There has been much angst exhibited in recent weeks by newspaper executives, editors and journalists about the future of newspapers and the evolution of online news content and opinion. In his speech to the National Press Club The Future of Journalism on July 1, John Hartigan, CEO of News Limited, catalogued some spectacular newspaper failures: “Within a year, some people are predicting that Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit, San Francisco or even Miami will become the first major US city without a daily newspaper. The LA Times, Chicago’s Tribune and both dailies in Philadelphia are bankrupt. The New York Times is close to bankruptcy. Losses in the first quarter were more than 70 million dollars. The Washington Post lost 54 million. The Boston Globe almost went under last month....The number of journalists on American newspapers is now at the lowest level in 25 years. Back then, American newspaper sales peaked at 63 million copies a day. Sales are now at 34 million. Readership has also almost halved over the same period. US newspapers are failing to adapt to the digital age. [more]
"Across the Atlantic, British newspapers also face significant challenges. In the UK last year, almost 400,000 people stopped buying a national daily. Circulation of the national dailies is down 13% in 5 years – that’s a loss of 1.6 million copies a day. The once mighty English Sundays have lost 23% over the same period – a staggering 3.3 million fewer sales every week. It has been assumed, without any rigorous scrutiny, that Australian newspapers will go the same way as their US and British peers.”
He goes on to argue that in Australia the trends are different; advertising revenue is growing he says, and readership in Australia has been relatively stable over 10 years. He describes the evolution of online offerings and continues “... every day, there’s a new study, another story or latest survey telling us how newspapers are dying under the weight of online journalism. So it’s worth examining what’s happening. Obviously plenty of people are reading journalism online. But is it any good and what will make people pay for it? The most profitable sites, in fact the only ones making serious money are the sites that aggregate news, like Google and Yahoo. They pay nothing for content produced by newspaper journalists but make money by supplying it in easily searchable forms online. The major media outlets have encouraged them to take a free ride on our content.” Clearly he’s unenthusiastic about these free-loaders.
He goes on to lampoon some sites: “These sites are covered in links to wire stories or mainstream mastheads. Typically, less than 10% of their content is original reporting. The sites that produce a high proportion of original content aren’t making a profit. Almost anyone can start one of these sites, with very little capital, no training or qualifications.”
Then he turns on the bloggers. “In return for their free content, we pretty much get what we’ve paid for - something of such limited intellectual value as to be barely discernible from massive ignorance.” Hartigan points out that Andrew Keen in his book The Cult of the Amateur says: “Citizen journalists...simply don’t have the resources to bring us reliable news. They lack not only expertise and training but access to decision makers and reliable sources. The difference ... between professionals and amateurs is that bloggers don’t go to jail for their work – they simply aren’t held accountable like real reporters. Like Keating’s famous ‘all tip and no iceberg’, it could be said that the blogosphere is all eyeballs and no insight.”
That’s the opinion of the chief executive of News Limited, and I suspect of most of his journalists, who have rallied to his support. So how can bloggers respond to his trenchant criticism? How can they counter his determination to blame them for some of his newspapers’ problems?
First, how many blog-sites in the Australian blogosphere purport to be news gatherers? Few have reporters like newspaper have reporters. But, to take one example, Crikey does have its Press Gallery reporters – Bernard Keane is one, and other correspondents who have news gathering capabilities. Other sites have less capability. Sites like The Political Sword rely entirely on other sites for news items and information, particularly newspapers and the online media and specific websites, and restrict journalistic activity to assembling facts, figures and others’ opinions, and critiquing them analytically.
So is there a role for such sites, sites that rely on others for news and information?
Because they have little or no original reporting and because anyone can start these sites with no training or qualifications, Hartigan sees them of little value. He regards their content as of "...such limited intellectual value as to be barely discernible from massive ignorance". How solid is his argument?
What he’s saying is that original reporting is the key criterion for identifying acceptable journalism. But in so doing he undervalues comment and opinion. Referring to Crikey and Mumbrella, he says: “Most of the content on these sites is commentary and opinion on media coverage produced by the major outlets.” So what? Many articles in the MSM are opinion, commentary and editorial – indeed they are so labelled. Look at them. They do not report ‘breaking news’ or as Hartigan likes to call it ‘original content’, but comment on news derived from elsewhere, usually their own papers. Look at any article by Paul Kelly, Dennis Shanahan, Lenore Taylor and Christian Kerr and you will rarely see original news – just commentary and opinion. Look at pieces by economics correspondents George Megalogenis, Michael Stutchbury and Mike Stekatee and you will see little if any new data, data they have originated; what they do is to analyse data derived elsewhere, and comment on it. Take a glance at blogs such as that of Jack the Insider and the House Rules Blog; the material therein is not new, but the comments, opinions and questions are. None of these News Limited journalists are berated for not drumming up ‘original content’; none are criticized for expressing opinions on what others have reported; none are rebuked because they use ‘free content’; none of their pieces are considered, as Hartigan would have us believe, as ‘something of such limited intellectual value as to be barely discernible from massive ignorance’. So what is Hartigan talking about?
In his desire to pan blogs and bloggers, he has stunningly failed to distinguish between news gathering and commentary, entirely different processes. In fact he seems to demean commentary when he says “...most of the content on these sites is commentary and opinion on media coverage produced by the major outlets”.
So what value is commentary, something to which blog-sites contribute so powerfully?
It seems to me that analysis and commentary are the prime functions of political blog-sites. It is the means whereby those who run the blog-site, and those who comment on the articles posted on the site, can offer an opinion. After all, this is what News Limited blog-sites do. Commentary and opinion are offered and responses invited. These are usually well thought out, clearly expressed, and often challenge the views and opinion expressed by the originator. They provide a previously unavailable opportunity (except ‘letters to the editor’) for ordinary citizens to have their say. And they do – sometimes in their hundreds. All sides of the argument are canvassed, sometimes irrationally and with heavy partisan bias, but just as often with well reasoned opinion. It is one way for ordinary readers to hold journalists accountable for their offerings.
Blogs make it possible for users to challenge the veracity of the facts presented, the completeness of the facts, the information that seems to be missing, the way in which facts are too often used selectively, the way facts and opinion are inappropriately interwoven so as to deceive. Journalists are fond of the idea that one of their roles is to keep politicians accountable by challenging the facts on which they base their actions, and the validity of their conclusions. Why then should not journalists be held similarly accountable? If it’s good for the goose...
So in venting his annoyance at the position in which he finds his news outlets, Hartigan seems to be trying to scapegoat blogs and bloggers.
No Mr Hartigan, we’re not to blame for your difficulties, we’re not the ones causing you trouble. We’re the ones seeking to keep your journalists honest and true to the worthy traditions of sound journalism. We’re the ones seeking truth, reliable reporting, well-formed opinion, and unbiased commentary to assist us to understand the complexities of the world in which we live and the actions our politicians are taking to manage them. We deplore bias, distortion of the facts, illogical reasoning and flawed conclusions. And, whether you like it or not, we, of such ‘limited intellectual value’, will continue to challenge you and your journalists. And we will continue to attract visitors to our sites because what we offer is what they want. We will not go away.
The Piping Shrike has an interesting take on a similar theme in Rats get a kicking too.