Monday, 3 September 2012

Truth not a problem for news, but other things are

It's a pretty brave thing to do, to sum up the events of the past few weeks in the media, and still endeavour to believe that the business of news has a future. This is what Katharine Murphy did today in an op-ed piece for her employer, Fairfax. A lot of experienced Fairfax journalists have left the company in the past week, many writing an adieu for publication. The company's stock price has continued to crash, which should leave us in no uncertainty about the uncertain future of this august and, many still believe, valuable institution. In completing her survey, Murphy then referred to a public battle in the US over truth in reporting. This could seem to be a vindication of what Fairfax does, but if accurate journalism has been the company's hallmark for all these years, and the stock price is still tanking, then either the business model needs to change or else people don't really value truth, after all.

As a freelancer who has published many stories in the general news media such an appeal to reason - that truth is the touchstone of good journalism, and that Fairfax has always put truth foremost in its stories, and that truth should be enough to ensure survival - rings slightly hollow. Truth and accuracy are indeed, in my mind, invaluable attributes of good journalism but there are other forces influencing the nature of news at companies like Fairfax that might be hindering their financial success. I think there are four main problems with the way news is produced. They are the primacy of production values, the need for topicality, the importance of novelty, and word count.

The importance that editors place on production values can hinder innovative journalism because it means they prefer the seamlessly engaging story to the one that might need a bit of subbing but that can contain really novel, important storytelling. Production values serve to maintain the reputation of a media outlet, and we see how important they are on the TV news at night, for example. The seamless, faultless delivery of information is of more importance to the outlet than the relevance or even the accuracy of the stories being told. Editors prefer slick copy because it means less work for their outlet, and less cost. But slick copy can actually be pretty flimsy when you break down its matter and hold its constituent elements up to the light of critical scrutiny.

Topicality is a perennial cause of worry for freelancers because it forces you to try to find the critical hook that will catch the attention of the editor, without damaging the coherence or importance of your story. Topical means 'right now', the essence, we might think, of the news. It also points to popularity; a topical story or blog post will attract more clicks than one that is informative - and possibly agenda-setting - but that does not chime in with what's being talked about in the present. Clicks are good for editors. Clicks validate an editor's choices and the effort taken to craft the headline, the intro and the story's first few paragraphs. Those story elements are what make the reader read and what keep him or her reading. But an important story can be damaged by just bunging on a topical hook at the beginning of a story. The result of an insistent focus on topicality and poularity is that a lot of good, interesting and possibly agenda-setting stories can be cast aside.

Media outlets process a lot of information every day, and there is a pressing need for a regular feed of new stories to publish on the website. This need for novelty keeps readers happy but it can take resources away from bigger, tougher stories, ones which require a lot of effort to produce. This issue is related to the next issue on my list, which is word count. If a media outlet is pushing out dozens of 400-word stories every day then that means that the outlet will not have the resources to focus attention on bigger, more time-consuming stories that can really change the play of debate in the public sphere. The fact is that the regular feed of novelty is not working, as we see from Fairfax's tanking stock price and from the recent layoffs. What those journalists were doing has of course been valuable, but has what they were doing represented the best use of the company's resources? Might it not be better to focus more on cracking the tough ones, going to longer stories with more depth, and giving readers a type of journalism that they cannot get elsewhere. Additionally, longer journalism has been gathering a fair body of support within the global readership, in the digital age.

The thing is that Murphy's summation of the state of the news contains no promise of anything that might differentiate Fairfax from the mass of other news outlets that operate here, and no ideas about what should change in order to restore financial health to the company. There's no question that Fairfax still maintains a primacy in the Australian news environment that few other companies can claim. But that's not enought any more. There needs to be a new way of thinking about what news is at the shop-floor level, where the editorial staff make their decisions on a daily, hourly, and minute-by-minute basis. It's about changing the philosophy of the company, and I think that appealing to a high ideal like 'truth' will fall short of changing reader behaviour. If putting up a paywall entails risk, then perhaps there might also be a need to take a risk in other aspects of the business, ones that will require bigger changes within the company.

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