There is plenty to commend in Rupert Murdoch’s Boyer Lecture, delivered on Sunday night on ABC Radio National.
He is clearly as enthused about the opportunities presented by digital technology as anyone and, judging by Friday’s announcement that David Penberthy has been lined up to run a wholly new, integrated multi-media product that is unlike anything seen in Australia, he is prepared to act on this excitement.
Where others see doom, Murdoch appears to see opportunities, which is what you would hope for in a chief executive. While he is also preparing to make cuts to cover revenue shortfalls (although we would counsel him against savaging his editorial teams), Murdoch is clearly also prepared to invest in journalism, which is refreshing to see.
However he does tend to come over a bit Thatcherite when dismissing the concerns of those in the newsrooms who are worried about their future or concerned they might be left behind as their mastheads rush to new forms of delivery.
He spoke of some journalists as “misguided cynics who are too busy writing their own obituary to be excited by the opportunity”. These people he dubbed “doom and gloomers”, wrapped in “self-pity”, which he says — rightly — is “never pretty”.
It was all a little redolent of the days when the UK was suffering the worst unemployment for decades and the Tory home secretary advised those who couldn’t get a job to “get on your bike” to find work.
Would it were as simple as that. There is pessimism in the industry — you only have to read any of the news sites — such as Media Guardian in the UK or Paper Cuts in the US — to learn almost daily of struggling newspapers announcing plans to retrench more staff. A recent debate about how many journalists you would need to start up a newsroom were all the newspapers to fail in, say, Philadelphia or Dallas (about 35 was the finding of a recent workshop at the City University of New York. That’s 10 per cent of the current editorial staff on the Philadelphia Inquirer, by the way).
The Media Alliance recently conducted a survey of newsrooms and found there was a great deal of enthusiasm for new media and the new ways of doing things. Most journalists have accepted that the new landscape means more work, usually over more hours and, again, usually without being paid any more for doing it.
But the biggest concern isn’t pay and conditions, it is that their managers, by trying to squeeze a print edition of a newspaper and a constantly updated website out of no extra staff — indeed, in most cases, less journalists — risks sacrificing quality.
So it’s not self-pity, but pride in their work that is fuelling concern among a lot of journalists.
The other main finding of our research, which we will be releasing in a report on the future of journalism at a major conference in Melbourne on November 26, is that journalists are rarely being given the training they need to face a changing future with any confidence.
This appears to be the main concern of working journalists — especially our freelance members, but also those actually in the newsrooms: that they will be left behind as the pace of change quickens. For freelance journalists this is a natural concern: their business model has been shaken more profoundly by the digital revolution. They face the double-edged sword of recession, with the concomitant fall in demand for their services, and a revolution in the industry they serve, which is creating in newsrooms a new world at which they can only press their noses against the glass.
But when we talk with members inside newsrooms we get no sense that they are being properly prepared for the way their work is changing. Too often we hear that journalists are “just being given what they need to do their jobs”. As our report finds, only a tiny fraction of respondents said they were being given a comprehensive multi-media reskilling.
For all I know our mainstream media is preparing to roll out comprehensive training courses that will turn employees — in the words of Joanna Geary, a UK blogger on journalism: “from dinosaur to digital natives”. Geary has been tasked to design modules to do this over a five-day training course for the Birmingham Evening Post. We could use the same kind of consciousness-raising exercise here.
Next week the Alliance is holding the third of its discussions on the Future of Journalism in Melbourne. We’ve hosted similar events in Sydney and in Brisbane. Some of what we have heard has been uplifting, some — frankly — pretty scary. We’ve heard Roy Greenslade mourning what he sees as the almost inevitable death of newspapers and Phil Meyer, after more than five decades in journalism, wishing he was just starting out so that he could compete with today’s young journalists in using all the exciting new tools available.
Meyer is speaking at our event again next week and he makes for inspiring listening.
You won’t hear of doom and gloom from him. But Meyer operates on twin mantras: you must uphold quality if you are to survive and journalists must be given the training they need to compete. He’s spent the past twenty-odd years in journalism education doing just that.
And Australian journalists don’t want to hear of doom and gloom, either. But like Meyer, they want to remain proud of what they do and they need to be given the skills to flourish in the new world.
Alliance Future of Journalism summit, starts 9.00am, Telstra Conference Centre, Level 1, 242 Exhibition St (cnr Lonsdale & Exhibition streets), Melbourne. To book: call our membership centre on 1300 65 65 13