Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 12, 2016

Journalism at the Crossroads, by Margaret Simons

Journalism at the Crossroads Journalism at the Crossroads, Crisis and Opportunity for the Press was published four years ago back in 2012, and much has changed in the media landscape since then – but the book remains relevant because of its basic premise, that quality journalism matters, and that new technologies provide opportunities for it to survive.

Margaret Simons is one of our best thinkers about Australian 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 journalism was in trouble, which meant trouble for democracy.  At the time of Simons writing this book the US Tea Party had created a budget crisis … now in 2016 the failure of American journalism brings us Donald Trump.  Gotcha journalism here in Australia has brought our politics to a new low too, (see Lindsay Tanner’s book Sideshow) but the question is, what should we do about it?

Well, in Journalism at the Crossroads Simons confirms that the business model for newspapers is broken, but she has some innovative ideas about what could replace it.

Without going into the details of her ideas, it’s quite clear that Simons thinks that Australian management is a big part of the problem.  Writing about an innovative US-based community newsroom project, she goes on to say:

Imagine what the same model might do to some of the shameful, sleepy, complacent and neglected-by-head-office publications presently run in Australian country towns by the Rural Press arm of Fairfax Media and by other media companies. They are relatively unaffected by the digital world as yet, but how long will it be before citizens take them on with lively homegrown websites?  And how much loyalty can they expect to have from readers and advertisers if they don’t lift their games? (p. 41)

(You could say the same thing about our suburban papers too.  Their content hasn’t changed in decades.  Does anybody read them??)

One of Simons’ more startling suggestions is the idea that gaming could be used to engage people in the news.  Mark Day, a media commentator for The Australian, was, she says, almost apoplectic about the idea:

Gulp! Games? Video timewasters such as pub parlour machines online; all bells and whistles and gunships and broken bodies, the worlds of Warcraft, avatars, fantasies and second lives a means of disseminating information?  Are you serious? (p56)

Her response?

Well, of course I am.  This is not to suggest that all journalism can be conveyed in game mode.  Storytelling, analysis, and plainly presented facts and figures are still important, but game playing can be one important tool to persuade people who otherwise might not interact with the facts to engage, and to broaden their involvement and understanding.  (p. 56)

Simons gives the example of an award-winning game called

…Fate of the world, a game based on the research of climate-change scientists that simulates the social and environmental impact of climate change over the next 200 years.

I can’t think of a better way to explain a complex issue than to play a game about it.  I like those quizzes that the ABC Health pages use to teach us about making good choices.  (But then, I’m a teacher, and we know the value of games for learning!)

Simons makes the point elsewhere that news does not have to be deadly serious.  (Witness The Project on Channel 10.  Eric Pearce is probably turning in his grave, but people watch it because it’s entertaining. Likewise, they watch the lightweight Annabel Crabb because she makes politics funny.  People my age might feel nostalgic about the tough investigative journalism of This Day Tonight and Monday Conference but those days are gone.  Better that people keep up with news lite, than tabloid trash or no news at all.

In her chapter about opening up search systems to the public (as in Trove), she puts out a wake-up call to the journalists who have been slow to respond to the opportunities offered by new technologies:

I am sadder than I can reasonably express to say this, but in Australia all the important moves in this revolution are not being made by journalists, but by governments and engaged, web-savvy citizens, often on a volunteer and not-for-profit basis.  For example, there is OpenAustralia, a resource put together by volunteers.  It allows anyone to search, for free, to find out what their parliamentarian has been doing, and to sign up to an email alert when they speak in parliament. (p.59)

(I might think that I know what my local member has been doing because I follow her on Facebook, but #NothingWrongWithThat,It’sFacebook those stories are relentlessly positive. But Open Australia is more rigorous: it gives her attendance record, her voting record, and her adherence to the party line – and if I were a glutton for punishment I could read her speeches too.) Open Australia has lots of other projects under way as well.

We often hear that people aren’t so willing to do volunteer works these days, and yet we see a plethora of these kinds of voluntary engagement in what Simons calls ‘acts of journalism’.  My blogging friends and I are engaged in not dissimilar kinds of voluntary work when we add to cultural capital with our reviews and articles about books.  Someone like Stu at Winston’s Dad has done more to spread intercultural awareness than anyone else I know, because from his home in the UK he has been a prime mover in the take-up of translated fiction around the world.  Sue from Whispering Gums has done an enormous amount of work at Wikipedia with her articles about Australian authors.  You could say the same about many of the sites in my blogroll where the diversity of ‘acts of journalism’ contributions is astonishing. We may not be out running the Brownie troupe, but we are doing hours and hours of voluntary work all the same.

In her chapter on ‘Collaboration and Independence’ Simons writes about the then newly-founded Conversation, which is funded by government grants, the CSIRO, leading universities, philanthropic organisations and corporations.  Its slogan is academic rigour, journalistic flair and the model is spreading around the world.  (I read the French version sometimes too).

I really liked the conclusion to this stimulating and thoughtful book:

The answer to our emerging civic crisis must lie not only in preserving journalists’ jobs  – although that is important – but also in discovering, encouraging and nurturing the journalistic capacity of society as a whole, and in making sure that professional journalists value that capacity, and that society as a whole learns to grapple with what the dirty work of exposure and unauthorised disclosure requires.

Within the crisis, there is opportunity – new models, and the potential for new and perhaps healthier ways.

We need to be ready.  (p. 123)

At only 135 pages including endnotes, I think this book is essential reading, not because it offers solutions, but because it suggests a mindset of possibilities.  And that’s what we need, an openness to fresh ideas and ways of doing things.

Update (the next day)

I found this article via Margaret Simons’ Twitter feed: How to Get People to Pay for News

Author: Margaret Simons
Title: Journalism at the Crossroads, Crisis and opportunity for the press
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2012
ISBN: 9781922070203
Source: Personal library, purchased at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival bookseller, Book Bonding, $24.99

Journalism at the Crossroads: Crisis and Opportunity for the Press


Responses

  1. Interesting… For obvious reasons… But how does playing games fund quality journalism? The public now expects news to be free on the Internet, and big corporations are cutting contributors budgets to the point that they expect the copy to be supplied at ridiculously cheap rates if the bother to pay at all, so it’s kind of a catch-22 situation.

    Yesterday marked my 20th anniversary in journalism. I cannot even begin to tell you the massive changes I’ve experienced during that time.

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    • I thought of you, of course, as I was reading this book.
      As I said, the book doesn’t have answers, only suggestions, and you’re right, if we in Australia didn’t have the ABC to do the investigative work we would be in trouble indeed.
      But as to gaming… the development of gaming is incredibly lucrative and people who play games are always looking for something new and relevant to play. My guess is that if someone developed a game about how politics worked for Year 12 politics students, it would soon be in every secondary school in the country. I can’t find it now, but (you know how anything to do with Anzac gets funded even when nothing else does) there is an interactive website about WW2 that involves role playing events, it’s got videos, audios, simulations, and games. It is a highly engaging site, similar in purpose to that old board game Diplomacy that was about the causes of WW1 and the European alliances.
      That’s not news, of course, though a subscription service could keep it up to date with the latest in political events. But Simons also talks about where news agendas come from. Much of what is ‘news’ is not news, and it’s not actually important. All those crime reports? Of course there will be daily crime in a big city. Why do we need to know about the latest assault in all its gory detail? What matters is the analysis: what are we doing about prevention, are there enough police and are they effective with the resources they’ve got, is the crime rate going up or down and so on. That is what actually matters, but no news organisation is providing that kind of news, instead what we get (even on the ABC now) is a steady drip feed of crime stories, often in much greater length than they warrant. What if true crime aficionados could buy into a game that tracked crime across a city in real time and offered its players the role of detective so that they grew to understand the bigger picture?
      Simons’ point is that now people aren’t willing to pay for press ads that used to fund journalism we need to look at what people *are* willing to pay for, and find creative ways of tapping into it.

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  2. Excellent post about a very timely book, Lisa. I totally agree that the work we bloggers do is volunteering … Indeed there’s a lot of on line volunteering going on in the informational world, both coordinated like Wikipedia and more self-driven like blogs and personal websites, YouTubes etc. When people ask about my volunteering I always mention my online work now as part of it.

    And no, I don’t read many papers now. I sometimes look at the online Canberra Times or the online Guardian over my breakfast but more often I do what I’m doing now! I am more likely to get my info elsewhere like The Conversation, or interview and discussion on the radio.

    And yet, we still need quality journalism, wherever the content ends up, because as you say investigative journalism like those that have exposed major issues is critical to our democracy. Media Watch has exposed some terrible examples of poor journalism coming from major papers. Recently SMH published an obituary for Chinua Achebe who had actually died about 3 years ago, and they took up the news of the Kevin Andrew so-called leadership challenge without investigating the context of what they were reporting. I like to think this was due to lack of editorial control and time to properly research rather than intentional mischief-making!

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    • Thanks, Sue:)
      One of the points that Simons makes is that most papers responded to change by making their papers bigger with all those supplements (Epicure, Travel, Good Weekend etc). But with very rare exceptions, they are not news, they are features, and while they may offer human interest stories, they are not the investigative issues that are crucial to our democracy. I have no idea if The Saturday Paper is profitable or not, but it’s now a must-read in our house because that’s the kind of journalism it mostly does. It’s not dependant on the scoop, which Simons says doesn’t matter any more, because a scoop today lasts a couple of minutes if the reporter is lucky, after that it’s all over the web anyway.
      The Woodend Winter Arts Festival is coming up in June, and once again they will be having a session about journalism, this time with Sally Warhaft and Laurie Oakes. I’ll report back here about that in due course!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. How journalism is to survive may well be the no.1 issue of our times, as it is increasingly obvious that our leaders are getting away with everything, including murder (drone strikes!). I have been an avid newspaper reader all my life and these days get The Age and Crikey online and the West Australian if I get to a roadhouse before it is sold out (and I bought my first bike delivering newspapers in South Blackburn). You mention The Project and it appears late night satire plays a big part in news criticism in the US.
    I imagine the future of news dissemination includes citizen-generated raw material – mobile phone videos and so on – and those few of us who pay subscriptions will get commentary, but where the citizenry at large will get their news as newspapers and free to air TV die out is anyone’s guess.

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    • Good point, but I don’t think we should get too overwrought about the citizenry. For as long as I can remember the most popular form of news consumption in this state was tabloid i.e. The Sun (now The Herald Sun) and tabloid commercial TV news and current affairs. Neither ever contributed to an informed citizenry IMO, and they still don’t.

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      • What shocked me when I first started driving in the early 70s was that the Sun, which like you I had no time for, was a far more substantial news paper than either the Brisbane Courier Mail or the Adelaide Advertiser. Forty years,later the news junkies of those cities must be very grateful for the internet.

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        • Indeed. I was shocked when my parents moved to Qld and I saw the inherent bias in the sort of media they could consume, and they had no other options. Over time, of course, they stopped seeing it as a problem, because they were insulated from alternative opinions. Even the ABC is dumbed down up there.

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  4. […] Organised into four chapters named for the seasons, Six Square Metres is the warts-and-all story of Margaret Simon’s tiny garden in inner-suburban Melbourne.  It is not a garden that can conform to expert advice because its location means that there is very little sunlight in the back garden and she is reduced to growing shade-tolerant vegies in raised beds while growing more demanding plants in pots that live on her roof.  Many of her plants sulk because they are not only planted in the wrong kind of environment – she is always hopeful that she will be able to break the rules of gardening – but also because she neglects them when she is busy.  (Simons is one of Australia’s very best freelance journalists.  I’ve reviewed one of her books here). […]

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