Monday, November 5, 2012

Dawn of the Dead

Breaking news: The news business isn't dead. But that's not because the news business was ever alive on its own terms. It's because news was never a business. In fact, the idea that you can make a living out of news is a dream that many people have yet to wake up from.

Journalists leaving the industry - and there are hordes right now walking the streets like extras in a George Romero movie - talk up the prospect of setting up collectives that "sell" breaking news directly. The truth is, however, the audience isn't buying. People won't pay for general news. They never have....directly anyway.

In his recent Andrew Olle Media Lecture, ABC broadcaster Mark Colvin - a man more than any other in the local  mainstream media to have embraced the potential of Twitter - mused on this issue as one of four major crises concurrently hitting journalism.
"The digitisation tsunami...means that mainstream media...face not one, but several crises at the same time," Colvin said. "There's a crisis of consensus, where journalists find it increasingly difficult to find a common ground from which to write. There's a crisis of authority, in which institutions that have tended to hand down pronouncements like stone tablets from the mountaintop now often find themselves subject to disagreement, abuse or even ridicule. And there's a crisis of credibility, as, Wizard of Oz- like, the curtain is pulled away from so-called authorities like News Corp and the BBC to reveal the sometimes despicable reality. Looming over all, though, is the fourth crisis, the biggest of all - the crisis of finance. How, in the age of creative destruction brought on by digitisation, can we make journalism pay?"
The short answer to that question is I'm not sure you can. As I write, respected former mainstream media journalists like Fairfax Media's Adele Horin and News Ltd's George Megalogenis are retiring to their suburban garrets to power up their laptops and start writing for their audiences unmediated.  But having spoken to a few of these veterans, I am fairly sure none is expecting to make any money from their craft. At best, they will cover their costs.

Colvin's point - and one many of us have promulgated incessantly in recent years - is that journalism of vigour and probity and integrity is a public good irrespective of the tedious spread-sheeting of McKinseyites and the other legions of MBAs that have infested newsrooms this past decade or so. Journalists, almost by definition, are among the least commercially minded people you will meet. Their currency is the story, they have little patience with business school speak and they have an inbuilt sense of social justice that does not fit well with the view of the world that says success is all about producing more widgets for less.

The irony is that this Schumpeterian period of creative destruction is happening as we emerge from a 30-year era in which "value" has been determined almost exclusively in monetary terms. Every public good has been defined in terms of what it adds to the bottom line (which is why we have this ridiculous charade in national politics right now where the Gillard government chooses to live or die on the basis of whether the federal budget this fiscal year falls a cent on the side of surplus.)

Perhaps now we should be waking up and asking ourselves where real value lies. Is it about the health of our balance sheets or the health of our institutions? Is it about freedom of shock jocks to intimidate, bully and vilify or is about giving people access to reliable information? It is about capital markets or the rebuilding of social capital and the virtues of trust? It is about shareholder value or citizen value?

"Monetising" journalism is problematic. What dollar value do you put, say, on Nick Davies' relentless investigation for The Guardian into the News Corp hacking scandal or the inquiries by The Australian's Hedley Thomas that led to the dismantling of the case against Mohammed Haneef? Who funds the asking of questions about issues the establishment finds inconvenient or impertinent? Journalism, when it works, usually gets up the nose of somebody rich or powerful, or both. It is hard to build a business model around it now that anyone can publish for nothing. (And bear in mind The Guardian and The Australian both run at a substantial loss).

Good journalism may no longer pay. But it is more valuable than ever. There's the rub.


  1. You make a good point when you say that some things are beyond a simple "dollars and cents" value. In the past thirty or forty years or so, we've become so focussed on the (highly measurable, let's never forget this) monetary value of things that we've almost lost sight of other forms of value (which aren't quite as easy to measure in today's society). Monetary value is easy to measure, so it's easy to use as a way of rating things. It's harder to point to something like "social value" and say clearly whether or not this is increasing (particularly not in the very immediate short term - such as over the span of a few hours or days). We can't point to ethical value, and say whether a news article alters that quickly. But the bean counters and the spreadsheet wallahs can point to the monetary value of the balance sheet, and say "this went up" or "that went down" and give an instant feedback.

    So we concentrate on the short-term feedback from the purveyors of monetary value, and let all the other values slide by the wayside. But now we're starting to realise there's only so far money can take us. We're starting to realise those other values are important - but we still don't have a way of saying how they're important which will be listened to in the short term. Especially not by the persons who have a lot to gain by concentrating solely on the monetary value of everything, and much to lose by any shift in this focus.

  2. It's interesting that you raise the case of The Guardian which under the auspices of its ownership trust doesn't necessarily have to make a profit. Similar is our fledgling Global Mail, and could these be the role model for our future MSM. Or perhaps the agglomeration model of Huffington Post which in earlier days was accused of paying sweatshop rates for their articles.

    Whatever will work for Australia in the longer term, I feel certain that the outcome will involve a large degree of decentralisation. The future without News Ltd and Fairfax, and with a very active 5th Estate holding our national broadcasters to newly improved charters is not too horrifying for me.

    David Perth

  3. Interestingly, there have been attempts in other areas to systematise non-monetary value judgments. Heritage values, for instance, are not just arbitrary opinions, they are defined by going through checklists of different characteristics - historical significance, aesthetic, etc - and by context - local state national international significance and so on. These systems have international standardisation more or less through organisations like ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites). These systems may not produce a simple number like "annual profit" but they do provide reasonably objective definitions of value. I think your article demonstrates why it might be time to develop more versions of them for other disciplines.

  4. Mr Denmore, there are times I do wish you would shut up. It's not that you're not worth listening to -- you are -- it's that you sound like the spooky narrator of my nightmares.

    I'm studying one of these journalism degrees at the minute, you see. It feels like attending clown school as the circus loads the cart, burns the tent and, uh, takes up corporate communications.

    (Small note about your last post, by the way: you mention an "anticipation of securing jobs in journalism that no longer exist". To be fair, at the beginning of first year, our lecturers do give us a full-throated doomsday prophecy. Centrelink applications come as hand-outs. Or should do. Anyway, we're not being taken for a ride without knowing where we're going -- that's my point.)

    It seems in journalism, as in other creative industries, we're witnessing a hollowing of the middle: there'll be your George Ms making a living and, beneath them, a vast undergrowth of niche, part-time or poor journalists. It's like music today: the barriers to entry are small, everyone can make a little cash, but supply constrains price and augments "pickiness" (there's limitless music, but limited time). Those at the top can make much or a modest living, but those below will rely on other sources of income to sustain themselves.

    Public-broadcasting complicates things, I suppose. Then there's those with cash and a conscience. There's crowd-funding, but that seems an unreliable source and a recipe for online telethons.

    For me, I suppose there's PR.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. Soren, I didn't mean to depress you. There are still plenty of reasons to be cheerful about the future of journalism, as of music. It's just not a very profitable one.

  6. "News was never a business"?

    Messrs Murdoch and Packer senior and their sons would beg to differ.

    I think the Fairfax clan (going back to 1841) would disagree as well.

    The business model might need changing now, but the news business had been a very profitable business for well over a century.

  7. Steve, the news business was in fact the advertising business. News was just the stuff that kept the ads apart.

  8. However if there was no news there would be no readers. No readers means no advertising. No advertising means no money to pay the journalists, printers etc.

    It has been a symbiotic relationship for a long time.

  9. News was subsidised by the advertising. It was and is a cost centre. You take away the advertising and news has to find its own intrinsic value. We are discovering that.

  10. I think it should be pretty obvious by now it was about information, not news. Look at google, how do they money, what is thir product?

  11. But where is the good journalism in Australia these days? All the spivs work in the press gallery and all say the same things about the same things day in and day out.

  12. The problem with part-time journalism is that in between truth telling the bills need to be paid and I don't think any manager or boss in today's Australia will be thrilled with a journo on board for fear of being associated with a 'trouble-maker' etc or being exposed in some way. (Sorry long sentence)

  13. Oh how they scoffed when asked not to write crap.

    Well Boo Hoo, any worker that does not perform needs to spend some "quality time" changing careers.

    ...and the "public good" will be best served by the collapse of the MSM.

  14. Wake up - the proliferation of media choices just mean that paying news/journalism and audiences have gotten way more niche. Break out of your MSM mindset.