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Sunday, 7 October 2012

On getting a boner for the Alan Jones journo

An excited puppy. People get excited
on social media too.
Jonathan Marshall is the journalist who broke the Alan Jones story that's been running for a solid week now. It was a fantastic scoop. Marshall must be strongly congratulated for taking the initiative and going to the Sydney University Liberals event where Jones made the speech that has galvanised the Left in Australia. The story led to the resignation (or sacking, we cannot know the whole story) of Simon Berger, who was the Woolworths manager (not "executive" as everyone has been saying) who donated the chaff-bag jacket at the function that Jones paid for. A miserable, juvenile joke gone sour for Berger. Now Jones' sponsor Mercedes has pulled its complimentary car away from the radio host. More blood on the tracks.

But then this guy on Twitter said something like "Jonathan Marshall is the best investigative journalist ever". And I'm reading this and going "Hmmm" to myself. Well sure, Marshall got a fabulous scoop that has major implications for the tone of public debate in Australia. But "investigative journalist"? I thinking that's going just a bit far from the truth of the case. It's not quite enough ... Now if Marshall had been tracking Jones for a couple of months, suspecting that something like this would come up. If he had had information that led him to the event, that he'd gathered from another source. In such cases you could possibly call the story "investigative". But the reality is he got a hunch, got permission from his editor to attend the event, and then sat at a busy table making an effort to keep the pinot noir out of his digital audio recorder as Jones rattled on for an hour or so. Simple, really. And stunningly effective.

To call something "investigative journalism" is to give it and its author a measure of cachet. It is to subscribe to the mystique of the dogged, high minded journo. You know, scruffy Russell Crowe tirelessly on the trail of some funny money, a handful of compromising photographs, and a congressman with shady contacts. Or carefully cultivating a CIA turncoat who'll only meet you in a public carpark (this trope was amusingly deployed in the drama Rake, on the ABC, this week, even down to the essential detail: "Follow the money!"). But it has to be deserved.

In actual reality investigative journalism is something more than just following a bit of a hunch. It's more than having a story fall into your lap just because you were in the right place at the right time. It's really about perseverance. You get a hint of a big story through your investigations, then stick to it over weeks and months trying to locate sources who can substantiate your suspicions, so that you can finally write the story and get the damn thing published somewhere that will actually pay you enough money to cover the cost of doing the story in the first place. (This last bit is the reason investigative journalism is so rare, and why it's getting rarer: it cost a LOT of money to do. And risks are high, so magazines will not back you until you have enough evidence to convince them your story has got legs. But just to get to THAT place takes, yes indeed, an amount of time. Time is money.)

It's about following the trail until it finally goes cold. There's no luck involved, and a lot of sweat and hard work. I'll provide a real life case study to illustrate what I mean. I had the opportunity to do a piece of investigative journalism, which was published in June. The trail started over two months earlier. At that time I had been given a commission by a magazine to write 2000 words on shale gas in Australia. Now, I'm just a journalist. I don't know shale gas from coal seam gas from conventional gas. Not until I start anyway. I'm not a geophysicist, or an energy industry analyst, or a gas exploration company manager, or a government policy researcher. There ARE people out there who know SHITLOADS about shale gas and its financial viability in Australia, and it was up to me to locate these people, talk to them, and write my story. Which I did. But during that process another story rose up out of the material I was collecting, and I knew it would have legs as a standalone article. So I filed the shale gas story and set about pitching the new story - about the way natural gas retail prices are going to rise in Australia's eastern states over the coming years due to our exposure to international markets - to another outlet. A reputable website said "Yes" and so I went on to do the rest of the work. This involved of course lots of reading, lots of emails, and lots of phone calls. All up the two stories took about two-and-a-half months to complete. For that I got about $1500 cash all up. Which is the reason why investigative stories are rare as hens teeth.

Investigative work is important if too risky for most media outlets. Because it's important, the guy called Marshall's scoop what he did. A boost to the ego. I can understand why the guy decided to flatter the journalist by calling his scoop that. On social media journalists are a kind of species of celebrity, and this cachet helps them to gain followers. How does this work in real life? There was a case last year where a US journo who left his employer was asked to surrender his Twitter account because of his long association with the company. He refused, saying that he'd earned the large number of followers he had accumulated due to his own efforts. It's contestable. If, say, Jonathan Holmes was not the host of the ABC's Media Watch program would he have so many people following him on Twitter? I don't think so. This applies to pretty much any journalist you encounter online and that's why they always put their affiliation in their Twitter profile. The mystique derives from the privileged access they have to the public sphere. That level of influence. That solid reputation. All those eager readers. ("Follow the money!") But actually journalists are very glad when people pay attention to them on social media, just as anyone is.

The mystique works in many ways. Folks at home get a bit of a boner if they see the photo of a sunset they'd taken from the back verandah with their digital camera displayed on the TV weather program, the program that asks for viewer photos. Trolls get a boner when their comment is approved for publication by the tabloid media website, and then again when that comment gets commented on by some other sad troll. Just a little, but a boner nonetheless. And Geoff of Woollahra really gets a boner when his letter about the deleterious effects of postmodernist studies on the morals of secondary school students is published on the Letters page of the Sydney Morning Herald. PEOPLE ARE READING WHAT I WROTE ISN'T THAT COOL! Well, yes, it's a little bit cool but before you crack open that bottle of Yellowglen remember buddy that without your comments, photos and letters the media would feel more than a little disappointed. Crushed, more like it. Audience participation, just like website clicks, is oxygen for a media outlet. It cuts both ways.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are a serious writer from what I've read. I respect and enjoy your topics. Marshall would be better suited to Hollywood. He lies and has mediocre taste most of the time when it comes to subject. Shame he wants to appeal to the many who refuse to be open minded in this world.