community newspapers PR

The all-caps “EXCLUSIVE” red slug-line has become the latest branding tool for traditional media to assert its continued value to readers. When you’re trying to persuade your readers to pay for your journalism, it unlocks the value in people’s desire to be in-the-know.

It’s one of the dirty secrets of journalism, encouraging the reader to assume that the story has been dug out of the dark through sheer force of journalistic will. But how exclusive does a story have to be before it’s EXCLUSIVE?

News Corp, for example, has made the judgement that a story requiring some journalistic input to massage a set of facts into news that no other media has (or is interested in) amounts to an exclusive, at least at the time it’s published. It’s a legitimate marketing judgement: if you don’t tell people you’re giving them journalism, how will they know? The News Corp answer is a rash of red.

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Last Friday, for example, the Daily Telegraph front page exclusive was a report of a political stunt by Liberal Senator Eric Abetz in sending 40 questions to the ABC about its internal review of claims that a reporter was allegedly harassed by NSW Labor leader Luke Foley. The story also advised that the Telegraph “can reveal” (presumably off the back of a phone call) that the ABC had not spoken to the NSW Liberal MP who had raised the allegation in parliament.

It was followed with a celebrity exclusive on page three about the breakup of the relationship of radio host Jackie O. Hard work to dig that out. There was probably more raw journalism in the exclusive across pages four and five analysing the wealth of newly elected independent Wentworth MP Kerryn Phelps.

On the same day, The Australian had exclusives tagged across pages one, three, four, six, seven, eight, nine and 10.

Some of these were based off “drops” — an often unspoken agreement between a government or organisation to give early (read: exclusive) access to a paper or journalist, often in exchange for favourable coverage.

This practice was called out by former NSW premier Mike Baird’s media adviser, Imre Salusinszky, in the Sydney Morning Herald last year:

The understanding — really, the ‘rules of the game’ – is that the favoured outlet will provide positive coverage, positioned for maximum exposure, on page one or at the top of the television news bulletin. There is a further understanding that the opposition and other potentially critical voices will not be allowed into the story.

Traditional media also operates on the assumption that a story is only “revealed” when a mainstream outlet breaks it. But if a scoop falls in the forest of social or alternative media, where mainstream journalists think it won’t be heard, is it still a scoop when a newspaper puts it on a front page some months later?

Sharri Markson’s News Corp front page on Barnaby Joyce’s relationship with his former staffer has been rewarded with the top award at both News Corp’s internal awards and the Kennedy Awards for excellence in journalism. This month, it was nominated as a Walkley finalist in two categories, including Scoop of the Year.

Yet, the Joyce story was out on social media (including the website True Crime News Weekly) months beforehand, and before, not after, the New England byelection. Within Joyce’s electorate, it was apparently all over analogue social media — or pub gossip as we used to call it.

The Markson version was stronger (better sourced with photo) and more relevant (focusing on the pregnant staffer angle) and trouble with confirming the story meant the media wouldn’t report it earlier. But True Crime News Weekly still had the scoop first.

Traditional media needs to continually reassert its value as a news source without feeding public cynicism about journalistic practice. A better recognition of the broader media ecosystem and more careful use of exclusive tags may help get that balance right.

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Crikey is an independent Australian-owned and run outfit. It doesn’t enjoy the vast resources of the country’s main media organisations. We take seriously our responsibility to bear witness.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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