Well, that was 2009, and to adapt the old journalistic cliché, a year was a long time in media. Just when you think you’ve got a grip on technological change and what it means, things change again. So it is that as the year draws to a close most of the professional content makers again are grappling with what it will all mean for their craft and their livelihoods.

There are many strands to the story of the year in media, but the technology is the common thread, weaving its way and binding together the stories, the personalities and the business models. But let’s start with the stories.

The year started with bushfires — the disaster that struck Victoria in February. Bushfire coverage dominated the Walkley awards and led to dozens of journalists turning in noble work under the most trying conditions. There was plenty to make you proud of journalism, as well as a bit to make you ashamed.

And we were still talking about it at the end of the year, as a recent report by Denis Muller and Michael Gawenda of the Centre for Advanced Journalism revealed the lack of ethical guidelines and preparation in our major newsrooms. As they reported:

Not one of the respondents in this research said they had received any kind of briefing on what to expect, how to behave or what was expected of them. They were just told to go. Sometimes they were not even told where to go. Just to go.

At year’s end many journalists, not to mention their subjects, are still suffering from the resulting trauma. Sad to say, there is little evidence of our mainstream media organisations getting to grips with the issues the report revealed. In an industry under stress, ethical training seems to be one of the last things media bosses think about.

The end of the year was dominated by a related story — climate change and Copenhagen. This, surely, is the biggest story since the invention of the newspaper. One way or another we can expect to be covering it for the rest of our lives, yet how does one cover a rolling, slow disaster such as this one? It would be nice to think the forms of reporting would evolve and rise to meet the challenge. On the other hand, perhaps this story is the ultimate turn-off. The thing that makes audiences want to crawl back into bed and pull the blankets over their heads. The thing that turns people off news reporting.

Let’s hope not.

What about the technology? The year of 2009 marked the arrival of Twitter as a reporting tool. In June there was what the Washington Post dubbed  Iran’s Twitter revolution as events following that country’s election were brought to the world by citizens in the streets.

More recent and local, the Liberal leadership spill brought a new element to the relationships between sources, reporters and audiences.  Liberal MPs inside the party room during the spill motions Tweeted about events to their favoured reporters, who then re-tweeted, meaning that followers knew the extraordinary result — Tony Abbott! — long before the official announcement.

But for this reporter, at least, the #spill twittering also highlighted the problems with the platform — credibility. How to know whether the news was true?

Nevertheless the growth of social networking continued to be one of the main stories about media, with Twitter reporting 800,000 Australian visitors in June 2009 — a 607% increase from the previous year, and three out of four Australians visiting a social networking site each month.

Other technological change: digital radio arrived in Australia, with higher uptakes of the technology than most  had expected. Meanwhile, a firm timetable for switching off the analogue television signal was announced, with Mildura to go first in June next year.

And as a result, the negotiations over who gets the freed-up spectrum and what it will be used for have begun, with a meeting to be held next week between free-to-air television providers, Prime Minister Rudd and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.

The year the new digital-only television channels by  commercial free-to-air  and public broadcasters were launched.

So to personalities. The ABC managing director Mark Scott seized the agenda and claimed his place as one of the industry leaders with, among other things, this speech likening the collapsing business models of mainstream media to the fall of Rome.

Scott appeared to be the man of the moment, but at year’s end criticisms were emerging. When did the ABC last break a big story? Was the basic public-service function of the national broadcaster being lost in all the techno-babble and talk of innovative collaborative models with audiences?

Scott’s main rival for leadership in the industry was Foxtel boss Kim Williams, who is taking the fight up to public broadcasters as the battle between pay and public shapes to be one of the defining debates of the media landscape.

Think how different this is. Only a short while ago it was the moguls of free-to-air commercial television, and the Packer family in particular, who set media agendas. Now the Packers have gone, and all three of our commercial television broadcasters are owned largely by faceless institutional investors, and are struggling with mountains of debt as the business models collapse.

Now the movers and shakers are the leaders of pay models and public models respectively.

Williams called for deregulation of the broadcasting industry. The ABC called for regulation to be extended to new platforms such as mobile phones and television delivered over the internet. Williams called for government funding for Australian content to be made contestable, rather than being given only to the public broadcasters, and argued that the new era of multiple channels means there is less justification for taxpayer-funded broadcasting. The ABC should be limited only to things the market cannot provide, he said.

Interestingly, public broadcasters and pay television called for some of the digital dividend — the money from selling freed up spectrum following analogue switch off — to be spent on a cultural fund to support Australian content. This is likely to come to fruition in 2010, together with a welter of other moves to do with broadcasting content regulation as the federal government is forced to get to grips earlier than planned with the imperatives caused by new technology.

And what of News Limited, and our one remaining media mogul, Rupert Murdoch? This was the year in which Murdoch made explicit the plans he had hinted at in 2008 — to put news content behind paywalls. As the year rushed on, the  way in which he planned to do it began to become clear — tightly targeted subscription services to niche audiences, supported by a “cool new toy’ or e-reader.

Will it work? To use another tired journalistic cliché, the jury is still out, but the next 12 months should give us an idea. If it does work, then this will be Murdoch’s last great act of industry leadership. If it fails, then he will indeed look like an emperor trying to hold back the tides.

News Limited’s other attempts at industry leadership on the local scene were looking tattered at year’s end. The Right to Know coalition, the brave new industry lobby group founded by News Limited CEO John Hartigan, had partially fractured with differences emerging between News Ltd and the ABC over issues such as privacy legislation. And just weeks ago, Fairfax split from News Limited over the issue of how to count readership leaving the other News Limited founded industry body, the Newspaper Works, weakened as a result.

Meanwhile, the tired old beast of the Australian Press Council unexpectedly fought back against industry moves to cut its budget and rob it of its research and advocacy roles. The departing chair of the council, Ken McKinnon, used his final annual report to slam the industry for its arrogance and short sightedness.

McKinnon was replaced by Julian Disney, social activist and reforming lawyer, who was getting his feet under the desk in the past few weeks, with tours of news operations at Fairfax and News Limited.

Disney made it clear that he will give the Press Council a higher profile. Meanwhile there were suggestions that it should seek a wider brief in the age of media convergence, seeking a remit from industry to provide ethical regulation to all journalism, not only print. Expect this, together with other regulatory moves,  to be one of the stories of 2010, and Disney to be one of the new personalities on the media beat.

Fairfax. What to say about Fairfax? After a deeply damaging boardroom brawl, the company ends the year with Roger Corbett as chairman, a management clearly out of its depth in the digital world and a stated commitment to board renewal, but very little time in which to make the necessary changes before the company is written off as beyond repair, at least as a long-term provider of quality journalism.

Yet, in a testimony to the strength and sense of journalists, the papers if anything improved despite the hopelessness of the bosses.  The Age in particular maintained its commitment to quality investigative reporting, breaking several significant national and international stories.

The year also heralded the launch of three new online only mastheads, concentrating on opinion and analysis. There was The Punch from News Limited, the National Times from Fairfax and, just weeks ago, The Drum by the ABC. Too soon to say anything definitive about The Drum. The Punch has proved itself a consistently good read. The National Times serves mainly as an aggregation of Fairfax newspaper copy, and is less than exciting.

But, as several commentators pointed out, is more opinion really what we need? What is going to happen to news reporting — the hard, difficult and gritty business of finding out the facts? This is the stuff most at risk and getting least attention from industry leaders.

Expect 2010 to provide some hints of answers — as another wave of technological change overtakes us. Innovations on the horizon include Google Wave, a new collaboration tool that is likely to be Twitter on steroids when it comes to collaborations between audiences and content providers.

Meanwhile, the landmark iinet case over copyright will be decided, with international implications for the internet and the business of content making.

What else will happen? Sadly, more mainstream journalists will lose their jobs as the business models that support them fray. But as well, expect many more small internet-only outlets, serving niche audiences.

Expect e-readers to become mainstream. This, over time,  will provide a platform for those smaller enterprises to reach their audiences.

And expect social networking — Facebook, Twitter and Youtube — to continue to be at front and centre of changes in the way we make news and do journalism.  Expect, also, big changes as the companies behind Twitter start to try and make money. Will they do it without pissing off the users? Perhaps not. Brand names such as Twitter and even Google will come and go, but the functionality will stay.

But all of that is just the stuff that we can see coming. One thing is certain. By the end of 2010, we will be in a very different place, and anyone who tells you they know what will happen next is kidding you.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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