Friday, December 21, 2012

Journalism will die. Long live journalism?

2012 has been a bad year for journalism in Australia. The mainstream kind of journalism has undergone thousands of job losses, announced by News Ltd and Fairfax most notably but by no means restricted to them. It is harder for new graduates to find any work as journalists, and hundreds of grizzled veterans look up and find very little in the way of paid work as journalists in prospect. There is hope, but more of that later.

The Finkelstein inquiry has been and gone, blithely ignoring the obvious reality of the inevitable destruction of the basis of journalism's funding structure. As a document of the current state of the media industry in Australia with its Pollyanna attitude towards the future of journalism, it was exposed as a hopeless joke mere months later when two of its major targets slashed their staff numbers and announced drastic measures to stave off corporate death. If anyone is looking towards regulation or other government instrument to save journalism, look elsewhere.

It is no longer controversial to point out that not only is the ABC not motivated by the profit motive, neither is News Ltd. The new corporate structure of News and Fox, where all the safely profitable broadcast media properties are stuffed into the public listed Fox entity, and the poorly performing newspapers relegated to the News basket save for the Foxtel cash cow, means that Foxtel effectively underwrites the losses at the newspapers, and will probably do so in perpetuity. Journalism has always had to rely on a tangentially related revenue source to fund it, and the Murdochs have found a way to fund their global journalism vehicles by strapping them to the back of the Foxtel juggernaut. And Foxtel's major property is the AFL, and the AFL is increasingly focused around fantasy football. So Dream Team is saving the Wall Street Journal! Well, maybe that's a bit cheeky. Helping to save. :)

Anyway, back to the point. The non-mainstream kind of journalism has also not had a good year. I suppose it's a win of sorts that the likes of New Matilda, King's Tribune and Crikey are still going, albeit that they don't seem to be expanding much. The demise of Larvatus Prodeo shows up the fragility of such worthy efforts. The Global Mail is iterating, painfully, but it hasn't been kicking many goals lately, beyond Ellen Fanning's excellent series on electricity industry goldplating. As startup founders are wont to do, Graeme Wood looks like he's on the verge of restarting TGM from scratch.

Most of the new noise and energy, however, came from much less reputable blogs, like those of Larry Pickering and Michael Smith. The chaos of the American political system is encroaching ever further on our own, egged on by operatives from both sides, and it is influencing the kind of journalism that is practiced both inside and outside the mainstream. Little of this advances the causes of objectivity or sensibility.

What will happen in 2013? The most important thing, for me, is that a lot of journalists with a lot of experience will suddenly be out of work. They will need a new job, and many of them still have a lot to say. Many of them will have fat payouts from their former employers for their many years of service. This smacks of opportunity.

What I would like to see is groups of these newly retrenched journos take up the cudgel and found journalism startups. The Global Mail example shows that it is entirely possible for ex-mainstream journos to be completely unsuited to the rigours and pressures of startup life, but surely there are some entrepreneurial types among the sacked lizard swarm who could live off their redundancy packages for long enough to bootstrap a new Web vehicle for their talents.

If there are any such journos out there, my main piece of advice would be: do not be afraid to feed of the carcass of the mothers which just spurned them. Treat the industry as a zero-sum game - or better, as a walking corpse. Assume that Fairfax is going to die. Act as if you won't have AAP feeds forever. Figure out what comes after the fall, and how you can be part of the new media economy. Don't feel sorry for your mates still working at the places you're putting the sword to. They will join you if you succeed. Someone's going to do it, it might as well be you.

This is what worked for the Business Spectator mob. They attacked the Financial Review like a band of cutthroats sailing the Spanish Main, plundering and pillaging. They worked the freemium marketing angle through Alan Kohler's ABC involvements. They got their exit, they reached the startup Holy Grail. Whoever has the skill and chutzpah to follow their lead could be the next winner.

Ah, but you might say, what else is there to attack? The Spectator crew had a nice, fat target in the Fin, but there aren't too many profitable sections left in the Fairfax or News stables. My advice would be to look to other media platforms, specifically TV. Draw your sights on Seven, Nine and Ten. Target Foxtel and Telstra. Lord knows they're busy attacking each other, they won't see you coming. Look at when, how and from whom they make their money, and try to steal their eyeballs.

How will all this rampant capitalist thought benefit pure journalism, you cry? What about investigative journalism, who will break the big stories? That's the problem with the Global Mail experience: it's folly to pretend that the commercial imperative doesn't matter to journalism. The commercial imperative draws you closer to your audience. Of course there has to be a wall between advertising and editorial, but the two sides are both trying to connect with consumers of their content. Journos at the Global Mail were guilty of the sin of creating a job which fulfilled all their needs, not necessarily the needs of the audience. I'm sure that's not what Graeme intended, but the lack of urgency which his obligation-free funding encouraged has led to the evident problems. Journalism startups are just like any other startup, they will fail if they are not instantly responsive to user feedback. So there won't be any journalism - investigative, pure, or otherwise - if there is a disconnect between journalist and audience.

 2013 is the year where I would hope to see half a dozen other Alan Kohlers emerge at the head of other jackal startups, scampering across the savannah, scavenging the scraps from the pungent masses of rotting flesh where their former employers used to be. Now is the time when the ideas for these startups should be brainstormed, if not already. Good luck.

Note: early signs are not, sadly, hopeful.


Blogger Andrew Elder said...

Your fifth paragraph was crap, and the point where your article went off the rails. The "energy" you describe consisted merely of being noticed by the MSM. Journalists would do better to do what Margo Kingston appears to be doing - taking the social media landscape seriously and working with it, rather than regarding it as some sort of terra nullius like you do (or regarding Smith and Pickering as the guys who set the standard for journalism in social media).

Journalists operating in social media will have to get used to the idea that splicing together two press releases or a bogus study just to chew up 600 words won't do. There is a sense of news value that is alien to old-school nostalgia about punny headlines or cliched pre-assembled stories that write themselves. The smarter blogs and other social media go looking for that value and scorn its absence. Journalists need to tap into that rather than assuming that they can just churn out the same old rubbish under their own brand.

Journalists seeking to operate in social media face the loss of more than just their payslip: some of those cherished notions about "the punters" bandied about the newsroom won't and can't sustain journalists through their most-MSM careers, and need to die.

11:41 am, December 21, 2012  

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