On August 23 last year, two Canberra press gallery journalists, The Australian’s Sid Maher and The Australian Financial Review’s Phil Coorey (then with The Sydney Morning Herald) popped up one night on ABCTV’s Lateline program, the last word on the news each night for political junkies around the country.
Earlier that day, Prime Minister Julia Gillard had fronted a now-famous 45 minute press conference, challenging the gallery’s best and brightest to ask her anything they wanted about the so-called Australian Workers’ Union “slush fund” scandal.
Ancient allegations as to what the PM knew and when she knew it about former partner Bruce Wilson’s union re-election account had been percolating for weeks, driven by a feral fringe of conservative bloggers and misogynist cartoonists and granted oxygen by mainstream outlets like Maher’s Australian and even that apparently unimpeachable bastion of truth and objectivity, Media Watch.
After an extended back and forth with host Tony Jones, Coorey — probably the most switched on of the 180 or so full-time hacks that call the nation’s capital home — made an interesting observation about the poisonous debate driven by keyboard wielding loons untethered by baseline conventions like the need to get both sides of the story — a debate that wouldn’t have been possible 15 or even 10 years ago. It’s worth quoting in full:
“You’ve only got to look at what’s happening with the media at the moment, the rapid rise of the internet and so forth. I think we’re getting to the stage where we have two tiers. You’ve got the old newspaper style of the large organisations like myself’s and Sid’s where we’re still bound by things like defamation and libel laws, we still have to strive to be seen objective and have balanced stories and try and write news rather than opinion.
“And then you have essentially — not every blogger, but you have people like Larry Pickering and stuff who just can fly off the handle and say what they like and dress it up and put a bit of licence in it and just go for it. And they operate on a completely different plane now. And everyone with a website now is a publisher and it’s just — and it’s — you know, you’ve got this divide between the mainstream media and the bloggers. At the end of the day, though, I guess you just got to be credible. But by the time credibility is established, a lot of damage can be done along the way.”
In one devastating passage Coorey had nailed a symptom of Australian journalism’s crumbling edifice — the rivers of classifieds gold that as late as 2003 still produced 420-page editions of the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald and $20 million a week in clear revenue had evaporated into the ether of the world wide web. Journalism and ethical standards in public debate were going with it.
The resources that underpin real news gathering — the 60 calls that mightn’t produce a single usable quote, the six-month search for an Eastern Suburbs spiv through the back streets of Majorca — have become increasingly strained, if not impossible to access. Into the vacuum have stepped armies of boxer shorts-wearing opinionistas, happy to spout their self-satisfied mantras and ideological bugbears but less willing to verify information, meet a source for a coffee, or actually pick up the phone and get an on-the-record quote (the lack of a physical, desk mounted phone line paid for by your employer is probably the most obvious overt indicator of journalism’s decline).
It’s important to remember I’m talking here about news — not analysis and opinion — that consumed and produced in roughly equal doses still perform important democratic roles. But the apple cart, if not entirely toppled, has now become so weighed down by cheap talk and faux-outrage, all disseminated via the shallowness of social media, that it’s sometimes hard to remember what journalism is for. If you’re following the right (or the wrong) people on Twitter it’s now possible to sit transfixed for hours watching the piffle roll in without enhancing your understanding at all. This infantilising, disarming sugar rush, buffed with the pretence of democratic engagement, strips your critical faculties away.
It’s what Crikey columnist Guy Rundle was alluding to in another context when he waded in to a debate last week over the shallow nature of modern political activism. Rundle argued that Twitter stoushes over the merits of a rainbow crossing or moaning in Facebook about what an old codger like Geoffrey Barker might write about women newsreaders actually supplants deeper thinking and engagement with far more material questions. Why bother fighting the likes of Alan Jones over his sexism when Bangladeshi factories packed full of exploited women are collapsing? Why agitate for gay marriage when gays are being murdered across Africa, the homophobic fervour whipped up by decades of American missionary activity? This is fluff to politics as Twitter is to news, distracting consumers but, more perniciously, redirecting precious journalism resources away from in-depth news-gathering towards a daily orgy of click bait.
Of course, there’s two sides to this particular story too. Way back in 2006, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen laid down his manifesto for the coming news age, penning a blog post headed “the people formally known as the audience”. The explosion of new technologies, Rosen argued, had flipped the news equation on its head:
“We were once on the receiving end of a media system that ran one way, in a broadcasting pattern, with high entry fees and a few firms competing to speak very loudly while the rest of the population listened in isolation from one another — and who today are not in a situation like that at all.”
The good professor gave idyllic examples of blogs as mini printing presses available to all, DIY podcasting displacing broadcast radio, tailored news feeds replacing static front pages.
Seven years later this remains the dream of online news, the shift from the rigid, top-down media fortress of yore to something genuinely participatory and democratic. Citizen journalists bringing down governments, crowdsourced documents ripping the lid off transnational corruption.
The problem is that Rosen’s thesis has run up against a resource problem, especially in countries like Australia with a fraction of the philanthropic wealth of the United States (not to mention the developing world). It turns out that in most jurisdictions a bottom up-utopia is only capable of flourishing with a top-down funds injection — and probably only from that biggest of big cahoonas, the state. The business model for journalism is as broken as it’s ever been.
For what it’s worth, and sorry to depress you, but my advice to those considering a career in journalism is not to think about journalism at all. The best journalists have always been those with a natural and abiding interest in the world around them. A huge proportion of working journalists and politicians are still drawn from the milieu of politics, and very often student politics. It’s amazing how many of Crikey’s contributors, and my contacts, were active on campus and even at high school.
Journalism courses are also, arguably, unnecessary. Where once the basics of the craft used to be drummed into a fresh faced cadet in the newsroom coalface at 17, today undergraduates wade deep into the HECS mire to secure a spot in courses forced to teach peripheral “arts” subjects to stay relevant. Whoever coined the phrase “journalism courses are an escalator to nowhere” was on to something.
A practical organisation I sit on the board of, SYN Media in Melbourne, actually does more to craft well-rounded journalists than actual journalism schools. At SYN on air participation has on-air age cap of 26 — I’ve witnessed countless shy but interested wannabe hacks completely transform themselves into crack tabloid agitators with just a few hours behind the mic. It’s said that Victoria’s youth minister Ryan Smith dreads a SYN interview more than any other media call because the unorthodox grilling he gets is completely removed from the predictable inquiries of the Spring Street press pack (that’s Macquarie Street in New South Wales parlance).
So my message for the budding Judith Whelans in the room is to get involved, get interested, get curious about the world around you. You might not be able to find what’s left of traditional journalism, but hopefully journalism will eventually find you.