No. 43

STONE the crows! Does everybody hate hacks? Well not absolutely everybody. According to a Roy Morgan opinion poll, only 89 per cent of Australians think journalists are not trustworthy.[1] It’s worse in the UK where journalists rate just 3 per cent, the same as bankers.[2]

But at the Newseum in Washington DC hacks are heroes.[3] The crows flapped in there the other day thinking they could fly through this museum of journalism in an hour or so – the staff had to shake them out of the trees when they wanted to go home. They were back the next morning and still had not seen everything when they were shooed out in the evening.

All of the Newseum’s sixth floors are a delight, covering the way news is reported, starting in the sixteenth century and dealing with the way ethics and engineering changed the process along the way. While the emphasis is inevitably American, the issues are universal.

For anybody who believes that journalism, with the free market, the rule of law and fair and regular elections, is one of the four pillars of democracy, the museum has an essential message.

Journalism is essential to a free society if the powerful are to be called to account. The Newseum’s present Hurricane Katrina exhibition demonstrates how TV and print reporters told the truth when federal officials were spinning that all was well after the storm. It was journalists writing and broadcasting on the ground that revealed the depths of the disaster and forced the feds to act.

There are many other examples, obviously including Watergate, in the permanent exhibitions. Inevitably, what with all that “balance” business journalists bang on about, there are ample examples of reporters lying, editors getting it wrong and owners running agendas.

But the Newseum makes Lord Northcliffe’s famous and fundamental point about the importance of the press: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”[4]

Yet for all the bully pulpits of the past the Newseum does not dispute the print press and the broadcast media are in trouble. Audiences are falling, as media consumption patterns change. The good news is that people are still news consumers. According to new research from the Pew Centre, the decline in US newspaper readership is offset by the amount of time people spend with online news media.[5]

The bad news is that the old media is what is at risk, the platforms which produce the sort of journalism democracy depends on – heavy on facts and strong on analysis and interpretation, writing and broadcasting that takes time and effort to create, consume and comprehend.

The unanswered question is why. Is it because people are moving on from print and electronic mass media or is it because they are no longer interested in the politics and economics, the social policy and scandal stories? These are the basis of what former Chicago Tribune editor Jack Fuller calls, “the standard model of professional journalism”? [6]

Pessimists, or optimists, depending on your opinion of the press, argue that analytical media is being abandoned because not only are its platforms obsolete, its emphases are irrelevant to people’s lives. We are all supposedly citizen journalists now, reporting and editing our own news and analysing events for ourselves, online and via Twitter. And when it comes to evidence every individual can be their own Woodward and Bernstein.

The problem with this argument is that we aren’t. While blogging continues as a mass of cyber communities, and savvy specialists who once published print newsletters are making money from their industry expertise online, the prospect of bloggers replacing old media expertise is passing.

“Contributions to Wikipedia have stalled and the assumption that online experts would subvert the mainstream media by providing accurate information and astute analysis for free is failing” – all this according to the (admittedly old) media outlet Newsweek.

The magazine reports specialist online information sites produced by professionals (who are journalists as much as any others) are strong. But blogging is not growing and online debate, as opposed to the abuse that infests online comment pages of even the most restrained media, has not created a global version of the Athenian assembly.[7]

The challenge for citizen journalists is that no one is paying them and not many people are reading them – and there is no surer way to shut people up than irrelevance and indigence.

This might mean the established schools of journalism are not doomed – as long as anybody wants to know what is going on in the world, beyond the chit chat of the bloggersphere and the instant wisdom of tweeting.

But just as the product forms for news media are changing, journalists must adapt the new tools to expand how they research and write their stories – the distinction between print and broadcast press has disappeared, while the internet enables interactive information presentations beyond anything imaginable a decade ago.

Interactive maps for The New York Times show everything from subway useage to parking statistics in Manhattan and demonstrate how to display data which is relevant at a local level. George Megalogenis in The Australian and Julie Novak from the Institute of Public Affairs both use their mastery of a mass of government statistics available online to provide policy analyses of a depth unimaginable a decade back.

As Julianne Schultz puts it;

There has been so much talk in recent years about the need for new business models for journalism that we have forgotten to concentrate on what we are best at – public sense making, reporting and interpreting the news, getting the mood of the times, the complex fabric of life that undergirds the events that erupt on the surface. We have become much better at the events but have not maintained the same levels of innovation when it comes to covering the underlying issues.[8]

The crows are not optimistic avians by nature but the Newseum demonstrates how journalists have adapted to changing technology and brought their audience with them. We have to hope they do it again – because if they don’t the people who want the media only filled with what Lord Northcliffe called advertising will win.

Endnotes


[1] Roy Morgan Research, “Image of Professions Survey 2010,” http://www.roymorgan.com/news/polls/2010/4518/, 28 June 2010 recovered on 12 September 2010

[2] Roy Greenslade, “Only 3 per cent trust journalist,” Greenslade Blog, theguardian.co.uk 31 March 2009 recovered on 13 September 2010

[3] http://www.newseum.org/ recovered on 15 September 2010

[4] The News Manual, http://www.thenewsmanual.net/Resources/what_is_news_00.htm, recovered on 14 September 2010

[5] Pew Research Centre, “Americans spending more time following the news” 12 September 2010 @ http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1725/recovered on 15 September  2010

[6] Jack Fuller, What is Happening to News (University of Chicago Press, 2010)

[7] Tony Dokoupil and Angela Wu, “Take this blog and shove it” Newsweek, 9 August 2010

[8] Julianne Schultz, “A new paradigm” Australian Policy Online,  7 September 2010, @ http://www.apo.org.au/commentary recovered on 12 September 200

'2012