been their metronomic recycling of Opposition press releases. There seems little judgement employed in selecting 'news' other than it is the Opposition saying it.

It seems plain that the motivation for running these 'stories' is not the newsworthiness of the content, but the need for the ABC to maintain a sense of balance in its political coverage, however superficial. But lost in all this is the fact that what the government does or says automatically has a higher news interest, simply because it is the government - it can do things.

The consequence is that so often a substantial policy announcement, with far-reaching consequences and wide public interest, is swamped within a few hours by the inevitable Opposition knee-jerk reaction that is mere point-scoring, positioning and crude politicking.

The ABC then keeps the Opposition's manufactured 'reaction' story going by having the government 'deny' the implications. For an example, take a look at Gillard Out to Show Who's Boss, which has the PM denying that Kevin Rudd will act as a one-man band on foreign policy. This particular story quotes three separate Opposition spokespeople on the same issue (Robb, Dutton and Pyne), which apart from being overkill, suggests it's a coordinated attack.

What this example suggests, at best, is a lack of editorial imagination from the ABC (why not, for instance, interview a foreign policy expert on what Rudd will bring to the job?), and, at worst, a wholesale contracting out of its news judgement. This would not matter so much if it was an isolated incident, but anyone who consumes ABC news in any volume knows this is a pattern.

It is almost as if the country is cast in a permanent election campaign in which every issue is dominated by partisans seeking to score points for their respective teams. Lost in the mist is what the actual policy positions mean for the public. Climate change and the ETS was a prime example where partisanship, encouraged by ABC stopwatch reporting to stymie accusations of political bias, worked against the possibility of a wider and less histrionic public debate.

This is at the root of the widely recognised 'he said-she said' phenomenon in journalism and could be dealt with, as I remarked in my earlier post, by better news judgement outside Canberra, ideally by specialist editors covering the rounds of health, education, economics, foreign affairs, defence, social welfare, etc; Politics is not something that happens only in Canberra.

By the way, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has defined 'he said-she said' journalism in these terms:
  • There’s a public dispute.
  • The dispute makes news.
  • No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test, see Annabel Crabb.)
  • The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them. (laziness, lack of in-house expertise, time pressure, lack of reporting resource or a combination of all)
  • The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes. ("we're only reporting the news" defence)
Why can't we have a debate in the media about this? If not, let's start here....

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Targeting the Deathstar

There's an fascinating thread over at Larvatus Prodeo about Laura Tingle's Friday column in the AFR in which she revealed Labor strategists are now seriously contemplating how to deal with the ferocious campaign against the new government's legitimacy by the Murdoch empire. (For those who missed the AFR column, a PDF version is available for download here.)

Suggestions on the LP thread range from dangerously undemocratic revenge fantasies in which the government takes The Australian on directly (the Death Wish option) to using news management techniques that disadvantage News Ltd journos (impractical and only likely to get the entire press gallery offside) to counteracting dishonest spin with facts (nice idea in principle, but the spin often makes for the better story and tends to have a life of its own).

A better approach is a review of media ownership laws aimed at lessening News Ltd's market dominance and encouraging new voices into the media landscape. The ACCC rightly monitors anti-competitive behaviour in many other parts of the economy (such as we are seeing right now in financial services), but News Ltd stands as a behemoth in the local media industry. It controls nearly 70 per cent of the capital city and national newspaper market, 80 percent of the Sunday newspaper market and 62 per cent of suburban newspapers. it has newspaper monopolies in Adelaide and Brisbane, operates Sky News with Nine and Seven, owns a quarter of the dominant pay television provider Foxtel and owns half of the national wire agency, AAP. Its voice speaks louder than any other, including Fairfax, and its ability to shape the news agenda is formidable.

As this parliamentary issues paper from 2006 details, while Canberra can impose restrictions on broadcasters through the license arrangements policed under the Broadcasting Services Act of 1992, its legislative reach on the newspaper market is limited to general competition law and foreign ownership provisions. Attempts to break News Ltd's dominance and prompt discussion of its impact on media diversity have generally been muted by the very fact of its ominipresence. Politicians see only downside for their careers in raising the issue and are so easily swayed by powerful media lobbies. No-one is there to speak for the rights of civil society - for citizens (as distinct from consumers who express their preferences in the market).

As the public broadcaster, the ABC traditionally was an alternative voice in that regard, but as has been discussed elsewhere, it now operates like any other commercial broadcaster and is a virtual echo chamber of News Ltd's talking points of the day. Quite simply, there is little sign of the ABC as an independent spirit anymore. Instead, it cowers in a corner of its own making, embracing faux balance through he said-she said non-news that provides no context or perspective for its audience beyond what they can get in the commercial media.

One hopeful development has been the proliferation of blogs, of which this is one of the latest, that attempt to shed light on these issues in new ways, and prompt a discussion that hopefully reaches policymakers. But unless we start building a critical mass, our voices will be too fragmented to force change. So I am all for hearing ideas of making this happen....

Thursday, September 9, 2010

'Dog Bites Man' Journalism

Annabel Crabb, the charming and witty ABC colour writer, has penned a sort of mea culpa on behalf of the Press Gallery, saying the new climate of continuous disagreement in Canberra will force the media to reinvent its tired 'he said-she said' template.

This is the world in which journalists, starved of newsworthy stories by the increasing blandness of politics, pounce on every contradiction or "gaffe" or "backflip" or the remotest inconsistency in the daily utterances of politicians and beat the hell out of them. As Crabb says, this only encourages the politicians to become even more anodyne. Hence 'Moving Forward'.

In the most telling quote of her piece, Crabb provides a more direct variation on the old hoary old definition of news as 'man bites dog'...
The rule of thumb governing newsworthiness in the contemporary political news cycle is: Is it new, and is it surprising?

So, for example, a mental health group criticising the Government's policy response to the challenge of mental health is not especially newsworthy, because it is not surprising. If the speaker, however - as occurred in May this year - is John Mendoza, who was engaged to assist the Rudd Government with mental health reform, then the story is much more newsworthy.

The story now becomes: 'Damaging split between Rudd Government and key adviser'.

Well, yes, Mendoza's criticism of the Rudd government's mental health policy was indeed a newsworthy story. No arguments at all there. The problem is that 90 per cent of what the ABC judges as newsworthy out of Canberra is more of the 'dog bites man' variety:

Tax Row Exposes 'Cracks' in Government - Joe Hockey beats up to within an inch of its life, and the ABC gives it the full technicolour widescreen treatment, a misunderstanding between Swan and Windsor about the scope of the tax summit. It's a story, yes, but not because the Opposition says it's a story. The ABC here is merely recycling the hyperbole of Opposition politicians without asking itself 'well, they would say that wouldn't they?'.

Mining Industry Urged to Keep Fighting Over Tax - In this one, the West Australian Mining Minister wants the anti-mining tax campaign to keep going. Hell! Analogus to 'Japan says Whale Research Needs More Work'.

Rudd Campaigning Confuses Voters: Joyce - In which the Coalition's retail politician, Barnaby Joyce, shares with us in a dedicated interview on AM, no less, the startling opinion that he thinks Kevin Rudd's reappearance during the campaign harmed Labor. Golly.

And they say at the end of the bulletin, but this wasn't treated as a throwaway 'isn't the world full of whackos' piece:

Monckton Blasts Unconstitutional ETS - This didn't even get the benefit of quotation marks to distance the ABC from the claims being made. A visiting fake Lord and climate change denialist, widely seen as a charlatan, suddenly adds 'Australian constitutional authority' to his CV. And the ABC dutifully reports. File under 'Paris Hilton Disputes Quantum Theory'.

These are just a few examples I stumbled upon and I am sure readers have better instances of non-news on the ABC, but I'm afraid Ms Crabb's explanation won't do. She rightly defends the diligence of the press gallery and stresses how hard they work. But that's not really the issue. It's the sort of work they do. It's the lack of self-reflection about their purpose. No-one questions the quantity of news they pump out. But the problem is much of it isn't 'news' at all, by Annabel's definition - that is the surprising, the unexpected, the new.

I should emphasise at this point that I am not one of those conspiracy theorists who believes the ABC has some sort of institutional bias. It's more that the years of witch-hunts under Howard and Alston and the rest have encouraged a sort of over-compensating 'balance' that gives slack-jawed credence to every Opposition press release. But that's a story for another day.

The ABC's real problem, as with much of the media, is bad news judgement. Just because someone in Canberra said something doesn't make it news. It may well be because they have so much more airtime and web pages to fill, but the bullshit filters seem to have gone missing in action and I don't get any sense of a world weary chief of staff/news editor sitting between the reporters and the audience with an itchy 'spike' finger. If it were me, I'd be binning most of it and telling them to wake me up when the man bites the dog.

(Postcript: The ever perceptive Possum makes a very similar case in this Poll Bludger discussion here about the ABC contracting out its news judgement)

$kin in the Game

During the two-weeks of negotiation after the federal election, The Australian's resident political editor Denis Shanahan published an astonishing piece in which he told his readers that the nation should "forget the three amigos and go back to the polls".
Accusing the country independents of blackmail and cynically using claims of a new paradigm in politics to feather their own electoral nests, Shanahan promoted a view (dutifully echoed by the ABC and others) that the independents' position was somehow illegitimate and that democracy was not being served.
Some decried Shanahan for posting another piece of shameless political spin in support of his ideological masters. But while he is clearly not a Labor sympathiser, the real motivation behind his call for a return to the polls may be somewhat more pedestrian. Take a look at this article on the spike in news traffic through the election.
While popular independent bloggers attract increasing traffic, they pale in comparison with the mainstream news sites. And while Murdoch says he is committed to putting his content behind a paywall, early results are not encouraging for him.
That means the way forward for News Ltd and other mainstream media companies online is still more likely to be through click rates and ad dollars, which brings us back to why Mr Shanahan and his ilk were champing at the bit for another election - and why critics of the MSM need to think beyond the left-right, culture war 'straw man'. This is about dollars.

The Tyranny of Constant Publication

One frequently cited condition of post-modernity is a growing sense of fragmentation and a compression of time and space. In media, this sensation is felt through new technology that allows constant publication.
In this new environment, the traditional journalistic concept of "deadlines" now seems quaint, with even Laurie Oakes twittering second-by-second updates from doorstops. For those of us brought up in the wire services (where our lives were ruled by the tyranny of the "snap") it is illuminating seeing newspaper and 6pm news hacks now all caught up in the noise machine.
At some point, though, the ability to publish instantly must start to work against comprehension. While there's nothing wrong with journalists providing running commentary on breaking news events, you wonder sometimes whether we're at risk of losing the benefit of the long view - or even the middle view that used to rest somewhere between the immediacy of wire service snaps and the pampered perspective of magazine journalism.

What do others think?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Change the Media; Change the Culture

Australia's 2010 federal election showed up the bankruptcy of our two-party system in its capacity to deal with political challenges such as sustainability, climate change and our economic dependence on non-renewable resources.

More importantly, the election exposed the cosy relationship between the major political parties and an economically imperilled media dependent on manufactured conflict and tired he said-she said narratives to attract ears and eyeballs to its clients' paid ads.

Even the ABC, without the pressures of advertising, seems to have succumbed to a pseudo-commercial imperative so that it editorially is focused more on speed, entertainment and unchallenged hyperbole than its traditional role of reporting facts in context.

Most worrying of all, the public broadcaster now routinely apes the ideologically-driven editorial direction and talking points of Rupert Murdoch's sprawling empire, which controls more than 60 per cent of the metropolitan media in Australia.

None of this would matter much had the election not exposed the failure of the so-called Fourth Estate to play its role as a truth teller, as a force that strengthens and enriches democracy by keeping the citizenry informed about what those in power would prefer be kept secret.

This blog has been set up as a rallying point for those who want to change the media, to insist on better standards in journalism - including less spin, less noise, a greater attention to getting the facts straight and supplying proper context and a demonstrated commitment to serving the consumers of the news - not to the proprietors and politicians seeking to mislead and misinform the public in the service of their own interests.

What's Wrong? Ask the Journalists

There's much wailing and gnashing of dentures in the blogosphere at the moment on the state of the media and the quality of journalism. So it's useful to actually ask what the practitioners are saying about their craft.

In this editorial in the industry magazine, The Walkley, Media Alliance federal secretary Christopher Warren paints a favourable picture of the commercial fortunes of the local media, at least in comparison to their struggling US and European counterparts.

But he notes also that journalists are working longer and longer hours and being asked to do more and more, without any additional recompense. Stretching the talent thinner and thinner is encouraging a sense within the profession itself that quality is suffering.

What's more there is a decreasing investment in training journalists for the increasingly specialised and fast-paced fields that they cover. Is it any wonder there is much focus on trivia and pop culture and the recycling of glorified PR material?

How the News Sausages Get Made

Wonderfully entertaining insights from UK comedian and cultural critic Charlie Brooker