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

  1. John Bennetts

    “remove the news media’s exemption from misleading and deceptive conduct in consumer law, and the exemption from federal privacy legislation”.

    Yes, dear writer. This is the real message.

    Journalism has no grounds for special pleading. Theirs is no special case. Corporate and personal deceit need similar responses across the corporate and private realm. Prison for a few of the worst examples would be a welcome start.

    If misleading or deceptive conduct are present in any profession or business, then this is unacceptable in the long run and should/must be weeded out. If the individuals responsible are not successfully dealt with, then it is essential that the organisation feel the lash.

    Too many petty panels of emasculated reviewers, complete with decades’ worth of accumulated nonsense about the special role of the “fourth estate” or “journalism” have been created under the name of Press Council or whatever. They are all tosh. Journalism is a meaningless word in 2012. There is no such thing.

    “[R]emove the news media’s exemption from misleading and deceptive conduct in consumer law, and the exemption from federal privacy legislation”. Great idea.

    Remove the veil and let the sun shine in. The

  2. John Bennetts

    The last line of my previous post was included in error. When will Crikey give us a preview screen and an edit option?

  3. Shwe Min

    I might add that this is now a level playing field as there is no advantage to the incumbents. The printing and distribution advantages of scale are gone. Which leaves open the opportunity for a good, reliable, quality news source.
    One wonders whether the truly basic problem here is that no one seems to be available to produce such a thing?

  4. Gavin Moodie

    While it is true that the barriers to enter media have been greatly reduced, it is not true that the old media have no advantage. Their prominence attracts attention, and so the web sites of the mainstream media are the most visited in the country.

    The basic problem is not the lack of people to provide a good, reliable, quality news source, but the lack of funding for such as source with the evaporation of advertising for newspapers, its dispersal to specialised web sites such as for employment advertisements, and its dispersal amongst numerous other sites. This has been lamented many times by Simons, Crikey editorialists and many other Crikey opinionistas.

  5. William Passick

    jesus love .. get a life … message to Ms.Simmons

    I, like many in the industry of the past , worked as a news reader, reporter, producer, chief of staff and news director without the formal education that now seems to be desired in the news industry. I need mention that I gained my Arts Degree at the University of Melbourne in 1980’s, after I moved on from mainstream media into the public sector,.

    Yep, we relied on – media releases, what the others were reporting, importantly personal contacts and the understanding of those we dealt with that we were honest and NOT spinning.

    Those contacts; whether they were in the political, public sector, private enterprise were valued. Media contacts would hold off on reports, for months given a guarantee they would get an exclusive.

    Ms Simmonds expresses a “left wing view” – to which she is entitled. However in her writings a middle of the road approach would be deemed better in her role as an independent professional engaged in the training of “journalists” of the future.

    Yep. I am right wing. Although my father was thought to be a communist.

  6. Hamis Hill

    This looks very much like the story of Henry Ford, who when approaching banks in order to finance his people’s car, was dismissed with the stinging rebuke that ” Rich people own cars, Mr Ford, poor
    people have horses and carts”. Ford, who knew all about Adam Smith’s description of wages as returning capital, doubled his workers wages and got them all back when they bought his cars.
    Newspapers if they are indeeed goods should underpin, by their inherent “Goodness”, their buyers’ capacity to pay for them.
    So newspapers have no value for the underlings because they cannot afford to pay for them?
    Or is it that newspapers are very bad at increasing the purchasing power of their readers?
    Which would be the case indeed if they were full, as our PM contends, of “Crap”.
    Neither good nor of service nor of any value to the general citizens in a democracy; a democratic and commercial failure.
    Once upon a time the poor were not not allowed to read the Bible either.
    Are we dealing with the same degenerate clowns here as have appeared down through the centuries?
    They call them “Conservatives” don’t they?

  7. mattsui

    My father lives in a state where there is only one daily newspaper – and a Murdoch on Sundays.
    He buys them all at a cost of around $18 a week – this is more than he pays for his internet connection, which he doesn’t use to follow current events. Coincidently, the people who own his daily paper also own the TV station on which he watches the evening news.
    This seems like a sound biusness model?
    At least until my father and his generation are passed.
    I will never waste my money buying newspapers. You can argue what that means for society but there’s no doubt that change is coming.

  8. shepherdmarilyn

    I scarcely remember the last time I bought a paper of any kind.

  9. Shwe Min

    @gavin moodie
    Have you not noticed that paytv is replacing free to air? Do you not see what appletv is? My point is that the media market is dispersed. More than ever. And it is paid for. Advertising is old media.
    So get all your bright things together and create something people will value and pay for. If is not so radical. It’s what the Symes did to create The Age.

  10. Gavin Moodie

    I don’t consider pay tv to be new media. Nonetheless, some people pay for new media, but Simons and other Crikey journos argue that the new media don’t generate enough revenue to pay for what they call ‘quality journalism’. They note that even pay tv doesn’t support a Four Corners, 60 Minutes or similar ‘quality’ current affairs program.

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