Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Poor old Johnny Hartigan begin again

Via the Inquisitr and Andrew Bolt's blog comes the transcript of local News Corp boos John Hartigan's Canutian address to the endless waves of the blogosphere crashing over his sandcastle business.

As Duncan points out in the Inq piece, it's now a tired old cliche for journalists to attack the blogosphere for being unprofessional, as if that's the cause of the problem, when the actual issue is the gutting of advertising revenues from the classified rivers of gold. I almost fell asleep writing that, it's such a hoary chestnut of an argument. So old that journos fall into it like a pair of old slippers.

Hartigan is running the new Murdoch line of browbeating the public into paying for journalism, which goes against centuries of tradition.

I believe people will pay for content if it is:
- Original...
- Exclusive...
- Has the authority
- and is relevant to our audiences

Let's look at these four criteria, especially in the context of successful paywall-funded local online enterprises such as Crikey and the various share trading newsletters. Originality is a given, no arguments there. Exclusivity of content is not so important, in my view. In some ways, putting a paywall around content makes it inherently exclusive of those who don't pay. Does a Crikey or a Marcus Padley need to have scoops from a Hillary Bray insider type to sell subscriptions? Not necessarily, though it helps to build the brand. Authority is also overblown, I think. To me, that word is redolent of an elite class sermonising to faithful devotees, a model that just doesn't work in a media environment where the hoi polloi have as much publishing power online as do the journalists. If you set yourself up as the authority on something, how do you deal with a reader who corrects you in the comments on a story? You're just setting yourself up for a fall. A more successful approach is to collaborate with the readership to get the story right, to be accessible. Finally, the word "relevant" also smacks to me of a lack of connection with the audience. Why not use language that indicates you are listening to your readers directly, instead of paying consultants to find out for you?

Hartigan makes a big song and dance about the integration of digital and print functions in the newsroom. I don't know how truthful that is, but it can't be worse than the poisonous atmosphere between Fairfax Digital and the rump of the old guard at their paper premises. News must look like sweetness and light in comparison.

Hartigan goes on later in the speech to list what News is going to do online to halt the rot:

tools that allow you to conduct transactions with our advertisers

The old parish pump reporting on local news will be reinvented as hyperlocal coverage of real time events such as
- Where to find the cheapest petrol
- How to avoid roadworks and traffic jams and
- The best retail offers available in your suburb that day

I see coverage of politics, courts and crime changing dramatically - with less of the adversarial conflict we report now to coverage that gives readers more insight about the issues.

I see changes in the news mix – less of the negative stuff and more content that inspires, surprises and delights readers, more humour, more escapism.

- give them what they need to make decisions
- and equip them to act on those decisions

Very little of this describes actual journalism. As with much of a typical newspaper already these days, it's just public relations and marketing dressed in journalism's still-bloodied hide. The last snippet in particular screams out to me that News is determined to build a new river of gold - or at least pewter - out of cost-per-action and/or affiliate "content", so that instead of relying on classifieds for steady cashflow they will build their revenue streams on the likes of Ben Barren-built, which isn't journalism at all. The line between editorial and advertising in such brochureware is shaky at best in print but is functionally non-existent in an online context.

For the last decade or two, newspapers have been stealing shamelessly from the formats of periodical magazines, particularly "lifestyle" mags. Not coincidentally, many of the mags that the News tabloids are aping are owned by ACP, continuing on the battles in days of yore between Murdoch and Packer media properties long past Kerry's death.

It appears to me from the last section of that speech, despite Hartigan's early bluster, that the News Ltd approach is going to continue to be to leave the majority of the serious journalism to the broadsheets, radio and ABC/SBS, with The Australian used less as an instrument of democratic journalistic principles and more of an attack dog to support the editorial staff's rabid political leanings. The Herald-Sun and Daily Telegraph are going to look more and more like bits of ACP magazines stitched together. The front and back pages are going to get more and more shrill in their shouting for eyeballs.


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