This week we’re celebrating five years since newmatilda.com made its way into cyberspace. A lot has changed since then — both on the site and in the world that it reflects.
Tim Soutphommasane’s article today looks at one aspect of the way Australia’s political culture has changed in the last few years, arguing that it’s time the left realised it is shooting itself in the foot by rejecting patriotism. But for a snapshot of how this country has changed politically over that period, take a lucky dip from the approximately 3800 articles we have published in that time.
Of course the other thing that has undergone dramatic changes in the past five years is the media environment we are operating in.
It’s weird to reflect on, but when newmatilda.com began in 2004, getting your news and analysis online was still something of a novelty for many Australians. This thing called the internet had been around for some time, but we were still working out how to make it work for us, and how to integrate it with our other reading and viewing habits. And of course, the technology was still adapting to users’ requirements too.
We’re the first to admit that when the site started out, it was a lumbering beast. The clunky design and navigation made it feel more like a printed newsletter than a dynamic and inviting website. These days, things are changing weekly in the online environment, and the growth of social media has fast-tracked that. For us, like a lot of online outlets, keeping up with those changes is one of the best parts of the job — it’s an exciting sector to be involved in at this time in history.
But probably the biggest thing that has happened to the Australian media in the past five years is a crisis of confidence, often referred to, rather dramatically, as "the death of quality journalism".
This is an issue that we obviously have a stake in here at newmatilda.com. But we have only dipped into this debate occasionally, and it’s for a reason: we think there are few commentators on the issue who have really been able to identify and articulate the challenges that we, as both consumers and producers, face in a changing media environment — without panicking and calling in the undertaker.
Media commentators seem to have a knack of saying a little with a lot of words, and the "future of journalism" debate has demonstrated that. We won’t try and count the column inches that have been devoted to the debate — but it did appear for a while there that journalists had become their own favourite topic of investigation.
The concern for jobs is genuine and understandable — where will we find them as traditional media models fail? — and we share this concern. But that part of the issue is about as interesting and relevant to your average media consumer as the price of fish is to a cactus. The public, when it notices and cares about these changes, is concerned about access to sources of high quality information, not staffing levels. Although staff numbers and editorial budgets are related to the quality of work that an outlet can produce, limiting our responses to that kind of framework fails to acknowledge the scope of the changes underway.
We also feel that many of those changes — some of which would probably be better described as challenges or even as opportunities (seriously!) — are being conflated and often misrepresented under the "death of quality journalism" banner.
Like other contributors to this debate, we are a bunch of people who care deeply about the media and its potential to do good things in this world, but we suspect that part of the confusion in this matter may be due to the questions that the debate is asking. So, on this birthday, we’d like to take the opportunity to ask a few hard questions about the Australian media and our lack of care for it over the past five years.
This very short list is called: "If we really care about the future of journalism in Australia …" — and we invite you to add to it too.
1) If we really care about the future of journalism in Australia, why did we let SBS die?
No, it’s not dead yet, but it may as well be. The question here is really: Why did we allow one of our public broadcasters to be politicised to the point where it is now largely redundant — which is just what its detractors wanted? It is an outlet that used to have both a national and an international current affairs program, and a news program that was an important source of original international journalism. It now has a current affairs talk show (which can be very interesting, but it is not breaking stories or uncovering uncomfortable information), an international current affairs program that has largely lost its rigour, and a news service that takes its cues almost entirely from the wire services.
SBS used to be one of the best sources of quality journalism in this country. The fact that it no longer is has nothing to do with commercial pressures. It’s because the Howard government castrated it and no one said a word — not the staff who were constantly being bullied into toeing a certain political line nor the union that represents them, not the audiences who watched its rapid decline nor the academics who make a living from researching the media.
So, why not? SBS news and current affairs is a shell of its former self and we let it happen. Surely we must have had a reason.
2) If we really care about the future of journalism in Australia, why don’t we hold the ABC to its charter and demand that it steps in where the market is failing?
The ABC has a responsibility to act when the market fails, but how much investigative journalism does it produce really? And is it doing what it must to ramp this up in response to an industry in decline?
In this year’s budget, the ABC received a funding boost of $167 million over the next three years. It plans to spend this money on drama, a dedicated kids’ television channel, and on so-called "regional broadband hubs" that will allow user-generated content.
Mark Scott, the ABC’s managing director, is an enthusiastic participant in the "future of journalism" debate, and yet he has failed to outline how the ABC — which is not subject to the commercial pressures being faced by Fairfax and others — intends to address the problem in real terms.
Instead of fretting about the death of quality journalism, why aren’t we lobbying the ABC for a dedicated current affairs channel like the BBC’s?
Also, various people have proposed a publicly funded newspaper, but what about the journalism that we already fund? For example, how much of the journalism produced by 4 Corners — which bills itself as "investigative TV journalism at its best" — can really be defined as "investigative"? Do we actually agree what’s meant by this term? And why is the country’s top investigative journalism show spending money on repeat programs from the BBC when Australians can access the BBC’s content online anyway?
3) If we really care about the future of journalism in Australia, why have so many of us uncritically accepted the falsehood that it is "dead"?
Quality journalism isn’t dead. It might be looking a bit anaemic in parts, and could do with a funding injection, sure. But to claim that it is dead or even dying only feeds apathy: why should I read the news when it’s no longer quality?
Clearly quality journalism is being let down by the quality of the journalism about it. Plenty of people are using words like "dead" and "dying" but the quality way to approach this is to rely on some proper evidence. Let us discuss any actual research that’s out there, and we don’t just mean business stats. Fairfax’s profits are down, and yes, it would be a tragedy if Fairfax went under, but does that mean people are less interested in the news or that those journalists who still produce the newspapers are somehow less committed to the facts? How is it a foregone conclusion that changes in the supply will strangle solutions driven by the creative power of the demand?
Finally, was investigative journalism really better then than it is now? And if investigative journalism is undertaken at all in this country, why is it only the Fairfax newspapers that are expected to do it?
All around us we see people engaging in the issues and being engaged by the issues in new ways and with new and exciting tools to do it with. Until plenty of solid research proves that it’s in decline — and that investigative journalists were more committed, better funded, or just better, in the 80s or 90s or early noughties — it smells a whole lot like "things were better in my day" to us.
As one of just a handful of professional online news and analysis outlets in this country, we are an integral part of the media environment that is going to have to come up with solutions to these challenges. And rather than seeing reason to panic, it’s something we’re looking forward to very much.
Happy our birthday, everyone!
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