Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 8, 2014

Hold the Front Page! Woodend Winter Arts Festival 2014

Once again the Woodend Winter Arts Festival has come up with stimulating book sessions to complement their program of glorious music.  We had wonderful day yesterday:  we saw a sublime performance of the world’s oldest extant opera Eurydice, and thrilled to an electrifying performance of cello and piano by Li-Wei Qin and Akexey Yemstov.  There’s more music today, but this morning I went to a most interesting session about the future of the media, featuring Rachel Buchanan and Tim Dunlop, with Sally Warhaft moderating.  Sally is the compiler of one of my favourite books: Well May We Say: The Speeches that Made Australia, where you can find Keating’s Redfern Speech alongside wonderful rhetoric from Federation campaigners.  It should be on the reference shelf of any serious Australian reader.

The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the AudienceRachel Buchanan is a reporter, feature writer, columnist and sub-editor.  Clearly nostalgic for the great days of print journalism, she is the author of Stop Press: The Last Days of NewspapersTim Dunlop on the other hand is a pioneer of political blogging and was first blogger to be hired by a major Australian newspaper when he began Blogocracy for The Australian.  He is more optimistic about the future of journalism though he conceded that there isn’t a  sustainable business model for online serious journalism yet.  His book is called The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience.

Sally began by asking the panel for an overview of the present state of affairs.  Rachel was unequivocal:  newspapers now are things that exist as objects but they have been gutted from the inside.  Time and again we see headlines about job losses at our daily newspapers.  She says they are produced ‘brutally’ by an ever-declining number of people.  She thinks that there is not long left for newspapers, and what we have is produced by fewer and fewer staff, with offshore sub-editing and production.  As for online journalism, it’s difficult to get figures for how many journalist work online.  The stats she shared suggested that it was less than 10% of the number of people previously employed by newspapers.

Sally intervened here to talk about the wealth of local newspapers in places like Daylesford but I have my doubts about this.  I happen to know a journalist running herself ragged producing a regional newspaper, and she does it as a volunteer.  Which begs the question: Who will take over from her when she’s burned out, and where will the replacement have learned the necessary skills that the unpaid volunteer had learned in paid employment?

Tim Dunlop, however, seems to be thriving in this new media landscape.  He obviously finds the transition exciting, but he has some concerns about whether we as a society have the capacity to sustain investigative journalism, to sustain the Fourth Estate.  Serious journalism has a watchdog role which is essential to a democratic state.

[How can a citizen cast a discerning vote, if the citizen can’t know what a government has been up to, or what an opposition is planning to do?  When tabloids fob voters off with the line that all politicians are the same, and that they’re only looking out for their own personal interests, what they are really peddling is the idea that voting doesn’t matter, and that we’d be better off without government.  That’s the route to fascism.]

Dunlop thinks that the current media landscape is adequate for its watchdog role, but the problem is the lack of a workable business model.    In the past, advertising paid for all the costs of running a newspaper as it did for radio stations, but that nexus is broken entirely now.  No one has successfully replicated that business model and investigative journalism is very expensive.  Can we find a model that works?  He thinks democratic societies will demand it.  [I don’t think so.  People demand sports reporting and celebrity gossip, and sites like Mumma Mia thrive – but there’s no great angst about the media blackout on aspects of Federal government policy.   And how can the public demand to know about something when they don’t know what it is they ought to know about?]

Sally asked how it was that news proprietors didn’t see the future coming – they were almost the last people to realise that their use-by date was imminent.  Tim’s book includes an interview with Margo Kingston who was one of the first to move online, which at the time was considered a niche interest and serious journalists were sceptical.  That attitude is still apparent among many journalists, it’s a form of denial.  But the point was made that it’s not just newspapers caught out by changes brought about by the internet.  Many businesses are swept away by new technology and management doesn’t see it coming.  [The obvious examples of that can be seen in the slow response of our major department stores to online retailing.]

Rachel’s book was described as a romantic lament for the old days, but not in a disparaging way.  What she has done is to document a culture that is vanishing, and it honours the people who made the newspaper industry what it was.  I chatted after the session with a photojournalist who was also concerned about the lack of opportunities for his kind of work.  Imagine a world where there is no compelling image of a child running from a napalm attack to shake us out of our complacency!  We have to find a way to protect these things that matter to us, I think.

But Tim Dunlop doesn’t feel like that.  He laments the loss of jobs, but he doesn’t miss newspapers, and he’s happy to read on screen.  He likes being able to access extra info that he couldn’t get in a print environment, and he likes the interactive audience.  [Maybe he has a different demographic.  The interactive audience on the ABC news websites is deeply depressing, full of trolls and political stooges.  I love the interactive audience here at ANZ LitLovers and on the literary blogs I read, but politics is a different beast, eh?]

Sally’s major concern is the problem of quality control.  Newspapers used to have powerful editors who decided content and detail.  While Tim Dunlop thought this gatekeeper model is flawed, Sally thinks someone ought to take responsibility for the importance and direction of a story.  Tim thinks that quality control can be achieved in other ways. As an example, he talked about the Iraq War when the weapons of mass destruction story was peddled by politicians and disseminated by major newspapers throughout the world e.g. the New York Times verified it.  But it wasn’t true; there were no WMD. The mainstream media was simply following the line they were fed, and Tim’s view is that that’s when a million blogs took off, it was the audience who had the technology to respond and tell a different story.  These blogs used info from UN reports, and interviews with experts in the area, and more authoritative alternative new media sites came into being.

Rachel said that the non-existent WMD story was a failing of many, especially political leaders.  But she thinks it’s not an either/or situation for print and online media: the practices are different, and the challenge is to find a way to support both. On a day to day basis Rachel believes that what was in the old news model was mostly truthful.  If bloggers are the replacement for that then we have to find a way to fund bloggers, it’s not sustainable to have people spending 12 hours a day writing them without adequate remuneration.

Sally asked Dunlop how blogging journalists can be paid? His answer is advertising, (he took ads on his New York blog site), but he admits that it was not enough to make a living out of it, not even when he was getting a million page views a day.  Pay-walls are coming in… and there are opportunities for philanthropic models too, though philanthropy is less common in Australia than in the US.  [And IMO problematic too because of the risk of partisan funding.  Would Australia’s richest woman fund a news-gathering, investigative blog that ran stories hostile to the mining industry?]

Dunlop also says that people can fact-check for themselves using resources on the internet, but both Sally and Rachel demurred.  They don’t have time, and they don’t want to anyway, they want to be able to trust their news sources they way they could (by-and-large)  trust newspapers.  I think that the classic example of the dangers of this is the anti-vaccination lobby’s disinformation site.  Australia has had outbreaks of diseases like whooping cough and measles because of the success of this group’s campaign, and even though the courts have ordered them to change their name, the damage has been done.  Some babies are needlessly dead.

Rachel said she liked being able to trust the professionalism of editors, citing The Guardian as a good example.  It’s overt about being a left of centre paper (so you know where you are), it’s well edited and she trusts it.

This session made me realise that to survive, papers like The Age are becoming increasingly tabloid, with less resources and space devoted to politics so it’s getting harder to know what’s going on.  Anthony Green, (the ABC TV’s election expert) when commenting about the Geoff Shaw debacle, says it shows how little Victorian politics is reported that most people have no idea how shambolic this term of the Victorian parliament has been – and yet the State version of the ABC TV’s current affairs program wasted ten minutes of last week’s half-hour show on an item about a footballer.  ABC Online does the same for its Victorian news, there are more stories about sport than anything else.  So we are starved of opportunities to know what’s happening – and the market is NOT providing an answer.  The government usually picks up where the market fails, so my question to the panel was: does the government have a role to play in this? This is a question that is in the too-hard basket at the moment…

The only paper covering federal and international politics is The Australian and they’re are so blatantly biased that IMO they can’t be taken seriously.  Dunlop called it a Right Wing Echo Chamber – it caters to people who agree with it.  But the question raised by Sally is that can be just as true if people only read blogs written by people they agree with.  Sally says The Australian’s bias has swung: in the past it backed progressive parties, not it’s pro conservative. Rachel’s view is that papers always were partisan, and always catered for different audiences.  The point is that the reader ought to be able to tell…

Journalism at the CrossroadsThis session provided much food for thought, and I’m looking forward to reading one of the books I found at the book stall: it’s called Journalism at the Crossroads: Crisis and Opportunity for the Press, and it’s by Margaret Simons.  I’ve heard her talk about this issue too, so it should be an interesting book.

 

 


Responses

  1. Sounds like some good session as for piece on newspapers I always feel they are like huge oil tankers newspaper just haven’t turned fully into the new age of digital times I feel they will and eventually stay around paper like I and evening standard show cutting cost doesn’t mean cutting quality so much

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  2. LOL – steam tankers – what a great analogy!
    I must admit I like paper. I like leaving them around on the coffee table and browsing through them, and I love doing the samurai Sudoku! I’ve tried doing them online but it gives me a headache.

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  3. Like many writers who spend hours on end at the keyboard, I love my stories and news to come in paper form. I can get out of my chair; read standing at the kitchen bench or sprawled on the sofa late at night. I agree, Lisa, it is a treat to leave the newspaper around to dive into at will.
    I suppose the difficulty with online journalism is verifying a blog’s credentials (at a glance). What I mean is, there is always this feeling of authenticity when reading hard news and features in print. In my opinion, there is a sense of assurance that the journalist is educated and trained properly in the profession and at least endeavours to uphold the principles of the Fourth Estate. In addition, there are Editors keeping the watch and insisting on verification. I know that there are solid journos posting online who stick with the laws, ethics and rules that true journalism requires but it would be nice to see them all under some sort of banner – not just ‘out there’ mixed up with Joe Bloggs who has a barrow to push.
    I often hear people discussing something of great importance they read on line and when I ask the credentials of the person who wrote it, they don’t understand the point I am trying to make.
    Thanks for bringing us this roundup. It leads to discussion and debate which is always a good thing.

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    • Exactly, Karen. For all their faults, the old papers (the serious one, not The Truth!) knew that their reputation and sales depended on reliability and accuracy. Now we’ve got nothing.

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  4. […] This not-really-a-post is more of a sign-post for anyone who is interested in the changing face of journalism to check out this post at ANZ LitLovers. […]

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  5. A fascinating discussion, Lisa – thanks for sharing it.

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    • Do you have the same issues in the UK, Jacqui?

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      • Yes, Lisa, I think we do (although I’m far from being an expert in this field). There’s the challenge of finding a sustainable business model, and I’m not sure if one solution will work for all newspapers. Stu has already mentioned the London Evening Standard – as you may know, the Standard dropped its cover price in favour of an advertising-led business model (which seems to have worked very well). And The Times has gone down the paywall route…

        I do worry about the future of arts journalism and professional reviews/critiques of cultural forms (films, theatre and books, of course). It often seems to be one of the first areas to fall victim to cutbacks when times are hard.

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        • Yes, that side of it wasn’t discussed in this session, but what you say is true. Print space for books reviews has been savaged.

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  6. This sounds like an excellent session, Lisa, and right up my street.

    The big problem is how to fund journalism when no-one wants to pay for it. Everything is free on the internet, so the public is loathe to pay for subscriptions (ie. paywalls). Magazines/newspapers are trying to do more and more work (print and digital, including video, interactive features and social media) with less and less resources (despite what anyone tells you, advertisers don’t want to switch to digital, because the audience is less “captive” and ephemeral), so budgets for salaries are constantly being slashed. I have 17+ years experience as a journalist, sub-editor and production editor, but does anyone want to pay for that experience? Um, no. I was recently offered a job on the basis that I could come in, run the show, wouldn’t have to be trained and could, in fact, train others underneath me, but the salary was the equivalent of what I’d earned 10 years ago. In another example, one of my clients with whom I’d been freelancing on a regular basis for a year or so actually slashed my day rate by 40% — I told them if they couldn’t pay me a living wage I wasn’t interested in working for them.

    The most recent development here in the UK is to get rid of editors and employ “content directors” who are less concerned with upholding editorial values and more concerned with commercial opportunities (ie. doing deals with advertisers to create “sponsored” content). This, to me, is the death of journalism (it’s also, increasingly, the death of independent blogging — but that’s another rant for another time). Interestingly, one of the big magazine companies here has just appointed a new CEO who hasn’t come up through the usual channels (ie. publishing, usually sales) but through accountancy — she’s only interested in numbers.

    But this comment is long enough. Thanks for letting me know about these books; I will look at seeing if they are available here.

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    • You’ve nailed the problem, Kim: people don’t understand the importance of editors to journalism, and they don’t understand journalism’s relationship to democracy. So they aren’t willing to pay for it. They never were, of course, but the money that came from classified ads paid for the journalism so the business model worked.
      One small ray of hope for certain kinds of journalism is coming from the universities: online sites like The Conversation and Inside Story are funded by universities. But I don’t know how (or even if) they are edited for direction and content, certainly from what I see of the arts pages at The Conversation, it’s disappointingly light on for reviews and a lot of it is surprisingly lowbrow.

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  7. […] to see that here is another author who really enjoys doing research.  I met John A. Scott on my wonderful weekend in Woodend and he told some fascinating stories about his adventures with research.  Writing his recent […]

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  8. […] media, and I bought this book at the 2014 Woodend Winter Arts Festival after I’d heard a session called ‘Hold the Front Page’.  That session was a mixture of nostalgia and optimism but there was no doubt that serious […]

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