Quality journalism and the demise of newspapers. Reply

We took newspapers for granted. They were cheap, mostly informative, often entertaining and available just about everywhere. But they could also be an addictive cultural ritual which gauged the complexity and intellectual vigour of the city where they were based.

They were a mixed bag of delights.

There could be nothing quite like sitting in a cosmopolitan upper West Side deli, with a cup of raw American coffee in hand, savouring the New York Times. Conversely though, reading the Morning Bulletin, in the smug and stagnant Central Queensland city of Rockhampton, could prove somewhat less engaging .

We sometimes forgot newspapers were finely honed nineteenth century artifacts, reflecting established communities. In the twenty first century, where globalised news was delivered instantly by smartphone and advertising continuously tailored to social media conversations, daily newspapers could be in big trouble.

Australian academics, Penny O’Donnell and David McKnight have published a monograph, Journalism at the Speed of Bytes, which considers how Australian newspapers are coping with change.

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.

Newspapers were important because they were driving convergence of text, audio and video on the web, they still enjoyed an independent status, and along with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, were still the largest employer of journalists. The factory floor, news (room) production system still created most of the difficult, complex stories which impacted on the news agendas of the electronic media. O’Donnell and  McKnight talked to more than 100 newspaper journalists and academics, reviewed the national Walkley awards for journalism and even made a submission to the 2011 Independent Media Inquiry.

Australian newspapers, like their counterparts in the US, were under pressure as cultural shifts eroded younger readership, advertising revenue dried up and costs increased. There was even speculation that the smaller of the two Australian groups, Fairfax Media, would cease publishing major titles in print. News Limited meanwhile was following the lead of its US based parent company and splitting its profitable cultural products from its increasingly endangered newspapers.

There was concern that online news agendas could be driven by metrics, minute by minute monitoring of hits on news sites. The authors referenced a notorious 57 page power point presentation called “The AOL Way” which demanded that journalists be integrated with advertising staff, effectively turning news into infomercials. AOL editors were told to publish after considering traffic potential, revenue earning, edit quality and turnaround time.

But when they spoke to Australian newspaper journalists, O’Donnell and  McKnight found some optimism.  There was a commitment to “quality” journalism which some saw as a “code for resistance to change”, while others saw it as “the keyword that will unlock journalism’s digital future”.

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.

Quality journalism takes time and money to create. Newspaper journalists were frustrated they had to produce more stories, reversioned for various platforms, without any proper training. There were 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 story- telling 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”.

However, one should  not see newspaper journalists as being typical of the entire news industry. Unlike their American counterparts, Fairfax and News Corporation journalists are complimented by a taxpayer funded major news producer, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). The ABC is addressing digitally produced, internet distributed news and information, unaffected by shifts in advertising revenue. ABC journalists have been working on multiple platforms (radio and television) for decades. Meanwhile, news agency journalists routinely worked against the clock under extreme pressure,  to cover developing stories. Both have always worked in a twenty four hour news cycle.

Newspaper production might be seen as leisurely by comparison.

The authors recommended that future journalism awards should take account of:

  • speed and accuracy with depth in breaking news;
  • comprehensiveness in content;
  • open-endedness in story development
  • central place of conversation.

However, these factors have always been a feature of broadcast and news agency journalism. The fact that newspaper journalists might see them as novel, indicates how far they have to go to adapt.

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