Admirable as its intentions may be, the Senate inquiry into public interest journalism is heading for a rocky shore.

This is not to say it has been a wasted voyage; some very solid ideas have been floated, and the senators may yet come up with workable plans to “rescue” journalism. But the fundamental questions raised — and so far not fully addressed — are what is and isn’t public interest journalism, and how the hell can whatever it is be better supported?

Definitional issues are admittedly a bit soft and unexciting in comparison with what seems to be the inquiry’s real cause: the “shame and pay” push on Google and Facebook. But they go to the heart of what the inquiry is supposedly about and how any new pots of money it might unearth are eventually distributed.

Defining public interest and balancing so many sectional, special and political interests is where navigating the committee’s journey to an early December report date will get complicated, if not downright confusing.

Perhaps I can help. Being in the public interest implies that journalism is a service, and a service is what someone, somewhere, is prepared to pay for.

Up until the internet blew up the business model, the people doing most of the paying were the advertisers. Journalism was a by-product of the quest to find an audience and flog stuff. Subscribers got a great deal, as they were never charged the full cost of doing the journalism. They got an even better one when media companies thought the best way to deal with the internet was to start giving away their journalism for free.

With the benefit of hindsight, you might well argue that giving it away revealed just how much the boards of many media companies and their executives valued the actual journalism. The advertisers wanted the eyeballs.

They still do.

So it is no big surprise they’ve followed their “clients” to social platforms, especially as these platforms know more about their would-be consumers than any media company ever has or will. (Question: is it Facebook’s fault they’ve worked out how to know their audience and assist advertisers to reach them? Why didn’t a Fairfax or a News do that? )

So, if journalism is a public service — and the advertisers aren’t paying up like they used to — who will buy it, what’s it worth and what do they want to buy? What, if you like, is journalism actually for?

For most journalists the answer is self-evident: journalists are watchdogs, they keep all sorts of bastards honest. But is that how the public — the same public that spends $4 on a cup of coffee — see it? Do they think journalists are serving them? And if so, are they willing to pay for that service?  

Clearly some people are willing to pay for journalism — God bless each and every one of them — but most are not. With trust in the media now at historic lows, why on earth should publishers expect punters to start handing over their hard-earned? Give or take the odd flowering of admiration, it was pretty well always thus.

So, what to do?

As flagged by several people at the inquiry, myself included, there is a case to incentivise investment, direct or indirect, in journalism. Whether the federal government has the stomach for that is entirely another matter. But that brings us back to how to decide who or what gets any such benefit? This is where the concept of a service is useful.

[Media Watch’s appeal to the future of ‘public interest journalism’ is snobbish and unbalanced]

Apart from knocking off the business model, the internet enacted another, even more profound revolution: it shifted the power from the media companies and the journalists to their audiences. Audiences are free to roam, buy and vent voice, and no end of taxing social media platforms will bring them back to an enclosure that was once controlled by a handful of blokes in nice suits (again, myself included). That jig is well and truly up.

So, whatever the Senate inquiry comes up with, it needs to grapple head-on with what journalism in the service of the public actually looks, feels and tastes like. What does a public service test for journalism look like?

Here’s an idea: every journalism-centred enterprise wishing to be eligible for, let’s call it the Public Interest Journalism Incentive Scheme (PIJIS), needs to show evidence of engaging with — and listening to — audiences. That sounds simple but in reality it might prove tricky.

Media companies survey readers and non-readers all the time. They do so when they are flogging a new idea or product or when they want to know what is going wrong or right. So what would make a bias towards public service different? The answer lies in the rather worn term “audience-first”.  

To be audience-first, parts of journalism are going to have to learn to put a few things second. Or to be more precise, journalism is going to have to start to see itself as a collaborative practice, one that both talks at, and listens to, its audience.

There are models.

De Correspondent from The Netherlands is not only crowdfunded but its journalists actively engage readers in the reporting process at an early stage.

Hearken, a US-based “listening” platform, enables audiences to suggest lines of inquiry to journalism outlets and then vote on the ones to follow up.

The ABC is using Hearken in Canberra, as is community broadcaster 2SER in Sydney.

To be PIJIS-eligible, media enterprises might also have to have audience advisory boards or show evidence of active listening, such as, at the very least, having a readers’ editor. They might have to adhere to a broader set of ethical standards than they do now.  

And they may even have to explore new “constructive” reporting models that are not wedded to the current “he said, she said” mode — or other forms of innovation. In short, there might be multiple ways to get PIJIS. Of course, many media companies will see such things as an unnecessary impost, even though they might be able to fund, say, investigative journalism with it.

Profound questions about the nature of the fourth estate are lurking here. Among the most important: are journalists and media companies brave enough to play second fiddle to — or, at very least, co-leader of the band with — their audiences?

The evidence to date is not encouraging.

So, here’s another way to think about all this: journalism is, in essence, a bit like the Senate — it is something many people don’t understand, admire or wish to pay for, but would, on balance, rather have it than not, even if they don’t really know why.

*Peter Fray is the co-director of the Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney, a former editor-in-chief and publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and an irregular Crikey columnist.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.