Is journalism f**ked?


With thanks to Warren Ellis whose graphic novel, Transmetropolitan is essential reading for all enlightened people, and whose graphic novel you can purchase on Amazon.

It has not been a good week for journalism.

In Australia, Senate hearings were held in Sydney to discuss the viability of a levy to keep this dying industry alive. But it quickly descended into a war on the country’s public broadcaster, the ABC. Fairfax CEO, Greg Hywood, who reportedly earns a cushy bonus of around $3 million a year in exchange for cutting newsrooms in half, took the podium to claim the public broadcaster was stealing its readers.

(You can read my colleague Paul Wallbank & Michael West’s statements to the submission here and here).

First of all: They’re not Fairfax’ readers. The absolute entitlement to an unearned audience is astounding.

The way to retain your audience is by producing journalism you can be proud of, which arguably, the ABC does more consistently than Fairfax, thanks to shows such as Four Corners, Australian Story, Lateline, 7.30, and News 24.

Second, accepting that journalism can only exist as a loss-making arm of a corporate behemoth is how we got into this mess in the first place.

Despite its commitment to independent and objective investigative journalism, the privatisation of  the ABC, headed by former Newscorp lawyer Michelle Guthrie, has already begun.

Both former Newscorp Chief, Kim Williams and conservative Newscorp columnist and research fellow of right-wing think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, Tom Switzer, have plum jobs at Radio National. (Switzer, incidentally, replaced former Fairfax Media and Crikey editor Jonathan Green).

And it seems that Fairfax now has no problem playing dirty to retain its audience, even if it meads declaring war on the public broadcaster (whose popular Q&A program provides essential click fodder for the weekly SMH recap).

What some readers and journalists alike fail to understand about journalism  is that companies like Domain and Real Estate.com were not built to support it. Most ‘mainstream’ journalism exists to support its company’s advertising arm. Journalism has been the delivery mechanism for advertising content since the mid-seventies. The wrapping-paper for some chips and a dead fish.

It appears the same is occurring in the UK. James Harding, head of BBC News is the former editor of The Times, a NewsCorp owned publication. The BBC’s head of strategy and now radio,  James Purnell is a former a neoliberal Labor MP & Blairite. Chair of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, is  also a non-executive director of the Swiss subsidiary of HSBC.

In America, Donald Trump called for journalists who reported on the firing of FBI Director, James Comey to be jailed, and its public broadcaster NPR continually lives in fear of losing its funding or broadcasting status. (Though given it has successfully made the leap into podcasting, live events and video, arguably it needs radio less now than radio needs it).

With around a decade of experience under my belt, I was lucky to enjoy the dying days of journalism’s golden era.  I somehow managed to avoid rounds of redundancies as my colleagues were marched out the building with a handshake. And if they were lucky, a payout. Probably testament to how cheap I was to employ.  My team of six dropped to a team of one. My traffic and KPI expectations almost tripled. My paycheck changed not one dollar.

The writing was on the wall. Perhaps the arrogance of being in my mid-twenties led me to believe I had choices. I would be fine. And perhaps it is this arrogance which continues to drive m.

It has been almost six years since I have had a steady paycheck. I have no regrets.

I have known since I was very young that I need to work in ways that allow me to do everything.  I don’t like having to choose. I choose to be a journalist. I have never had any illusions about job security or earning potential. Well ok, not any illusions…

It is very, very difficult to work in this industry if you are a true believer.  They say there are two things in the world you don’t want to see how they make ‘em: laws and sausages. Add media organisations to that list.

There is some ground-breaking journalism being produced by a variety of journalists at different publications with a range of business models, but this good work is often produced in spite of the corporate structures which are nonetheless keeping them in pants and cereal.

I realised a little while ago that I was going to need to find a way to channel the disillusionment.  No longer spending nine-to-five, six-days a week in the belly of the beast was the best decision I ever made.

Control my exposure. Save my energy for actual journalism. What a fucking snowflake.

As a freelancer, I am directly affected by the media apocalypse and feel its affects in s tangible, (financial) way. But I also worry about what happens to the work when everyone is worried about losing a gig or getting a gig or getting sued and / or watching their Ps and Qs.

We are being trained to distrust out instincts, to place all our faith in the numbers with no real understanding of what they are actually telling us. There is no room for instinct or authenticity. Everything must be measured and quantified.

In any case, editorial freelance budgets have all but dried up. Full-time jobs are fewer and further between. And for the full time positions that do exist, you’d be lucky to earn more than $70,000, unless you are Miranda Devine,  or have a taste for management.

I live gig-to-gig. There is a direct relationship between my output and earning ability. I take on a lot of commercial work to keep the lights on. And I quite enjoy it.

I get an email asking me if I am interested. They send me the brief. I write it. We collaborate on changes and edits. I file. They thank me. And then I get paid. Plus it helps balance out the rate of emotional investment.

Journalism takes much longer and is a thankless task. Pity I love it so much.

Sometimes it helps to care less about stuff: advice for the youngens’. Don’t undervalue the power of a regular pay cheque and a mind-numbing vocation.

My career trajectory hit a bit of a wall more than six years ago. Inevitably, journalists with a certain amount of experience under their belt are often forced to choose between staying on as a reporter, knowing their earning potential will always be capped, or move into a senior editor’s position for an (insignificantly) bigger pay check, and then on to management which requires a move further and further away from the interests of The Fourth Estate. It is very rare to find a role which allows you to do both (there are exceptions to these rules, but it requires an editorial and management structure which supports that ethos).

I began to get into trouble for the kind of reporting that would have won awards the decade prior.  Or at least earned me a beer from the editor at the pub. These days, a single complaint can cost you your career.

I was lucky to have a buffer that gave me time to setup as a freelancer. I was blessed with a part-time role whose pay was just shitty enough that my very awesome boss had no problem with me freelancing to make up the difference.

Since then I have been blessed to travel the world, launch start-ups, break big stories, direct documentaries, ghost-write books and research, & write one of my own, produce two podcasts and launch my own subscription journalism experiment.

But most of the time I walk around with my heart in my throat. I have never felt like I am fucking it up more than I do now.

It doesn’t get easier. The hustle is permanent.

Journalism is a risk industry and it is getting harder and harder to do business in this town.

With that in mind, here are a few thoughts / ideas / observations for how to save money,  create / retain value and support the Fourth Estate:

Sorry, we need to shrink newsrooms

This isn’t comfortable to hear. But the day that the media industry decided to publicly list itself on the stock exchange, was the day journalism had a knife put to its throat.

Tying the success of journalism to shareholder dividends and executive bonuses can – and has – degraded the quality of the product being put out, and diluted news brands the world over.

More importantly, publicly listing can – and has  – massively over-valued many media companies from Fairfax to the New York Times, and led to the false assumption that profits and growth would be steady and permanent. Consequently, some pretty dicey decisions have been made to keep this model alive.

For example, The 170-year-old Chicago Tribune was last year spun-off into an online digital content clearing house “Tronc”:

The Huffington Post exists. And Fairfax CEO, Greg Hywood will reportedly earn a comfortable $3 million bonus this Christmas, after laying off hundreds of journalists.

‘Corporate media’ is the greatest employer of journalists in Australia, America, The UK and Canada. If this model is to continue, then newsrooms are going to need to shrink significantly in the short-and-medium term.

That doesn’t mean you can’t still do good journalism. The better publications will reassess and incorporate their business models to allow for proper, investigative journalism. But first there must be a corporate will.

I am not disputing the importance of properties like Domain and Real Estate, but inevitably, the value of all online advertising drops to zero.

Media companies must re-gear their business models to support the creation of journalism. Their models must support their product. If journalism is not the product, then my question is: why are you in this industry?

There are plenty of other more lucrative ways to sell advertising than through a newspaper or website. We cannot continue to be the chip paper to a dead fish and some fries. Old media must restructure differently.

But right now we are still supporting the bloat. And arguably, the cuts being made are often made in the wrong places. The goal of cost savings should be to make the biggest gains without impacting efficiency. Put another way: targeting the most expensive cost bases.

Continually slashing away at editorial when (though expensive) still pales in comparison to executive salaries and the senior management set. That isn’t to say there still isn’t significant fat to be trimmed. But certainly those shouldn’t be in the areas of the business that support investigative, public interest journalism.

Nonetheless, there isn’t a newsroom in the world that doesn’t need a significant restructure, and if not downsizing, then certainly reorienting. Humans are not machines. And expecting them to compete with technology is a losing battle.

The best technology in the world is the result of state-of-the-art human input. Humans are good at causing trouble. At finding out stuff they’re not supposed to find out. We should be supporting the human reporting capacities of our reporters instead of turning them into content monkeys.

Let the robots do the grunt work.

Resourcing

Significant resources are still being devoted to replication.

Why are 100 journalists all still rewriting the same story across the internet? You don’t need 50 journalists covering Kim Kardashian. Give that work to the robots or buy a newsfeed and reassign the 49 other reporters to investigations that matter.

Moreover, we have AAP and AFP to cover news-of-the day. If publications like Fairfax and Newscorp still insist on covering everything, they would both be better served letting their wire services do their job and devote their human resources to exclusive investigations. (Certainly both agencies can and should be better endowed, whether by increasing their licensing fees, or by a levy that allows them to expand their newsrooms and reporting resources). But for both our media oligopolies, there are millions of dollars to be saved in reducing duplication. Reporters and resources can then be freed up to do the kind of groundbreaking journalism that uncovers corruption and malfeasance and puts the public interest at the heart of its practice.

There is also an argument to be made for less management and more legal oversight. One editor with a legal background could do better than 10 department heads.

Let’s all do less

This goes back to my point on reorienting your human resources. If you want to be a broadsheet, fine, be a broadsheet. Try and do everything. But at least use your people wisely.

Besides the fact that volume literally devalues the product, particularly in this day and age, we must accept our limitations and devote our practice to producing quality over quantity.

Nothing good comes from requiring journalists to file six stories a day. We must resist the urge to do more.

Chasing the news cycle is a losing battle. The need to fill column inches is leading to a breathless chase down the rabbit hole of sensationalism. Op-eds follow think-pieces, follow social-media reactions, follow a follow-up and then a thinkpiece on the follow-up to the social media reaction, and then probably, an apology.

Not to mention the fact that we are driving a culture war in pursuit of traffic and sheer, bloody survival.

Heck, media is already an oligopoly and anti-trust is like soo ‘90s.

If tomorrow every publication in the world agreed to halve their output, the internet – and the world –  would be a better place.

Even on Hello Humans, I have committed to filing less, often against the advice of people pressuring me to publish every day for the sake of ‘growing my audience’. They NEED you to publish every day. I was told. How else do you expect to form a relationship with your readers if they don’t have something new to come to every day? And, look, I’m not saying there isn’t merit to that argument.

But a) if I were filing every day, I promise you the quality would suffer. Mistakes get made. It is an inevitable part of the process. But when I must have something on my website every morning by 8am, day in, day out, regardless of how much other work I have on: that massively shrinks the amount of time I have to devote to each exclusive.

At one stage I was filing through such a haze I couldn’t even remember what I had written.

And why am I publishing every day if I don’t have something useful to say?

I am writing about how to un-fuck the world. So I need to hold myself to the same standard by not cramming your eyeholes with superfluous content. That is my business model.

Less is more.

(Though I recognise the irony, this is one hefty long exclusive).

Connect renumeration with output

Connecting remuneration with output would massively slowdown the need for reporters to focus on volume. If every journalist in the country was filing twice a week at a half-decent rate, most of them could afford to keep the lights on, and their output would drop, they could finally afford to produce polished, focused work. Arguably this could help to reduce the cost base of commissioning content.

After listening to The Walkley Foundation’s Kate Golden talk about not-for-profit models for journalism on Wednesday night, I am fairly convinced that this is where the future of journalism lies.

You can read about that more here.

Until we figure out a new model to keep the Fourth Estate alive, the future of journalism is bleak.

That isn’t to diminish the obvious exceptions to this rule. There is some spectacular journalism coming out of Washington right now, particularly The Washington Post, but it helps to be funded by a benevolent millionaire. America isn’t the only country producing exceptional journalism. Australia is doing some bloody good work, in spite of it all. This planet is home to some of the best journalists in the world! :p

Across the Middle East people are risking their lives to smuggle footage, audio and written accounts of activity on the ground. At Australia’s detention centre, refugees, doctors and teachers risk their lives and careers and ten year jail sentences for blowing the whistle on institutionalised violence, abuse and corruption.

But all of this is in spite of models that, by and large, tend to be quite hostile to the very concept of journalism. These people are being done a great disservice by those who feed them. And journalism suffers with them.

And yet, there has never been more media start-ups, journalism experiments, literary journals or writers, journalists, creators, researchers and directors devoted to finding new models for this industry, while producing outstanding work that pushes the boundaries and asks the big questions.

They say no one wants to pay for journalism but across the US and Australia, universities are tripling and quadrupling their intake of students at a time when there have never been fewer jobs.

If people are prepared to put themselves into lifetimes of debt to study journalism you think they’d be prepared to pay a couple of dollars for a subscription.

I don’t know what the future of journalism looks like. But I know that we are not valuing it in the right way. If the Fourth Estate fails, the consequence for humanity will be felt deep and far-reaching.

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Claire Connelly is working on her first book, How The World Really Works, a guide to recognising rhetorical red flags and immunising yourself against bullshit. You should definitely buy it when it comes out. A podcast of the same name will also be launching in the coming months.