Thursday 9 February 2012

The Global Mail so far delivers on its early promises

First mooted in the middle of last year, The Global Mail is now up and delivering quality journalism for free, with an Australian perspective. The stories are longer than those that are normally found in the mainstream media, and for this reason there's the "luxury" of its journalists getting more viewpoints per topic, leading to a broader coverage of any issue and more in-depth reporting. As editor in chief Monica Attard recently said:
We’re taking a step back from the breathless, 24/7 news cycle to think, research, inform, provoke and entertain, gloriously unfettered by commercial and other pressures that conventionally shape news and current affairs.
And this, apart from the new vehicle's boast of its aim to deliver "quality, non-partisan, uncompromising and fearlessly independent journalism for independent minds" - a bit of marketing guff that appears to flatter its intended audience while at the same time talking up its own sense of professionalism - is the crux of the matter. Because it's the "breathless, 24/7 news cycle" that leads to what many people in Australia consider to be the mainstream's weakness.

For a start there's a fair amount of casual, and enduring, talk of staff cuts at commercial news organisations leading to fewer hours available to dedicate to any one story. Well, this is a truth. As the quantum of money exits news companies, and the quantum of available scribes - generated by the many journalism schools operating in Australia - shifts to communications departments and public relations outfits, the quantum of text available in the public sphere that is produced as journalism goes down.

The other thing that's worth saying is that the "commercial pressures" that "conventionally shape news" are also real. The need to generate revenue impacts on the journalist's (and the editor's) work because revenue on websites is still generated through traffic. To get traffic you need clicks. To get clicks you need to provoke interest. To do this you need to write (especially) your headline so that it is as "sensational" as possible and this tendency will also affect how the story is written, and what questions are asked of the politician, academic, or other interviewee. And how many angles for any story can a journo on deadline reasonably cover? The forces of commerce run up and down the links in the news chain like electricity, causing it to warp and bend in strange ways. Writers and editors at The Global Mail think that their - more leisurely, less "breathless" - approach can ensure that the product they deliver retains its "truer" shape.

Commercial pressures also impact on story selection, with the low-hanging fruit more likely to be handled because it takes less effort to get at them. This keys in with the idea that the quantum of writing is shifting toward communications professionals, with thousands of these people producing pre-made material aimed at attracting the attention of overworked journalists in the mainstream.

Aspiring to truth in journalism must be a good thing. As I discussed on the last day of last year, however, achieving such a product requires that certain key things be in place. In my view, those preconditions are in place at The Global Mail. The most critical being 'Time'. Another critical element that I talked about in my post, 'Editorial relationships', is moot because we're talking about an integrated newsroom and my viewpoint when writing that post was coloured by the fact that I'm a freelancer. Being a freelancer is a good thing for journalism because you easily avoid any groupthink, any editorial line that can begin to cohere in a newsroom, because you have your own priorities and interests that are independent of those of the masthead that ultimately publishes the work.

But reading a Global Mail story is a satisfying experience, despite a few subediting hiccoughs of the type that you would anyway see in mainstream media stories. Predictable and, in my view, trivial objections to the user interface are of little concern or interest. What's important is that The Global Mail continue to adhere to its founding principles. The expansiveness you sense in Attard's description of the outfit's happy predicament as one that is "gloriously unfettered" must, somehow, remain relevant and accurate. And so it will also be important for the outfit to find sources of funding beyond those so far promised by seed funder Graeme Wood, of Wotif fame. This will be the work of the outfit's board and top editors. Go and read about them, it's worthwhile.

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