Spinning the Media project co-ordinator Sasha Pavey asked the editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, for his response to the our results. She began by asking him whether he was surprised by his paper’s result of total PR driven content at 56%, with 19.26% of stories consisting of straight public relations or promotion with no significant extra journalism work.

Mitchell: No I’m not surprised. One of the things I’ve tried to do since I came back to The Australian was impress upon the bureaus the need to break away from the diary driven stuff, because what I think you’ve found is all pervasive in the Australian media at the moment. It’s very difficult I think, given the way resources have drifted from journalism to public relations over the past 30 years, to break away as much as you really want to. But I live in hope that over the course of my remaining time in this job I can develop the paper along the lines that more of it is its own efforts … I guess I’m implying, the number of people who go to communications school and go into PR over the years has increased and the number in journalism has shrunk even more dramatically.

Pavey: But what about the other figure, the 56% of content that is driven by PR?

Mitchell: No, I would’ve thought that in most papers, especially in their news sections — the part of the paper before ‘Foreign’ — it would almost be 100%. I mean, I hardly ever see anything in the Sydney Morning Herald that I think they’ve generated themselves, so…

I think it would be really desirable for editors to try and resist to go to all the ‘pic facs’ (a staged media event for photo opportunities) that are set up by PRs. I’d really like, for instance, my own photographers to attend opportunities they set up for themselves. That’s part of the reason I sacked half my photographers last year; because I thought that half of them were going to jobs set up by PRs and every other paper was going to be there as well.

Pavey: You mention culling of staff, do you think downsizing has had an impact on the amount in which your journalists are relying on PR?

Mitchell: As an industry we employ fewer journalists, I still have over 300 but they’re spread thinly (I’ve got a big bureau in every capital city). Fewer papers, smaller newsrooms and PR has ballooned as an industry. I started as a young reporter in ’73, and nobody had a full time PR team. When I was a young business journalist, corporates were happy to get their chief executives to talk to reporters directly. There’s hardly a business story that’s written these days in which a chief executive has backgrounded a reporter, it’s all been done by spin-doctors.

Pavey: How do the results of this study reflect on the quality of journalism in your paper, and what does it then mean for the paper’s future?

Mitchell: I’m not sure it means a lot about quality, I’d say it’s more about unique content. You know, I bash up my news desk all the time about not chasing the same news agenda that everyone else does, but I admit that I obviously failed 56% of the time according to your survey, the reason I do that is I understand, and I have always understood, that for a paper like The Australian, which is everybody’s second paper after their local paper, there is no value in us replicating the news agenda they can get in their local paper. In the internet world we’re in, where you’re hoping to charge online, the premium on unique content is even larger, so obviously there no ability to charge online for ubiquitous content. We need to have our own news agenda wherever possible.

Pavey: Are some rounds more susceptible to PR than others? Which ones are more susceptible in your paper? Why is that? (Pavey commented that environment/energy appeared to be more public relations driven than other rounds in The Australian.)

Mitchell: I would like to look at your methodology there — during that period, the person who was carrying the ETS and environment round was Lenore Taylor, and I think Lenore actually led the way on ETS reporting, but you probably wouldn’t have counted her as an environment writer, you would’ve counted her as a political writer. (Eds: This is correct. Taylor is now at the SMH). We look at her as our environment person because I don’t have a dedicated environment rounds person.

Pavey: What about the police round?

Mitchell: I’ve got lots of thoughts on that — I’m going through a very difficult legal battle with Victorian Police over investigations from Cameron Stewart and the terror raid last year. I think the police have been insidious in trying to control the relationship between individual journalists and police, so the tradition I grew up with of journalists going to the pub with cops is non existent at the moment. And the police, more than any other organisation, are driving everything through police media. I think it’s a bad practice and I rail against it in the office all the time. I’m trying very hard to get people to emulate people like Cameron Stewart who don’t go through police media but, of course, that’s why he’s getting prosecuted and has been under investigation by the Australian Federal Police two or three times in the last two years.

Pavey: Is there a policy that you’ve articulated to your journalists that they’re aware of, about how to approach media releases and forms of PR — how are you getting this message of yours across?

Mitchell: Well look, what I’ve said to the news desk and every morning (and I’d invite you to talk to the national chief of staff Michelle Gunn, who gets a flogging on this on almost a daily basis) is that I would prefer we ignore things like press releases. I don’t think there’s any value for my newspaper. The truth is, most bureau chiefs operate on the basis that they have to protect their own arse, so they produce a news list which they think replicates the other papers. It takes a brave man or woman to say Nicole Kidman is in town today, and everyone in town is going to be there for Nicole Kidman, but we shouldn’t bother going. So they do go. And I give them a banging for going.

I suppose the truth is Sasha, in a journey of a thousand miles, it’s one step at a time and I don’t know that you can eliminate PR from one day to the next but you can continue to work hard to try and reduce it. In some areas it’s so all pervasive it might be impossible …

Pavey: Which ones specifically?

Mitchell: Well business… it’s far worse than anywhere else. People are so scared these days of getting themselves in trouble with the ASX that they tend to outsource virtually all of their corporate PR in an effort to make sure they’re not misleading markets or whatever, so I think business is almost the worst area.

Pavey: Would you say there is more pressure now because of reduced advertising, so that producing copy which gives editorial to advertisers takes priority?

Mitchell: No it’s not like that, it may be in some places in country papers. In the end it is really just that a vast army of journalists are employed by spin doctors to create interesting ideas for journalists, and journalists are pretty lazy. It’s pretty easy to march down to the boxes in Canberra and write what Rudd’s media office put out rather than chase their own ideas … The tendency to send journalists in the field to basic reporting has been lost in newsrooms, I copped a lot of flack for doing so much work in the field on the Education Revolution stuff, you know the building of the school halls and such… a lot of journalists and editors would criticise The Australian for sending people out because they don’t have the resources to do it, but I do have those resources.

Pavey: So in terms of a ranking of PR driven content, out of ten papers, the OZ came smack-bang in the middle, with the Daily Telegraph bringing up the rear, and the best was the Herald so…

Mitchell: Oh well, why am I not surprised that Wendy Bacon and her department found that…I’d have to say that I’m horrified by that, because I read the SMH cover to cover every day and I reckon I can identify the PR behind every article. And I’m quite happy for you to quote me on this — the Herald today is the worst paper in the country … even The Age has done a better job than the Herald and you would find that a ubiquitous opinion amongst newspaper editors.

Pavey: Generally the online version carried more promotional style stories than the hard copy editions – why is this? How much editorial control do YOU have over what’s going up online and are you happy with the quality of the site at the moment?

Mitchell: I have complete control. But I would say that things that get fed in by AAP and News.com.au are quite different from what gets fed in from The Australian newspaper, so I can’t control the way News.com.au and AAP report their facts … I think the truth of electronic journalism is that it won’t be online, it’ll be via applications on iPads, so I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of value in journalism departments focusing as much on online. We might write this history in two or three years time and find that the internet was not a very satisfactory vehicle for the delivery of news…paywalls will come. But only because people want to protect their copy from Google so they can sell it on Google.

Pavey: Yes but with figures like these, of 56% PR driven content, when moving to a paywall structure, do you think it’s reasonable to expect people to pay for content that’s not necessarily original?

Mitchell : Well that depends on what you put behind the paywall. But look, it’s really naive for journalism departments to think that the paywalls are not coming. If you look at the Wall Street Journal, they make $300 million a year behind a paywall. People who think that Crikey has some truth to say on this are misleading themselves.

Pavey: What about The Australian Financial Review?

Mitchell: Ah, well I think The AFR is a bad newspaper, bad website. Tell me this Sasha, wouldn’t it be up to you to explain why The Wall Street Journal can make $300 million behind a paywall and The Fin can’t? I mean, I’ve just given you an example … rest assured, we will be behind a paywall and we will make money on it … and I’d love to know who did the content research on the SMH for your study because I’ll make sure that person never gets a job at News Ltd.

Sasha Pavey is freelance reporter based at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism. She recently completed a journalism degree at the University of Technology, Sydney.