Is It Dead Yet?


Last Thursday, the ABC recorded a live forum called "Quality Journalism: How to pay for it? Does it matter?", which will be aired this Saturday morning (11 April) on Radio National.

The conversation was chaired by Geraldine Doogue and her guests were the former Liberal Party leader John Hewson; head of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism Wendy Bacon; Crikey publisher Eric Beecher; News Ltd editor Campbell Reid; and publisher of Business Spectator and the Eureka Report, Alan Kohler. 

The panel came to the conclusion that quality journalism does matter — thank God. But sometimes good journalism seems a bit like kryptonite — nobody knows what it is, where it’s coming from, or how to stop a wealthy bald man from buying it all and using it for evil.

Blogger Kimberleyjl writes:

"The discussion became a ‘definition debate’ which, as debaters will know, goes nowhere fast. It did not seem as though ‘quality journalism’ could be defined by any party, each offering their own version of [the]concept and forming their arguments around these."

According to one attendee, "Alan Kohler proved to be the illest fool in the room, and dropped some serious knowledge while rockin’ the mic."

Stilgherrian‘s twitter of the event paraphrases Kohler as saying: journalism is vibrant, but newspapers are dying, and that’s a great thing, because newspapers hold journalism back; the only thing online can’t do is investigative journalism because it’s so expensive and online ad revenue so small; newspapers get good ad rates because they’re a cartel … online won’t make a lot of money but it will survive — newspapers won’t.

(In a staged battle with Eric Beecher, Kohler gives a rather more expanded thesis here.)

News Ltd’s Campbell Reid declared that journalists seem very interested in writing their own obituaries — but it looks to us as though bloggers are doing it rather more gleefully. Trevor’s blog has a nicely representative rant on the closing of newspapers across the US (as well as boasting "The Gayest Podcast in Michigan" — a title surely not that highly coveted?):

"Most of it amounts to a senseless moral panic. Really people: get off your pretentious, intellectual, NY Times-reading, self-righteous crusade about the death of intellectualism and forthcoming end of the world. I promise that the world is not ending. And that there will be smart people still when things settle. They may just not be as able to stash a copy of the NY Times in their messenger bags to evidence their intellectual superiority."

As the traditional media grapples with the interweb, some bloggers seem to have caught a serious case of the "I Told You So"s, as evidenced by this post about a book publisher’s panel discussion at the South by South West conference in Austin, Texas.

BookSquare explains:

"The panel — fronting a room of about 300 people — was supposed to be about how ‘participatory culture and the online world interact with good olde [sic]book publishing’. The printed material suggests that we were supposed to learn what is going right and wrong in publishing … to learn how books and blogs can work.

"Setting aside the very 2005 nature of this notion, the panel came nowhere near achieving these goals."

Medialoper was also there, and equally dismayed:

"The panelists droned on, lamenting the changing media landscape. At one point, one panelist noted that many of the newspapers that review books are cutting back on their review sections, or are in danger of going out of business entirely. ‘Maybe we should begin cultivating relationships with bloggers, or something’, [they said]. Or something?"

BookSquare concludes:

"It just gets worse. At the after-party, one panelist told me that ‘this is all new to us’. Give. Me. A. Break. It’s only new for those of you who’ve been pretending change is something you get from a dollar bill. Now you’re wondering how to interact with blogs? Now you’re learning that there’s an entire conference devoted to change in the industry?"

For other bloggers, the excitement has long worn off. They’ve come to understand their role in the media cycle — which, for many of them, is not all that significant.

Jon Talton writes:

"When I hear the term ‘citizen journalist’ I reach for my pistol, to mangle a famously mangled quote.

"The notion that hundreds of part-time gadflies, blowhards, tub-thumpers, students and well-meaning good-government types can replace real journalism is silly. Much of the corporate media has embraced this fad for a simple reason: it costs less to have a housewife blog from the city council meeting for free. Whether she has the time, seasoning, and street smarts to uncover what’s really going on and put it in context for readers is highly unlikely.

"That the blogosphere has embraced it is also predictable: the ‘citizen journalist’ seems like another well-deserved payback to that arrogant ‘mainstream media’. The reality is that most of us bring little original reporting to our sites. Without real professional journalists doing their work, the blogosphere would have little to talk about. And the most successful blog news sites, such as Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, use traditional journalistic techniques."

It’s true that online content has all sorts of advantages over the traditional print media, but at the moment there are only a handful of websites that provide complete alternative news services — rather than just parasitic comments on stories produced by the corporate media — mostly because of limited budgets. No matter how long it’s taking for the major news companies to adapt, it seems inevitable that it will be they who eventually dominate the internet — even if there will be a bit of extra room for alternatives.

At the forum, Beecher argued that the issue isn’t about quality journalism, it’s in fact public trust journalism that we should be trying to save. This might seem like false dichotomy — largely because it is. Nonetheless, by the end of the forum the term had already caught on with News Ltd’s rep.

Beecher sees a combination of state funding and philanthropy supporting media in the future. At the forum, he cited the example of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s reforms in France which will increase public funding for newspapers by €600 million over three years. Kohler busted some mad caps by dismissing this as "loopy French economics".

Essentially this would mean a not-for-profit business model, which Craig Wieczorkiewicz explores the potential of at The Bread Line:

"Last week US Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, introduced legislation that would allow newspapers to become nonprofit organizations with a tax-exempt status similar to that of public broadcasting companies. If this measure passes, it won’t be enough by itself to save major daily newspapers, but it may help smaller community newspapers stay afloat.

"Of course, granting non-profit status to newspapers would create new problems. Nonprofit newspapers wouldn’t be able to endorse political candidates but supposedly would still be able to openly report on political matters. But where would the line be drawn? Would non-profit newspapers be forced to drop columnists who opine about politics? I suppose readers could find plenty of political columns online.

"These may be moot points. Cardin is having a hard time finding co-sponsors for his bill. Apparently politicians couldn’t care less about saving newspapers."

The public trust argument has gathered a lot of pace in American academic circles as a means of maintaining newspapers — although Beecher’s case, it must be said, is for media in general, rather than to merely support failing newspapers.

Slate‘s Jack Shafer offers a stinging rebuke to Senator Cardin’s plan, and others fighting to save dying newspapers:

"American newspapers have never been so loved as the moment when they appear to be dying … Until the current newspaper crisis, you rarely heard politicians or activists bleating about how important newspapers were to self-government. They mostly bitched about what awful failures newspapers were at uncovering vital data. The only group that holds a consistently high opinion of newspapers is newspaper people.

"Big love for newspapers has also been flowing in from academy/activist circles, a very unlikely source. Many in this orbit blame the press for not spotting our current financial predicament early enough and also believe that every reporter outside of the old Knight Ridder Washington bureau was complicit in the criminal conspiracy that made George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq possible. Bill Moyers encapsulated their view two years ago when he argued against the notion that the dominant institutions of the press are guardians of democracy.

"They actually work to keep reality from us, whether it’s the truth of money in politics, the social costs of free trade, growing inequality, the resegregation of our public schools, or the devastating onward march of environmental deregulation.

"The insistence on coupling newspapering [sic]to democracy irritates me not just because it overstates the quality and urgency of most of the work done by newspapers but because it inflates the capacity of newspapers to make us better citizens, wiser voters, and more enlightened taxpayers. I love news on newsprint, believe me, I do. But I hate seeing newspapers reduced to a compulsory cheat sheet for democracy. All this lovey-dovey about how essential newspapers are to civic life and the political process makes me nostalgic for the days, not all that long ago, when everybody hated them."

Which is why you should all read more often.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.