In his speech to the National Press Club last week, News Ltd CEO John Hartigan began with: “Thank you and good afternoon. My name is Pollyanna.” It was the last bit of reality he spoke.
The speech was an aggressive defence of newspapers and the “very good journalism — at times great journalism” contained in them.
Laura Tingle in the Financial Review last Friday and Jonathan Holmes on Media Watch on Monday have called him on the hypocrisy of the speech — citing News Ltd’s second-rate and deceptive reporting of the OzCar affair and its over-the-top, inaccurate reporting of the death of Michael Jackson.
So I won’t deal here with the chasm between Hartigan’s words and his company’s actions. My focus is that Hartigan’s speech is a classic example of the delusional thinking and misguided corporate strategy that is destroying the traditional media industry.
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To a large extent the speech was a pep talk aimed at journalists. If I had a Power Point presentation I could summarise this whole speech with two points on one slide.
- If you want to attract readers, break stories people want to read.
- Give them something they can’t get anywhere else, make it relevant and useful and let them get involved.
He also, absurdly, complained about aggregation websites like Crikey, Newser and the Huffington Post, quoting Robert Thomson of the Wall Street Journal that they are “editorial echo chambers” cynically exploiting the traditional media.
Actually, they are promoting them — sending traffic to newspaper websites. I don’t think there’s any long-term business model in doing that, but it’s certainly not harming traditional media.
In my view the trouble that newspapers now find themselves in (apart from Australian newspapers of course, according to Mr Hartigan, which have no trouble at all) is due entirely to a colossal failure of management and leadership over two decades — since 1987.
Or rather it was malign neglect, brought on by a combination of too much debt and too much ambition.
What the excuse of the American newspaper owners is, I’m not sure, but I suspect it is something similar — with a healthy serve of Yankee doodling as well.
That newspapers are in deep trouble everywhere in the world is undeniable, despite John Hartigan’s denials about Australia. We are lagging the US because of the lack of competition here, but only by a bit: newsrooms are shrinking rapidly as classified advertising and consumers of news and opinion move quickly to the internet.
As I have written before, the question of whether newspapers survive is irrelevant. Journalism will be delivered in whatever form its customers want, and publishers won’t be able to change that.
The problem is that the essential product — journalism — has been losing its heart for two decades and is now being swamped because technology has lowered the barriers to entry to zero.
The fact that journalism is now not clearly enough defined to resist being dissolved in a sea of blogging, tweeting and “citizen journalism” is entirely due to the failure of its leaders over two decades.
The leadership of Australian newspaper journalism is conducted entirely by Rupert Murdoch and the Fairfax company, and has been since 1972, when Sir Frank Packer sold the Sydney Daily Telegraph to Murdoch.
In 1987 Murdoch got control of the Herald and Weekly Times and Warwick Fairfax got control of John Fairfax Ltd. Fairfax then collapsed under the debt that was needed for the acquisition, and Murdoch almost collapsed under his debt.
And that was the beginning of the end of ‘quality’ journalism in Australia.
Fairfax was plundered by a succession of receivers and banks, then by Conrad Black and the carpetbaggers he brought with him, and then by a series of public company boards and executives who were, and still are, thoroughly, frighteningly inept.
Having bought his father’s company and fulfilled some sort of dynastic destiny, Murdoch left town. He had already become an American citizen so he could own a US TV network (Fox) and in 1990 managed to clean up his balance sheet, largely by merging Sky Television with British Satellite Broadcasting.
During the following 15 years, Rupert Murdoch concentrated on American broadcasting while successive directors and executives of Fairfax concentrated first on survival and then on the share price.
In each case this involved milking the Australian newspapers and forgetting about long term strategy.
Murdoch, in yet another life-cycle of his apparent immortality, has now rediscovered newspapers, and paid too much for the Wall Street Journal. Fairfax has rediscovered tabloid journalism while trying to shrink itself to success. Both are scrambling to find a new business model for journalism.
But the time to prepare journalism for the new world was during the 1990s — but both Murdoch and Fairfax had their minds elsewhere.
It was clear from about 1993 that classified advertising would eventually move online, and that daily news would also proliferate on the web. Blogging and aggregation had its beginnings in the 90s.
But there was no attempt to respond to that by systematically trying to improve the general standard of journalism. No amount of assertion by John Hartigan or the executives at Fairfax that their journalism is “very good, even great” can disguise the fact that it is not, and hasn’t been for a long time.
As the News Ltd tabloids and the lowbrow current affairs TV programmes remind us most days, virtually anything can pass as journalism.
There is no minimum standard, no hurdle that someone’s output has to get over before being called journalism. Journalists don’t have to be qualified, either at journalism or anything else, and there are nothing more than vague, unenforced ethical requirements.
The time to establish a core idea of what journalism is, and why it is different to the ocean of words and pictures that now wash around the internet every day, was during the 1990s — when it was obvious what was coming.
Instead, all newspapers except the financial and business ones simply put their content online for free and hoped something would turn up. It didn’t.
John Hartigan’s solution now is “less of the negative stuff and more content that inspires, surprises and delights readers, more humour, more escapism”, delivered via a “package of print and electronic content”.
He finished on a realistic note: “Every conversation we have about changing what we do doesn’t start with a discussion about cutting costs, it starts with a discussion about better journalism. And the most important person in that conversation is not the editor or the journalist but the reader.”
Quite so. But while the essential characteristics of good journalism have not changed, the reader has.
The reader’s view of the world has become fractured, increasingly made up of disjointed information – including the images, snippets and tweets of social media. These are grist to the journalistic mill, no doubt, but they are not in themselves quality journalism.
Further, while this fractured diet of information provides plenty of escapism, the alarming truth is that the institutions of power are not fracturing – ‘speaking truth to power’ is still important, whether to a corrupt government, failing regulators or a duplicitous board of directors.
If readers don’t want journalism on paper any more, so be it. But that is not say the reader does not want, or need, the quality journalism traditionally found in print.
And whatever the medium, ‘quality’ journalism is not escapism. Quite the opposite, in fact.