Media wars – where does the blogger fit?

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.

POSTSCRIPT

The Piping Shrike has an interesting take on a similar theme in Rats get a kicking too.

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8/07/2009Paul, You're right. You may be intertested in a piece Alan Kohler wrote in [i]Crikey[/i] today about the Hartigan address titled 'Dear John' an abridged form of which follows. He begins: [quote]"In his speech to the National Press Club last week, News Ltd CEO John Hartigan began with: 'Thank you and good afternoon. My name is Pollyanna.' It was the last bit of reality he spoke. The speech was an aggressive defence of newspapers and the 'very good journalism  — at times great journalism' contained in them. "Laura Tingle in the [i]Financial Review[/i] last Friday and Jonathan Holmes on [i]Media Watch[/i] on Monday have called him on the hypocrisy of the speech  —  citing News Ltd’s second-rate and deceptive reporting of the OzCar affair and its over-the-top, inaccurate reporting of the death of Michael Jackson. So I won’t deal here with the chasm between Hartigan’s words and his company’s actions. My focus is that Hartigan’s speech is a classic example of the delusional thinking and misguided corporate strategy that is destroying the traditional media industry. To a large extent the speech was a pep talk aimed at journalists... "He also, absurdly, complained about aggregation websites like Crikey, Newser and the Huffington Post, quoting Robert Thomson of the Wall Street Journal that they are 'editorial echo chambers' cynically exploiting the traditional media. Actually, they are promoting them  —  sending traffic to newspaper websites. I don’t think there’s any long-term business model in doing that, but it’s certainly not harming traditional media. "In my view the trouble that newspapers now find themselves in (apart from Australian newspapers of course, according to Mr Hartigan, which have no trouble at all) is due entirely to a colossal failure of management and leadership over two decades  —  since 1987. Or rather it was malign neglect, brought on by a combination of too much debt and too much ambition....That newspapers are in deep trouble everywhere in the world is undeniable, despite John Hartigan’s denials about Australia. We are lagging the US because of the lack of competition here, but only by a bit: newsrooms are shrinking rapidly as classified advertising and consumers of news and opinion move quickly to the internet. As I have written before, the question of whether newspapers survive is irrelevant. Journalism will be delivered in whatever form its customers want, and publishers won’t be able to change that. The problem is that the essential product — journalism  —  has been losing its heart for two decades and is now being swamped because technology has lowered the barriers to entry to zero. The fact that journalism is now not clearly enough defined to resist being dissolved in a sea of blogging, tweeting and 'citizen journalism' is entirely due to the failure of its leaders over two decades... "It was clear from about 1993 that classified advertising would eventually move online, and that daily news would also proliferate on the web. Blogging and aggregation had its beginnings in the 90s. But there was no attempt to respond to that by systematically trying to improve the general standard of journalism. No amount of assertion by John Hartigan or the executives at Fairfax that their journalism is 'very good, even great' can disguise the fact that it is not, and hasn’t been for a long time. As the News Ltd tabloids and the lowbrow current affairs TV programmes remind us most days, virtually anything can pass as journalism. There is no minimum standard, no hurdle that someone’s output has to get over before being called journalism. Journalists don’t have to be qualified, either at journalism or anything else, and there are nothing more than vague, unenforced ethical requirements...John Hartigan’s solution now is 'less of the negative stuff and more content that inspires, surprises and delights readers, more humour, more escapism', delivered via a 'package of print and electronic content'. "He finished on a realistic note: 'Every conversation we have about changing what we do doesn’t start with a discussion about cutting costs, it starts with a discussion about better journalism. And the most important person in that conversation is not the editor or the journalist but the reader.' "Yes, but what if they don’t want it on paper any more? And what if journalism is not actually about escapism, but the opposite of that  — and always has been?"[/quote]

janice

9/07/2009The media, particularly the Murdoch press, find themselves being held accountable for the first time and they don't like it one bit. Until the rise of the blogosphere, they were able to play king makers in politics and present mis-information, blatant bias and innuendo without challenge. There was a time when we were able to turn to Aunty for real news and reasonably un-biased analysis but, when the Howard Government corrupted it with it's own patsys we were left with nowhere to go for the truth. It is no wonder then that the blogosphere took hold, filled the gap and made MSM irrelevant. It is to be hoped that our National Broadcaster will be able to return to its roots and grow back into being trusted to report the truth and the whole truth in the interests of the nation as a whole. Thanks to the bloggers and their posters, MSM journalists will find themselves with no option but to become less careless with the truth and to find the thing we call integrity and honesty to be the mainstay of their reporting.

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9/07/2009janice, I agree. The fact that Hartigan was so caustic about blogs and bloggers points to the real concern he and News Limited have about the moderating effect of blogs on his papers and their journalists, who likely read many of the comments made by bloggers and those who respond. It is up to us to make our comments responsible, relevant and accurate, so that journalists reading them take them seriously.

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9/07/2009Just Me, You're right. It is threatening to the media empires, especially as revenue falls, to have we bloggers challenging their veracity and authority. We are having an effect - which makes the effort even more worthwhile.

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10/07/2009Just Me, John, I agree. You will be interested in what Gary Sauer-Thompson wrote on [i]Public Opinion[/i] http://www.sauer-thompson.com/archives/opinion/2009/07/journalism-news.php [quote]"In his 'bash the bloggers' speech last week at the Press Club, John Hartigan of News Limited called for less political spin and more inspiring stories in newspapers. Less focus on the 'politics of politics' and more 'that inspires, surprises and delights readers' as he marketed News Ltd vision of the future of newspapers in Australia's digital economy. Interesting he sad nothing about the drip feed. Hartigan's vision stated that people will pay for 'well researched, brilliantly written, perceptive and intelligent, professionally edited, accurate and reliable' information/news, with the inference that only News Limited was able to deliver. I'd always puzzled about what 'well researched' meant given the deceptions practised by the News Ltd tabloids, the way they stir the prejudices of their core readership, and the systematic prying into the lives of people in rather repellent ways. Or the example of Fox News in the USA, which is the media mouthpiece of the Republican party. This is the press that poses as the bastions of morality and champions of law and order in Australia whilst selling selling fear and hatred to make a profit. "Now, what has been happening in England - the phone hacking saga - gives us some idea of what 'well researched' may mean. It is alleged that Murdoch's [i]News of the World[/i] tabloid (and News Group Newspapers, part of News International) used criminal methods to get stories. [i]The Guardian[/i] reports that 'research' involved illegally hacked into the mobile phone messages of numerous public figures to gain unlawful access to confidential personal data, including tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemised phone bills. It states: Most of the work was subcontracted to private investigators. A senior Metropolitan police officer claimed to have evidence that thousands of people in public life had had their phones hacked by agents working on behalf of papers. The victims included MPs, cabinet ministers, minor celebrities and sportsmen. The Scotland Yard files mirror parallel evidence compiled by the information commissioner, who uncovered thousands of examples of activity which was 'certainly or very probably' illegal. "It's more like the mongrels of the dumbed down yellow press being off the leash isn't it. I wonder how the [i]News of the World[/i] and the News Group Newspapers will run the public interest defence argument for these kind of invasion of privacy practices.” [/quote]

Bushfire Bill

11/07/2009"I wonder how the News of the World and the News Group Newspapers will run the public interest defence argument for these kind of invasion of privacy practices." The answer seems to be that they are ignoring it. I haven't seen a word on this story in any News Ltd source yet (or if it was there, it was insubstantial). But Sauer-Thompson is right: it's pretty hard to reconcile this scandal with Hartigan's lofty ideals. It's also pretty hard to reconcile the fabrication of evidence (one example: the fake email presented with fake headers saying it was sent to "Godwin GRANT") with Hartigan's thesis. I wonder whether these guys really [i]do[/i] believe their journalism is fearless, fact-based, balanced and high quality? I mean, both sides of politics say that News journos are biased against them... that's routine paranoia. But really, paranoia aside, when was the last time a pro-Labor story was run out of, say, The Australian? The most we get is faint praise, "could do better, but not too bad, considering", "they haven't actually screwed things up yet" and so on: grudging praise. On the other hand the contempt that Rudd seems to be held in by some of the senior journalists, the alacrity with which they put the boot in when they find a mistake (or what they hope they can ramp up from mistake to outright nation-threatening blunder), the readiness they have to decry just about any Labor policy - schools (today's implication is that fully 1/3rd of the money has been wasted, not just a few shade cloths here and there, they're going for the Big Lie), China, stimpac, anything - gives them away. Yet they persist in claiming to be serious and objective. There is either self-delusion on a monumental scale here, or very close to total cynicism. With concrete evidence that News Ltd writers really ARE fabricating evidence, or widely using improper processes to collect it, I suspect it's the latter. They are seeking to set themselves up as professionals, complete with code of ethics (so hilariously cited by Milne the other day) which they honour more in the breach than in the execution, so that any charge of improper practices is automatically ridiculous. The most we seem to get out of News Ltd. by way of retraction nowadays is the old "our processes were correct, even if our conclusion may have been wrong... [i]and we'd do it all over again[/i]." Which they will of course. But even this is rare: until just a couple of days ago, there were "questions that needed to be answered" by Rudd over Utegate, of all things! Milne's obsession with "it's the cover-up" in his series of Brian Burke articles (stretching over months) was another example. In his zeal to style himself as a neo-Woodstein hero, Milne (as usual) made a fool of himself and his paper. Ditto Scoresgate. And he never retracted a word of any of those stories, not even by claiming to have been "correctly incorrect". Criticism of a political figure is par for the course and cannot be objected to, but the systematic partisanship of News Ltd media makes them a laughing stock. The silver lining to this gloomy cloud is that The Rabids - the crazy Coalition supporters who think they're London-to-a-brick to win the next election - swallow most of this claptrap whole. The unintended side effect is that this delusion gives them their hit of hatred, and keeps them off the streets.

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11/07/2009BB, It seems as even the police in the UK are not willing to follow up the [i]News of the World[/i] scandal. So I guess nothing much will happeen, except to the ex-editor of [i]News[/i] who is now media man for the Conservatives leader David Cameron. His reputation as editor at the time of the scandal may cruel Cameron's pitch. You're right about the negative approach so often taken by journalists at [i]The Australian[/i]. So I was surprised to see so many positive pieces in today's [i]Weekend Australian[/i]: There was Lenore Taylor’s [i]World spotlight on Rudd at forum[/i] http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25763537-5017906,00.html and [i]Perfect spring for an old idea[/i] http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25762553-7583,00.html , George Megalogenis’ [i]Laying foundations for a Kevin Rudd re-election[/i] http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25763585-601,00.html , Paul Kelly’s [i]Rudd's golden chance[/i] http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,,25762556-7583,00.html (complete with his usual cryptic comments), and even Dennis Shanahan’s [i]Uteman revived as part of package[/i] http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25763566-7583,00.html was positive. It seems like ‘the great awakening’ is occurring; that this Rudd guy is smart, politically astute, and far from being the emperor who has no clothes, as some of the literary destitute journos like to portray him, has several sets of clothes, as Nicholson admitted graphically in his cartoon in [i]The Weekend Australian[/i], [i]The Emperor has two sets of clothes (Mr Stimulus, Mr Fiscal Conservative[/i]). Isn’t it amazing that it has taken this long for them to wake up to the fact that Rudd is multifaceted and adopts the facet that suits the circumstance – in policy, in projects, in language, in international relations, and according to his surroundings. I would have thought that flexibility and adaptability were desirable characteristics in a political leader rather than objects of ridicule.

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