Australian entrepreneur with FanFooty (alive) and Tinfinger (dead) on his CV. Working on new projects, podcasting weekly at the Coaches Box, and trying not to let microblogging take over this blog.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Larry Pickering & Michael Smith: Woodward & Bernstein, or Burke & Wills?

I don't tend to get many comments on this blog, but my last entry a couple of days ago got an interesting one from Andrew Elder. I follow Andrew's Politically homeless blog, which seemingly has as its raison d'etre the cataloguing of all the reasons why Tony Abbott will fail to become Prime Minister, and how the mainstream media has been getting that narrative completely wrong for years now. His editorial line on that blog is a classic Sir Humphrey style "courageous" stance, and I can't help but admire his chutzpah in the face of what has, at times, been almost insurmountable evidence that Abbott would be our next PM. (I am also a strong left-winger who supports Gillard, BTW.) Thus his comment moves me to respond at length to justify my argument in my last post.

I have spent a fair bit of time over the last two years reading and commenting on political blogs. I had an idea that it might be a good business concept to launch a political blog. I found out quickly that that was a terrible idea, because there was no money in it. The subsequent closing of Larvatus Prodeo has left a void on the left side of the poliblog space, which was the subject of my last post. In that time, there has been a gradual but unmistakable connection made between mainstream right-wing journalism and the poliblogs on the right. The Australian newspaper, most notably, has begun littering its pages with references to Catallaxy Files, Professor Bunyip, and other members of the hive of scum and villainy that is the wingnut blog brigade. This culminated during 2012 with the AWU scandal, which was engineered in large degree by Larry Pickering and Michael Smith. Their reports percolated back up through the Australian and eventually made their way to the ABC and Fairfax, such that by the end of the recent parliamentary session it was the Opposition Leader himself who was prosecuting the case based on evidence first aired on these supposedly disreputable outcast outlets.

I praised Pickering and Smith as having "new noise and energy", which Andrew replied "consisted merely of being noticed by the MSM". But that's kind of the point. Worthy but unseen journalism is not worth much. If independent journalism is going to be important after the fall of Fairfax, it must be viewed by the public in large numbers, not hidden away behind paywalls for the rich minority. The right has seen the light, and it has now established an ecosystem to carry the nutrients from the fertilised fungi that is a Pickering or Smith post all the way up through the food chain to a national audience. The right also have created a bully pulpit to cower the "centrist" media into following their agenda, so that while the Australian itself is not widely read, it has colonised other media to run their editorial lines.

Where are the vehicles for Margo Kingston, or even Andrew himself, to carry their messages to the average Aussie in language they can understand? No, The Drum doesn't count, and neither does The Conversation. That's the echo chamber. Margo can post all she likes at New Matilda, and I don't wish to be unkind, but her stuff merits a larger audience than NM and her Twitter followers.

My praise, such as it is, is for the fact that the right have got themselves organised. The left are being far too passive. You may say that journalism should not be debased like that, with everyone taking sides like it's a schoolyard fight. Welcome to the future, it's here and the Fairfax dynasty aren't going to save you! This is what happens when the old self-funded institutions of journalism die. The survivors are subsidised by millionaires, or live via other means like Pickering and Smith. So far, no mass medium journalism publication has arisen from Australian new media, because the economics don't work and the professionals haven't taken it seriously. Yet.

Ex-MSM journos would need to reskill if they are to be the founders of whatever it is that is going to come next, to replace the role Fairfax has played. Andrew is right in those points. While I wouldn't go so far as to say the online journalism scene in Australia is terra nullius, though, there is a big hole in the middle of its continent, and the only incursions so far have been made are restricted to the coastline. There is so much more potential yet to be realised. Pickering and Smith are like some of those hopeless early explorers, doomed to perish in the desert due to poor planning, lack of support and antediluvian notions of competence. We remember ostensible disasters like Burke and Wills today though, because they blazed the trail that others followed with far more success. Who will follow in their muck-flaked footsteps to bring civilisation to the scrub?

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.