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Friday, 10 September 2010

When I was 16, I travelled with my family to the United States and we visited the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary operated by the Audubon Society in Massachusetts. It's on Cape Cod and we went there because my father had always had a soft spot for the beautiful, sensitive renderings by 19th century naturalist and painter James Audubon. The paintings are fabulous and depict their subjects in context, as you can see in the clip at right. They're also highly sought-after. Selling an Audubon book gets to be news, as happened in the last few days here. A complete copy of Audubon's Birds of America is to go on sale in London. It belonged to an aristocrat who died over half a century ago. The likely purchaser will pay millions of dollars for the privilege of owning one of the most coveted books in existence.

The sale struck me as significant because of the way that a thing made with care and consideration can accrue enormous value. Rarity attracts a high price. This is a mantra of the news industry, and is often used by online editors to beg off imposing a pay wall on news sites. Why would people pay for something they can easily get elsewhere? they ask. But carefully-crafted work is valued, because it's rare, and people would be willing to pay for it because they can't get it elsewhere.

Occasionally, good work is also free. This is almost the case on the web nowadays. I say "almost" because in order to perceive what is good you must invest time consuming a broad range of stories. In a narrow economic sense, progressive journalist Leigh Ewbank's recent post on The Punch, 'What we still need to know about a carbon price' is entirely free. To know that it's good, however, you may need to have spent time understanding the ecosystem in which it is placed.

One good location to start looking for pointers about quality is Jay Rosen's blog, Pressthink. Rosen is an academic at New York University in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, where he teaches. But he also operates as a classical maven, and promulgates his ideas on the blog and on Twitter. His ideas have reach, and have started to appear in Australian media commentary since his visit here last month. He appeared on TV and wrote about his experiences in a number of places. His opinion of Australian journalism is low.

One of Rosen's ideas is to provide narrative for context that will enable readers to understand the significance of an otherwise isolated and confusing event.

Ewbank's post on The Punch does this, and it's a rare and pleasant experience to read it. He talks about the history of carbon policy up to the present time. Then he talks about the pitfalls to come for carbon policy under the newly-elected government - a government where a Green MP and three independent MPs with a preference for some sort of cap-and-trade scheme hold the balance of power in the Lower House, and where the Greens will have nine senators in the Upper House from July 2011. The game has changed, he says, but a mechanism aimed at reducing carbon emissions is by no means assured because popular support is still inadequate.

The coal lobby, for example, is a threat to the introduction of such a scheme. They lobbied successfully against a mining "super-profits" tax earlier this year, leading to the deposing of the prime minister. And the opposition Liberal-National coalition will also be campaigning hard against any such scheme despite not having control in either chamber. To counter this resistance, Ewbank says, the government needs to do something specific:
Those proposing a price on carbon should say where the money raised would be spent, and say how this would be in the national interest.
That's a start, he says. But there's even more that needs to be done, he says, before an uncertain electorate will accept a measure that is likely, at least in the short term, to result in higher prices for a range of goods and services.
The next attempt at pricing-based climate legislation can feature a national clean technology fund to invest in Australia’s low carbon future. The Commonwealth could use the fund to invest in new transmission lines, electric vehicle charging stations, and R&D grants to drive innovation in battery technology—helping to overcome non-market barriers to cleantech deployment. The government could also finance large-scale demonstration projects (e.g. concentrated solar thermal power) and clean tech procurement—the effect of which will spur industry development and drive economies of scale.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. My main purpose in starting this post was to highlight how a journalist who has taken the time to become an expert in a subject can synthesize complex sets of facts and trends into a convincing narrative. A danger, sceptics might point out at this point, is that the journo then becomes an advocate. Clearly, in this case, the journalist is an advocate. And this leads us face to face with the great slumbering giant of modern journalism: objectivity. This is something I'm still working out, but those who are interested in it could do worse than read more of Rosen's blog.

There's a cost to enlightenment, as always. In my case the family trip to Cape Cod ended up costing us a pair of binoculars, which I left on the rental car's roof when we drove way. But the memories remain, and continue to help me to understand a complex world.

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