It's Your ABC, Literally


The recent cuts announced at Radio National are the latest in a concerted push within the ABC to move away from its role as authoritative newsmaker — with the journalist as the "expert" who informs the masses — and towards audience-driven content and interactivity. As ABC Managing Director Mark Scott said in an address to the inaugural Future of Journalism conference in April this year: "We are no longer the broadcaster as oracle". Instead, Scott wants to "host a conversation".

It’s an odd move for a national broadcaster — and one that deserves close scrutiny.

The Future of Journalism conference, which was organised by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance and hosted by the ABC, was a two-day event looking at the effect of the internet and other new(ish) technologies on the practice and profitability of journalism.

Fifteen years after the popularisation of the net, its effect on the media industry is only now becoming clear. And boy has it thrown proprietors, managers and journalists into a spin.

The conversations at the conference were two-fold: on one hand were discussions about the seemingly endless possibilities for content production that have opened up because of new technology. These were less giddy than those that were going on within the IT industry pre the dot-com bust — and more obviously informed by experience — but in some cases only just. The "new world" and "the revolution" became acceptable terms throughout the sessions, apparently invoked without irony.

On the other hand was some serious soul-searching on behalf of journalists about their role in the future of media production.

Bizarrely, in this period of great uncertainty and change, it is journalists who are being forced to re-evaluate their use to the media industry — as though the industry would exist without them. As the ground under them shifts, it’s interesting and somewhat sad to watch old-school practitioners of journalism lose faith in their knowledge and experience.

We’ll live to regret it if we sideline the talented veterans of our news industry — and fail to foster new journalistic talent by cutting cadetship programs as Fairfax is about to — in favour of a shiny, new, interactive toy.

As media commentator Margaret Simons pointed out at the conference, while it’s true that journalists will need to learn new skills if they are to function effectively in the media industry of the future, there are qualities that are integral to the role of the journalist that are bound to survive this shift. The journalist’s role of "finding things out" cannot be underestimated — or replaced by the blogosphere — she said.

In fact, a newspaper or broadcaster is worth next to nothing without the contacts and knowledge that exist within their journalistic staff. And these staff can — and do — take it all with them when they go. More and more we are seeing experienced journalists who are fed up with their conditions strike out into independent ventures (made possible by the internet) which then benefit from this knowledge.

If they want their outlets to survive the "revolution", media proprietors should be moving to shore up their journalistic capital, not laying off journalists in favour of multi-skilled, net-savvy 19-year-olds, or diluting their worth by making highly specialised journalists broaden their interests and learn how to upload video to the net. (And as much as Pool is an interesting initiative, is it really more a part of Radio National’s remit than, say, the Religion Report?)

As Quentin Dempster argued in an article for yesterday, "The digital revolution has been extraordinarily good for the ABC, but this success has been heavily dependant on the quality of the product that the broadcaster is known for" (my italics).

It’s imperative that media outlets do not get too swept up in the power-of-interactivity hype — at the expense of the very content that is driving audiences to them.

At the conference, online journalism guru Jay Rosen spoke about the "digital migration" that is about to take place within media organisations. Some of us will make it over to the other side — and others won’t, he said via live cross from the United States.

ABC journalist and MC for the event, Dominique Schwartz, jokingly asked whether we needed a Moses to lead the way. Rosen reckoned no; but in Australia at least it seems that Crikey co-owner Eric Beecher has offered himself up for the role, and — if the conference proceedings are anything to go by — he’s been largely accepted by the journalistic masses. Whenever a question arose about what the future of Australian media might look like, Beecher was called on to answer it.

As much as I greatly admire the work that Crikey does, I’d hate to think that it is being seen as the way forward for Australian media. Small online outlets such as Crikey (and including pay nowhere near union rates for their content. In championing this model, I’m not sure that many of the journalists present realised they were also putting themselves out of work or onto seriously low wages.

The question that prompted the most soul-searching at the conference, and came up in almost every session, was: Who will pay for "quality journalism" in the future, as the advertising industry turbulently realigns itself in response to a proliferation of new outlets and opportunities?

The answer? Those outlets that are not subject to the whims of the market, of course.

The ABC is no longer the broadcaster as oracle, reckons Mark Scott, they are hosting a conversation. I say leave it to the blogosphere to host a conversation, Mr Scott. You are managing a government-funded national broadcaster — this is as close to an oracle as it gets. Which is as it should be.

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