It was a telling moment. Greg Hywood, the CEO of Fairfax, was speaking at a session at the New News Conference at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Saturday. He had been asked to respond to a question about news reporting driven by newspaper agendas.
“If you are dissatisfied with the media you are fundamentally saying you are dissatisfied with yourself,” he said.
Among the guffaws, the audience was asking “what could he have meant?” Perhaps the charitable interpretation is that he was alluding to the idea that the media is what we shape it to be, and if we’re unhappy it’s because we’re not sufficiently involved in its formation?
But I think not. Instead, the man at the helm of Australia’s oldest media company was making a big claim. He was saying that the media as we have it (by this I mean the traditional media represented by companies such as Fairfax) already encompass the best of the world and that we should all be grateful for the coverage we get.
The session, part of a two-day conference organised by the Public Interest Journalism Foundation at Swinburne University, challenged media leaders including the ABC’s Mark Scott and Crikey’s Sophie Black to respond to questions from a public clearly dissatisfied with the nature of political reporting.
Noticeably no one from News Limited accepted the challenge to appear.
The session, organised by the new media participatory democracy group Our Say had come up with a list of questions about the many limitations of the old media, especially when it comes to reporting politics and other matters of national interest.
Hywood had slouched his way through the session, failing to speak with much animation or enthusiasm about the exciting opportunities and myriad challenges facing the media.
The first question — and the one voted the most popular – was read by its author, Kevin Rennie. He asked what skills a journalist would need in the newsroom of 2050. Hywood’s response was flat. Essentially, he argued the newsroom will be quite similar because journalists will require the same skills.
The craft of gathering information and telling a story will be much the same, albeit through new delivery channels. Journalists, he reassured, will continue to be disliked because they have the tough job of asking difficult questions.
What was missing was any sense that the audience will be much more central to the process and that the roles between writer and reader will become more blurred. It seemed like very old thinking on the part of Fairfax.
I’ve been trying to work out why this was such a disappointment. Perhaps it’s because — like many others — I’d invested plenty of hope in Hywood. He was brought in to Fairfax to save it from the cost-cutters and quickly reassured everyone that journalism was central to its business model. Yes, the company was in trouble, he conceded. But killing off good journalism would only quicken its demise.
I’d assumed that this meant he was also switched on to the other great imperative in journalism: the need to place the audience right at the heart of the reporting and the necessity to open up a meaningful conversation around the reporting.
But there was little evidence of this on Saturday. Suddenly there was a new perspective to Fairfax’s $400 million loss. A company that practises old thinking will find the transition from old business models and old reporting styles very hard.
Ultimately, the session failed to deliver because the bulk of the public’s questions from OurSay were not asked, allowing chairperson Maxine McKew to steer the agenda and Hywood to get away with answers such as this:
“The media doesn’t make the agenda, it reports the agenda … if there is bad behaviour on political issues, if there is social ructions going on in the community … it is not a media issue, it is a social issue … journalists don’t sit down be it in front of the computer be it in front of the TV camera and make it up … they make some judgments and they analyse but they don’t make it up. Therefore a lot of commentary in media is very much shoot the messenger … the community has to at times look in the mirror …”
Perhaps the most striking thing about Hywood’s remarks were that they could have been plucked from the keynote speech of the New News conference, made the night before by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. In a penetrating analysis of the ills of political reporting, Rosen described the “production of innocence” as one of the things that was wrong. The production of innocence being the claim by the media that they are not to blame for anything, they are just camera-like reporters.
Of this, Rosen said:
“The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus ‘prove’ in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things! He said-she said journalism doesn’t tell us who’s distorting the picture more. It is neutral on where the reality is, but reality is not something journalists can afford to be neutral about!”
Rosen was in the front row listening to the panel. As he departed, he said wryly “Now I think I understand more about Fairfax.”