In October 2011, American Amanda Knox was found guilty of the murder of fellow student Meredith Kercher in the Italian city of Perugia. As she realised the judge was sentencing her to life imprisonment, she burst into uncontrollable sobs, while her family hugged each other for support; members of the Kercher family stared ahead expressionlessly. Prosecutors were delighted with the verdict and said that “justice has been done”.

If you have a dim recollection of the case, you’ll realise the foregoing is entirely fictional: Knox was acquitted amid scenes of jubilation, and has since been contracted to write a tell-all book. The events of the first paragraph, sewn richly with invented detail, appeared only on the website of the Daily Mail, and for barely a minute, in which time, nonetheless, they were read by thousands of people hanging on the verdict, and accumulated 57 Facebook likes.

MailOnline, it seems, had prepared stories for each possible verdict, and published over-hastily in order to be first with the latest — to, as they say, “own the story”.

This would once have occasioned schadenfreude in the Mail‘s rivals; instead, there was generally a sense of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God. The modern news cycle is a remorseless, round-the-clock grind in which first is best, and second might almost as well be last.

Tim McGuire, a former editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune now a professor at the University of Illinois’ Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has described it as a shift from pushed media to pulled media: “The newspaper was edited on a 24-hour cycle. You read when we said you could read. TV brought you news on THEIR schedule. We ‘pushed’ news on readers and reader options were limited. Now you read, watch and search whenever you want and you demand immediacy. Audiences now ‘pull’ the news.”

The shift from a basically diurnal news cycle to one in which stories arise and die like mayflies seems to have begun about a decade ago. Tony Blair complained that while his 1997 election campaign took an issue a day, his 2005 campaign “had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening the agenda had already moved on”.

But appetite has grown with the eating, and with an increasing neophilia. We are these days seldom out of contact with media in some form, and at each encounter seem to crave something either new and fresh, or well-packaged and easily digestible.

Given the former can never be entirely guaranteed, there is a growing accent on the latter. Few have given the rules of “pulled news” as much thought as Matthew Pinkney at AFL.com. His content is highly specialised, not only because it is about football but because so much of it is sensitive to the means by which it is consumed.

“People who come to digital content want things they can consume quickly and don’t have to consume all at once,” Pinkney says. “What does well for us are reviews: these are all the clubs, these ones have done well and why, these are the big movers, these are the revelations, this is the pass mark. You break it up and you flag it. With desktop traffic, there’s a large freight of guilt that comes with it — you’re at work and you don’t want your boss to see you’re on the AFL site. Our job is to provide you with stuff you can read quickly.” Even the video at AFL is regularly broken down: a top 10 of high marks is ideal, for example, because five can be watched at once and five saved until later.

“There used to be a saying that at the ABC we lost people at 12 and they came back to us when they were 40. We can no longer take it for granted they will come back to us …”

In some ways, it is a very basic approach — even a little old-fashioned, like what used to be the stuff of afternoon dailies. “I’d love to have a Mark Harding [of Sporting Globe, The Age and The Herald],” says Pinkney. “He could file perfect copy off the top of his head from a phone box in Glen Waverley after a terrible car accident, and it would go straight in the paper; the subs would barely have to touch it.”

Himself from a family with half a century of newspapers behind it, Pinkney keeps things very simple, and is prepared to sacrifice some depth for the sake of breadth. “We don’t speculate, we don’t over-embroider, we don’t add unnecessary controversy,” he says. What he knows of the audience suggests they like it that way.

Would he have reported the “St Kilda schoolgirl” saga the Herald Sun and The Age last year found irresistibly alluring? “I would have said that it was not a football story,” Pinkney answers. “If Kim Duthie and Ricky Nixon have a relationship, that’s a news story, but it is not for AFL.com. That’s not shying away from controversy. It’s saying that our audience, as we understand it, is a football audience. If we put up a story about Michael Hibbert doing his hamstring, that will shoot off the scale because that is what people come here for. We’ve done a few political stories about board ructions and they’re legitimate but they don’t rate. On a pure return basis, they aren’t really worth our while.”

While the day’s big story on a busy website has an inherently shorter life span than that in a newspaper, AFL.com still presents it with confidence, with a strong visual complement, brassy headline and links to promote discussion. “Having come from journalism where the gold standard was for an exclusive story that got followed up the next day by other media,” says Pinkney, “the equivalent is now a self-generated story that we go ‘Def Con’ with that, hopefully gets picked up that day by 3AW and SEN [sports-oriented radio stations].” Errrr, “Def Con”, Matthew? Pinkney smiles: “We used to call it World War 3.”

For general media, the transition to a “pulled” environment and the fragmentation of the news day is particularly difficult to adapt to because it is incomplete. “It’s too early to get a real sense of how people consume news in a digital environment,” says Kate Torney, the ABC’s head of news and current affairs. “There used to be a saying that at the ABC we lost people at 12 and they came back to us when they were 40. We can no longer take it for granted they will come back to us because they’re going to develop whole different patterns in the consumption of their news.”NEWS CONTENT GOES MOBILE

From where the pulling is coming, for instance, is changing before editors’ and producers’ eyes. For Pinkney, the dawning reality is mobile. Fourteen per cent of traffic at AFL.com last year involved mobile devices; this year it is a third, and Pinkney can tell that his working day is winding down when analytics inform him that desktop traffic is tapering off and smartphone traffic building. “At the moment, desktop is still our biggest area,” says Pinkney, “but what you prepare for desktop can easily be re-purposed for mobile. Two years ago you couldn’t screen video into a mobile handset and get a decent signal. Now with the speed of the network you can watch broadcast quality coverage on your phone and we have to design product to meet that expectation.”

Another game changer, for niche and general media alike, looks like being the tablet, use of which is encroaching on the evenings which television, movies and the DVD player used to have to themselves. “People like to read news on the tablet,” reported Ken Doctor at Nieman Journalism Lab in June of a surge in tablet usage. “They read more of it, from known sources, for longer periods. If the news industry were stable, euphoria would be in order, but since it’s not, this astounding turnaround from splintered, bit-sized, aggregator-driven desktop news reading has been underappreciated.” Never, perhaps, has so much news reached so many people in bed, where the iPad is stealing market share from the night-time novel.

Nothing threatens the bedraggled status quo so much as the coming collision of television and the internet, with Australian broadcasters set to complete their transition to digital television next year.

So far the free-to-air networks have been spared the full brunt of video-on-demand services like those offered in the US by Hulu and Netflix. Sydney-based Quickflix has 110,000 video-streaming subscribers, but is a long way from emulating Netflix, which in the US has 27 million subscribers and accounts for a quarter of internet activity. Nonetheless, consultancy firm PwC is forecasting that within five years more than a quarter of Australian households will have signed up to internet protocol television, giving it a market penetration comparable to pay television.

The implications can be grasped from the way the internet has already subverted scheduled programming, on radio by podcasts and on television by catch-up services like the ABC’s iView, Seven’s Plus7 and SBS’s On Demand. “People don’t go home and watch the news at the same time,” reports 7.30‘s host Leigh Sales. “If you look at our ratings and the ratings of the commercial television news and current affairs shows over the last 10 years, we’re all down about 20%. Meanwhile at 7.30, the number of hits on our website have gone up something like 300%.”

Trouble is that this additional convenience for viewers comes at a particular cost to commercial television, in the business of attracting mass audiences to inundate with advertising. Advertising for “event television” — those programs which people prefer to watch in real-time, such as MasterChef and Howzat, often so they can carry on a social media banter about — already sells at a considerable premium to that of other programming. The value of live sport has been consolidated, as witnessed in the recent rights deals negotiated by the AFL and NRL.

The government has already propped up the free-to-air networks to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in licence rebates, in recognition of the costs of the digital switchover, exhortations to invest in local content and perceived threat from direct options, already making themselves felt in the form of outfits like Fetch TV, and bound to take advantage of the national broadband network; Fairfax’s experiments with online video at theage.tv and smh.tv seem to presage something similar.

“Free-to-airs have a long-term structural issue with increased competition, revenue down and costs up, and more direct services,” says communications minister Stephen Conroy. “Making Underbelly: Badness costs them $900,000 an hour; to import Anger Management is $50,000 a half hour.” But quite how far the government is prepared to go in subsidising Lachlan Murdoch’s serial misadventures at Channel Ten might well become a political issue. I Will Survive is local content; but so is landfill.

News, of course, has never been technology neutral; rather has it been shaped by the means of its presentation. Big printing presses encouraged populist approaches (“when a man bites a dog, that is news”); radio lived by the unforgettable moment (“oh, the humanity!”); television nurtured visual priorities (“if it bleeds, it leads”). What is distinctive about the digital shift is that the challenge is to a great extent about volume — how to meet the demand for “more” news to satisfy the round-the-clock audience and the proliferation of platforms, especially when there are likely to be fewer journalists around to provide it, and layers of checking have been winnowed away.

No Australian news outlet has yet perpetrated a gaffe such as the Mail after the Amanda Knox verdict, or CNN in misinterpreting the Obamacare verdict in the US Supreme Court in June. But there is evidence the pressure to be first, fastest and most productive is debauching reporting standards.

A paradox of the new technologies now available to journalists is that in theory they have never enjoyed greater mobility, and in practice have hardly been more desk-bound. Editors like journalists in the office where they can be allocated more work; young reporters especially seem to prefer the office anyway because it provides simpler access to ubiquitous props like search engines and email. “Young journalists have massive cultural issues around picking up the phone,” observes Hal Crawford from ninemsn. “They’d rather send an email because it’s easier, it avoids conflict. But you’ve got to fight against that. For that reason I’d love to get real phones on people’s desks. We have these VOIP phones here with headsets, and they’re shit. I want real phones here that you pick up and dial.”

A good servant, Twitter can also be a bad master. In a scathing recent analysis of state political reporting in Perth, The West Australian‘s Gary Adshead described a culture of mutually agreed superficiality: doorstops by Premier Colin Barnett lasting less than half a minute, and press conferences at which “many journalists are too busy tweeting to listen anyway”.

QUICKER, BUT ARE WE BETTER INFORMED?

So while the public is certainly served more quickly by this new reporting paradigm, is it being informed more usefully? The chronological and provisional capitulation of “breaking news” is exciting because utterances are relayed within minutes rather than hours, but can also be confusing because facts are so often deployed without context or explanation.

“The end of a story is now much less significant than it used to be, because this new system absolutely fetishises new developments,” says Fairfax journalist turned ABC online political writer Annabel Crabb. “Stories are constantly updated by people ‘weighing in’ — God I hate ‘weigh-ins’. The argument is the big thing; the resolution is almost an anticlimax because everyone moves on so quickly. It’s very difficult now for news consumers to find the beginning, middle and end of the story.”

Story choices, moreover, are being subtly reshaped. News now tends to take place where journalists already are, rather than journalists converging on where news might be, because when everything else is in motion, there is much to be said, organisationally and economically, for stationary targets and known quantities. This goes beyond the routinely decried primping of press releases and amplifying of publicity campaigns.

Inopportune flubs and parliamentary histrionics are constantly over-reported because a critical mass of journalists is available to invest them with significance; short-run economic data releases routinely achieve vastly outsized importance because they are announced in orderly fashion and are easy to elicit comments on; polls and surveys remain hardy, static staples. Increasing stress on national news stories that can be deployed across all markets also deepens the reliance on figures that are nationally recognisable while eroding commitments to local reporting.

Knowing the premium at which newness trades, journalists have also become adept at chopping and changing stories, throwing them forward, opening them out, and approaching them laterally. This is something at which radio has always always excelled.

Consider the differences between AM and PM on ABC Radio. The former has the advantage of providing the first version many people hear of a story; the latter may be retelling a story for the sixth or seventh time a listener has caught details during the day, which is why host Mark Colvin and executive producer Edmond Roy are two of journalism’s foremost craftsmen; Lateline has brought parallel skills to television. For print newspapers, however, the task has been far harder. Editors, once accustomed to setting news agendas almost on their own, must now take account of how a story has already been covered and commented on, gambling on what news will remain relevant more than 12 hours hence, when the paper is finally read, the news cycle having in the interim continued its relentless forward march.

For some time, the “scoop” was dismissed as having limited utility, seeing that it could genuinely be kept to oneself only fleetingly. Lately it has undergone a revival: in preparation, it offers a sense of control; on publication, it pushes one ahead of the news cycle, however briefly. It has been widely-publicised events, especially those occurring before noon and duly expended as “breaking news”, that have receded in importance.

“Since the various anti-corruption agencies were set up a few years ago, investigative journalism has become as simple as knowing someone at ICAC. They do the investigation; you add a bit of journalism and put your name on it.”

There are positives here, in the encouragement of original reporting and the deprecation of me-too journalism. But there are risks as well: the overpromotion of “exclusives” that aren’t especially strong stories; a kind of roiling amnesia where most else is concerned, even, and perhaps especially, where it requires detailed analysis; the emergence of a species of what is often puffed up as “investigative journalism” but is really about the dissemination of timely leaks or indiscriminate data dumps. “Since the various anti-corruption agencies were set up a few years ago, investigative journalism has become as simple as knowing someone at ICAC [NSW’s Independent Commission Against Corruption],” says the dean of the investigative genre, Chris Masters, formerly of Four Corners. “They do the investigation; you add a bit of journalism and put your name on it.”

What about the steadily-unfolding, hard-to-understand, multi-character, multi-layer story that requires deep reporting and the patient acquisition of some expert know-how, such as the dwindling of Qantas, or the swelling of Australia’s prison population, or what really happens on big Australian building sites, or in combat in this country’s longest war? Now that the ABC’s brief experiment with a Kabul correspondent is over, there is no regular first-hand reporting from Afghanistan — something demonstrated yet again last month when the tragedy at Patrol Base Wahab could only be refracted through the lens of domestic politics. “We used to have a great tradition of war journalism in Australia,” Masters wonders. “What happened to it?”

In the medium-term, the news cycle is probably set for further shortening, as the paucity of human resources in newsrooms kick in. Fewer boots on the ground means fewer stories followed for less time, and diminishing opportunities for spending an extra day, going an extra yard or two, and pushing a foot or so deeper. There will still be a stampede as the news media arrives, but that will be matched by the silence when it leaves.

In theory, of course, technology can also lengthen news cycles. There is nothing to say that stories cannot now be made to last days as well as merely minutes. Investigations can be enriched and presented in a variety of guises using different platforms; they can be updated, and lengthened and leveraged. What is often called data journalism, for instance, involves taking large data sets, such as those involving political donations or house prices, and explicating them by means of interactive graphical formats such as spreadsheets and maps. These can be presented for extended periods, and invite multiple visits. In Australia, The Age has made the most adventurous forays, with specials in the last year on religious instruction, on road toll data, on political freebies and on Australian company directorships.

A related genre is that of “explainers”: the old notion of the background feature or timeline reimagined using text, multimedia and/or music. Genre classics include My Water’s On Fire Tonight, a song and video that complemented a detailed investigation of fracking by ProPublica‘s Abrahm Lustgarten, and the animated misadventures of Toxie, a deep-discounted mortgage bond for which four reporters from NPR’s Planet Money paid $1000 in March 2010 in order to personify the GFC.

The problem with such exercises is threefold: firstly, that they sometimes don’t reveal much that could not have been surmised (Australian company directors serve on multiple boards — who knew?); secondly, they can look too much like cleverness for cleverness’ sake (you can hum the fracking song afterwards, but what else?); lastly that even when informative, they are very labour intensive.

“During the last budget,” recalls The Australian‘s George Megalogenis, “we prepared a visualisation of all the line items on the spending side of the budget, which you can’t usually get long-form data on, allowing you to track the relativities. I spent a month on and off tinkering with the idea, and I basically had to go off the reservation in order to get it done: what it amounted to was a story running off the front and a graph, that would basically last no more than 48 hours. We did get a great response, but not one you could monetise: it was a public good. The question I would ask is: in five years time, will anyone be prepared to support that kind of effort for such a short pay-off?”

It takes, then, a little courage, such as that shown for the last year in England at a quarterly magazine, Delayed Gratification, which espouses the creed of “slow journalism”, and celebrates being “last to breaking news”: its speciality, in fact, is looking in detailed retrospect at events and people in which news media has taken a brief, intense and passing interest, such as Pal Schmitt (the dissembling plagiarist president of Hungary), Mohamed Nasheed (the deposed environmentalist president of the Maldives) and the English Defence League (an anti-Islamist street protest group invoked by Anders Brevik in his murderous manifesto). The result is often fun, occasionally surprising, and always attractive — the magazine celebrates fine design and premium stock.

Co-founder Rob Orchard believes the time for Delayed Gratification is ripe. “We couldn’t have done this magazine five years ago, because people were still head over heels in love with what digital could do for them,” he says. “But what we’re experiencing now is digital fatigue, when they wake up in the morning there’s almost an unlimited numbers of stories that you could follow, all of them being presented as equally important, on your computer and your smartphone and your kindle and your RSS feeds and that’s before you get to social media, where your mates are trying to get you to look at things all of the time.”

DG‘s exuberant contrariness has attracted a fan base composed, Orchard says, of two groups: media and design savvy people in their late 20s and early 30s who take pleasure in anachronism, like those who buy record players even though they already have all their music on iPods, and readers in their late 50s and early 60s with whom the idea of being overwhelmed by digital media has resonated. “The faster things get,” he says, “the more space opens up at the back, which we’re now trying to occupy.”

Carrie Fisher once observed that instant gratification always takes too long; it might be a lesson journalism needs to learn.

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Peter Fray

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