Journalism at the speed of bytes Australian newspapers in the 21st century
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
Contents Foreword . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Researched, written and edited by: Dr Penny O’Donnell, Department of Media and Communications, the University of Sydney Dr David McKnight, Journalism and Media Research Centre, the University of New South Wales Jonathan Este, The Walkley Foundation for Excellence in Journalism The authors would like to thank the following for their assistance in compiling this report: Cathy Carey Mary Cotter Lauren Dixon Suzanne Egan Clare Fletcher Karol Foyle Sonya Gee Louisa Graham Margaret Harris Madeleine Hastie Karl Hilzinger Mitchell Hobbs Jacinta Isaacs Emily Jones Jacqueline Park Christopher Warren Amanda Wilson Newspix Fairfax Syndication We would also like to express our appreciation to the more than 100 journalists and editors who gave us their time and the benefit of their insights and experience. Thanks also to the cartoonists and photographers whose work has enhanced this report. This research project would not have been possible without the leadership and financial assistance of the Walkley Foundation for Excellence in Journalism and we would like to express our appreciation, especially to the Foundation’s director Jacqueline Park, for its support. We would also like to acknowledge the Foundation’s assistance in compiling this report.
This research on the future of newspapers in Australia was supported under Australian Research Council’s Linkage Projects funding scheme (project LP0990734). The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Australian Research Council. Cover illustration by Karl Hilzinger Design by Louise Summerton Gadfly Media
Research design: what we did . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 Issues #1: Why talk about “quality”? Issues #2 Media watching: how digital are the Walkleys? The changing business of news . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 Issues #3: The continuing importance of newspaper journalism Issues #4: Meeting the crisis? The transition from print to multimedia journalism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15 Issues #5: Why can’t newspapers make digital dollars? Issues #6: Digital-first journalism Issues #7: Not just another business Journalists’ changing relationships with readers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27 Issues #8: From gatekeepers to conversationalists Issues #9: The new competition Future control over professional standards . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35 Issues #10: Rewarding excellence in digital journalism Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43
he faltering economics of the newsgathering industry has left journalism in a climate of fear. A cloud of doom has descended on those who care about quality, independent journalism as they watch the means of funding it – revenue from advertising – move from the steady decline of recent years into freefall. The bottom of the cliff from which it has taken this dive is not visible at this point. A little like Europe’s financial crisis, the numbers just keep getting worse and no one has the answer. There are various corporate and editorial strategies for breaking this fall and I fervently hope that something cuts through. The evidence would point to the most nimble and flexible strategy – and newsroom – as having the most chance of survival. I am lucky enough to have worked in newspapers for 40 years – as a reporter, sub-editor, and section editor and, finally, as the first female Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald in 180 years. Since this research project was launched, I have been at the centre of one of the most far-reaching periods of disruptive change in Australian news media history. It was not the usual preoccupations of newspaper editors that kept me awake at night. The day-to-day drama of the country’s political, business and social issues were exciting, challenging, fascinating and exhausting to cover. But rather, it was the questions raised in this report that cost me my sleep. How much cost-cutting is too much? How thinly can you spread your resources without affecting the quality? What can a superb narrative non-fiction writer bring to the digital news platform apart from an extra 5,000 words? How do you fully integrate a newsroom that serves print, mobile, tablet and website while keeping the journalistic foundations strong? The profound structural and cyclical change in our industry is claiming not only hundreds of journalistic jobs, but also traditional newsroom roles. Ongoing restructuring of the newsroom I led until recently meant I was not only the first female Editor of the Herald, but also the last Editor with a capital E – that is, a newspaper editor who ran the whole show. The big question, as those leading the media industry search for new strategies, structures and revenue streams to keep audiences and advertisers engaged, is how to keep “public defender” journalism alive. So far, digital revenues have not reproduced the profits of the bigger, trusted, print brands, which would make this kind of journalism possible. There has been some erosion in public trust in news media as the 24-hour news cycle has collided with shrinking resources and the traditional view of what constitutes news versus opinion versus advertorial is increasingly blurred by the need for profits and by newcomers in the digital space: bloggers, social media, content farmers, etc. Over the decades, I have been privileged to work with hundreds of intelligent, sceptical, passionate, values-driven journalists who care about the public interest and who show no fear or favour in their reporting. What’s at stake amid this great disruption is the ability to train, to hire and to retain in meaningful employment the calibre of journalist who can produce news which people in a democracy need to know. These are journalists who can dig up the truth no matter how long it takes, no matter what threats are made against them, who can write seriously gripping narratives that leave the pyramid news story for dead and who can work with a video team on a series that works across print, web and tablet to take storytelling to a new level. That’s not an easy ask, even in the best of times. Now, with the decline of newspapers and magazines that not long ago were raking in the dollars, you can see why media proprietors are trying anything that holds out the merest glimmer of hope. They know they need to keep pumping money – that lifeblood of journalism – through the heart of their business, the newsroom. And time is short. According to recent research by the Pew Centre, in the US, five technology companies accounted for 68 per cent of all online advertising revenue by 2011. That did not include Amazon and Apple, whose earnings are from transactions, downloads and devices. It poses the question: will we soon see a tech giant like Google or Facebook buy an ailing “legacy” media outlet and its newsroom so it can offer the complete package to the connected consumer? Adding real journalism to their offering would be icing on their cake. But where would the public interest protections be in that? Would they still deliver the goods for citizens interested in scrutinising their government, business leaders and civil society? Meanwhile, we must wait to discover which of the strategies being pursued in media in Australia and globally will prove to be the Holy Grail – that is, a revenue model that goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to allow journalists to continue to protect the public interest. And, if I may also say, that keeps and promotes more women in newsrooms as a means of attracting a wider audience, and with it more dollars. But that’s a whole other report.
“How do you fully integrate a newsroom that serves print, mobile, tablet and website while keeping the journalistic foundations strong?”
Amanda Wilson July 2012 Amanda Wilson was editor of The Sydney Morning Herald from January 2011 to June 2012 3
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
or almost 200 years, journalism has played a central role in democratic societies, informing the public and exercising independent scrutiny over institutions such as the parliament, business and the justice system, as well as over the functions of government such as education, health, welfare and beyond. More broadly, the news media has been a forum for commentary and conversation about social and cultural issues. At its best, journalism has been a professional practice that has done all these things ethically and fairly. Until recently, newspapers and the print media have been the central institution through which these functions of journalism have operated. Today, journalism is in a deepening crisis in Australia and the rest of the industrialised world. This crisis arises from the disruption that digital technology has dealt to the traditional business model that has always paid for news. The sale of advertising space and the reporting of events were once intertwined and mutually supportive activities; they are now diverging. This has hit newspapers particularly hard as they have watched their monopoly on classified advertising for cars, real estate and jobs disappear in the face of competition from a myriad of cheaper, more popular alternatives on the internet. Newspapers are no longer the profitable enterprises they once were – and it is uncertain whether they ever can be again. These facts are widely known within the industry. Less discussed is the fact that this breakdown of the business model has implications far beyond the industry and beyond those who earn a living in it. The crisis for newspapers represents a growing crisis for all citizens who directly or indirectly rely on professional news reporting to keep informed and, ultimately, to decide how to vote. While the growth of the internet has led to a flowering of many online publications, none of them, including the most profitable, has the ability or the resources to provide the breadth and depth of professional coverage of general news that newspapers currently do. And most have yet to gain traction with the broader community – of the top 12 news-led sites in Australia, all but one are owned by one or another of the major media organisations, including public broadcasters (Harding-Smith 2012). Technological advances allow news to be consumed quickly and in a variety of formats, but there has yet to be any evidence that online news, whether consumed via computer, tablet or mobile platforms, is generating sufficient revenue to pay for its own content. Virtually all of what is misleadingly referred to as “online news” originates in the newsrooms of either newspapers or public broadcasters. More than just general reporting of public events, newspapers are the main vehicle for what is variously known as watchdog journalism, public interest journalism and investigative journalism. The permanent weakening of these functions, as the recent Independent Media Inquiry noted, may cause “damage to democracy and society’s well-being” (Finkelstein 2012). While independent observers, along with many journalists, express concerns about the public consequences of industry uncertainty, the newspaper publishers minimise the adverse social and political effects of the situation. They see the narrow consequences of the loss of profitability of their industry, but not the collective problem that this failure presents to society as a whole. Australian newspaper publishers concede that newsrooms will become smaller. Surprisingly, they argue that “this should not be seen, automatically, as a cause for alarm or a fall in standards” (NPA 2011). Rather, they welcome outsourcing and the conversion of a salaried workforce to one based more on casuals and freelancers. In the future, the successful freelance journalists will see themselves less as a journalist and more as a “product” or “service”, just as a consultant would today, they say. While freelancers play a valuable role, the conversion of the existing newsrooms to a casualised model is a major cause for alarm, not just for those currently employed but for the wider public. This is because newspapers form the living heart of the news cycle. Newspapers have the biggest newsrooms and are able to employ journalists in specialist areas such as politics, business, health, education, and so on. For these reasons, newspapers still set the agenda for news in radio, television and today, in the online world. Without the current workforce of journalists in newspapers, the ability of the wider Australian public to keep themselves informed and play a full role in civic life will be seriously impaired. For more than a decade, since The Age created Australia’s first newspaper website site in 1995, newspaper journalists and readers have been asking themselves whether digital technologies will enhance news quality or kill off print-based journalism in Australia. This report aims to shed new light on this dilemma by systematically examining ideas about quality journalism, gauging the views of newspaper journalists around the country and considering what readers need to know about news standards in print and digital journalism. Australian newspapers are not at the cutting edge of digital journalism. On the contrary, they have been reluctant to innovate, slow to make the transition to multimedia news delivery and uneasy about demands for greater reader engagement. There are many underlying reasons for
In the public eye: Newspapers are the main fuel that feeds public debate. Photograph by Stuart Mcevoy, © Newspix/News Ltd
this complacency: Australia’s media policy that favours existing players; extreme levels of press ownership concentration that have created newspaper monopolies in six of the country’s eight major media markets (Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Darwin, Hobart and Perth) and business strategies more geared to profit maximisation than building circulations. It is true that the publishers are actively seeking creative new models to fund journalism based on subscriptions, advertising and direct sales of products. But even if successful, there is no guarantee that these revenue streams will be used to pay for, or retrain, the extensive workforce needed to produce the quantity and quality of content that newspapers have offered until recent times. The question of what happens to news quality in the shift from print-based to multimedia journalism is important for a range of reasons. Influential US newspaper analyst Philip Meyer puts it best in saying that good, evidence-based journalism is the best defence against the overload of “persuasive communication” – advertising, public relations and spin – found on the internet. Not all readers demand this type of content. Nevertheless, as this study indicates, journalists are very aware of their readers’ news preferences and of the need to provide them with credible alternatives to what one editor described as the “commoditised noise” found online. Moreover, they are legitimately concerned about the damage to journalism standards in the context of newsroom cuts about which the publishers and owners are so complacent. With these concerns in mind, our research team set out to examine perceptions of quality journalism among senior members of the profession working in newspapers, as well as their views on whether or not the Internet exercises a downward pressure on news standards. Three main research questions are explored in this report: • What do we know about quality journalism? • What does the transition to digital journalism mean for news quality? • What could journalists do – perhaps in league with readers – to renew and extend their standards in this transition period? Whether, or how, Australian journalists should be regulated in the context of the current newspaper crisis is not in the remit of this report and is not discussed. However it should be noted that journalistic ethics and excellence must go hand-in-hand if the craft of journalism is to continue to enjoy the public’s trust. This will be central to the survival of the news industry. The authors of this report believe the newspaper crisis has been seriously misjudged on two levels: first, as a market failure arising from changing advertising trends which, it is assumed, will rectify itself in time, and, second, as a moment of technological change that will produce more and better news and information content in future. Neither prospect is guaranteed. This misunderstanding represents a disservice to the readers of newspapers, those employed within the industry, and society as a whole, all of whom have a stake in the outcome of an increasingly difficult struggle to ensure the commercial viability of newspapers and the professional journalism that it has traditionally fostered. Journalists are used to ringing the alarm bells about other people and other industries. We believe it is time to hear what they have to say about the future of their own industry and we hope this report contributes to a better understanding of the current state of play.
“More than just general reporting of public events, newspapers are the main vehicle for what is known as ‘public interest journalism’.”
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
Research design: what we did This research project responds to a call from the Media Alliance, in 2008, for research and debate on the extent and pace of industry change, and its implications for the future of journalism. At that time, there was talk of crisis in the business model, and even the imminent death of newspapers; others, however, pointed to the print media’s resilience and to digital journalism’s potential to produce new and progressive ways of keeping the public informed. In the face of this uncertainty, the union urged industry stakeholders to join together in building an accurate picture of the changes underway. The project is a joint initiative of the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales working in partnership with the Walkley Foundation. Funded by the Australian Research Council and the Walkley Foundation, it was completed with the generous support of journalists and news executives at the three major newspaper companies. To answer the three research questions, we developed the following three data gathering activities, using quantitative and qualitative methods: • A n examination of the history of the Walkley Awards to identify the profession’s concepts of quality journalism and criteria for judging it. • I n-depth interviews with 100 newspaper journalists and news executives (70 males, 30 females) from the 12 national and metropolitan daily newspapers, on their perceptions of the newspaper industry’s transition to digital news delivery, and the implications of the shift for news quality. Research-driven sampling was used, following a matrix of five key criteria: location, newspaper, seniority, gender, and availability. The interviews were conducted in late 2010, and in accordance with university-approved ethics protocols, including a guarantee of anonymity to allow full discussion of the issues. • I ndustry and academic consultations, from 2009-2012, on journalists’ responses to economic and technological change, and the possibilities for renewing their standards, via stakeholder focus groups, seminars, conferences, news articles and a submission to the 2011 Independent Media Inquiry. The results of our investigation are organised into four inter-related thematic sections: the changing business of news, the transition from print to multimedia delivery, journalists’ changing relationships with readers, and control over professional standards. In each case, we draw on past research to first examine continuity and change in Australian journalism before presenting the results of our own investigation. The literature on technology and the business of news, journalism’s contribution to democracy, and professional characteristics and skills is extensive. Yet, past studies have not systematically examined what Australian journalists do best, including their prizewinning journalism practices, values and standards. This is a gap that needs to be addressed because it goes to the inherent strengths of journalism as a democratic communication practice. We argue that attention to this neglected aspect of Australian journalism may well provide some answers to the challenges posed by new user-pays business models, audience fragmentation and civic distrust of, and disengagement from, news media. Australian journalism now faces fundamental questions about its future relevance and role. Understanding what journalists are doing to renew their standards, values and practices, and maintain the trust of the public, will help all of us deal with the current uncertainties. The following sections of this report show how journalists are preparing themselves for the difficult journey ahead.
Issues #1 Why talk about “quality”? There are three good reasons to talk about quality journalism. First, we need to address the increasingly common claim that quality journalism is an area of market failure because it costs “too much”. The connection between journalism quality and the business success of newspapers has always been hard to quantify. Media economists call this the “profit controversy”. Investment in editorial is widely assumed to garner readers and add to the value of advertising. Yet, newspapers rarely admit the quality of their product might be compromised by disinvestment in editorial staff and resources. Indeed, on the contrary, Australian newspaper companies have, in recent times, justified newsroom cutbacks by arguing “production efficiencies” will free up money to pay for more quality journalism. Veteran newspaper publisher Jack Fuller (in Meyer 2003) reminds us that newspaper managers are always searching for the “sweet spot” where investment in editorial produces both business success and a well-informed community. The best newspapers, in this view, know how to get the “profitservice” nexus right, providing quality journalism that maintains reader loyalty and community influence, while, at the same time, sustaining profitability. In the online context, the same idea is expressed in terms of “trusted brands” attracting users who will pay to access quality news content. Defining “quality journalism”, or “quality content”, presents one difficulty in finding the “sweet spot”. Newspaper analysts have been arguing over newspaper quality indicators for the past 50 years, since 1968, when news researcher John Merrill first proposed the following five criteria: independence, strong opinion emphasis, editorial focus on politics, educated and articulate staff, and appeal to opinion leaders. Philip Meyer’s more recent list, from 2003, emphasises what readers are looking for: readability and ease of use, localism, editorial vigour, a balanced news/advertising ratio, and a wide range and diversity of commentary and interpretation. Nonetheless, because the links between these indicators and financial performance remain hard to pin down, the blueprint for finding the “sweet spot” remains elusive. A second reason for talking about quality, a key media policy objective in the digital age, is to be clear about its status as a public policy good. In regulatory terms, the Australian Media and Communications’ Authority (ACMA 2011) ignores the profit-service nexus underpinning the best newspapers and, instead, distinguishes between quality as an economic concept, and ethical standards as a community expectation. Specifically, the underlying policy premise is that media quality, in the form of innovation and diversity of media content and services, will emerge from competitive market conditions; ethical standards, on the other hand, require self- and co-regulatory arrangements to ensure citizens have access to fair and accurate reporting of news and current affairs, a resource seen as fundamental to constructive participation in Australian democracy. ACMA argues quality is an enduring policy concept because convergence fosters competition, and opens up possibilities for enhanced, marketdriven media performance. The third reason for this focus on quality is that newspaper journalists now use the term “quality journalism” as shorthand for news content they hope readers will pay for because it is distinctive (value adds) and meets their particular information needs and interests (responds to readers’ news preferences). Another way of explaining this development is to say journalists now believe the financial viability of their work depends on “monetising” public interest journalism, that is, on getting the public interested in paying for types of news content — specialised, investigative, complex, analytical, visually rich, interactive — that they are used to getting for free online and on free-to-air television and radio. For the profession, then, the issue of quality can be seen as the focus of efforts to reposition and raise the profile of journalists’ contribution to the digital media economy. This means redefining and raising the value of journalism work, understood as original content creation rather than just information dissemination. It also means getting across the message that credible, evidence-based reporting – and the newsgathering, verification, writing and editing skills and conventions that underpin journalistic practice – is socially important (see, for example, Crikey’s quality journalism project, www.crikey.com.au). This study documents and analyses these efforts to reposition and redefine journalism in this way.
Crikey’s Quality Journalism project asked some of Australia’s most respected journalists to assess what they believed to be excellence in journalism
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
Issues #2 Media watching: how digital are the Walkleys?
Golden moment: l-r: Anne Worthington, Sarah Ferguson and Michael Doyle of ABC’s Four Corners took out the Gold Walkley in 2011 for their shocking expose on the live cattle export trade. Photograph by Glenn Hunt/Courtesy of Walkley Foundation
At first glance it appeared to be business as usual at the 2011 Walkley Awards, the industry’s coveted annual prizes for excellence in Australian journalism. The Gold Walkley went to Sarah Ferguson of ABC TV’s Four Corners for her shocking and controversial expose of animal cruelty involved in Australia’s live cattle exports, a story that halted the trade for several weeks. Best TV news report went to the Seven Network for its excellent coverage of the floods in Queensland. Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie at The Age scooped the award for investigative journalism for their work on the Securency banknotes scandal while the award for sustained coverage of an issue went to Natasha Bita of The Australian for her dogged reporting and investigation that exposed fatal side-effects attributed to a free flu vaccine used by the Australian government. The ABC Lateline’s Tony Jones, one of Australia’s most skilled interviewers, won best broadcast interviewing for his interviews with Christopher Hitchens, Malcolm Turnbull, and Chris Bowen. In other words, mainly traditional media doing what they do best. Or was it? Dig beneath the surface of some of these “traditional” award-winners and you’ll find evidence that suggests Australia’s newsrooms are devoting more time and greater resources to digital platforms and the new tools and techniques those platforms are enabling. Take Bita’s story, “Virus in the system”, which won an award for sustained coverage of an issue or event. Following a strong reader response to the story, which told of unforeseen side-effects of the Fluvax vaccine given to children across Australia, The Australian set up a live online forum lasting one hour, hosted by Bita, in which readers voiced their opinions and fears about the issue. The Australian also posted scores of readers’ letters online. All letters and readers’ posts were linked to Facebook to allow people using that social media tool to keep up with the debate. The Ten Network team which won the award for best scoop of the year for its exposure of the scandal surrounding the broadcast, over Skype, of a sex tape involving cadets at the Australian Defence Academy, used social media extensively to gain access to sources for their story and also to monitor reaction and responses to the story in chat-rooms and via Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile the TV current affairs Walkley was taken by the ABC’s innovative Hungry Beast team. This was set up in 2009 as a weekly half-hour TV show combining journalism with satire and “the reportage of weird”. Hungry Beast won for a moving report about Maree Bourke-Calliss, who suffers from “locked-in syndrome” after she suffered a stroke when she received a knock during a netball game in the mid-1990s. As well as a moving TV report, the Hungry Beast team provided extra resources on its website, including a demonstration of how long it takes Maree to “speak” by blinking. They also posted a full transcript of their interview with Maree, conducted by email questions, which had taken her a week to blink the answers for. Similarly, Baker and McKenzie’s series of more than 60 stories about the Securency banknotes scandal in The Age, which won them the award for investigative journalism, provided a series of videos online to accompany their hard-hitting series of revelations in the newspaper. These are just some of the ways the successful entries benefited from using new media tools and techniques. What about the prize specifically aimed at rewarding excellence in digital-only offerings? The ABC’s Eleanor Bell, Ed Giles and Suzanne Smith took out the 2011 award for best online journalism by combining extensive broadcast and online experience to bring to vivid life the challenges facing disadvantaged children in the western Sydney suburb of Mt Druitt in “Beating the Odds.” A series of video and text stories written and shot by the journalists are accompanied by a photographic slideshow shot and narrated by a 14-year-old Mt Druitt schoolboy. The different forms of storytelling are placed into context with a deep and well-researched interactive data graphic that allows the reader to dig down into detailed information about unemployment, family structure, crime and housing stress in Mt Druitt and the surrounding areas. In terms of community engagement, the project was an outstanding success, sparking an intense and wide-ranging debate in its lengthy comments section. The Walkley judges were particularly impressed with this last factor – the conversation that broadened out to allow people from all around the country to share their experiences and insights.
The changing business of news
he newspaper business in Australia is now operating in uncharted waters. More than 1,000 journalists’ jobs have been lost in the last three years, with a consequent drop in newsroom capacity to produce the same quantity and quality of daily journalism – all with no guarantee that the digital destination will restore jobs or newsroom resources. The key trends that emerge in this discussion of the changing business of news include: • T he Australian newspaper publishing market is holding its value, estimated in 2012 at $4.9 billion, but industry forecasters predict its future substitution by online publishing. • T he newspaper business model is the major focus of discussion because it remains unclear who will pay for digital journalism. There are other, pre-existing structural problems in the news industry that exacerbate the current uncertainty, including falling circulations, increased press concentration, and tougher competition for audiences from television, radio and Internet news and information services. • A ustralian newspaper companies, like their international counterparts, are responding to the current crisis by diversifying into non-newspaper businesses, restructuring news operations, adopting user-pays digital news models, and shedding staff. These strategies are directed to ensuring the newspaper business survives. • D ebates continue over the quality of news produced in downsized newsrooms, with concerns about dwindling resources for “watchdog” or public interest journalism. The main newspaper publishers are upbeat about the future of journalism and reject any suggestion of market intervention to assist their industry as unwarranted and unnecessary. In 2010, when the Media Alliance published Life in the Clickstream II, Australia’s newspaper industry appeared to have weathered turmoil in the news business far better than the US, UK or, closer to home, New Zealand. While the pace of change had quickened, with most major news companies extending their online news offerings, integrated newsrooms were still optional, tablets and apps were a novelty, and paywalls were an experiment in the making. A few alarm bells had started ringing about news quality, with journalists expressing concerns about excessive workloads linked to print staff layoffs and increased demands for online output. In fact, some 50 per cent of those surveyed at the time, said the quality of news reporting and journalism was worse than it was five years earlier, compared to 15 per cent who said it had improved. Moreover, the Press Council’s 2008 State of the News Print Media Report documented problems adversely affecting the quality of journalism, including “churnalism” (the uncritical use of press releases as news stories), reliance on bloggers for news stories and images, and chequebook journalism. Nonetheless, there were also positive indicators that newsrooms had accepted online news as “core newspaper business” and were gradually transforming themselves to meet the challenges of digital publishing. There were even signs that digital technology was delivering on the promise of greater diversity, with, for example, online-only publications (BrisbaneTimes, PerthNow, WAtoday) performing strongly against the monopoly newspapers in Brisbane and Perth. Two years on, however, the perfect storm of disruption from digital media coupled with the effects of the global financial crisis, has hit circulation and readership causing a precipitous drop in the advertising revenues on which newspapers have always relied to pay their journalists. The crisis appeared to have come to a head in June 2012 when the two major news groups, Fairfax Media and News Ltd, announced major cuts to jobs, internal restructures, centralisation and, in the case of Fairfax, the closure of two printing plants. Both companies hope that their new focus on digital delivery will provide a workable business model to support their journalism. But it is by no means clear that this will occur. Many fear that the disappearance of an adequate workforce of professional journalists will deliver a less informed public and a devalued democracy.
“Many fear that the disappearance of an adequate workforce of professional journalists will deliver a less informed public and a devalued democracy.”
Background to the crisis It has been widely recognised for many years that the advertising-based revenue model for newspapers would be threatened by the spread of digital technology. As early as 1996, media analyst Peter Morris (1996) foresaw the siphoning of classified advertising revenue to Internet-based classified services and predicted online media would undermine Australia’s long-standing and highly successful newspaper business model. In global terms the most substantial recent study of newspapers was prepared by the Working Party on the Information Economy of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD 2010). It presents a picture of dramatic decline in the newspaper industry in Europe and the United States, a less dramatic decline in some other industrialised countries and a flourishing of newspapers in developing countries such as India and China.
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
Figure 1: Decline in size of newspaper market, 2007 - 2009
OECD calculations based on data of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP
“The current economic crisis has intensified structural problems that have existed for many years.”
The OECD report points out that in sheer economic value, judged by revenue, the global newspaper publishing market (US$164b) is bigger than each of the global markets of recorded music (US$27b), films (US$85b) and consumer/educational book publishing (US$112b). The growth of this global newspaper market slowed progressively from 2004 (3.6 per cent growth) down to zero growth in 2007 with negative growth in 2008 (-5 per cent). But like many calculations of averages, these figures conceal more than they reveal. The decline in the US newspaper market between 2007 and 2009 was -30 per cent and in the British newspaper market -21 per cent. (By contrast, the same decline in Australia was -3 per cent, one of the smallest in the world.) These are the latest international figures available, but anecdotal evidence suggests this shrinkage has continued in most English-speaking markets and it is a pattern that is replicated across the developed world. Australia’s newspaper publishing industry was recently valued at $4.9 billion dollars, ahead of free-to-air television broadcasting at $4.3 billion. Yet, a 2012 report on industry futures, A Snapshot of Australia’s Digital Future to 2050, classifies newspapers as an industry in “likely demise” rather than “transformational”. Industry forecaster Phil Ruthven (2012), who prepared the report for IBM, predicts newspapers will be substituted before 2050 by online publishing because, in his view, there is a “slow but inevitable demise of the printed output”. The current economic crisis has intensified structural problems that existed for many years. These include declining circulation and advertising revenue, competition from traditional media such as TV and radio as well as new media such as the internet. Changes in advertising revenue are due to structural changes caused by digital technology and are likely to have the most significant results. US newspaper-advertising revenues fell by a massive -23 per cent over 2008 and 2009. In Britain, print advertising revenue fell by more than -30 per cent in 2009 and, despite a recovery in 2010, is estimated to have fallen by -12.8 per cent in 2011 (Barclays 2012), illustrating a general downward trend which appears unlikely to be reversed. The OECD report identifies a “downward spiral of many forms of printed news” and for these reasons it argued that the “economic foundations of journalism have to be rethought”. More significantly, the report continues that “it is less obvious what online business models, partnerships and organisations will best support cost-intensive, public service-oriented news in the future” (OECD 2012). The report states that while most newspapers still make profits, these are more likely to be around an average of 5 per cent, which is less than a quarter of what they were in the 1990s. This advertising income has fallen by nearly -48 per cent since 2006, according to the Pew Centre’s 2011 report, State of the News Media. In the past 20 years, the number of US daily newspapers has decreased from 1,611 in 1990 to 1,387 in 2009, a decline of -14 per cent. The 2011 report notes that employment of full-time editorial staff peaked in 2000 at 56,400 but
had since fallen -26.4 per cent by 2009. Taken together, the 2011 and 2012 reports show just how difficult market conditions have been in the US, with only some faint glimmers of hope lying in the move towards some form of partial paywall giving the prospect of increasing subscription revenue. But just what level of editorial staff this would support is unclear. Similarly, in Australia the “perfect storm” has prompted a decline in overall print circulation, which has contributed to falling in advertising revenue (also partly a product of the financial crisis). The report of the Independent Media Inquiry found that while the overall advertising market grew at a compound annual rate of 5.7 per cent, newspaper advertising revenue grew by only 2.7 per cent in Australia suggesting that during the past decade, newspapers have been losing market share to other media sectors – increasingly, over the past five years or more, to online competitors. In 2011, total newspaper advertising revenue in Australia fell by -8 per cent, and this was -18 per cent below the figure posted in 2008 (Holgate 2012). Like in the US and UK, this has prompted cost-cutting measures including rationalisation of editorial and advertising sales staff. As far back as 1995, US newspaper analyst Philip Meyer (1995) identified the dilemma facing newspaper companies in an article, “Learning to Love Lower Profits”, in the American Journalism Review. He identified the vicious circle of falling circulation, falling influence, declining revenue, cost-cutting, loss of quality, falling circulation that leads to a downward spiral in newspaper fortunes. “Under this scenario, the owners raise prices and simultaneously try to save their way to profitability with the usual techniques: cutting news hole, reducing staff, peeling back circulation in remote or low-income areas of less interest to advertisers, postponing maintenance and capital improvement, holding salaries down” (Meyer 1995). This is a picture we are seeing in Australia.
Circulation While the immediate cause of the crisis lies in the shift of advertising revenue away from newspapers to online alternatives, the circulation decline of newspapers has also been steadily accelerating. One of the best ways to understand the overall change of newspaper circulation is to examine the sales of newspaper per head of population. Using data from the 2011 statement from the Audit Bureau of Circulation it is possible to find per capita circulation from 1992 to 2001. In March 1992, the rate of newspapers sales per 1,000 persons was 153.4. Looking at five-yearly intervals, we can see that in 1997 it dipped to 143.4; in 2002 to 133.3; in 2007 to 120.9 and in 2011 to 102.5. In simple terms, average newspaper sales have dropped -23 per cent since 2002 (Este 2012). Another set of figures shows that, by contrast with the US and Britain, Australian newspaper circulation are falling less dramatically. Between 2005 and 2009 Australian newspaper sales dropped -4 per cent compared to -13 per cent in the US and -16 per cent in Britain (Shoebridge 2011).
Figure 2: Newspaper sales – the real picture
Source: ABC circulation data, ABS population data, MEAA analysis
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
Issue #3 The continuing importance of newspaper journalism Why focus on newspaper journalism? It may seem strange to direct particular attention to newspapers at a time when the print editions of some of Australia’s leading mastheads are in danger of being phased out. Here are three reasons. First, newspapers offer a unique and productive vantage point from which to analyse technological change in the news media. British journalism researchers Peter Cole and Tony Harcup (2011) argue newspapers are “driving convergence” more than any other media sector, because they are “adopting other forms of publishing – web, audio, video”. We agree. Second, it is important to remember that newspapers still enjoy an independent status not shared by other media platforms. The 2010 OECD report notes “newspapers play a vital role in upholding transparency, democracy and freedom of expression, mainly because of their editorial independence from governmental or other bodies”. Headline-grabbing stories that demonstrate newspapers’ capacity to deter corruption and hold governments to account include the AWB oil-for-wheat scandal, the AFP’s wrongful arrest of Dr Haneef, and the ongoing Reserve BankSecurency bribery scandal. The third reason to focus on newspapers is that, along with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, they employ the biggest numbers of professional journalists. There is a real risk that Australian society will lose its most talented and experienced journalists and editors as a result of the current economic crisis in newspapers. The implications of this loss need more attention. The US Federal Communications Commission has analysed the effects of of newspaper closures on other news and information services (FCC 2011). While generally enthusiastic about the internet’s capacity to deliver greater news diversity, choice and citizen access, the FCC pointed to two “serious problems”: first, the growing shortage of “accountability” or public interest reporting, and, second, the inability of local news start-ups to find viable ways of funding original content creation. The FCC found newspapers were the primary suppliers of public interest journalism to the entire US media ecosystem, so their demise affected the rest of the information food chain, as well as readers (FCC 2011). Interestingly, the FCC found little evidence that commercial media markets – including paywall experiments – would evolve quickly enough to fill the gaps in public interest journalism. It named five prominent US new media advocates (Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, Hal Varian, Esther Dyson and John Hood) who had conceded the Internet would not be able to resolve this problem. The FCC worried aloud that less press scrutiny would likely mean more corruption, more wasteful government spending, and poorer information to citizens; for the FCC, this added up to a worrying “power-shift” in favour of the powerful (FCC 2011). In Australia, as elsewhere, there are intense and legitimate debates about newspaper performance, media power, and the accountability of journalists. Questions about who watches the watchdogs are becoming more insistent. Newspaper historian Michael Schudson (2008) says democracies need an unlovable press. Fascination and dislike go hand in hand, according to Peter Cole and Tony Harcup (2011). They say, “there is no correlation between the popularity of newspapers and the extent to which they are criticised and abused. It is the ultimate love-hate relationship”.
Falling revenue While Australian newspapers widely expected a small revival in 2011, the actual results saw the revenue situation worsening. In the first half of 2011 total print advertising was $1648 million, -7.6 per cent lower than for the corresponding period a year earlier, reducing print share of the overall advertising market by -2.2 per cent (Finkelstein 2012). By contrast TV advertising increased by 0.3 per cent and radio by 2.4 per cent. Overall, newspapers saw a drop of -$136 million in their advertising revenue. By contrast, internet advertising grew by $191 million (18 per cent) and one estimate saw an overall print downturn of between -2 and -4 per cent (Finkelstein 2012). In the first seven months of 2011 the newspaper ad market shrank -6.6 per cent according to the media information company SMI (Shoebridge 2011). Comparing the month of February 2012 to the previous February, there was a drop of -18 per cent in advertising revenue across all metropolitan newspapers (The Australian, 2012). The industry observer Goldman Sachs sees a continuing drift of advertising away from traditional media such as print. This will be driven by the “relentless march of technology” and the rise of social media and fragmentation, it says (Goldman Sachs 2012). Of technological change, the report notes: “Over the past 10 years, the growth in online has been nothing short of phenomenal. Online advertising has grown from virtually zero in 2000 to c.21 per cent of the total ad market in 2011 as a result of the share gains in online display, online classifieds, and search.” The next stage of this will see a major increase in advertising going to social and online media. In stark contrast to this growth is the performance of print publications which in 1996 captured 56 per cent of advertising, this quantum falling to 34 per cent of the market by 2011 by Goldman Sachs’ reckoning.
Declining share price Despite efforts made by the management of newspaper companies to restructure their operations to reflect the changing nature of the news business, the gloomy outlook for the sector is reflected in poor performance on the stock exchange. Since the Fairfax newspaper group merged with Rural Press in 2007 to form Fairfax Media, the fortunes of the company have steadily declined. In June 2012 the company’s share price hit new lows, reaching 54 cents compared with a high of more than $5 in 2007. This represents a loss of about -90 per cent since the merger. Fairfax’s competitors have hardly fared better. In the past five years, APN’s shares have fallen in value from $5.75 to 57 cents in July 2012, while Seven West Media shares have fallen from more than $15 to a 20-year low of $1.53 in July 2012. News Corp’s listing on the Australian Stock Exchange has fallen from more than $27 to around $21, rallying in the past year to reflect the overall strong position of the global entertainment business.
Declining editorial staff numbers The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (the trade union that represents journalists in Australia) has estimated that overall the industry has lost more than 1,000 full-time journalists’ jobs in the past three years. With the projected job losses at Fairfax and News, this would bring the decline in the number of journalists to well over 1,500. The Independent Media Inquiry Report (Finkelstein 2012) emphasised the potential impact of this cost-cutting strategy thus: “the Inquiry is of the view that some caution needs to be exercised about the ability of newspapers to maintain a substantial commitment of resources to investigative and public interest journalism.”
What we know about the business of digital journalism There is evidence that, for some newspapers at least, digital news delivery is beginning at least to pay for itself. The Guardian, in April 2012, reported claims by the Daily Mail and General Trust that its flagship website, dailymail.co.uk would generate digital revenue of £25 million in 2011/2012 and break even (Sweney 2012). However the company did not reveal how much of the costs of generating the vast amounts of online content are being borne by the print newspaper. Diversified business models are increasingly being adopted because it is generally agreed that digital advertising revenues will not, in the foreseeable future, replace income lost by falling print advertising revenue. The Pew Foundation’s 2012 State of the US News Media report found that an increasing number of newspapers are moving to join those that already offer some kind of digital subscription. This partly responds to the success of the New York Time’s “metered model”, which has gained 390,000 subscribers with little loss of its online audience. But this trend also responds to the fact that many newspapers have lost their “normal” advertising income. Giving evidence to the UK’s Leveson Inquiry in July 2012, analyst Claire Enders said even the most successful newspaper websites had not found the “magic bullet” that enabled them to make enough digital dollars to pay for their journalism. The Mail Online, which is the world’s most popular news website with more than 90 million unique browsers per month, made £16 million in 2011 while The Daily Mail, its print counterpart, made more than £608 million. Meanwhile The Guardian generated £45.7 million digital revenues, including just £14 million in digital advertising (the lion’s share of the revenue being transactional). This, said Enders, was a 10th of what the Guardian group newspapers made from their print editions. The Pew Research Centre Report on digital journalism (Rosentiel 2012) found that for every US$1 earned in digital revenue, newspapers are losing US$7 in print revenues. This figure was reached after close collaboration with 38 newspapers from six different US news companies. Interviews were conducted with a “high degree of candour” the report said. The same level of candour is not in evidence in Australia, where newspaper publishers minimised their problems when they gave evidence to the Finkelstein inquiry into the media in 2011. Publishers’ representatives rejected in principle any form of market intervention to assist their industry. The inquiry took them at their word and noted that the publishers “confidently presented a positive assessment of their future prospects”. The inquiry’s report saw no reason to take action immediately, but said the question of government assistance to newspapers ought to be the subject of a future reference to the Productivity Commission (Finkelstein 2012). Any inquiry should not be limited to an analysis of the industry, it said, but should also take account of the principle of media independence and the prevention of partiality or censorship. Witnesses to the Finkelstein Inquiry, including the Media Alliance, strongly urged future governments to consider a range of policy options, many of which have also been canvassed in comparable newspaper markets in OECD countries as detailed in the OECD report already cited. These included support for local news organisations outside the capital cities such as community radio stations; strengthening the news capacity of the ABC; supporting tax incentives for private or philanthropic investment in news; specific subsidies to foster investigative journalism; and the creation of a centre to sponsor the professional development of journalists.
“Digital advertising revenue will not, in the foreseeable future, replace income lost to falling print advertising revenue.”
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
Issue #4 Meeting the crisis? The differing structures of Australia’s two largest newspaper publishers, Fairfax Media and News Limited, will affect their ability to meet the crisis. Fairfax is an Australian-based company and relies largely on revenues from its local businesses, meaning it is more vulnerable to local market pressures. On the other hand, News Limited’s membership of a large global “family” may afford it some degree of protection, although the recent announcement that News Corporation will split into two separate companies, with TV and films in one and publishing in another may affect this (we have yet to see how the split will affect Australian assets). But both companies have adopted cost cutting as their immediate response. Fairfax Media has announced plans to cut 1,900 jobs over three years (of which an estimated 380 will be journalists’ jobs), as well as closing print operations. News Limited has been more secretive but its own newspapers speculate that between 1,000 and 1,500 jobs will go, with 400 to 500 coming from the editorial side. Over the past few years, both companies have steadily reduced their editorial staff. Fairfax has reduced the number of editorial staff by an estimated 50 per cent, the bulk of which has been in sub-editing and other production roles as well. Sub-editing duties have been outsourced to Pagemasters, a company owned by AAP, which is itself owned by a consortium of publishers including Fairfax and News Ltd. News Limited has quietly reduced staff numbers across the board, partly through redundancy and partly through natural attrition. The company has centralised the sub-editing and production of its mastheads, establishing so-called “sub-hubs” on a state-by-state basis, a move that has been criticised as it devalues specialist and local knowledge. In both companies there has also been increased syndication of copy across group mastheads. The latest plans also include the introduction of centralised “story-based” commissioning of news to publish across its papers, websites and mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. The key strategy both companies will adopt in order to monetise their content is a move to a user-pays business model which will rely on a paywall around their news sites to which readers will pay a subscription to access via websites, smartphones and tablets. Both companies appear to be adopting a “soft” paywall, which will be monetised by selling those “engaged readers” (ie: those people willing to pay for content) to advertisers. This strategy represents a major reversal for Fairfax Media. The problem for all the major newspaper groups, in Australia and elsewhere, is that the growth of new digital readers needs to be huge to outweigh the continual loss of print readers. Even newspaper publishers estimate that if print readers are worth $1 per head to publishers, digital readers are worth 10 cents or less (NPA 2011). But a huge growth in digital readers does not appear to be happening.
Print sector failure a problem for democracy One of the ongoing problems for journalists and readers of newspapers in Australia is that newspaper publishers see their industry’s problems as purely commercial issues that affect no one else. Yet the industry’s problems have ramifications far wider than the industry. Newspapers (or rather the journalistic function of their professional staff) play an important role in society and in the democratic system. The publishers themselves regularly acknowledge this when they promote the “watchdog” role of newspapers as a form of accountability for governments. But when their commercial ability to fund this watchdog role is impaired the publishers do not acknowledge that this has social and political consequences, and that the wider public has a legitimate interest in the fate of journalism and the news media in which it operates. Given the problems of the economic viability of newspapers in recent times, such issues can only become more pressing. In summary, the outlook is uncertain. Industry analyses of the newspaper crisis in Australia and abroad have captured the major pressures threatening the economic viability of newspapers, but leave us with more questions than answers about the prospects of digital technologies either enhancing news quality or sustaining print-based journalism into the future. In the sections that follow, we take a much closer look at the ways newspaper journalists are making the transition from print-based to digital newsrooms and what they have to say about its impact on news quality. This is the most systematic and indepth account of change in Australian newspaper journalism undertaken to date.
The transition from print to multimedia journalism
an newspaper journalism adapt to the digital age? That’s the question driving this section of the report. It represents a systematic effort to examine the changing nature of newspaper journalism at a critical time. The interview data discussed here was gathered and analysed before Fairfax Media and News Limited announced major company restructures in June 2012, changes that will no doubt alter the picture of industry that emerges here. Nonetheless, the accelerating pace of change in newspapers has been evident for the past three years and our study captures an important moment in the industry’s transition from print to multimedia news delivery.
Technology and change in journalism Newspapers in Australia have been adapting to digital technologies for the past two decades, and past research tells us that this change process has stirred fear and uncertainty amongst journalists as well as excitement about the future. Internet researcher An Nguyen (2008) argues online news in Australia has developed in two stages: the take-off years from 1995-1996, when news media rushed to establish an online presence, and a second, “fear-driven” developmental stage from 2005-2006, prompted by the take-off of wireless technologies and the upsurge in user-generated news, principally blogging. In the second stage, the metro dailies started adding original content, filing stories online before print, and building communities for their online versions. Suellen Tapsall (2001) studied the pressures affecting journalists’ working lives in the late 1990s, and found evidence journalists were increasingly desk-bound and producing “space-filling news”. The internet was seen as an “invaluable” journalistic tool, but added to already overstretched workloads. Optimistic views of digital technologies anticipated better news coverage, diversity and access, while the pessimists worried about loss of journalistic craft and standards, for example, from the recycling of print content in online sites. Tapsall concluded journalists were feeling somewhat powerless to maintain news quality in the face of technological change and media commercialisation. The Media Alliance’s Future of Journalism project (2008, 2010) attempted to gauge the newsgathering and reporting opportunities opened up by digital technologies, while at the same time analysing the threats posed to journalists’ jobs and skills by the changing business of news, particularly in newspapers. This research showed media companies across Australia, and overseas, cutting back on newsroom resources as they struggled to adapt – financially, structurally or culturally – to a digital world, with consequent low staff morale. It also reported efforts to renew Australian journalism by investigating new storytelling and reader engagement techniques, as well as ideas about what audiences want from news.
Snapshots of a crisis: Media Alliance Life in the Clickstream reports identified the perfect storm affecting the news media
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
“Optimistic views anticipated better news coverage, pessimists worried about the loss of journalistic craft and standards.”
Reinventing journalism is an increasingly strong research theme. Margaret Simons (2011) targets three priorities: conversation, interactivity, and enabling the audience. “The core of the job – finding things out and communicating them clearly – remains”, she says, “Accuracy and integrity remain, and credibility remains. But there are new things as well” (Simons 2011). She argues journalists must collaborate with audiences to improve news reporting, extend journalistic capacity, and save journalism – a vital resource for a functioning democracy, an empowered population and community connectedness. The four themes that emerge here are first, the redefinition of daily journalism in the converged newsroom; second, the connection between reconfiguration of revenue streams and newsroom structures; third, the challenges of change management and, fourth, the importance of innovation in journalism practice. Each of these themes is now examined in further detail, drawing on insights gained from talking to newspaper journalists across Australia. As part of the research for this report, the authors conducted face-to-face interviews with 100 senior journalists and editorial executives at newspapers in eight different cities around Australia between September and November 2010. The interviews combined close-ended with open-ended questions. The data from the close-ended questions was quantified; the interviews were transcribed and thematically analysed using NVivo, a quantitative software tool. We provide results in two forms: statistical data that shows trends in the sample’s responses, and qualitative comments that add meaning to the statistics, and enable the voices of newspaper journalists to be heard. Journalists from all 12 national and metro daily newspapers participated (The Advertiser, The Age, The Australian, Australian Financial Review, The Canberra Times, The Courier-Mail, The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun, The Mercury, NT News, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The West Australian). We asked them to speak as members of the profession, rather than employees of their company. Where random sampling provides data that is representative of all groups in a target population, the research-driven or convenience sampling adopted in this project is used to gather data on a specific group of people (newspaper journalists) for the purposes of gauging what they think (see Forde 2005 for similar approach). Our results therefore reflect the views of the sample; to claim that they reflect the views of all Australian journalists more generally would be a misrepresentation of the data. Our survey sample was made up of 61 journalists and 39 editorial executives. We used four different sets of questions to build an accurate picture of what the transition from print to multimedia delivery means for newsrooms. We asked journalists and editorial executives how they spend their working days. We also asked them about newsroom business models and structures. We specifically asked the editorial executives about the priorities and challenges of change management while the journalists were asked about the new tools and techniques of journalism practice, including training and/or job reclassifications.
Redefining daily journalism There is no doubt that the production of news is being redefined, forcing life-long print journalists to master new skills, develop more flexible and agile work practices, and adapt to the demands of Web and mobile devices. Two-thirds (65 per cent) of the 61 journalists and 39 editorial executives we spoke to were veterans of the craft, having worked in the industry for two decades or more. Roughly half (48 per cent) of them had worked at the same newspaper for 10 or more years, while one in five (19 per cent) had been at the same newspaper for 20 or more years. Most (93 per cent) were working full-time; those working part-time were all women (7 per cent). Few were looking to change occupations, despite mounting uncertainties about print delivery. One quarter (24 per cent) of respondents said they expect to work in journalism until retirement, half of them said they anticipated working 10 or more years, and only one-fifth (18 per cent) stated a lesser period. We asked our respondents how they spent their working days. Two-thirds (69 per cent) of respondents said they spent at least part of their day online, with one in five (21 per cent) spending over half of the working day on digital news. One in ten (13 per cent) worked exclusively online. Conversely, four out of five (79 per cent) respondents said they were spending more than half of the working day on the printed newspapers, including one-third of the sample (31 per cent) that said they worked exclusively on the print editions. There were widespread concerns that competing demands of print and online are adversely affecting the product, with just under two-thirds (62 per cent) of the 100 respondents participating in the survey describing the current quality of Australian printed newspaper journalism as poor (28 per cent) or average (34 per cent), mainly because of resource and staff shortages. Roughly the same number (67 per cent) described the quality of internet journalism as poor (29 per cent) or average (38 per cent), but for two different reasons: the “dumbing down” of news values and “content dumping” (that is, the practice of recycling stories from the print editions to the newspaper websites).
Figure 3: Quality of newspaper journalism
Only (14 per cent) respondents declared their full confidence in online journalism, highlighting the advantages of immediacy and saying the news quality is excellent. Slightly more (17 per cent) were reluctant to pass judgment, saying digital journalism has yet to establish itself in Australia.
Figure 4: Quality of online journalism
At the same time, there was considerably more enthusiasm for news delivered on mobile devices, particularly tablets. One-third (34 per cent) of respondents described the tablet as a “game-changer” because it is journalist-friendly (adaptable to known news cycles, formats and values), reader-friendly (adaptable to known consumer preferences and habits) and financially viable because the content is seen to be more readily monetised.
Reconfiguring revenues streams and structures The most pressing concern identified in the interviews was the need to find a viable new business model for journalism. Nearly nine out of 10 respondents (87 per cent) said it was the “make-or-break” issue in the light of the rapidly falling advertising revenue from print products, which has not been replaced by digital revenue, even after the development of paid news apps for tablet and mobile devices. While there was some talk of “re-engineering the old business model for the Internet”, and of “finding new ways to give advertisers value for money”, user-pays news was the most commonly identified new revenue earner. As one journalist put it, “Getting people to pay for online is the crux of the issue,” while another described paywalls as “the debate we have to have”. A third journalist said: “It’s readers or advertisers – the profession’s survival depends on it.”
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
Issue #5 Why can’t newspapers make digital dollars?
Quality at a price: New York’s revered “Grey Lady” has introduced a metered paywall to enable it to charge for some content.
Nearly all newspapers are now in the process of trying to transition from print to digital, but few are making substantial profits from their digital business. All of this was the subject of a major report by the Columbia Journalism School, The Story So Far: What We Know about the Business of Digital Journalism (Grueskin 2011). The report reviewed and analysed a large number of independent studies into the business side of journalism. For much of the past 10 years, media businesses have concentrated on building large audiences for their news websites, often through techniques such as “search engine optimisation” (a method of embedding popular search terms on headlines to ensure casual browsers are sent to one’s news site). Many news organisations, including Fairfax Media, rightly point out that they have huge online audiences. The website for The Sydney Morning Herald (smh.com.au) is the most popular newspaper website in Australia, yet it is clear that the advertising revenue from this site cannot replace the revenue from the print editions of the newspaper. The same is true in the US, according to The Story So Far. The New York Times has a vast online audience, but the print edition, mainly reliant on ads, still accounts for 80 per cent of The Times’ revenue. So why is it so hard to make money from digital news? The short answer is that advertisers want more than just large audiences, the report says. We have always known that advertisers also focused on the demographics of the audiences, not just the overall audience number, but also the “quality” of that audience. One study of the Los Angeles Times website (latimes.com) showed it had huge audiences but also that each user saw only an average of six pages in a month. A 2010 Pew Centre study quoted in the report, said that the average visitor spends only three minutes and four seconds per session on a news site. Even at top news sites, the average user visited only a few times per month. The stark difference with newspapers is that about half of traditional readers spend 30 minutes reading a newspaper while less-involved readers spend at least 15 minutes. The issue for advertisers and media businesses is the degree of engagement of audiences. One study quoted in The Story So Far shows that for an average small-to-medium city newspaper there are four kinds of digital visitors: “fans” who visit twice a week or more, “regulars” who visit once or twice; “occassionals” who drop in two or three times a month and “fly-bys” who come once a month. This latter category, the least involved, accounts for 75 per cent of the visits. However, upon deeper analysis, it appears that “fans” are responsible for more than 55 per cent of the page views of the site. The logic of all this is that digital newspapers need to concentrate on building deeply engaged not mass audiences. In this task, the editorial side of newspapers comes into play, since “fans” are engaged by particular kinds of content. A study of the The Dallas Morning News, cited in the Columbia University report, reveals something else. The visits to the site (40 million page views, generated by 5 million visitors) are fairly typical. While news pages get the most traffic, the visitors’ stay is very brief and not engaged. Sports pages get more engaged readers. One particular sports site, High School GameTime, gets much more engagement. It covers the activities and the players at 200 high schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Its visitors were five times more engaged than those coming to the news section of the paper. The Dallas Morning News has been able to boost revenue by doing a deal with a cable TV channel and selling a mobile app to many fans. The key to such success, the site’s editor said, is to focus on something which readers care about deeply and which no other news provider does as well. This could well be the motto for all attempts to monetise aspects of news.
Three hurdles to making the shift to user-pays online news emerged: first, company reluctance to take “bold action” on user-pays online news while the print editions are still making money (although this changed in June 2012 when Fairfax announced it was taking all its newspapers behind paywalls); second, reader resistance to paying for what is now freely available, and, third, concerns about producing news worth paying for without additional staff/resources. Technology offered answers for some, with tablet subscriptions seen as the most consumer-friendly method of user-pays news. For others, the shift to user-pays means journalists will have to prove their relevance in the digital age, or as one journalist said, “We have to convince people that what we produce has value”. Only 10 per cent of respondents responded to the question about a new business model by raising issues other than creating new revenue streams, such as developing more innovative forms of digital journalism, more efficient work methods or better strategies for marketing the news. For one of these respondents the top priority is getting young people interested in journalism; another spoke of the need to foster audiences. Two respondents pointed out that the business model is constantly changing and newspapers have multiple revenue sources beyond advertising. For another, all the talk of business models was “a distraction” from the core task of producing good journalism.
“Tablet subscriptions were seen as the most consumerfriendly method of user-pays news.”
Newsroom structure Uncertainties about revenue express themselves most clearly in the competing and often inconsistent editorial priorities of the print and online editions of the same newspaper. At the time of the survey, Fairfax Media’s newspapers were just moving to an integrated editorial structure whereas The West Australian and most of the News Limited mastheads had already done so. For a quarter (25 per cent) of respondents, separate editorial control of the website and the newspaper was confusing, counterproductive or undermined the brand, while for another quarter (26 per cent), the mechanics of editorial integration across the digital, print and mobile platforms were still in the process of being worked out, with different degrees of success in restructuring work flows and responsibilities, convincing journalists to re-version stories, or achieving product consistency across all platforms.
Figure 5: Who controls the website?
Adelaide-first The Advertiser offers the most interesting example of a converging newsroom. Fifteen years ago, Peter Morris (1996), an Australian technology writer for the West Australian, predicted that News Limited would outpace Fairfax and drive the transition to multiplatform newsrooms, as it had the most to gain from digital news delivery systems. What Morris didn’t foresee was that News Limited’s newsroom revolution would get underway not in the major media markets of Melbourne or Sydney but in the one-newspaper town of Adelaide, where Rupert Murdoch got his start as a proprietor. For the past three years, the Advertiser has been moving to a broadcast newsroom model, flattening out news management, abolishing the roles of chief-of-staff and section editors, and creating new thematic editorial teams that deliver content to four platforms: the newspaper, website, iPad edition and email newsletter. The newsroom looks almost the same as before except that the conference desk has moved to the centre of the newsroom, next to a high-tech interactive whiteboard used to monitor the status of the days’ big stories.
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
Figure 6: The Advertiser’s new newsroom structure
Source: Adelaide Advertiser
News Limited clearly thinks the experiment is producing excellent results: The Advertiser won the Chairman’s prize at the 2010 News Awards. The company’s then CEO, John Hartigan (2010), said The Advertiser had “overhauled decades-old work practices and changed deeplyembedded parts of editorial culture in an exceptional way”. Significantly, new workflows have meant new work practices and journalists now “have much more responsibility for how their story progresses throughout its lifecycle on each different platform” (MediaPlanet 2011). Inevitably, this means more time spent on the job and a faster pace of work. Another concern is whether stories produced by the same journalist working across the four platforms make the best use of each medium, or tend to uniformity. More importantly, whether readers notice, or even care about, the changes to news content that result from such newsroom restructuring is another question altogether. The changing relationship between journalists and readers is taken up further on, in the next section this report.
Change management priorities and challenges Falling revenues from traditional sources appears to be the main driver of newsroom change, according to the 39 editorial executives we interviewed. Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of these respondents said their main challenge was getting the job done with tighter resources and fewer staff, including keeping up with technology, implementing newsroom restructure, and meeting the demands of constant publishing. More than half (56 per cent) said it was proving difficult to change the mindset of their staff, and keep them motivated.
Figure 7: Newsrooms in transition
“I think the biggest challenge for anyone managing journalists into the future,” said one editor, “is to direct them, herd them like cats, towards an environment where they are thinking about what they will file for their website as much as what they will file for the newspaper.”
Another editor said, “It’s just the mind-set really…some people are a bit nervous about doing the video stuff because they say they’ve got a great head for radio and not for video, but, largely, people see it as an opportunity to do something new and different.” Only one in five (18 per cent) of the editorial executives mentioned the importance of encouraging staff to embrace multimedia journalism. “We have to change the cultural fixation with print,” said one editor. “It’s ‘I work across platforms’ now, not ‘I work for the paper’”.
Figure 8: A new mindset for journalists
Restructuring workflows and responsibilities is the main step that editorial executives are taking or say needs to be taken in order to change newsroom culture. Twenty-two of the 39 editorial executives talked about this as a priority. “The whole newsroom has been restructured in order to be able to respond quickly and get material up online in a very short timeframe,” said one editor. “People start here now very early in the morning compared to when the normal newsroom would start, and the structure is more like a television station than a traditional newsroom … it’s an attempt to flatten the structure of management and make people respond and get things done more quickly.” Just over half (56 per cent) of the editorial executives said they were taking specific measures to ensure the quality of the newspaper’s website content, with one-third (33 per cent) identifying the need to moderate readers’ comments as a key measure, either to prevent publication of racist and inflammatory material, or, more proactively, in the words of one editor, to “raise the level of that side of the content”. Keeping the focus on fact-checking and accuracy was another important measure. While several editorial executives insisted online news standards were the same as for print, “you just have to do it a bit quicker, that’s all”, there were numerous concerns that the speed of online publishing was itself the main problem for news quality: “I think there’s a sense that if you’re wrong online, you’re not wrong for long,” said one editor, “and I don’t think that is a good attitude.” Another editor said: “The printed copy goes past at least four pairs of eyes before it gets released; with online, it might be one.” Getting “proper resources” was a third measure, with several editorial executives expressing concern that small teams of young, less-experienced journalists are working on the online sites when “a wider pool” is needed: “The more the traditional journalists can change and embrace and adapt to the new medium,” said one editorial executive, “the better it will be for the quality of journalism online”. Another editor said young, inexperienced digital journalists would benefit from “exposure to, mentoring from, and training by, colleagues working on the print editions” – because they are “some of the best journalists in Australia”. A third editor said: “You need training and experience, intelligence and effort.” Interestingly, the 2012 Fairfax Media restructure directly addressed this concern, announcing a shift to a digital-first editorial model for all the mastheads, and promoting the editor of smh.com.au, Darren Goodsir, into the position of news director for The Sydney Morning Herald and deputy to the new editor-in-chief, Sean Aylmer. In our survey, half (51 per cent) of the editorial executives admitted their staff were not receiving enough training in digital journalism, with some (20 per cent) offering ad hoc audio/video training on an as-needed basis, even fewer (10 per cent) providing social media training, and others (20 per cent), meeting digital skills shortages by hiring new staff.
“Printed copy goes past at least four pairs of eyes before it gets released – with online it might be one.”
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
When asked about the preferred skills and attributes of recruits, almost half (46 per cent) of the editorial executives nominated digital media skills as the top priority. Other desirable skills were news sense (36 per cent), writing skills (28 per cent) and personal qualities such as initiative, energy and enthusiasm; courage and persistence; maturity, and curiosity. Personal qualities got more attention than qualifications, with only 21 per cent of respondents interested in new staff holding tertiary degrees.
Figure 9: What editors want
New tools and techniques of journalism practice Thirty-seven of the 61 journalists we interviewed said they were using new media tools, including blogs, social media and Twitter, and 23 of these journalists had received some minimal type of digital journalism training, most commonly in the form of an introduction to the in-house content management system (CMS). There were few vigorous complaints about use of these tools, or the broader shift to multimedia journalism, mainly because only a small number (13) of the journalists said their use meant additional duties or job reclassification. For the most part, journalists were more frustrated by expectations that they would produce more stories, reversioned for various platforms, without any proper training. Three quarters (47) of these respondents identified specific training needs. The majority (38) of the journalists interviewed expressed interest in the union’s digital journalism training program as an alternative means of upgrading skills. There was a wide range of views about the most urgent training needs. One priority is learning how to adapt traditional professional skills to meet the demands of digital platforms. Journalists want to know more about how media law and journalistic ethics relate to news content published online (particularly in relation to moderating readers’ comments and other types of user-generated content) as well as digital storytelling techniques or, as one journalist said, “understanding how a news story from the paper can be told online”. Interestingly, several journalists called for training in how to “make difficult judgments under pressure”, “integrate social media with print” and identify “what people want”. “I don’t know if we’re serving the people, or giving people what they want,” said one journalist. “It just goes into the ether … you can get some statistics about click-through on stories, but according to those people are only interested in lesbian vampire killers – and I’m not sure that’s a true reflection of what people want … although we do manage to link ‘lesbian’ and ‘vampire’ and ‘killer’ to many stories.” A second group of respondents wants to learn audio and video skills – how to record interviews and present pieces to camera – in order to produce multimedia packages for publication on different platforms. As one journalist said, “high production values are important” in digital media, and journalists run the risk of becoming “prolific producers of fairly low-quality content” unless they get proper equipment and training. A third group of journalists is eager to “get the most out of digital media” by learning either new content techniques – social media, blogging and data-mining – or new technical skills, such as interactive graphics, tablet applications, RSS feeds or hyperlinks and even ways to self-promote and attract followers/friends.
Issue #6 Digital-first journalism
Cartoon by Andrew Weldon
We know what newspaper journalism looks like. What will journalism in purely digital publications look like? Some observers are worried that editorial decisions – what to publish? what angle to take? —will be dependent on commercial criteria determined largely by analysis of hits and impressions. Professional news judgment will play no role. These fears were fuelled by the leaking last year of an internal document from AOL, the giant internet company, spelling out guidelines for its editors. Significantly, the leak occurred just before AOL bought the The Huffington Post, one of the most successful online publications (it expected to make $10m in 2011). The leak was of a 57 page PowerPoint presentation called “The AOL Way” which is still available on the Business Insider website. The presentation decreed an integration of advertising and editorial staff. As well, it urged editors to decide what to publish based on four consideration: the traffic potential, revenue potential, edit quality, and turnaround time, according to Business Insider. Page 28 of the presentation specified that the “content creators” should be “mindful of the bottom line”. For example, an article for which a freelancer is paid $50 must be highly likely to bring in at least $100 in revenue, judged by “page views” and “cost per thousand” page impressions. The Colombia Journalism School report on the business of digital journalism, The Story So Far, gives an example of an article for which a freelancer is paid $100 and which therefore needs $200 in ad revenue. The story must be guaranteed to generate around 22,222 page impressions. The report also points out that at cnnmoney.com, all staff have access to page-view and traffic data. The staff gets daily emails listing the top 50 stories by section. All of this has consequences. When it became possible to analyse TV ratings minute-byminute, it became obvious that when a current affairs show interviewed a politician there was a sudden drop in the number of viewers. Now it has become possible through data analytics to do a similar analysis of stories for digital news media. There is a further complication. The new saviour of newspapers and digital news sites is widely seen to be paywalls. Readers who pay a subscription can avoid the paywalls to get access to articles. But the content behind the paywalls is also scrutinised using these data analytics. So if a reader subscribed to The Sydney Morning Herald, assuming this meant delivery of a certain kind of content, they could find that the content changed rapidly and went down market, much the same as the way in which the content of the Herald websites differs markedly from that of the printed newspaper.
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
“It’s all very well to pull out one story a month from some investigative unit, but someone has to ‘feed the beast’.”
The wide range of responses presented here, across all four themes, indicate some journalists are thriving on change, on the faster pace, rolling deadlines and opportunities to break more stories: “My focus is on news breaking,” said one reporter, “It’s all very well to pull out one story once a month from some investigative unit, but someone has to ‘feed the beast’ and I respect that type of work as well”. Others are struggling to adapt to expectations about re-skilling, to reconfigured news agendas and standards and to the relentless new imperatives of speed, immediacy and instant reader appeal. “The story gets forgotten in the search to dress it up,” said one reporter, “We need substance, not just enthusiasm for technology, it’s the story that should be the foremost consideration.” Another reporter said, “We publish a lot more now without thinking about whether it is good or not.” A more senior colleague worried aloud about the political implications of the rush to get stories up online: “It’s bad for public debate,” he said, “there’s a tendency for misinformation to gather its own pace and be taken as fact when it’s not. The immigration debate is a good example.” The old rules of the news game are gone. Only a decade ago, journalism was a stable, medium-sized occupation; news production followed well-established routines and conventions, and the internet looked like offering interesting new possibilities for news production and delivery. Now, unstable revenues and job cuts mean fewer reporters, reconfigured workflows, centralisation and outsourcing of subbing and other elements of news production, and increased workloads and responsibilities. The pace of daily journalism is faster. There are many more readers, with many more information demands. And the tasks of newsgathering and storytelling are getting more complicated as journalists are expected to enrich the reader’s experience by adding audio, video, photos or other types of visual data to text-based stories.
Issue #7 Not just another business Many journalists both in Australia and overseas have made the point that journalism is more than simply a money-making business; it has both a democratic function as well as a commercial function. Nearly all journalists (including those interviewed in the survey for this report) speak in terms of journalism’s role as a mechanism for accountability and a means to scrutinise the powerful. Principles such as these are embodied in the structure and history of many major news organisations around the world. When Rupert Murdoch bought The Times and The Sunday Times, a parliamentary Act stipulated that this group of newspapers had to be run by an independent board. Similarly when Murdoch bought Dow Jones & Company (which includes the The Wall Street Journal), an independent committee concerned with the appointment of editors was part of the deal. Editors sometimes insist on clauses in their contract specifying independence and non-interference on editorial matters. As well as this, governments of all stripes have often treated the purchase of news media differently from simple commercial transactions. There have been restrictions on the concentration of media ownership and on foreign ownership. As this report is being compiled the federal government is debating whether to require that any major change of media ownership pass a test that it is “in the public interest”. More recently, principles of editorial independence from the commercial and political pressures have been the focus of a conflict around the ownership of Fairfax Media. This began when the mining boss, Gina Rinehart, purchased a significant holding in Fairfax Media. It soon became clear that one of the motivations for the purchase was to influence the editorial side of the company’s newspapers. Questioned about her move by ABC TV’s Four Corners, Ms Rinehart said she was “concerned by the lack of understanding in the media” on the issue of climate change. Sceptical points of view should be published, she said, “not just the views of climate extremists”. Climate change was “not due to mankind at all”, she said. Some associate her desire for influence with earlier calls from leading British sceptic, Christopher Monckton, (invited in by Rinehart to Australia in 2011 to give a lecture in honour of her father Lang Hancock) that the “super rich” should purchase mainstream media to influence public debate. The existing board members of Fairfax Media have resisted Rinehart’s call for two or more seats and have insisted that she publicly agree to the Fairfax charter of editorial independence, which limits the right of board members to directly influence editorial
Cartoon by Ron Tandberg
processes and content. Ms Rinehart has refused to do so and, as noted, has sold down her interest to 15 per cent of the company. The current charter of editorial independence was adopted in 1992 as part of the public listing of Fairfax. Fairfax Media’s CEO, Greg Hywood, recently described the charter as the “rock on which we base this organisation”. The charter was “part of the culture of the place”, he said. It meant that the board had the right to appoint editors but that it was the CEO’s responsibility to select and interview the candidates. The charter, he said, prevents “individual board members from going to individual journalists and telling them what they should or should not write”. It was both a promise to readers that they get fairminded representation, and a “promise to advertisers: that they would be treated fairly”.
To test claims that Australian journalists have been slow to embrace digital tools except as a way to promote and distribute their work, we polled Walkley-winners for 2010 and 2011, asking about their use of these tools in researching and producing their stories. Around a quarter said they had used social media tools to research their subjects; the most popular means being through blogs and message boards (28 per cent); followed by Facebook (22 per cent) and Twitter (17 per cent). Respondents who used social media commented that the volume of people now using such tools – and the information they are willing to share make them good tools for finding sources and discovering social trends. Online message boards and chatrooms, as well as blogs, were also seen as good places for locating sources: “Social media allows you to cut through the red tape and speak directly to people,” said one respondent. Another prize-winner, while enthusiastic about the use of such tools to find sources, especially for international stories, social media “ought not to replace direct verbal or written contact between journalists and sources”. Another respondent observed that certain blogs, by high-profile professionals and business people, provided authoritative insights – the key thing being the authority of the source. Access to photos was also cited by several respondents as important plus point for using tools such as Facebook. However some respondents also raised ethical concerns such as invasion of privacy, while others cited the difficulty of verifying information and identity of bloggers – one instance cited was the “Gay Girl in Damascus” blog, which claimed to document the life of 25-year-old Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omari, a half-Syrian, half-American lesbian living in Damascus and turned out to be written by a middle-aged American man living in Scotland. “I would generally only use it as a search and messaging tool, not necessarily a source
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
of unquestionable facts,” seems to sum up the attitude of those people who said they used social media tools in their work. As for multimedia presentation, few respondents said they or their organisation had fully exploited the possibilities that their stories offered. Most said their stories – whether they were print or broadcast (TV and radio) – had been available online, but very few had offered broad multi-media packages. About 17 per cent said their stories had been accompanied by a slideshow of images and the same number said their stories had employed interactive graphics. Several respondents said their work might have been enhanced if it had been accompanied by original documents and extra features such as (as one print respondent suggested) video interviews. “I think it’s great that you can feature extra interviews, longer cuts and supporting materials online to allow audiences to engage with a story more thoroughly,” said one respondent, cautioning that as many people would be accessing this material on a small screen, it would have to be carefully designed. “If someone likes your story they’re generally keen to see/learn more.” The main drawbacks were seen as a lack of time and resources as well as insufficient training for reporters to be able to attempt some of these enhancements themselves. When it came to distribution and promotion, 50 per cent of respondents said their work had been promoted by social media – the majority by Facebook and Twitter. When asked whether the use of new media tools should be regarded as an important journalistic skill, most respondents were cautious, and stressed that, as one put it: “the quality of the story is more important than the technology used to deliver it”. This message recurred, in different ways, time and time again. “I think high-quality journalism is almost immediately recognisable through its sheer impact and importance,” wrote another. However others saw the use of social media for sourcing and distributing stories, and multi-media tools for the production and presentation of issues as “vital journalistic skills”. “In terms of presenting, I think multimedia is more than just a skill, but something every journalist simply has to master,” wrote one respondent.” Thinking about the presentation of your story as a multimedia package from the outset is not an optional extra anymore. These skills greatly enhance newsgathering, quality and presentation and I believe they should be recognised with prizes.” The question of whether use of new media tools and technology should be specifically recognised by industry awards divided people. Those who had used such tools the fullest naturally felt that they should be recognised, while the majority did not see the need. The consensus was that the quality of the journalism should always be the central criterion for awarding prizes, while the presentation (or “bells and whistles” as one respondent put it) should always be a secondary concern. One respondent summed it up thus: “The journalistic skills are not really changed. For me, new media provides extra outlets for distribution but doesn’t change the basic journalistic skill set. High-quality journalism is about research, tracking down people to talk, analytical skills and the ability to communicate clearly – most of which are unaffected by the medium (new or otherwise).” We will return to the important issue of digital journalism and news quality and standards later in this report, after first turning our attention to the changed relationship between journalists and readers.
Journalists’ changing relationships to readers Do Australian newspaper journalists provide news and information services that networked, information-rich, and technologically savvy news consumers want or need anymore? Relevance is a major question driving the changing relationship between journalists and readers, and a major issue in terms of journalism’s ongoing capacity to serve democracy. We know that digital technologies enable unprecedented opportunities for interaction and exchange between journalists and readers. We also know that readers (citizens) have relished the chance to comment on, add to, re-work, re-tell, and re-distribute stories published on online news sites, as well as creating their on news communities using blogs, social media and other digital tools. Citizen journalism is rewriting the relationship between politicians and voters. This section examines the ways that increased reader engagement is forcing journalists to rethink who their readers are, what they want from the news, and where they fit into news reporting and production. There are no easy answers to these questions, especially in a changing and uncertain industry environment, but they will not go away and clearly need more attention.
Dumbing down or democratisation of news Past research about journalists’ contribution to democracy in Australia, and elsewhere, is of particular relevance to this part of the study. This research reveals Australian journalism’s inherent strengths as a communication practice that serves the public interest by scrutinising the powerful and holding governments to account. Nonetheless, the research also shows citizen fatigue with the idea that journalists are the key intermediaries between politicians and voters. It points to growing interest in more open and participatory political communication practices, in which journalists and readers interact and collaborate in telling the stories of politics and social change. Australia’s journalistic culture was scrutinised as part of the 2011 Media for Democracy Monitor project, a ten-country study of media performance. Journalism researcher Beate Josephi (2011) found that Australian journalists showed an “astonishing” and salutary dedication to investigative journalism. Her study revealed that nine out of ten journalists surveyed said the watchdog function was their most important role; that Australian journalism awards its highest prizes – the Walkley Awards – to investigative pieces; that journalism education assigns high importance to training students in investigative techniques; and that news media give resources to investigative teams or sections, and highlight their achievements in this area in their mission statements. Josephi noted that this professional and institutional commitment to supporting democracy was all the more remarkable given Australia’s lack of a constitutional right to free speech, or a legal framework for the news media. Elsewhere, Schultz (1998) showed the historical connection between investigative journalism and the Fourth Estate ideal, where the press claims independent standing in the political system in order to pursue its role as democracy’s “watchdog”. She suggested commercial self-interest had drastically weakened the capacity of the contemporary press to act in the public interest. Ricketson (2012) argued, on the other hand, that while press research highlights tensions between the commercial and journalistic goals of news organisations, it is sometimes forgotten that independent journalistic scrutiny is both “rare” and expensive. He suggested, further, that new technologies would not resolve “pre-existing issues” – claims the news media are too powerful, lack accountability, and no longer contribute to democracy in a meaningful way because they are widely distrusted – and journalists should not take audiences for granted or assume they will pay for news. The problem of who will pay for journalism in the future concerns international as well as local media analysts. In Britain, Peter Anderson and Geoff Ward (2007) reported that the so-called “ec-tech squeeze”, the simultaneous impact of economic and technological pressures, had encouraged “soft news” production at the expense of costly quality political reporting, and risked reducing journalism to the role of entertainer. As a consequence, they said, political disengagement was accelerating, particularly amongst young people, leaving the news media and, more broadly, democracy, in a “mess”. Similarly, in the Australian context, Rod Tiffen (2010) has challenged complacency over the demise of newspapers, the “biggest diggers for news”, arguing online newspapers will be smaller operations, with reduced advertising revenues, and this means a likely decline in the flow and quality of informational content, with diversity limited to opinion rather than original content creation.
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
In summary, past research in this area highlights tensions between claims that reader engagement and citizen journalism mean a “dumbing down” of news and, on the other hand, claims that they foster a healthy and welcome democratisation of journalism. We asked a range of questions to build a better picture of the different dimensions of the changing relationship between journalists and readers. In the first instance, we asked all respondents about readers paying for online news, co-creating content, interacting more with journalists and, more broadly, their views on the trend towards more conversational forms of journalism. We wanted to explore journalists’ reactions to the increasing proximity between journalists and readers, and to get a sense of any concerns related to this trend. The results are grouped according to the following four theme: first, redefinition of the journalist-reader online relationship; second, newspapers’ reader engagement strategies and concerns; third, new editorial priorities and challenges and, fourth, renewing the concept of public service.
Issue #8 From gatekeepers to conversationalists Reader engagement is the new mantra of daily journalism. Yet, for the journalists in our study, the idea of readers taking a bigger role in the daily work of journalism is far more troubling than the shift to readers paying for news. They are not alone. Journalist and academic Jane Singer (2011), a leading international expert on digital journalism, describes journalists’ new relationship with people outside the newsroom as “extremely difficult”, for a number of practical and professional reasons. Day-to-day dealing with readers presents itself as an open-ended task that needs to be fitted into already growing workloads, more frequent deadlines and the storytelling demands of different news delivery platforms. Instead of getting information to people quickly, journalists are now encouraged to stop and chat to anyone and everyone with something to say. The gatekeepers have to reinvent themselves as conversationalists. It is time-consuming work that is sometimes of dubious value. Says Singer: “It turns out that most people are not actually interested in talking about the news, at least not on media websites, and those who are interested too often make contributions that are abusive, inane, or just plain wrong.” There are next to no rules of engagement guiding these online conversations, but that is far from the trickiest part of the emerging relationship. After all, website publishers can close or take down comments on stories when things get out of hand. The biggest challenge for journalists begins when they swap the formal “objective” narrative style they use in news writing for the more personal style of reader engagement which is expressed by: “I” and “you”. The writing styles of journalists and readers converge, making it harder to distinguish one from the other in the “unending stream” of digital media. And, Singer tells us, that’s just for starters. The give and take of reader engagement raises questions about who controls editorial priorities, news values, and decisions about what makes a good story. She explains: “The journalist defines truth as the result of an occupational process: pre-publication verification – with the journalist doing the verifying. The online zeitgeist flips that idea on its head. Publication is the first, not the last, step in the process of verification because only after an idea is published can it be, collectively, vetted.” In other words, perceived news value will increasingly be a function of journalist-reader interactions rather than the journalist’s or editors idea of what makes a story “good”. The shift to conversational forms of journalism thus brings with it a loss of what Margaret Simons, in her 2007 study of the changing world of journalism, The Content Makers, termed the media’s power over how individuals and organisations are represented in public. Simons merely notes this loss, rather than mourning its passing, arguing that interaction and transparency build readers’ trust and give journalists hope for the future. Elsewhere, in the US and UK, journalists are resolving these dilemmas, Singer argues, by remodelling the gatekeeper role to include a stronger focus on news quality (not just quantity) and, despite high resource costs, moderation of reader contributions. She says: “Journalists at national newspapers throughout Europe and North America moderate public contributions, to limit the potential for ethical abuse and legal transgressions.” In these two ways, journalists are trying to renew their authority and the relevance of their work in an information environment that no longer accords them a central place.
Redefining the online relationship The findings suggest that journalists were ready for the shift to user-pays online news. Two-thirds (68 per cent) of respondents said readers would have to pay for online news in future. They viewed the introduction of paywalls or digital news subscriptions as both “inevitable” and necessary. Others took the view that paying “makes sense” because “readers pay for the newspaper now, paying for online is the next step.” Several journalists compared paying for news with buying other commodities, ranging from chocolate bars to music downloads to bottled water: “I think it’s bizarre,” said one journalist, “that people will pay $3 for a bottle of water that should be free and yet expect content produced by experts for nothing, it’s economic nonsense!” Those who disagreed, a minority (21 per cent), were either opposed in principle to the user-pays idea or pessimistic about making it work “I don’t want to pay,” said one journalist, “so why should they?” Another journalist said, “It’s just a dumb idea. News is news. The whole point is to get it out there before anyone else.” A third view was that “it’s a theoretically justifiable experiment, although I wonder whether it will be sustainable.” There was a range of views about what readers should pay for. Forty-six journalists talked about the need to “value add” in some way. Many thought general news should remain freely available, with readers paying for “something new and different and worth paying for”. “I tend to think of it like iTunes,” said one editor, “you pay for music because you can listen to it again and again. So, you won’t pay for some throwaway 10-par rip-off from AAP because you’ll never read it again. You might pay for a tool that helps make sense of the federal elections, or the federal budget, something important like that, or what is the hung Parliament in 10 dot points…you wouldn’t pay for just that one FAQ but if you knew that this was the sort of place that did that tomorrow as well, you might subscribe and stick around.”
Reader engagement strategies and concerns Journalists welcomed greater contact with readers, describing it as a “healthy” development and welcomed the editorial benefits of readers’ tip offs and story suggestions. Journalists were enthusiastic about the increased interactivity between journalists and readers that digital technology allows, with two-thirds (69 per cent) of respondents in favour, one fifth (22 per cent) against and only a few (4 per cent) undecided. “I’m hugely in favour of accepting everything from readers – stories, comment pieces, photographs, vox pops, everything,” said one journalist, “I think the more the readers are involved, the better for the newspaper because they take ownership, they feel ownership, and there’s nothing stronger, it’s the newspaper’s greatest asset.” “I’m very happy not to be the sole gatekeeper anymore,” said an editor. “Interactivity is a good thing,” said another journalist, “I think journalists have to be constantly reminded of the effect that their reporting, their writing, has on people and it sort of breaks down the ‘us and them’ mentality.” “It builds community,” said another reporter, “if you have interaction then, one, you get stories out of it; two, you start to understand the readership in that really granular way, and three, it gives the reporter a sense of responsibility. If the readers don’t like it, or if you are wrong, you are going to find out immediately. There is an element of transparency and honesty about it.” “If journalists are smart,” said another editor, “they’ll shut up and listen, actually listen to readers, and they’ll get the feeling of whatever community they’ve plugged into, they’ll get what the community is saying, thinking, feeling, whinging about and enjoying.” “You have to be ready for it,” said another editor, “because there is an avalanche of unmet need out there, of people wanting to talk to you about things that are happening to them.” “It’s a good thing because it keeps you in contact with your audience”, said another journalist, “but the danger is that you listen to the loudest voices, which aren’t necessarily representative, there are lots of people out there, at the extreme end of your range of readers, who like to give their opinion and there is the danger of skewing the debate.” “You become very vulnerable to pressure groups and attempts to manipulate the media”, said another editor, “the perfect example is talkback radio, and that is not my idea of good journalism.” “How broad is the interactivity?” asked one journalist, “there’s obviously a bunch of media junkie types that are interacting, but I don’t know about reaching the masses through interactivity.”
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
Content co-creation Opinions were more divided over readers contributing to content creation, and while almost half (45 per cent) of respondents favoured this trend, one third (33 per cent) said they were against it, and another one in five (21 per cent) said they were undecided.
Figure 10: The hard question
“This debate is all a bit high-falutin’,” said one editor, “the papers at the regional or suburban level, the free papers, they give great community service because their columns are so open to their communities…if you want a paper that is going to be vibrant and survives and has revenue and an audience, you’ve got to get people to write in.” The biggest concern was about the future of journalistic expertise although there was plenty of interest in the democratic potential of this development. Much of the argument hinged on the type of content that readers might contribute and the level and cost of moderation/editing that might be needed before this type of content was published. “I think it’s democratic,” said one journalist, “I’m happy about it with an important caveat that professional journalists must maintain strict control over the editing and the output.” “I think it’s a very exciting prospect,” said another journalist, “but you really need to have very experienced journalists managing the process.” “If people are going to pay for us,” said a third journalist, “they want to actually see some value put into the reporting and editing that makes it worth paying for, not just what some bloke down at Mount Gravatt, or up at Caboolture or over in New Farm thinks, you hear that for free on talkback radio.”
Conversation There was even more disagreement over the shift to more conversational forms of journalism. Only one quarter (25 per cent) of respondents endorsed the idea that print journalism is moving away from its traditional role of producing newspapers of record to become a “living conversation”. “What we have to achieve,” said one editor, “is to move professional journalism more effectively into the immediate space, which is widely populated by the citizen journalist and the blogger. Journalists need to be much smarter and more effective in what they do in the online breaking news space.” On the other hand, one third (34 per cent) of respondents were reluctant to accept the term “conversation” as the new modus operandi of either newspapers or their websites, and suggested this characterisation of the changes underway was at best debatable. Journalists might well be engaged in lots more online exchanges with readers and news reported with more immediacy online, but for this group of respondents this did not amount to conversation becoming the most important, much less, sole purpose of journalism. As one journalist explained, “If the trend is to think of online news as ‘opinion-sharing’ then that can – and often does - quickly descend into ‘opinion-shouting’. And then like the worst of Twitter, it’s just a bunch of voices talking at each other, not to each other. It could also mean sites tailor their coverage to the loudest five per cent of their audience, thinking they are representative of all, rather than pushing themselves to look for new audiences and new areas of interesting issues to report in an innovative way.”
“You’ve got to tell the story of what has happened,” another journalist said. “To bring people up to the point where the conversation starts – and newspapers will continue to play that role.”
New editorial priorities and challenges
“Focus groups reported readers saying they were interested in politics, while their online tracking showed gossip, sex and celebrity stories.”
Cartoon by Fiona Katauskas
We asked editorial executives more specific questions about the changing relationship between newspapers and their readers, including knowledge of readers’ news preferences, changes in editorial priorities in response to increased interactions with readers, and measures being taken to maximise website traffic and/or raise non-advertising revenue. We were interested to explore the views of those with newsroom management responsibilities, to assess the importance given to changing the journalist-reader relationship at the organisational level. All but seven of the 39 editorial executives spoke with confidence about the types of news that readers want, and, more particularly “what draws the eyeballs” of online readers. Many of them were using quantitative and/or qualitative research, as well as reader feedback, to track and discern readers’ news preferences. The over-riding reader preference identified by this group of respondents was for news that is relevant to the readers’ daily lives. Readers want news that impacts directly on their lives, whether it is about politics and economics or other issues such as transport, food, wine, health, education, fashion, media, travel, religion, or the weather. “They’re interested first in the world immediately around them,” said one editor. “Readers want us to help them live their lives,” explained another editor, “that’s what I’ve taken from the research.” A third editor said, “They want to be given the tools to be able to make choices themselves.” A fourth editor linked readers’ expectations about relevant news to the need for high quality reporting and analysis: “The hunger these days is for news that tells me why something has happened, how it’s going to impact on me and my life, the likelihood that I’m going to find it harder to pay the mortgage or feed my family or live in a sustainable environment,” he said, “that’s why we need more sophistication in our journalism, we need journalists who understand these things and can communicate them in an understandable way, with authority and depth.” Part of the challenge of meeting reader preferences is dealing with their foibles. For example, the editorial executives agreed that people want to read stories about politics but, as one editor noted, “They like politics but only when it’s what they believe is the correct side of politics.” Several respondents said their internal research shows a clear discrepancy between what readers say they want and what they actually consume. This is evident in relation to readers’ readiness to express interest in politics and business stories and, at the same time, their reluctance to say they want to read gossip. Several editorial executives indicated their focus group research reported readers saying they were interested in politics, while, conversely, their online story tracking showed gossip, sex and celebrity stories generating far more traffic. As one editor noted, “the issue that newspaper and
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
online sites have to grapple with is what people think they want, and what we think they want, versus what they read.” “We have a finicky readership that likes quality,” said another editor, “they love world news stories; but they also love gossip although they won’t admit to reading it.” In relation to political and business news, there was interest in both state and national political and economic issues. Readers particularly want to know about poor economic management by government: “when there’s a perception that the state government is misusing funds, we get a very strong reaction online,’ explained one editor. “The right political story will rate well,” said another editor, and what I mean by the right political story is where there’s a personality involved!” Interest in sport is much more unambiguous: “Sport is one of the golden spots in journalism at the moment,” said one editor, “The more sport you have in the paper, the better you seem to go…people like to read about success and they like to be inspired.” Five editorial executives made the point that readers increasingly demand news coverage with “a bit of light and dark”, that is, some “good news” stories to balance the flow of information about society’s conflicts and problems. One editor said, “Readers want a laugh, that’s a real challenge”. “They don’t want bad news jammed down their throats,” said another editor, “they don’t want to be frightened about the world they live in, they want to be informed, but not intimidated.” The editorial executives linked their newspapers’ capacity to provide comprehensive coverage that helps readers to understand the complexity of the world around them, to readers’ trust in journalism. Interestingly, only about half of them saw responsiveness to readers as another trust-building strategy. Twenty-one of the 39 editorial executives said their editorial priorities had changed as a result of increased interaction with readers, including story choices and angles, the length of time a story runs and the prominence it is given, and the range of voices that get a hearing. “We are trying to meet the demand for what people want online,” said one editor, “we are adapting to how they want news, what type of news they want, and how quickly they want it.” Another editor said, “We often get feedback online and turn it into stories.” The feedback is not always that constructive, as a third editor explained, “Certainly there’ve been instances when the readers have been quite venomous about something that we’ve written, and that’s caused us to go back and rethink the approach we’ve taken to the story.” Sharing editorial responsibilities with readers, even to a limited extent, is not an easy issue for the editors, or their newsroom staff, because it raises questions about the role of journalists and editors. As one editor explained, “At the heart of that question is whether editors should tell people what they need, or listen to people and give them what they want…but isn’t one of the functions of editors and media organisations to challenge people, to set an agenda, to find new stuff? Isn’t the contract between the reader and the journalist one based on trust, on the readers trusting us to exercise our judgment?” For other editorial executives, adapting journalistic practices to meet the new circumstances was more important than redefining roles: “As you know,” said one editor, “the stories where we shine lights into dark corners often don’t have the audiences, and yet clearly and obviously they are still a very crucial part of journalism. I think it’s incumbent on journalists to present those stories in ways that make them relevant to people. It’s not good enough just to write that story anymore in a way that assumes knowledge. I think that’s what we often did in the past with our investigative journalism.”
Renewing the concept of public service Improving journalism’s service to readers is a third recurring theme in the responses of editorial executives. Half (20) of these 39 respondents indicated they knew more about serving their readers because they had increased interactions with readers. Some editors went further, expressing the need to defend journalism’s public service orientation against market pressures. One editor explained this as a struggle between reputation and the new “rules of the game”, between saying what would stand up to scrutiny, and saying what you think: “There are many ways of scrutinising what we do now from outside,” he said, “It’s not possible to pretend that you can write what you think, you can blog what you like – you can’t do that, and we’re very conscious of that now…and of trying to preserve the newspaper’s reputation, and to remain true to its standards and principles.” Moderation of online commentary, and not chasing online “traffic” for the sake of it (for example, “by doing tits and bums on the home page”) were two other measures identified with better service. “The best kind of search engine optimisation,” said one editor, “is a fantastic scoop.” That editorial executives continue to express their commitment to serving readers is somewhat surprising when you consider the pressures they are under to chase “eyeballs”.
Twenty-eight of the 39 editorial executives said they were taking measures to maximize traffic to their newspaper’s website, ranging from search engine optimisation, crosspromotion of newspaper and website stories and picture galleries, to social media marketing, user alerts, and direct marketing via email newsletters. Only 11 of the 39 editorial executives indicated they were not directly involved in taking these types of measures. Editorial executives were more reticent to talk about the work their newspapers are doing to increase non-advertising revenue streams; 22 of the 39 respondents to this question said they were not involved in the business side of the newspaper, or, if they were, would prefer not to discuss money-making strategies in detail. Amongst those who offered some general observations about emerging new business models, talk of “journalists” and “readers” quickly gave way to talk about “content” and “traffic”, PIs and UBs (page impressions and unique browsers), “user profiles” and “behavioural targeting”, or “transactions”, “subscriptions” and “selling apps”. This shift in lexicon was a stark reminder, if one was needed, that the business of newspaper journalism no longer depends on using news stories to sell readers to advertisers, an activity of diminishing financial rewards. Instead, at the time of the survey, “selling apps” was seen as the most exciting potential new revenue-earner, a “back to the future” option that, in the words of one editor, was even garnering “great confidence and interest from hardened newspaper editors”, mainly because “it closes the knowledge gap between digital and print, with apps, we’re all newbies together, we’re all in the dark, so that has brought digital and print back together again.” The responses outlined above demonstrate an overall readiness amongst newspaper journalists to engage more directly and in more interesting and collaborative ways with readers. Nonetheless, the data also reveals that journalists face two kinds of difficulties at the moment in building new relationships with existing readers and attracting new audiences: first, the practical issue of finding ways to fit increased interactions with readers into their daily work routines, and, second, the professional issue of working out what these exchanges might contribute to both editorial content and reader satisfaction. The conceptual challenge is tough. The idea that readers would act in league with journalists to create good journalism and enhance news quality may require significant rethinking of the values and standards that are intrinsic to journalists’ professional culture. As we’ll discuss in the next section on professional standards, that culture is an important resource that, arguably, has given journalism its resilience in the face of technological and market pressures. By “professional culture”, we’re referring here to the commitment to the Code of Ethics, to well-established role perceptions and news conventions, to the professional association and its prize system that gives collective expression to journalists’ aspirations, and to journalism education and training that prepares and socialises new recruits. To be clear, we’re not saying journalist-reader collaborations are a bad idea because they create new pressures to rethink some of the fundamentals of journalism. We are saying that these new pressures should not be ignored while there is still time to do the work of evolving professional values and standards that can give meaningful expression to both journalism’s past strengths and the innovations it must adopt in the future.
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
Issue #9 The new competition The digital era has spawned a number of rivals to traditional news journalism. One new set-up which provides a sobering sign of the times is Australian Football League (AFL) Media, which employs 40 journalists to write and produce content for AFL’s many fans via its website and digital outlets. AFL Media’s head of content, Matt Pinkney, says that the aim is to “create an independent, credible news organisation which reports on AFL football”. Significantly, Pinkney was once a leading digital editor at the Herald Sun in Melbourne before he moved across to AFL Media. His move is notable because part of the digital business strategy of the Herald Sun is based around positioning itself as the best place for AFL fans. Whether it can still do that, given the rise of AFL Media, is another question. Pinkney told Media Watch’s Jonathan Holmes earlier this year that the purpose of AFL Media was not to put others out of business or to diminish their products. That makes sense, since the purpose of AFL Media is to promote AFL through a variety of other TV, radio and print media. Pinkney also denied that AFL Media would smother negative football stories or would deny other media the chance to get “human interest” stories about players directly from local clubs. Nevertheless, he says that AFL Media is competing directly with the Herald Sun. While the Herald Sun has its interactive footy game, SuperCoach, the AFL has DreamTeam. Digital media enables such competition between a big sporting organisation and a key part of the news media. When people say that the “barriers to entry” to the media no longer exist, this is what it means. Critics are alarmed. The managing director of the Nine Network, Jeff Browne, compared AFL Media to the Soviet media system, which presented a “sanitised, city hall version of events”. People “want to know the facts, as ugly as they sometimes are”, he said. Many are watching what will happen with AFL Media, but the broader point is about “branded content” a new form of advertising and marketing, which resembles independently produced journalism or film making, but which is totally owned by a product maker. The marketing writer for Fairfax, Julian Lee, points to a “documentary” about the fast food giant, McDonalds, aired on Channel Seven in March 2012, which was also paid for by the company. While Seven disclosed this fact, it was not obliged to. Other rivals to journalism are the “content farms” – websites that publish a large amount of cheaply produced articles on popular topics by freelancers. The articles and headings are designed to attract the algorithms of search engines and draw huge audiences. Such sites have a purely commercial purpose, being designed around selling space to advertisers on the back of their large audiences. The problem is that the quality of writing and research for the articles is often low, information is rarely, if ever, original and relies on using other peoples’ research. Complaints about such sites clogging up searches led Google to refine its algorithms in 2011, so as to promote high-quality information sites (such as news media) and relegate low-quality content farms. A variant on content farms was investigated by the Poynter Institute, a US journalism school for mid-career journalists. These are companies such as Journatic, which provide cheap, outsourced editorial copy to newspapers. While Australian newspapers have outsourced some subbing, in the US routine newspaper journalism (suburban coverage, real estate coverage) is also sometimes outsourced. In many instances, the poorly paid journalists at this content farm live nowhere near the area on which they report (in some instances Filipino writers are recruited to provide cheap content). They are also often encouraged to introduce themselves as representatives of the newspaper that is buying their content, rather than from the outsourcing company.
Future control over professional standards
n this final section, we examine the question of how much power journalists, individually and collectively, have over the future direction of the newspaper industry in Australia. This may sound like an odd angle, at a time when the “ec-tech squeeze”, the combined pressures of media commercialisation and technological change, is intensifying employment insecurity and uncertainty about the future. Indeed, as journalism researcher Suellen Tapsall (2001) noted, because the idea that technology brings progress is so widely held, it is likely that many will feel powerlessness in the face of changes that seem both inevitable and inescapable. Yet, this study did not detect widespread feelings of disempowerment or resignation amongst newspaper journalists. On the contrary, we found a mood for change. The majority of journalists we spoke to were looking ahead with optimism, and there was no shortage of views on what could or should be done to improve news content, exploit the newsgathering and reporting potential of digital technologies, or beat the competition. This section therefore discusses what these journalists believe their profession does best, how they judge news quality, and why they seem ready to evolve and adapt professional standards in this transition period. The Walkley Awards provide our benchmark for talking to Australian newspaper journalists about what they do best because they are the country’s leading media industry prizes. Created by petroleum magnate Sir William Gaston Walkley in 1956, and now administered by the Walkley Foundation, the award system is open to all journalists on the basis of self-nomination, and judged by distinguished media industry figures. Around 1300 journalists compete for these prizes each year. This is the profession’s own way of rewarding good journalism and encouraging high standards. The market and the regulators both claim to influence news media performance, although as stated in the beginning of this report (see “Why talk about quality?”), they do so on different terms. For newspaper companies, optimal press performance – the “sweet spot” – can be found at the intersection of reader appeal and profitability; for the electronic media regulators, strong media performance depends on both competitive markets and intervention to ensure news media adhere to community expectations about ethical standards. What is often forgotten here is that professional journalists, as a group, also have a stake in the issue of news quality. Their “sweet spot” lies in finding the balance between news that is in the public interest and news that is popular, that the public is interested in; their adherence to ethical standards is a self-imposed discipline, expressed in consistent responses to the dilemmas posed by daily newsgathering and reporting, and “enforced” through peer-pressure. The newspaper journalists we spoke to had very strong feelings about news quality and journalism standards. And, while many believed in the market dictum that quality journalism would always find an audience, we also found awareness that journalists themselves have to exercise more initiative in setting and judging the standards of news media performance. Our discussion of this new insight provides one response to the opening question on what journalists can do about the future of journalism.
Figure 11: Key roles for journalists
The characteristics of Australian journalists Interest in the changing occupational characteristics of Australian journalists has increased in the digital age in the context of debates about the adaptability, accountability, and power of society’s information gatekeepers. The major assumption in this research is that journalists’ skills, attitudes and values need to be better understood because along with organisational and societal constraints, they affect what is reported, contribute to shaping news coverage and, thus, influence public opinion and policy (Weaver 1998). The other assumption that drives this research is that journalism is an atypical profession that suffers constant challenges to its jurisdiction over news production, but, on the other hand, enjoys a strong institutionalised culture (Beam and Meeks 2011). Past research in this area has consistently identified striking levels of homogeneity
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
in journalists’ backgrounds and beliefs at both the national and international levels. In 1998, John Henningham (1998) found Australians journalists were typically young, well-educated, middle-class, and male. He estimated there were around 4,500 journalists working in mainstream newsrooms at that time. They were committed to information dissemination, valued autonomy and editorial policies, frequently held “somewhat left-ofcentre political views” and faced two main challenges: media ownership concentration and new media technologies. According to Henningham and Delano (1998), Australian, British and US journalists’ shared comparable professional roles and values, although British journalists were more “gung-ho in ethical areas” and willing to “get the story and worry about the consequences afterwards”. Interestingly, Susan Forde’s (2005) study of cultural diversity in Sydney newsrooms, found two-thirds of the mainstream journalists surveyed were from British or Irish backgrounds. Mark Deuze’s (2002) five-country study of national news cultures backed up Henningham’s findings. It revealed broad similarities in the way journalism is practiced in the US, UK and Australia, but found Australian and British journalists rated the watchdog or adversarial role more highly than their US counterparts. The 2007-2011 Worlds of Journalism project found more evidence that Australian journalists resemble their counterparts in Western liberal democracies, this time because they shared a common belief in the media as Fourth Estate (see www.worldsofjournalism. org/). They valued objective reporting and universal ethical rules, but were fundamentally pragmatic, and tried to find a balance between giving audiences what they wanted, and reporting news that journalists thought they should know (Hanusch 2008). Deuze (2008) noted that the homogeneity underpinning journalistic perceptions and practices has given coherence to news work, but, at the same time, has meant newsrooms tend to have inward-looking, self-referential cultures: “journalists [tend to] privilege whatever colleagues think of their work over criteria such as viewer ratings, hit counts or sales figures”. The past research, in summary, confirms the strength and consistency over time of Australian journalists’ role perceptions and values and suggests that professional culture provides an important collective resource for any discussion of news quality and journalism standards. At the same time, the self-evident gender bias, mono-culturalism, and traditionalist orientation of the professional culture are significant limitations, which can be seen to undermine Australian journalists’ capacity to respond adequately to a rapidly changing, multicultural media world. We asked five distinct sets of questions about journalism roles, values and standards in order to explore journalists’ self-perceptions in the face of rapid workplace change and the growing uncertainties of today’s news environment. To start, we asked all respondents to define the most important role of journalists and to identify the journalism standards and values that are most fundamental to their work. To get a deeper appreciation of the relative importance of specific standards and values, we then used two sets of questions, first, checking journalists’ views on the Walkley Award criteria, and, second, exploring their perspectives on the characteristics of quality journalism in print and online. A further set of questions asked about the current level of professional recognition for online journalism, the standards by which it should be judged, and the standout attributes of good journalism in this medium. The final question probed the meaning of the term “quality journalism”. We wanted to gauge journalists’ level of confidence in the current weight and future relevance of their professional standards. The results are grouped into three themes: first, defining quality; second, continuity and change in journalism values and standards and, third, evolving digital journalism standards.
Defining quality Although the term “quality journalism” is bandied about with increasing frequency, it is neither easy to define nor universally accepted. Four out of ten (40 per cent) of the journalists we spoke to had reservations about its meaning and use. One in ten (9 per cent) flatly rejected the idea, saying it was code for resistance to change or, more colourfully, an excuse “to sit there for a couple of weeks thinking about your next story”. For others in this group, “quality” was an out-dated concept, linked to a reluctance to embrace digital journalism. One journalist said it was a problem of generational change amongst more experienced journalists: “they see me as much more of a trash bag in my news values,” he said, “but I think the world has changed and they’re refusing to change with it.” Another journalist linked quality to the “look” of traditional newspapers, and said newspaper companies and news readers were having trouble adjusting to digital formats: “I like the idea of going into this different world online,” she said, “I don’t see any reason why it should look like a traditional newspaper but I think we’re still hung up on that idea.” Conversely, six out of ten (58 per cent) respondents agreed that “quality” was a keyword for the future. For half of this group, interest in quality signalled a willingness to
embrace digital journalism. “Online adds greater depth of information, a greater range of information,” said one journalist, “we have to embrace the change and use it with all the capacities it offers, which are enormous; but, it’s hard going through the process if you’re not making scads of money…good journalism does cost money.” Others were more interested in the credibility of digital journalism, especially in the context of the shift to user-pays online news: “There’s no way you can charge for Lady Gaga news. It’s impossible,” said one editor. “If all we’re doing is offering them a slightly different version of something they can get on 473 websites,” said another, “why would they pay for it?”
“It’s up to us to make sure people realise there is a difference” Significantly, a handful of journalists and editors said the time had come to explain “quality journalism” to readers, so that they could better distinguish it from other types of digital content. “It’s up to us,” said one reporter, “to make sure people realise there is a difference.” Another said, “You’ve got to take readers with you.” For a third journalist, holding onto readers meant explaining what his newspaper did best: “Our competition is the person on the street who is putting out a news blog,” he said, “The one thing that differentiates us is the fact that we have opinion leaders.” There is an interesting shift in these responses away from the long-standing market dictum that quality journalism will always “find an audience”. These journalists are mindful that producing and promoting good journalism will not necessarily, of its own accord, convince readers to pay for news. More needs to be done to hold onto and extend readerships: “If we lose that perception of quality,” said the editor of one of the weekend papers, “then we lose our point of difference to the rest of the internet. The internet is diverse and wonderful and has a lot of stuff but you don’t know whether you’re getting the right information or not…you don’t know if it’s fact or fiction.” Journalists’ “bad reputation” is part of this discussion. “We’re the least trusted,” one journalist said, “and yet what we do requires us to be trustworthy. So, there’s a huge disconnect there with what we think of what we do, and what others think of what we do.” For this respondent, journalists wanting to bridge the “disconnect” needed to be more frank with themselves, as well as with readers, about the nature and quality of their work. There’s a “false impression”, this journalist said, “that what we have now is as good as it gets, and it’s only threatened by online, but I think it’s been threatened by commercial factors, poor management, and lack of standards in the past…we’re too easily open to spin and political bias.” For another reporter, being “frank” about current work standards raised the industrial issue of work intensification: “Journalists do need to fight for the right to have time to do their journalism,” he said, “If someone is constantly being bombarded with requests to keep online updated then they can’t do their journalistic work, they can’t get out of the office to network with people and that’s where a lot of the best quality journalism comes from.”
Continuity and change in journalism values and standards What, then, do journalists have to say about quality journalism in the transition from print to digital journalism? What do readers need to know? One part of the answer comes from journalists’ responses to questions gauging their perceptions of quality journalism’s key characteristics. The 15 questions deliberately asked about key aspects of both print and digital newspaper journalism in order to compare traditional and innovative approaches to defining quality. For the purposes of analysis, the data was reduced to show the relative level of agreement with each of the 15 characteristics of quality journalism, and the following table shows their final ranking. It is immediately clear that traditional newspaper values and standards rank highly, with four of the top five responses characterising quality journalism in terms of long-standing news conventions: strong element of public benefit, editorial leadership, the profitability of newspapers, and investigative reporting. However, that is not the whole story. More insight can be gained by turning our attention to the exception in the top five, the third most agreed response, that quality journalism is “platform neutral”, meaning not specific to the medium (print, broadcast or digital). This ranking indicates an innovative approach to journalism standards, although it should not be overstated as there is still plenty of support for the sixthplaced claim that better journalism is published in print than online.
Figure 12: Journalists (n=100) responses to 15 suggested characteristic of quality journalism, ranked according to their level of agreement
Characteristic of quality journalism
Strong element of public benefit
Editor’s support as essential
Keeps a newspaper profitable
Better journalism in print than online
Interactive and invites readers comments
Strong knowledge of readers’ likes and dislikes
Online adds word length, links and updates
Enhanced by online news site
Better investigative reporting online
Broadsheets better than tabloids
Attracts the biggest audience
Deals with politics or business
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
Figure 13: Journalists (n=100) responses to 11 criteria for judging excellence in journalism, ranked according to their perceived value Criteria for judging journalism Ethics
Nonetheless, there is further evidence of a readiness to innovate in the fact that more journalists agreed with interactivity and inviting readers’ comments as features of good journalism, over and above the more traditional view, that quality is based on journalists’ knowledge of readers’ likes and dislikes. This result is consistent with other findings discussed in the previous section on journalists’ changing relationship to readers. The bottom end of the table also reveals the demise of two key aspects of traditional approaches to news quality: first, the idea that broadsheets do better than tabloids, and second, the idea that quality journalism “deals with politics and business” because they are the two most important topics in journalism. In short, the newspaper journalists we spoke to hold strong, common views on the key characteristics of quality journalism, which for the most part they define in terms of what newspapers have traditionally done best: investigative journalism in the public interest. Nonetheless, there is also evidence of a more innovative approach to journalism standards, perhaps driven by pragmatism, with journalists recognising that good journalism can be found across all media platforms, and, further, surprisingly, that reader engagement – interactivity, co-creation of content, and reader comments – adds to the quality of journalism. Change in the professional culture of journalism may well be a slow process, but these results indicate that change is underway. One online editor explained the changing professional attitudes to online news standards in the following way: “When I started, over three years ago, there was a lot of emphasis on what drove traffic, and less emphasis on what you put up there to get the traffic. So, as a result, you had an awful lot of curly pictures…now, if you look at it, there’s far less of that, people have stepped back and thought, ‘hang on, this is not what we are on about, we’re on about quality journalism,’ so the Rank content has changed, and the traffic has still been there, but it is traffic 1 that is less reliant on superficial titillation.”
Originality Research Impact Writing Creative flair Incisiveness Innovation Production
What journalists do, what readers see
The other part of the answer comes from journalists’ perceptions of the criteria for judging quality journalism. We asked journalists to evaluate the 11 criteria used by the Walkley Awards to reward excellence in journalism 5 – creative flair, ethics, impact, incisiveness, innovation, newsworthiness, 6 originality, production, public benefit, research and writing – in order to compare aspects of quality that are visible to readers, who see only the end 7 result of journalistic activity, with those aspects that may well be invisible 8 to readers, but express professional journalism’s core values and guide 9 journalistic activity. For the purposes of analysis, the data was reduced to show the relative value given to each of the 11 criteria, and the following 10 table shows their final ranking. 11 It is immediately clear, again, that the criteria that express core professional values rank highly with four of the top five responses referring to newsroom-based aspects of journalistic activity: ethical practice, news judgement, originality and story research. The difficulty for journalists is that while the quality of the end product depends on these journalistic activities, they are not necessarily visible to readers. Moreover, there is no certainty that readers share journalists’ definitions of news that has “public benefit”, the third most valued criteria for judging journalism, and the only one directly related to the end product that is visible to readers. The bottom of the table is also troubling because it reveals newspaper journalists’ perceptions that innovation and production values are the least important criteria for judging journalism standards; yet, arguably, these criteria refer to crucial aspects of what readers see, and expect from, digital journalism’s various end products. This becomes a pressing issue in relation to user-pays online news. As one editor noted, “the iPad is the most realistic thing I’ve seen that people would actually pay for, if you’ve got good quality applications. To me, it is different from online because in terms of the quality, some of the apps that have been developed in the US are really good, so I’m thinking more of the iPad than the websites when I’m commenting on readers paying for news.” There are two other important results that add to our picture of continuity and change in journalists’ values and standards. First, in relation to role perceptions, three-quarters (75 per cent) of the journalists in this study said their most important role was “to inform the public” or similar statements, couched in terms of conveying information, explaining the facts, telling the truth, providing the public with facts so they can decide, or getting the news to people. One third of respondents (34 per cent) also said their role was to scrutinise decisions of the powerful, to act as a watchdog for the public, to shine a light in the dark, or to act as an accountability mechanism. Other common answers were “entertaining readers” (15 per cent), usually as part of the process of informing the public or scrutinising power, 4
and “supporting democratic society”, or “giving people information so they can participate in democracy” (13 per cent). Second, in relation to professional values and standards, three-quarters (72 per cent) of respondents identified “accuracy” – or related terms such as “getting the facts straight”, “truth telling” or a desire to “get it right” – as the value that was most important to their work. Other important values were fairness (37 per cent), honesty (36 per cent) and autonomy (14 per cent). In line with past research, these responses demonstrate a striking similarity of viewpoints amongst the journalists we interviewed, a similarity that speaks of self-belief and conviction. Moreover, we do not have to look far for an explanation of this confidence: the journalists’ role perceptions and key values directly reflect the professional norms set out in the Media Alliance’s Code of Ethics. The code, created in 1944 and last updated in 1999, is a public statement about the what, how and why of journalism as well as a set of guidelines for journalism practice and newsroom decision-making. That so many of the journalists in our sample talk about their work in terms of truth-telling, informing and entertaining the public, scrutinising power, giving people a fair hearing, and supporting democracy, suggests the broader professional culture influences their individual self-perceptions and provides evidence of the resilience of that culture. The newspaper journalists we spoke to remain convinced that they have an important role to perform in Australian society, and know the standards and values by which it can be done well. Yet, this high degree of certainty about what journalists think they should be doing is increasingly under assault as uncertainty intensifies as to whether newspaper companies will be able to support newsrooms with the staff, time and resources to do this kind of work in the future. There is, therefore, a growing imperative to develop digital journalism standards if journalists are to retain future control over news quality.
Figure 14: Key attributes of online journalism
Evolving digital journalism standards What is excellence in digital journalism? One of the central aims of this study was to open up the discussion of existing journalism values and standards in order to consider their ongoing relevance in the digital media world. This topic produced the most intriguing results from our interviews with newspaper journalists. An overwhelming majority of respondents (90 per cent) said the existing Walkley criteria were suitable for judging online journalism. Yet, on the other hand, when asked what makes good online journalism, many respondents nominated attributes that appear difficult to judge using these existing criteria. For example, half (46 per cent) mentioned speed, immediacy, timeliness and agility, attributes that might or might not be captured by the criterion of “newsworthiness”. It is true that the “production” criterion could be used to judge “multimedia production”, the third most nominated attribute (17 per cent), but it is harder to find existing criteria that address the other nominated attributes of “interactivity” (19 per cent) or “different news values” (6 per cent). The underlying issue here is professional recognition. Fully, two-thirds (66 per cent) of the journalists we spoke to said online journalism does not get adequate recognition, in the profession or the industry, for a variety of reasons, including the following: • R ecognition is linked to profitability, and that is still unclear. • O nline is good for breaking stories, but not for showcasing journalism skills. • T here is no “prestige” in online; good stuff is under-rated because it is online. • T he hypercritical online culture has created problems of trust and value. The responses outlined above signal some of the challenges that journalists face in collectively developing digital journalism standards that will define and reward excellence in a medium that is evolving rapidly. It also provides evidence of readiness for, rather than resistance to, the task of evolving and adapting professional standards to meet the demands of the current transition from print to digital journalism. The key idea that emerges from this part of the study is that journalists are starting to realise that they need to do more to communicate their standards and values to readers, and to engage the public in discussion about journalism’s strengths and weaknesses. There is an emerging awareness amongst the journalists surveyed that people might better appreciate the value of journalism, and be willing to pay for it, if they understand more about the standards that distinguish the good from the bad.
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
Issue #10 Rewarding excellence in digital journalism There were two highlights for online journalism in the 2011 Walkley Awards. First, “Beating the odds”, an ABC News Online investigation of Mount Druitt’s disadvantaged children, won the award for online journalism. The judges described it as “a stunning piece of work” that left viewers feeling “empathy” for the community and its issues. More significantly, WikiLeaks won the prize for most outstanding contribution to journalism. The Walkley Trustees were impressed by its clever use of new technology to support whistleblowers exposing official secrets, and its courageous commitment to the journalistic tradition of seeking justice through transparency. What, then, was the low point? Online journalists came away with none of the 12 Walkley prizes awarded in the “all-media” category. Instead, print journalists won seven prizes, including best sustained coverage of an issue, and television journalists won five, with the best scoop of the year going to Ten News for the “Skype scandal” story. The irony here is that the two named categories – “best scoop of the year” and “outstanding continuous coverage of an issue or event” – were introduced following the 2009 review of the prizes to give online journalists more opportunities to showcase their particular expertise (see www.walkleys.com/walkley-review). There is another reason why the 2011 Walkley outcome was surprising. Digital media played a huge role in newsgathering and dissemination last year, from natural disasters in Australia and overseas, to the Arab uprisings and the Qantas decision to ground its fleet. Although Twitter had its biggest-ever scoop in May 2011, when Sohaib Athar live-tweeted the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, even blockbuster Twitter-led stories, such as the Brisbane floods, never had a chance of winning a Walkley because there is no category for them. The 2009 review also said all-media awards recognising skills and values fundamental to the craft of journalism should replace platform-based awards (e.g. print, radio, television). This means a major restructure of the awards; current industry trends suggest it may need to happen soon. Online journalists come off badly when they compete directly with print and broadcast journalists. There has been only one outright online winner in any all-media category in the past five years, a heraldsun.com.au team in 2009 for outstanding continuous coverage of the Black Saturday bushfires. The Gold Walkley has yet to be awarded to an online journalist. Independent, web-only journalism has never won a Walkley award, although Crikey’s Eric Beecher won the prize for journalistic leadership in 2007. In fact, online journalists have won only a dozen prizes since online journalism was included in the Walkley Awards in 1997. Since then, seven of the winners were working at major newspapers (The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Herald Sun), a tally that reminds us that a lot of online content is re-versioned print journalism. Digital journalism entries are judged according to the same 11 criteria used to decide all the prizes, although this may be subject to change in the 2013 Walkey Award review. All entries are currently required to demonstrate original, courageous and ethical journalism practice. Innovative techniques such as live interaction, multimedia storytelling and crowdsourcing are encouraged. In addition, the digital journalism category specifically mentions the need to “showcase, benchmark and promote professionalism”. This fits with the dual Walkley mission, identified by award founder Sir William Gaston Walkley in 1956, of rewarding excellence and improving journalism standards, in this case, by identifying benchmarks for innovation. A key issue is whether to treat the internet as just another publishing platform, or to develop categories and criteria that recognise what digital journalism does best.
Conclusion Daily newspaper journalism in Australia is changing dramatically. This study is anything but a lament for the demise of print media (“dead trees”), rather we set out to systematically examine the implications of current economic and technological pressures for news delivery, newsroom structures, workflows, editorial priorities, media standards, and interactions with readers. Our underlying concern is how Australians will keep themselves informed or be able to participate in democratic politics if there is a significant drop in the current supply of original news content produced by professional journalists. That question takes on new urgency now that the next phase of the commercialisation of news – paywalls – has started to be rolled out, heralding further audience fragmentation, increased competition for audience attention, and new demands for reader engagement. The results of our investigations, outlined above, combine to provide a rich picture of an industry in rapid transition as well as insights into what newspaper journalists are doing to renew their values and practices, and maintain the trust of the public, at this challenging time. The views of newspaper journalists provide the key findings for this study. We draw on them in this concluding discussion, which is arranged as a response to the research questions.
Figure 15: What do we know about quality journalism?
What do we know about quality journalism? We know the term “quality journalism” is hard to define and not universally accepted; for some, it is code for resistance to change, while others see it as the keyword that will unlock journalism’s digital future. No one talked about quality journalism in Australia, 20 or even 10 years ago, and past journalism research tended to focus on what was bad not what contributed to good journalism. Even today, studies about tabloidisation or “the dumbing down” of news far outnumber investigations of the concept of quality or journalism standards. The term has garnered increasing prominence in the past five years in the context of newspapers seeking to “monetise” online news content. In purely commercial terms, then, the focus on quality can be seen as a by-product of efforts to raise the reputation of newspapers’ print products to attract consumer and advertiser support for their websites. Journalists, for their part, have taken up the issue of “quality journalism” in relation to two key challenges facing their profession: first, job cuts, increased workloads and re-jigged routines and, second, the exponential growth in competition from non-professional news providers (aggregators, bloggers, and social media). Journalists have publicly questioned how the quality of news reporting can be maintained when they are asked to produce multiple story versions, for multiple platforms, aimed at multiple audiences (often without training). Moreover, they have disputed the idea that “everyone is a journalist”, insisting that Australian society still needs a workforce of salaried professional journalists who know how to produce accurate, credible, public interest news. We know from this study that journalists are now using the term “quality journalism” as shorthand for the news content they hope readers will pay for. This begs the question of whether readers appreciate or notice changes in news quality, or if they stop to consider the economic and technological constraints under which news is produced. One key finding of this study is that journalists need to talk to readers about journalism standards and values if they want them to take an interest in the future of quality journalism.
What does the transition to digital journalism mean for news quality? The jobs of professional journalists working in large newsrooms are at risk as the industry moves to “digital-first” editorial models, print editions of major titles are being downgraded, news production is outsourced, and staff are laid off (again). Employment in newspapers has become more uncertain, less rewarding and more intense. Workloads have expanded as news delivery platforms multiply. Three years ago, there was print and online; now there is print, online, mobile phones and tablets. As news moves into the next phase of commercialisation, the trend in freely available multiplatform publishing is toward breaking and continually updating stories, as well as re-versioning and recycling them across platforms and titles, while longer and more deeply researched news stories will likely end up behind a paywall. Experienced print journalists are learning audio/video production and other digital journalism skills, either through employer provided on-the-job training or, more likely, through individual initiative. They have to. Across the industry, the trend is toward hiring new staff with digital media skills, to work on the digital platforms. 41
Journalism at the speed of bytes
Australian newspapers in the 21st century
The newsroom-training deficit, described to us in detail by both editorial executives and journalists, is bewildering. Many of the journalists we spoke to wanted to know about bestpractice digital journalism, not just how to use the latest content management system or software package. As one journalist noted: “I know myself and my colleagues are crying out to be taught multimedia skills, and to actually have control of our own websites for the area we work in, where we can put up our stories, and put out our documents, and engage with readers, and hold forums whenever we have particular interests or stories in the paper … we see that as utilising all the tools and changes that are here … and there is frustration that we are not being given the training or resources to do that.” The lack of employer-provided professional development opportunities in this area, documented in this study, arguably amounts to a form of de-professionalisation of the workforce. This is another key finding.
What could journalists do – perhaps in league with readers – to renew and extend their standards in this transition period? A third key finding is that more work is needed to define excellence in digital journalism, explain what it looks like and identify the criteria that can be used to evaluate what it does best. The Walkley Foundation is already taking the lead in this area and Laurie Oakes, chair of the Walkley Advisory Board, has announced a major review of all the Walkley Award categories in 2013. The idea is to adjust the prize system so that it more directly encourages professional journalists to produce “highly differentiated, boundary-pushing digital story-telling”. In this way, the Walkley Foundation hopes to boost the profile of innovative digital journalism and at the same time encourage the consumption of professionally produced journalism by readers, viewers and listeners. We agree with this strategy. A complementary initiative might be to open a public dialogue about digital journalism standards, with wide-ranging input, including from journalists and readers engaged with webonly news sites – for example, Crikey, mUmBRELLA, Business Spectator, Global Mail, Inside Story, The Conversation, and New Matilda. The US-based Online News Association’s (ONA) award system provides another reference point for developing criteria to judge excellence in digital journalism. The ONA gives prizes in 13 categories, including innovative investigative journalism, data visualisation, community collaboration, technical innovation, blogging, and non-English online journalism. The last category raises the important issue of how to better reward cultural diversity in journalism, a further challenge, beyond the remit of this report, that nevertheless needs to be addressed to achieve a more balanced news representation of Australia’s multiculturalism. David Craig’s recent book, (Excellence in Online Journalism, 2011), commends the ONA approach. He argues there are four key features of quality online journalism that deserve to be reflected in awards: speed and accuracy with depth in breaking news; comprehensiveness in content; open-endedness in story development; and the central place of conversation. Craig says these features marry print journalism traditions with evolving digital journalism practices. He argues the discussion of excellence in online journalism benefits from an ethical framework that specifies the purpose or rationale for good practice. He also defines journalism as a social practice (rather than an individual enterprise), which enables democracy by providing citizens with the information they need. In sum, he argues that journalists who are interested in excellence need to pay more attention to these particular features of online journalism. We agree with this approach and recommend that the Walkley Foundation take it into account in the 2013 review. As we go to press, journalists are waiting to see whether the Gillard government intends to leave the newspaper industry to self-regulate via the Australian Press Council – recently cashed up, with a new national advisory panel, and on a mission to provide its members with “practical” journalism standards – or to introduce some form of mandatory standards regulation via a News Media Council, as recommended by the Finkelstein Inquiry, or some other statutory body. We welcome the debate that will follow either decision. The lesson we draw from this investigation is that robust public argument about the future of journalism is a thousand times preferable to a slow, silent newspaper deathwatch.
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Published on Aug 8, 2012