Decline, yes. Fall? Maybe not.

October 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Media, Media Monologues, Print

Given the timing, this post may seem like a response to Round 4 of Public Broadcasters vs Rupert Murdoch, otherwise known as ABC managing director Mark Scott’s speech at the AN Smith Memorial Lecture in Journalism the other night. It’s not. Instead, it’s a response to a journal article that was published three months ago.

Geoffrey Barker wrote a scathing attack on journalism and newspaper managers in July, reminiscent of Jason Whittaker’s appraisal a few months ago on his blog, importanceofideas.com, where he lambasted the entire managerial hierarchy of Australian print media.
In Barker’s essay, The Crumbling Estate, written for the Griffith Review, he presents 10 trends he says are “throttling the life, authority and influence out of newspapers”.
He rightly asks:

“whether the declines in circulation and revenue result partly from decisions by companies’ managers who, desperate to ensure newspapers’ survival, have embraced a range of practices damaging to the craft of journalism”.

Summarised, Barker’s 10 trends killing (newspaper) journalism in Australia are:

  1. Managerialism displacing journalism as the dominant newsroom culture
  2. Perpetual efforts to cut costs and staff
  3. Changing work habits cutting journalists off from outside world
  4. Young journalists less likely to see the job as a vocation and more of a stepping stone
  5. Journalists out-gunned, out-thought, out-paid by armies of communications advisers
  6. Cost-cuts that lead to buying more content from notable international papers
  7. Avoiding difficult issues and highlighting sensationalist material, emphasising sex and sport
  8. Breakdown in separation between editorial and advertising
  9. Little sustained investigative journalism
  10. Downplay coverage of foreign and national news in favour of local news

Indicative of the relative lack of technological progress made by Australian newspapers, Barker says:

“the strategic decisions made by newspapers to defend themselves against technological change and economic difficulties have only worsened their situation”.

and:

“despite their vigour, newspapers are increasingly at risk from their misguided attempts to save themselves”.

On having recently left an Australian newspaper, I can say there is clearly truth in the statements about newspapers not embracing technological change. At the same time, however, I am quick to defend those involved in the production of newspaper websites, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Variously, newspapers are increasingly aware and openly acknowledging that they must be news “outlets” or companies, not just news “papers”. In that recognition, they are admirably going about the work of catching up on years of pig-headedness (and I’m being generous there – not all who are trying to catch up are necessarily working hard in the right direction). Years ago people were trying new things – promising things that had the potential to blossom into new media production experiments that, while not necessarily game changing, would have at least been industry leading.

At fault in that lost potential is not online news teams, who I think genuinely want nothing more than to grow and better inform their audience in exciting and innovative ways. Rather, an industry downturn combined with management’s perceived lack of value in pursuing new platforms or distribution ideas and other decisions like those mentioned by Barker – particularly staff cutbacks or hiring freezes – are at fault. With staff cutbacks, online teams are largely limited to moderating comments and producing image galleries of scantily clad women, instead of implementing additional content of constantly refining quality (the only thing that might be worth paying for?).

It’s positive, as it should be, that Barker sees the Australian newspaper industry as redeemable. In what way can it redeem itself? Well, that’s the trick question. And by redeem I mean make money while at the same time doing the work that can again be called that of the “Fourth Estate”.

UPDATE
Related reading and a superfluous explanation (that I’ve had to retype on my iPhone after losing half of it just before publishing the post):

On the way to catch my flight to Sydney early Wednesday morning I was reading John Birmingham’s piece in The Monthly, Mash-up: A short history of the media future.

During the flight I read The Crumbling Estate, mentioned above, and wrote the majority of this blog post as a kind of summary before going off on a tangent that kept a somewhat less than tenuous link to Barker’s essay topic.

It wasn’t until exiting the plane – and after having written this – that I started to read Jason Wilson’s New Matilda piece, News Corpus Christi (which prompted the despondent tweet below) and then Mark Scott’s speech on the Decline and Fall of the Rupertan Empire.

Some may have seen the below tweet, written immediately having read Jason Wilson’s piece. No offence intended towards either Jason or John, who I both admire and respect, but I felt I had just read a nearly carbon copy article by both men. The arguments, the examples, the conclusions – they all read the same and reminded me of all the similar “ponderings” I’d read before. And so I tweeted:

“Talk talk talk.We all keep saying the same things re future of journalism #foj. slightly #jaded :(

Mr Scott’s words were slightly more uplifting in their ushering of fantastical visions of our future utopia. And in reference to the tweet, it is not lost on me that I what I have written proposes nothing new and is far less erudite than what either Jason or John have written. But there you go. I may later talk about how I have never had to consider the business side of our glorious media future, being but a mere minion. It’s a reality I will now likely have to consider.