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Media

Jun 8, 2012

Simons: the bottom line … news or profitability?

There is a respectable point of view among those who analyse media businesses that the smart thing to do for serious news journalism is move to the political right.

Margaret Simons

Journalist, author and director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism

There is a respectable point of view among those who analyse media businesses that the smartest thing serious news journalism could do is move to the political right.

Why? Because most of those with the willingness and capacity to pay for news content are comparatively wealthy individuals in business — business news being one of the things they are willing to pay for. Also, that these are the individuals premium advertisers most wish to reach.

Among this school of analysts are those who see The Australian’s conservative bent as being not only about the personal views of the proprietor and editor, but also about business good sense. It follows from this that Fairfax Media, with its more liberal leanings, is not being so smart.

Which brings us to Gina Rinehart, and the views expressed on Wednesday by Hungry Jack’s founder,  Ten Network board member and Rinehart adviser Jack Cowin, who is quoted as saying the Fairfax board should have the power to change the editorial direction of the company. He said newspapers were a business and that ”the purpose of the newspaper … is probably to portray the facts in a manner that is going to attract readership”. And: ”The purpose of a company is to try to make a profits and if the editorial policy … is not optimising the opportunity then it’s the role of the directors to try to change the direction.”

All of which raises that old chestnut of whether journalism is just a business, like any other, or whether it is a public trust. Nothing new about that debate, but like everything else in media and citizenship it is rendered newly urgent by the changes technology is making to how we can inform each other, and be informed, and because of the impact of that technological change on news media business models.

It is worth pointing out that the “journalism is a public trust” view is represented not only by lefties, but in the documents and principles that the media industry, including proprietors, have signed up to. Indeed, proprietorial self-interest requires at least lip service to the “public trust” point of view. If journalism businesses have no wider duties to the public interest, why shouldn’t they be regulated just like any other business? Why not, for example, remove the news media’s exemption from misleading and deceptive conduct in consumer law, and the exemption from federal privacy legislation?

The proprietors’ opposition to the Finkelstein report’s suggestion of a statutory regulator for media rests on the idea that there is something unique and different about the business of journalism — that it is not only about “portraying the facts in a manner that is going to attract readership”. That it must be independent, and free from influences that prevent it from reporting the facts in accordance with the evidence.

Since we live in a highly contested media age, where my words tend to be misinterpreted or even entirely fabricated, I should straight away say that I am against increased statutory regulation of journalism. I subscribe to the view that there is a public trust that makes journalism special. I am just pointing out that one cannot at the same time argue as Cowin does, and also argue against journalism being regulated as other industries are regulated.

When it suits them, today’s media proprietors and the boards they appoint assert that they have public interest duties beyond the mere maximising of profits. And they are right when they say those things. Would they have followed through consistently on what public trust requires.

We need to think clearly about what we mean by editorial independence, and what is important about it.

Cowin was not arguing for a simple “Gina Rinehart rings the journalists and tells them what to do” model. He was talking about the board setting broad editorial directions. And this is not necessarily inconsistent with that foundation document, the Fairfax charter of editorial independence, which defines independence as the right of the editor to manage news coverage, within the budget. But the board appoints the editor.

Meanwhile, the Australia Press Council’s principles talk about  accuracy, fairness and balance, and clear distinctions between fact and opinion. Depending on what Cowin has in mind, one can see some potential problems there for a newspaper that sees its purpose as being to “portray the facts in a manner that is going to attract readership”.

The Media Alliance code of ethics is clear in its precede that while many journalists work in private enterprise, “all have … public responsibilities” to truth, fairness and accuracy and animating democracy. So the idea that journalism is not just another business has wide acceptance, across the political spectrum, from working journalists to (when it suits them) proprietors.

But that doesn’t entirely dispose of Cowin’s point, because as we are seeing at Fairfax Media at present there IS a connection between profitability and the things we value about journalism. There is no independence in penury, poverty and begging. One of the reasons the industrial media enterprises of the present and past have achieved independence from government is because they have been vastly profitable, and that is its own well-spring of power.

Which leads us to the reason this “not just another business” argument is newly urgent, because no matter what Rinehart does or does not do, no matter what the future of the Murdoch empire, we are seeing what Jeff Jarvis has described as the decentralisation of journalism as an industrial complex.

In a world where anyone can publish news and views, doing so is no longer only about being employed as a journalist, in a journalism business. Others are in the journalism game. Close to home, the AFL is building a newsroom. We have yet to see where its output will fall on the spectrum between advertising and journalism.

And worldwide, there are propagandists and others in the knowledge business, including academics  and NGOs — all of them now media proprietors and claiming to be publishing news. And that’s before you get to all the citizens. (Last night, I saw nine fire trucks pass my house. I searched mainstream media sites to find out what was going on, without success. It was on Twitter — @tomcurrans — that I found the first enlightening news, with a picture and brief and accurate report posted by someone whom, to judge by his tweets, does not define himself as a journalist.)

If we think about it, we have never really measured journalism quality by profitability. Therefore declining profitability does not automatically mean bad journalism.

What do we mean by editorial independence? We don’t mean, I think, freedom from the will of the proprietor. Nor from the power of the board to appoint its chosen editor, with all that she might bring. What we mean, what all the codes and principles constantly point us towards, is a discipline of slavishness to the evidence. We might do better to talk about journalism of integrity, rather than independent journalism.

So a proprietor might direct their journalists to particular topics of interest, just as an NGO such as Human Rights Watch might direct its journalists. But if either proprietor instructs reporters to render the facts only in ways that increase profitability, or advance any other cause, then the media enterprise is not really about journalism. It is just another business, and might well be regulated as other businesses are regulated.

Journalism means the freedom and independence to follow the evidence, research where that evidence leads, and render the results with integrity. Profitability is one of the means of creating a space in which that can be done.

But it is no guarantee. And nor is it the only way.

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23 comments

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23 thoughts on “Simons: the bottom line … news or profitability?

  1. tinman_au

    “I subscribe to the view that there is a public trust that makes journalism special.”

    I think that sums up the problem some people have with current media. That is, it’s just a view, it isn’t a law. Current media can, and does, create reports and even tailors facts to support alternative agendas (just look at climate change and pokies issues for examples). This isn’t “reporting the other side of the story”, this is PR.

    There are, more than likely, many journos/editors/media who subscribe to your view as well Margaret, unfortunately, there also seems to be many who don’t. If it was another market (selling/making cars, running an airline, etc) and you had a situation like that wouldn’t it make sense to regulate it? Or is it OK to protect society from shonky car sales people but we should just turn a blind eye to an industry that can have shonky journalists/reporting?

  2. atticusdash

    OK. Let’s accept that a newspaper or other media outlet is a business like any other, with a responsibility for the board to maximize profits for the shareholders. It then ought to be regulated like any other product for public consumption, with appropriate regulation, clearly labelled ingredient warnings, and the onus to name sources and stop whining about being a pillar of democracy and name itself for what it is: an advertising vehicle not only for products but for political bias and promotion of particular business interests.
    Political stories ought to carry a label of political affiliation and voting habits. News stories regarding legitimate political subjects, such as climate change, labour regulation, education et al should be clearly bylined with the papers’ editorial policy regarding these subjects. And there ought to be an onus on all newspapers to print in a separate box the running tally of articles published for and against subjects of a political and socio-political nature. That’s for starters. Write what you want, but if it’s advertising – and much of what we call ‘spin’ is actually part of a larger advertising campaign aimed at policy influence – it ought to be clearly labelled thus.
    Spin is not harmless or unbiased point of view, it is aimed at advantage. Whether that advantage is for the news outlet itself (see Murdoch) or for other advertisers and ‘friends’ of the board and editorial staff, the whole edifice of the fourth estate as a champion of democracy has been revealed as nothing more than a facade, a hollow movie set painted up with a front behind which there are some cheap struts concealing… nothing. In the now standard phrasing of Fox News: ‘some say… ‘. What tosh. What a sad state of affairs.

  3. Mr Denmore

    Who gave the media their rights? What defines a journalist? Why should some organisations have privileged access to politicians and decision makers and not others? None of this is written down anywhere. It’s just convention.

    We ASSUME that media companies mean it when they say they have a public trust responsibility, but there’s little sign of it. In fact, anyone who has worked in the mainstream media in the past 20 years will tell you the bottom line is now everything. The Chinese walls that separated advertising from editorial are breaking down completely – and the pretence of public responsibility is just that.

    I’ve written about this same issue on The Failed Estate this week for those who are interested. But essentially, I’m making the same point as Margaret – the idea of journalism as an activity exclusively done behind the walls of industrial age media companies is becoming obsolete.

    http://thefailedestate.blogspot.com.au/

  4. Gavin Moodie

    The Australian mainstream media long ago forfeited any right to be treated as a public trust, if this were ever anything more than a pretentious conceit.

    The media would be much better for being subject to standard law, including commercial law. But I don’t think this would make it subject to the consumer law prohibition against misleading OR deceptive conduct (it is *or* not and) in the way apparently envisaged by Simons. Many non fiction books are published which include errors and even distortions but are not sued for misleading or deceptive conduct.

  5. klewso

    Moving to the Right, also helps your chances of promotion – within the dominant forces of our media?
    When’s the last time Murdoch ever promoted anyone that doesn’t think politics like him – so he doesn’t have to “supervise every headline”, and can claim that, at least, in all honesty?

  6. Michael

    @MARGARET SIMONS

    Let’s face it Margaret, what you are saying in a round about way is that Leftist views by journalists working for Left wing media, are ok BUT Conservative views are not to be tolerated and at best subjected to rigorous (see manipulative) laws, right?

    I mean, the Q&A debacle last week where a band of progressive halfwits on heat, tore apart the character, sexuality and integrity of a decent hard working & clearly brilliant businesswoman, for sport – that was aok with you right?

    Had that despicable bile & hatred been directed to say, Helen Mundine, a progressive aboriginal, by say, Alan Jones, there would have been a lynch mob at 2GE within the hour, outrage in Fairfax newspapers & off course outrage at OUR ABC, right?

  7. mattsui

    Great article, enjoyed reading it immensly.
    A shift to the right, you say? It might work for the bottom line and , no doubt editorial staff can be found to toe the line…… But where will the journalists come from (or go to).
    The claim that there’s a left wing bias in “the Media” is entirely correct – at least, that is, from the POV of those who make it. I believe that Journalism, like teaching, writing generally and many of the social services that make our lives possible, is a career that naturally attracts people with a social conscience. The best writers and reporters will always be those who are driven to expose injustice, uncover hidden connections and tell of the daily struggles going on around us which we would otherwise be unaware.
    As the print media barrons make their medium less conducive to such noble persuits, we will surely see the true journalists move to the online realm. Unfortunately, they will now have to compete with amateurs and ratbag bloggers and other noise in order to be heard but I believe we are still – through sites like Crikey, HuffPo and through trend filters – seeing the cream rise up.
    Plus, thankfully, we still have the ABC and it’s counterpart in Britain.
    Let the fools have their daily chip-wrapper.

  8. klewso

    “Chip wrapper”? Food – in contact, with where it’s come from? Not even in an “emergency” and the bog roll’s run out. The budgie gets mine.

  9. mattsui

    I stand corrected. It was chip wrapper BEFORE it was sullied by newsprint.

  10. Shwe Min

    Wrong. The Australian has actually proved only that opinion does not pay. It has never been a business but only at best a knuckler for murdoch in the game of who has clout in Australia. Nowadays even that is not a useful role.
    People who have money often don’t give a rats about turgidly argued repetitive opinion. Left or right. They often have an interest in knowledge and facts and will pay for both. Which is why the economist is successful. Not to mention the. Ew York review of books.
    Let gina have Fairfax. It is rotten to the core. Run by Corbett for gods sake. And the age or SMH are barely different from the desperation of the oz. which it seems the fin wants to emulate.
    The smart money will find a home.