Monday, April 9, 2012

Reimagining Journalism

If you were starting a journalistic enterprise today, what would you do? You could sink $50 million into printing, marketing and distribution, hire 30 staff  and pray that Murdoch doesn't destroy you before your credit runs dry. No thanks.

Or you could start from first principles, ask what journalism is for and go from here. For most of us who sought to make a living from this profession/craft/trade in the last few decades, it's been about hitching our aspirations to a mainstream media company. But given the grim plight of industrial era journalism, that's not a career move one would recommend to youngsters today.

After more than a quarter of a century in the business, I left professional journalism six years ago, disenchanted and bored with an industry that for the most part is about recycling memes that aggregate audiences for paying advertisers.  My original inclination as a youngster was to become a copywriter for an ad agency. In retrospect, journalism (as it's done today) isn't that different.

The truth is that journalists work in the perpetual present, stuffing messy factoids from still half-understood events into prefabricated narratives they hope will fit whatever ideological button the proprietors of the organisations that employ them are trying to push. A mythical and romanticised apparatus has been built to rationalise this cynical business into an expression of "freedom".

Mainstream media journalists feeling threatened by technological change can look on the digital era as either a curse or as a deliverance; just as musicians who formerly signed their creative lives away to multinational record companies can see dis-intermediation as a threat or as an opportunity.

In rediscovering the intrinsic values of music or journalism, the key is to go back to first  principles. The value in journalism is manifold and the skills that deliver that value sometimes become apparent only when one has left the mainstream media corral for an unrelated field.

Those skills are verbal and visual literacy, an instinctive understanding of the currency of ideas, a nose for 'news',  a talent for understanding and articulating unfolding events in real time, a capacity for curation, a facility for compressing key and relevant ideas into a headline or a few paragraphs, a talent for moderating discussion and a skill for asking the right question at the right time.

These are the attributes of a good journalist and their currency in the capitalist economy extends beyond the mainstream media, which is why I have found a living beyond daily mainstream media journalism.   

But alongside the traditional skills of journalism are new forms of technology that aid curation, aggregation, real-time distribution and, most of all, sharing of information. Even better, these technologies are not dependent on capital-intensive distribution models.

When you're dependent on a News Corp or Fairfax to pay your mortgage, you tend not to see the opportunity of open journalism. Instead, you identify with the self-interest of the organisation that employs you, which means you rail against apocryphal pyjama-clad bloggers and digital dilettantes to defend your trade.

I'm convinced that so much of the reactionary response to attempts to make journalism more democratically responsive - like Finkelstein - stem from a paranoid, Luddite and protectionist urge among employees of mainstream media companies to keep non-tithed operatives off their front lawn.

The irony is that once your pay packet is not dependent on journalism as we have understood it in the industrial age, you are much more able to live and think as a journalist should be.

That has to be a good thing.



  1. What you say undoubtedly explains much of the paranoid denigration of bloggers and tweeters in the main stream media.

    Always worth reading this blog. Thanks.

  2. Echo Polo's comment - always worth reading you. Pax Gianna

  3. It's a universal phenomenon in a way - I'm currently writing an essay saying something very similar about the decline of art criticism and the art world in general. As the distribution cost of cultural activity (whether it is journalism or criticism or music or visual arts) has decreased to almost zero, gatekeepers everywhere are threatened, particularly by others who have similar or even greater skills than them but have not made the mistake of confusing the activity with those who are temporarily employing them to engage in the activity. Incidentally "disintermediation" link not working.

  4. Thanks Ian. Link now fixed. My point is there is a common tendency to confuse journalism with the media industry. Different beasts.

  5. May the pen, digital or otherwise, always be mightier than the sword.
    By the way, apropos of a tangential relevance to the subject of this blog, I often have Tweet conversations with Mark Textor (despite believing that he is merely using me as a free 'Lefty' focus group participant), as he comes out with some unusual and useful words. Today he exhorted me to pursue writing in longhand. He didn't say why, however it was an interesting insight into how one of our foremost contemporary thinkers thinks laterally, even if in service of the dark side. As I have recently suspended writing my thoughts down in longhand and then putting them on the 'net I guess I might just take his coincidentally synchronous advice. In a way, it also pertains to the subject of this blog in that I believe that when we take the time to disassociate ourselves from the maelstrom of the digital & etherial stream that carries us as writers and journalists along inexorably from day to day, so it may be that going back to writing taws may act as the tonic that allows us to keep in touch with what is real about writing, what is integral to it & what may allow us to maintain our integrity in the face of the artificial world of words that the digital age has foisted upon us.
    Of course, I realise that many mind-bending works, such as 'Mein Kampf' (and I don't subscribe to Godwin's Law, btw), were written with pen & paper, but they had no choice. We do. Thus it may be that sunshine and longhand may be the best disinfectant to purge compromised journalists' sullied souls. Anything, really, to get them off the hamster wheel they are on. Which includes what you, yourself have done, Mr D. And, more power to you for having done it. It shows you possess the Integrity Gene. That which has become mutated and degraded in so many that remain in the belly of the MSM beast.

    1. Not that I want to be considered an expert on the subject but I understand that Hitler dictated Mein Kampf. This being so it was probably taken down in shorthand and then typed...

  6. Following decades working in (well, what I considered to be at any rate) journalism I always enjoyed teasing at the defensiveness of the mainstream practitioners. I saw plenty of it first hand at the Aurora Hotel in Surry Hills where it was always cracking sport to go and hang shit on the inflated ego's of Smokin Joe Hildebrand, Peter Lewis or the failed punk singer from Adelaide, David whatsisname, and the rest of that strange insecure News Limited generation.

    All these bright young things and the whiskey spilling patriarchs they hung off shared something I had seen in student politicians (while never a uni student myself), union officials, trotskites and the professional hangers on found around minister's offices. It was a sad aching desire to be wanted. A desire to be 'a player'. To matter. It was often manifest in an overweening sense of self-importance neck deep in hubris, as can be imagined.

    In a sickening epiphany I realised that our media and political institutions had been hijacked by people working through their daddy issues.

    So at a time of irreversable change - as Australia joins the rest of the Western world on the abyss of devolution - the fourth estate is hijacked by a pack of egomaniacal neurotics. Exhibit A is Jordan and Harris from Rudd's ofice. Pemberthy, Crabb, Brissenden and Murphy are all of this ilk. There is nothing wrong with them that a day's work wouldn't fix.

    The epiphany came when I finally read (then minister) Gillard's Fair Work legislation. I realised that the entire fabric of the Your Rights At Work campaign - a campaign that had driven middle Australia in to the arms of the union movement - had been torn down because it's primary objective was not, as stated, to protect rights at work, but to enable an ALP government in 2007. It was a campaign designed by the journalists at Essential Media Communication (now famous for their poll). Gillard kept in place the principles and practices of workchoices, subtly rebadged, but legal instruments nonetheless. By maintaining a cloying dissonance that somehow 'working Australians' were somehow liberated while defenestrating their rights, Gillard had set in stone the inevitable decline in working standards for Generations X, Y and Z. A nation of middle class homeowners are on the way out.

    When I realised that the mobilisation of hundreds and thousands of people could not affect public policy, when a campaign that harnessed the media to highlight the evils of workchoices would not be deployed upon the Fair Work Act, I had my epiphany.

    Journalism and electoral politics don't change much when the whole box and dice - parliamentary democracy, freedom of expression, community campaigning - is negated by corporate control of the executive. And if the executive, organised labour and the fourth estate are peopled by such neurotic needy losers then who will advocate for household Australia? Who in that milleau even understands household Australia?

    So I quit journalism and now I work night shift sorting mail. It is a much more rewarding job, albeit not financially. But it is populated by a syndicalism borne by people who have a public good in mind. Not an abstract one devoid of any discoverable fact, but a tangible one - the mail must get through.

    So my advice to any journalist who feels like they are wheedling away in irrelevance producing content for advertisers to leap frog over? Get a real job.

    1. Nice insight there Lachlan.

  7. Journalists sold out long ago (to get along you go along). Look at the bunch of Turkeys parading as our Parliamentary Press Gallery. They have trashed politicians and the parliamentary process (it was not that difficult) and in doing so have trashed their own profession. How many journalists deserve any respect nowadays?

    We have come a long was from "The Paper You Can Trust" remember the Daily Mirror? yeah well they sold out to Murdoch.

  8. Like increasing numbers of people I have little faith in the journalism coming out of the mainstream today. I see little evidence that there's much pride taken in their work. A tight groupthink exists across competing media outlets and platforms that serves only to restrict the usefulness of coverage. And I have seen memes shoe-horned into a shape and form calculated to please the proprietors, rather than the consuming audience.

    As the intent is on putting the interests of proprietors/advertisers first, with audiences coming an easy last, as a member of said erstwhile audience I feel no loyalty whatever to their product or its future.

    The passing of mainstream news cannot come soon enough. Surely whatever follows out of its ruins can only be an improvement. Bring it on.