Technology : a very short history of journalists and computers 1

Australia’s most prestigious newspaper group, Fairfax Media, this week moved to sack about eighty experienced sub-editors to outsource production and cut costs. The move followed share price falls resulting from from weak advertising markets, currency fluctuations and the impact of the internet on readership. It may have long term implications for the journalism culture which has sustained quality Fairfax newspapers.

Newspapers, like the automatic wrist watch or the big gun battleship, were inventions of the mechanical age. Journalists were at the front end of an information assembly line where reporters collected the raw materials, sub-editors refined it, lay out staff boilerplated the words together and printers manufactured the industrial out put. Newspapers were called “the daily miracle”.

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Reporting Disasters : aid worker 2

CNN locates Queensland in Tasmania

Disasters are big news. In sheer size, they don’t come much bigger than Queensland’s floods and cyclones. Muddy waters inundated land as big as Germany and France, wrecked thousands of kilometres of roads  and railways, swamped dozens of towns including the state capital, and resulted in more than twenty deaths. Category Five cyclone Yasi then brought 280 kph winds which flattened crops, smashed marinas and generated an eight metre tidal surge.

Queensland became an international media event.

Parachute journalists dropped into the chaos. Television crews roamed the shattered streets looking for talent. The Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, delivered updated situation reports on regular news conferences, broadcast live on national and commercial television stations which suspended normal programming during the crisis.

Tim Mc Inerny, who ran the Red Cross the evacuation Centres in Rockhampton and Ipswich, said international journalists seeking telephone interviews would wake him at dawn and call in until bed time. At the peak, he would do more than “two dozen plus” interviews a day, with everyone from the BBC, to French documentary makers to German children’s television.

The Germans  were presenting regular news features from a kid’s perspective. They wanted to interview children for their perspective on what was fairly difficult circumstances. I struggled to find a child who could articulate what they wanted. At the end of the day the child we found wasn’t able to come up with the goods and we had to say, “Thanks for coming, but you’ll have to try elsewhere!”

Mc Inerny organised formal press briefings each day at eleven, attended by more than a dozen media outlets. “It was very time consuming, but I had a good team [of relief workers] and it was better they [journalists] got it from the horse’s mouth,” Mc Inerny said.

In Rockhampton where the flood waters rose slowly, parachute television journalists became increasingly desperate for a fresh angle. Mc Inerny said that he would arrange access to “little events”, like a Black Hawk helicopter landing or a concert  by flood victims, to give them something to report on. “It was a challenge for a lot of them [journalists], sticking it out,” he said.

In Ipswich, visiting high-profile personalities became a focus of  media attention, with scrums developing around politicians, entertainers and even a group of 90 footballers.

All of a sudden all these people found they have histories traced back to Ipswich. No-one ever admits it prior. They would walk in and start backslapping. It was good though. It built up people’s energy and kept them positive.

Nevertheless conscientious journalists sought out the stories behind the disaster, the plight of the evacuees.

We had people who have come in shaken and can barely talk. Their homes have gone. They have had to swim out or get out by boat.

Mc Inerny saw himself as a “conduit” between these disaster victims and the press. He said most of the journalists he dealt with were competent, “as long as they understood my priorities and the pressures I had”. “Journalists who empathised  with the community and were respectful of the challenging circumstances,  I would give them all the time I could.”

What of those that didn’t?

People saw right through them. There was one journalist who had pre-arranged to come into the centre at eight o’clock at night and one of the evacuees told him in an Australian manner where he should be heading.

Mc Inerny’s advice to journalists covering disasters..

Emergencies are intense periods and the people you are going to talking to have a lot on their plate. So you might want to sit back and take half an hour to soak it up before you get that five minutes of some body’s time . Learn what’s going on without being invasive. You don’t have to have all the details before you get there, but you do have to be flexible.

  • “Covering the Boxing Day Tsunami: the media mandate.” Australian Studies in Journalism. University of Queensland.  Brisbane. Number 15. pp 56/ 91 2005

Can Journalism survive the internet? : News 2.0 2

Mainstream  journalism has failed the public interest, reckons author, Martin Hirst.  Citizen journalism is too feeble to provide a viable alternative. The future looks grim.

Fortunately,  Dr Hirst believes that pessimism of the intellect should be coupled with optimism of the will.

Dr Martin Hirst is an Associate Professor of Journalism at the Auckland University of Technology. A former Sydney journalist, he’s previously co-published a book on journalism ethics.

Hirst’s new book,News 2.0, asks whether journalism can survive the internet? His brief is broad and his arguments impeccable. But ultimately he provides only qualified answers. More…

Journalism’s futures 1

A streetside newsagency in Beijing.

If there is a crisis in journalism, its centred in American newspaper groups whose economic models have been undermined by the net.

We know that most Americans are too ideologically blinkered to even consider taxpayer supported alternatives like the BBC or the ABC. If anyone doesn’t consider obvious answers for the future, it would seem to be some of our American colleagues.

We should learn from American media. But the action is increasingly elsewhere, as information and cultural dominance begins to shift from the US towards the new economic superpowers. While we should be concerned about journalists’ jobs in older media empires, this is the future we need to address.

I reckon we should be looking to Asia, where journalism is booming.
Sure some Americans have been doing interesting things on the net. But there are now more than 300 million Chinese net users, plugged into a vibrant blogosphere which often critiques and interacts with government policies.

In Australia, we see the ABC’s News 24 as an important initiative, and considered locally, it is. But when I was in Beijing last year, I took my student interns to the CCTV master control, which was simultaneously broadcasting 40 high definition channels. China has just launched a new, global English-language television channel,operated by the Xinhua News Network. To quote my old pal, Hong Kong University Professor, Ying Chan:

“At a time when western media is retreating … China could be flooding the world with its perspective, giving the country a boost of soft power” said Chan. “With a lot of funding and improvements in its reporting, this new expansion should not be written off.”

The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism did a study this year on the explosion of international television news services. When it comes to such news, most people in the west think of CNN,or perhaps the BBC or al Jazeera. We identified more than fifteen major services, including innovative new news channels from France, Russia and even Iran. We found more than fifty minor services operating in the Indian sub-continent alone.

Perhaps our focus on American concerns about journalism may be another post colonial hangover, reflecting the ways we still get our news and agendas from the traditional sources, which privilege American newspapers justifiably worried about their futures.

So why are Australians holding a national conference about the future of journalism which takes the lead from American experts?

The Walkley Media Conference: “What’s the story? Powerful narrative and other tales from the future”, runs from August 9-12 in Sydney.