The “farewell to journalists” article has become so much a staple of Australian newspapers now that it might eventually become a section in its own right — the photos of glum-looking people in hot-desked office spaces, the articles with tepid anecdotes about people you’ve never heard of, etc, etc. Births, deaths, marriages, redundancies.
Eventually it will be written by journobots as they farewell their final fleshbot colleagues. Then, as early models of journobots are made redundant, they too will be banged out: “Remember that time Dynocorp X7-33 got pissed and made up the trotting results from Sandown …? Good times.”
Well, yes, OK, a little flippant. One has sympathy for those taking a “voluntary” redundancy halfway through a career they thought might carry them out. Me, I’ve never seen writing or journalism as anything but a means to an end, which might, in other circumstances, be served by lobbing molotov cocktails. But it’s a sympathy that is also based on the appreciation of a certain naivete on the part of many. The most basic, minimally theoretical eye would tell you, from about 1995 on, that nothing was going to remain nailed down. Part of the blind spot for many journalists in understanding what has happened, much less anticipating it, is that they have been trained to regard all news events and stories as atomised, disconnected, part of no wider pattern.
The collapse of mainstream left-liberal journalism in Australia has prompted two related calls: one, about the future of journalism in society, and the other as to whether the state should subsidise or wholly fund journalism (beyond the existing ABC) that the private sector will not allow for. The second proposition, which is being asserted rather than argued, is one of dubious merit, and the first relies on a series of assumptions, even an arrogance about the place of journalism in society.
Good investigative journalism is vital for a pluralist, democratic reflexive society. But whether a mass of the public believe it to be so is quite a different proposition. The current decline of newspapers that do genuine journalism is one piece of evidence that people actually don’t value it as much as journalists do. Kate McClymont’s unraveling of the byzantine layers of corruption in New South Wales Labor was a tour de force; whether it compelled people to take up the SMH is another question. Whether they would pay a premium for such investigations is more uncertain still.
In response to this disconcerting lack of public support, journalists tend to tell themselves a story, another story of the fall. There was once a society, they say, where people did care about serious journalism, and things mattered, and people were willing to pay for it. But then the internet came along, and people were beguiled into listicles and MasterChef recaps, and no one wanted to read a 10,000-word series about collusion in the banking sector anymore.
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There is some truth to this story, just enough for journalists to hide from themselves the deeper untruth of it. There was a period, from the end of World War II into the 1980s, when politically well-informed investigative journalism had mass support, and something of a mass audience. That was because control of society — between capitalism and socialism, the bourgeois power-structure v the working class and its allies — was up for grabs, and the sort of things investigative journalists were revealing was part of that wider struggle. By the 1980s, that had been fought to a draw or a loss, depending on your point of view. Increasingly from the late ’80s onward, stunning exposes of this or that malfeasance were just more information that the fix was in, the elites ran the joint for their own benefit, and there wasn’t going to be any great power-sharing anytime soon. The National Times, the paper that more than any had made its selling point one expose after another, died in 1988, and that would serve as good a marker as any for the end of that era.
The National Times had never made a profit, beyond a small operating surplus (and barely that); the major Fairfax papers had relied on their vast sales, based on classifieds, to fund journalism that its elite leadership thought was something newspapers should do. When the “rivers of gold” stopped flowing, the lack of an audience for that sort of journalism was exposed also.
The melancholy fact that many journalists have to face is that it is highly possible that there has never been a mass market for much of what they are doing. The Australian has been making an operating loss for decades, cross-subsidised by its tabloids. It was boring for a long time, now it’s whacko. But there’s never been a self-sustaining market for it. Fairfax groaned with op-eds, features, substantial book pages and essays. No one ever really knew how many people were reading them. Very simply, the people who edited the papers thought they were worth doing; most of the people who owned, and were on the board of, the papers thought the same.
Whether that arrangement could have survived or not, is an interesting question. It didn’t, because Fairfax was taken over by people who hated its politics, hated its readership, and were determined to take it rightwards, out of a mixture of bloody-mindedness, delusion and sheer, unvarnished lack of intelligence. Now, it appears to be an experiment in how little journalism you can get away with and still run a newspaper at all.
The results of that experiment might be melancholy news for Australian journalists, i.e. they might succeed. One thing about the “wither journalism” cries of many in this era is that they fail to acknowledge how whole types of journalism can disappear without people much missing it. Both the News Corp tabloids and the Fairfax broadsheets were once “city” newspapers, covering the events of a single city, giving you a picture of what was going on. No one before the 1980s would have questioned that such papers would need to cover every scandal, every council decision, every murder, every major accident, and a host of minor such events as well, to give you a picture of what was going on in the place you lived in. That “city” newspaper role has utterly vanished now. Moreover, it has not been replaced by anything, and no one who never knew it really misses it. There is now no single encapsulation of the city, no drawing of it together in a single daily bulletin. If you’d told a working journo that in 1965, 1975 or even 1985, they would have laughed you out of the saloon bar they were working from. They would have found it unimaginable that such a basic function of journalism could be substantially discontinued.
Journalists now have to apply the same imagination to the journalism they have inherited, and ask themselves whether the public view their activities as being as essential to public life, as they themselves do. If the answer is that most people would not miss investigative journalism, and that within a decade or so, a whole generation would come to adulthood not knowing what it is, and not missing the functions it served, which were now not being served, then some very deep questions have to be asked, about how one continues to perform the basic functions of interrogating power, and who one can rely on to auspice it.
Is the single-issue big story really the best way to show how power works, how democracy and due process are being undermined — or are they increasingly stories that land with little effect? Has a certain approach to journalism — which one might call Walkleyism, a writing for colleagues and for the award — started to take over, and distorted the process? Now that rich benefactors and rivers of gold can no longer be relied upon, how else might such scrutiny be applied? If the answer is that the state should pay for it, then you’ve more or less got to the same position the coal industry has, and it’s time to think again about how much has changed, and how journalism needs to change with it.