Earlier this week I was involved in a roundtable held by the Australian Press Council as part of its Standards Project, presently underway. It was a Chatham House rules kind of occasion, so no names and no pack drill, but it would be safe to say that there was a fair bit of discussion from traditional media types about the pressures they are under due to the instant nature of internet publication.

Does one aim to be first, or to be right?

I think that is a very old fashioned question, and the fact that it was seriously discussed (in the context, I have to say, of the internet and social media as the source of much evil) shows that some in the mainstream media simply haven’t yet realised that everything has changed.

Because of course they cannot be first, as anyone who has been paying attention well knows.

And if mainstream media outlets spend their diminishing resources in a futile battle to be first, then they will race themselves out of business to no useful end. That is not where resources should be deployed.

The only game that can really make a difference to the future of news media enterprises is being right, being better, being trusted and having high standards. Being useful.

Certainly news media cannot afford to be behind the news, but it is far, far better for an outlet that wants people to pay for its content to be good and right than first and scummy.

I expressed this view in the meeting, and had the feeling of lead balloons descending. The battle to be first is so deeply ingrained in journalists’ DNA that many of us have a hard job giving it up. And I admit I still get a distinct frisson from the scoop, from the nugget of information that nobody else has.

But does it matter to the readers or viewers? Probably not that much. How many people remember from which media outlet they first heard of Steve Irwin’s death, or the plane landing on the Hudson or the death of Osama bin Laden?

How much proper pride can a journalist take in being first? I think only this: if the fact that you broke a story means that there are facts in the public realm that would not have been available without your effort.

Okay, having made that point I will now admit that I overstated the case when I said that being first doesn’t matter at all. But it is a diminishing asset, whereas reliability and reputation are appreciating assets. More importantly, being reliable and right are things that mainstream media can do well, if they work at it, whereas only rarely can they be first.

Even if a media outlet is first with the news, it will only be on its own for about twenty seconds. Then the news will be Tweeted and Facebooked and rehashed on every other outlet, mainstream and other.

In fact one of the possibly fatal weaknesses of our mainstream media is insufficient product differentiation. When the news is big, nobody owns it for long and everyone can find out about it for free. News as utility.

Take a look at this startup, The Wall, for example, which displays and aggregates content from both mainstream and social media, all based in an algorithm which detects what Australia is talking about on social media.

You might hear about something first on Twitter or at ninemsn, but if you want a wrap of everything that is being said about it, you might well come here rather than to mainstream media.

Okay, there are some exceptions to the “mainstream media can’t be first” rule. Sometimes a news organisation has an exclusive interview, or has bought the rights to an event or a piece of information (such as a public opinion poll), or has worn out the investigative team’s shoe leather on getting a scoop.

These occasions cover both the trivial and the important ends of journalism. New Idea might buy the rights to a wedding. A Current Affair might wave the cheque book and then lock up the talent.

And a newspaper investigative team might spend weeks getting a scoop through sheer depth of research. The current Age series on mental health is an example. But note, in that case it is not really about  being first, (mental health care not what it should be. Who knew?). It is about depth, and rigor, and context. It is about being best, and proactive in choosing the agenda.

What about public opinion polls? They are owned by mainstream media outlets, but form news content for all. And the best analysis no longer appears in the outlets that own the polls, but on blogs that trawl all that content and aggregate it.

Of course, this is only read by afficianados of such things. And when serving those kinds of niche audiences, being first is relatively easy because mainstream mass media is simply not normally interested in that level of detail.

But events? The news that breaks in parliament, or on the streets? Forget being first.

Target an audience, and strive to be useful to them. That’s the key. And you can only be useful if you have standards, and are right at least most of the time.

Peter Fray

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