Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Poverty leads to identity crisis for Australia's newspapers

The crisis in the news business is of course news. For the past week, Australian newspapers have been reporting on this crisis, a crisis that has been exacerbated by the Eurozone crisis which is pulling down the share price of companies across the market. I assume that newspapers do not like it when they become news, as when Fairfax journalists walked off the job to protest management shifting subediting services across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. And a larger story is the one that involves the push by Fairfax shareholder Gina Rinehart for a seat, or seats, on the board of the company. Fairfax managers have been making efforts to send the message - to Rinehart as well as to readers - that the company's editorial independence would be maintained. But as the share price continues to slide and as time passes the matter will reemerge again.

It did today, with Rinehart adviser Jack Cowin appearing in a news story on the website of the Sydney Morning Herald. Cowin is the man behind the fast-food restaurant chain Hungry Jacks. Spruiking financial success as an excuse, Cowin clearly delineates the Rinehart position vis-z-vis editorial influence.
Asked about whether Mrs Rinehart would interfere with editorial policy at The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Cowin cited a recent article saying: ''It would be like Qantas not allowing its directors to talk about airplanes - because editorial policy - that is the product.
''What Fairfax is trying to achieve is directors, who have a financial interest in the company, don't phone up journalists and try to influence them. However, the purpose of a company is to try to make a profits and if the editorial policy … is not optimising the opportunity then it's the role of the directors to try to change the direction,'' he said.
He also said that maybe having a few more Andrew Bolts on staff at Fairfax broadsheets would "balance the message that's being communicated to the community". And, yes, Cowin said, ''Gina Rinehart would have a stronger right-wing view than probably the average liberal journalist.''

Over at The Australian, which is itself set to be subject to a new round of organisational adjustment in the next few weeks, media editor Stephen Brook ran a piece analysing an internal communications video Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood rolled out recently. In the video, Hywood is said to have criticised "silos" within the larger company, and "Dysfunctional behaviour". Brook wrote:
Hywood was right to state that newspaper businesses must tear down their silos. Staff at The Sydney Morning Herald can no longer regard The Age as inferior competition, and vice versa. Print journalists can no longer regard web reporters as churnalists of wire copy, nor digital journalists see their print colleagues as lazy dinosaurs. Daily newspaper staff can no longer battle with their Sunday newspaper colleagues.
These stories illustrate something of the anxiety that is currently plaguing newspapers in Australia. It's not a uniquely Australian situation, of course. Newspapers throughout the developed world are struggling to find ways to monetise their content now that the days of steady streams of lucrative classified advertising income have passed forever. This economic crisis is translating into a crisis of identity, as Michael Gawenda points out in his contribution to The Australian of 4 June.

Both the piece by Brook and the one by Gawenda are paywalled, by the way. Readers who would like to remain in the loop are advised to set up a subscription to The Australian. Think of it as if you were doing a public service. If you subscribe you are helping contribute to the public good, even though you may object to some elements of the newspaper's editorial policy or to the reputation of its ultimate owner.

Gawenda has a ton of experience in newspapers, having served as the editor-in-chief of The Age, a Fairfax broadsheet. He now teaches. In his piece, Gawenda asks what the solution to the current crisis in the newspaper business would be. He outlines what a revitalised newspaper would do and what it would not do. Here is an excerpt:
Its core business would be news, business and sport. What is news must be redefined. No story based on a news conference, a press release or an announcement would make this paper.
This paper would tell stories rich in detail, based on painstaking reporting. There would be no attempt to cover breaking news.
Great writing would be mandatory. Narrative storytelling would be encouraged. Editors would ask themselves these questions: Is this story compelling? Is it unique? Is it well written? News for a newspaper can no longer be just about what an editor decides happened yesterday.
All the so-called lifestyle sections would be migrated to online or dropped altogether. This does not mean food, entertainment and the arts would receive no coverage in this reinvented newspaper.
The future of newspapers lies not in more commentary and analysis. Papers must not become what The Independent in Britain has become, in the phrase of one of its editors - a "viewspaper". The internet is awash with commentary and analysis. More and better reporting should be the goal.
Newspapers need to build on their strengths, above all, a sense that what the newspaper is offering its readers can't be found anywhere else. Do we have the talent in Australia to produce a newspaper half the size of those we currently produce, with maybe half the staff, but full of great reporting? I think so.
I expect to see more and more pieces like this that analyse what a newspaper should be. Gawenda's contribution involves completely reimagining the role of the newspaper, along lines already established by, for example, The Global Mail, a philanthropically-funded website that exclusively runs longer features. But "no attempt to cover breaking news"? The Global Mail has already had its first identity crisis, last month, when founding editor Monica Attard left. The change came on the back of visitor statistics that were apparently less than exciting. It appears that editors are now trying to tie their stories closer to the news cycle, even though the original vision made a point of separating editorial policy from topicality. Maybe "taking a step back from the breathless, 24/7 news cycle" does not mean cutting yourself off completely from current issues.

If I was to give an opinion it would be that Gawenda is right, and that newspapers must concentrate their efforts on "what the newspaper is offering its readers [that] can't be found anywhere else". If news is important (for the functioning of democracy), and if the current model is not working, then it's probably necessary to hunker down mentally and ask yourself what is unique and truly valuable about journalism. There are plenty of opinion sites that will be happy to run self-interested pieces from organisations, companies, and think tanks. There might turn out to be even more of these websites if newspapers decide to turn away from running minimally-edited press releases, and instead focus their effort on producing really good, well-researched and strong journalism that can work to change the paradigm in whichever sphere of interest it focuses on. That, to me, is journalism at its best.

And if Fairfax managers are really concerned about editorial influence by a mining magnate, that tells me they too are concerned about reputation, gravitas, and influence. If independence is the cornerstone of influence, and influence is the key to financial success, then the way forward is clearer. It's just a matter of how long managers will allow the business to shrink before they take the plunge, and institute a new vision that will translate into a new formulation for the newspapers themselves.

It would be good if more journalists, including freelancers, were to weigh in on this debate about the nature of news. Such stories will continue to crop up as long as the share prices of media companies remain subdued. And we await news of the changes that Kim Williams, the CEO of News Limited, has in mind for the newspapers under his control.

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