The internet has shaken the foundations of life: public and private lives are wrought by the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week news cycle that means no one is ever off duty. Katharine Murphy is Guardian Australia‘s political editor. She has worked in Canberra’s parliamentary gallery for 15 years. In 2008, she won the Paul Lyneham award for excellence in press gallery journalism. Murphy’s small book On Disruption – the latest in MUP’s “On” series, is a report from the coalface of the revolution in communications of the past two decades: what has happened, will it keep happening, and is there any way out of the chaos? On Monday 9 July 2018, Katharine Murphy addressed The Sydney Institute on our age of disruption.
ON DISRUPTION: A REPORT FROM THE AUSTRALIAN COALFACE
Thank you Gerard and it’s a great honour to be invited to address the Sydney Institute, the home of so many fine contributions to Australia’s national life. I’m delighted to be here this evening, thank you for having me.
Gerard very kindly asked if I might come along this evening to talk about my new little book, which is called On Disruption – an essay about the technological revolution that has upended the media over the past decade or so, and the implications of that unmooring for society and for politics.
In beginning to address my topic this evening, I of course acknowledge Gerard’s forensic media watching over many, many, years and recognise his status as chief media provocateur. Perhaps I might begin at the beginning and share the origins of this project.
Every quarter, I write an essay about politics for the literary journal Meanjin, and last year I wrote a piece about the punishing workplace environment of contemporary politics. I’d been looking for a way to get underneath the story of why politics doesn’t seem to be functioning as well as it used to rather than just constantly bleat on about things being bad in some kind of abstract sense.
I’d been looking for a way to get underneath the story of why politics doesn’t seem to be functioning as well as it used to rather than just constantly bleat on about things being bad in some kind of abstract sense.
My husband suggested to me that I think about the essay as a series of exit interviews – find people who are no longer serving in the parliament, people you trust to tell the truth, people who aren’t settling scores, and get them to narrate the story of their daily existence.
I persuaded Greg Combet, the former Labor cabinet minister, Mal Washer, the long serving Liberal backbencher and a trained medical professional, and a long term political staffer Mat Jose who had worked for both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard at the time when public life seemed to burst into hyper thrust. None of them were thrilled about talking.
Reflecting on the life is not routine for politicians. That kind of introspection isn’t rewarded. But they did talk, and the life they recounted made sense of the external manifestations we all see – the harried short termism, hyper polarisation, the rise of combat for its own sake. There was also the lingering after effects of leadership coups on both sides of politics, and the break down of trust and esprit de corps in both the party room and the caucus.
As I gathered the material and thought about the structure, the essay in my head become something of a tragedy in three acts. The essay wondered out loud whether the daily environment was now so punishing that politics had actually become hostile territory for human beings.
the essay in my head become something of a tragedy in three acts
I don’t want to linger excessively here except to say the first essay, when it was published, triggered a huge reaction inside politics and from the general public. I’d never experienced a reaction like it. People rang and wrote to me from all round the country.
Politicians I knew well and others I’d never spoken to reached out in relief that someone was talking about it, and the life had been documented in a way that wasn’t judgmental or vituperative. People inside my world, the world of the 2600 postcode, still button hole me to talk about that essay because now, they feel they can. Some sort of taboo was lifted.
People inside my world, the world of the 2600 postcode, still button hole me to talk about that essay because now, they feel they can. Some sort of taboo was lifted.
So, my conclusion from all that was to feel that lifting up the bonnet of this particular car was absolutely worth doing. I resolved to stop judging, and start reporting: old fashioned I know.
Part of the story I recounted in the essay, The Political Life is No Life at All, was the impact of us: the journalists who inhabit the same eco system. I thought at first I could cover us, the journalists, comprehensively in the same deep dive, but as the piece took shape I decided I needed to consider our role in proceedings separately, otherwise the piece would be too unwieldy for Meanjin to publish.
So I put our own story, journalism’s story, on ice, thinking I would do it as a companion piece perhaps in the next quarter, but then Sally Heath and Louise Adler at MUP offered me a berth in their lovely “On” series, which is short books on particular topics of the author’s choosing. That invitation became opportunity to consider the role of the media in public life over the last decade or so.
Last summer I shut myself away and indulged in some time travel. In my mind I walked back to the summer of 1996, when I waited at the Senate side of parliament house to be signed in by my new colleagues at the Australian Financial Review two weeks before Paul Keating called the election he would ultimately lose to John Howard.
In my mind I walked back to the summer of 1996, when I waited at the Senate side of parliament house to be signed in
I had to recreate the world of print journalism in the decade before the digital revolution in order to understand what we did then, and what we do now, and to consider whether or not those differences matter.
On Disruption starts there, in 1996, in the AFR bureau, in the last decade of the print-only era. It recounts the orderly world where sharing information with readers was rationed to once a day. It seems almost impossible that actually happened now, but it did, and it wasn’t that long ago.
Print journalists gathered their material all day, pushing the story forward, seeking out new information, chasing voices of agreement and dissent; then we all filed in a great rush at the end of the day, … and the newspaper was printed, trucked out round the country and thudded on people’s lawns at dawn the next day.
we all filed in a great rush at the end of the day, … and the newspaper was printed, trucked out round the country and thudded on people’s lawns at dawn the next day
When you track back to those times, and analyse the process, what can be seen reasonably clearly is the print cycle prioritised the important over the new. Something had to be important to reported in great depth a full day after it had happened. Print prioritised the important by imposing a non-negotiable rationing system – fixed deadlines, finite space, and identifiable separation between news and commentary.
Radio of course filed on the hour, television news had more than one bulletin in a day, but those of us in newspapers in the mid 1990s filed once. We’d missed the era of afternoon newspapers.
Then, about a decade in to my tour of duty in Canberra, the internet arrived, upending our orderly rituals, and creating a new currency. The currency of digital, particularly in the opening stages of the technological disruption, was the new. Important took a back seat.
the internet arrived, upending our orderly rituals, and creating a new currency
The requirement to keep on top of and share the endless iterations of the new actually made it harder to get to the important. There are, after all, only so many hours in the day, so many hands on deck, so many projects you can bring to fruition.
The shift in emphasis I’ve just shared may seem a trivial distinction, but if you let your mind settle there for a minute or two, it might explain at the simplest level what changed when the technology did. It might explain why news content feels different than it felt ten years ago. Lighter, somehow. More transient. Whipping around in some kind of headwind.
Digital allowed us to bring you events as they happened. That step change helped create a constituency for rolling news channels. As news began to be delivered differently, something else happened. As well as everything speeding up, the media and political eco-system in Australia became shriller, shoutier, less specialised, more polarised.
As well as everything speeding up, the media and political eco-system in Australia became shriller, shoutier, less specialised, more polarised.
Politics seemed to fall out of stride. The conversation around politics also began to sound like an echo chamber. Like minded souls began clustering in groups, reinforcing pre-dispositions rather than engaging in free flowing debate. Articles of faith were given greater prominence than facts through the rise of opinion.
As we’ve undergone this technologically driven shape shift, the media has also become more vulnerable to capture and manipulation by crafty news makers, seen most palpably in the United States in the lead up to the election of Donald Trump.
Now I want to be very clear about one thing before I continue. On Disruption is not a memoir of a journalist who has made a transition; a pity party for myself and my colleagues; a sustained session of woe is me in the hope someone will pat me on the head, or send a bunch of flowers.
I don’t want this to be an in-house conversation, I want to engage news consumers and get them thinking about the sum of these parts, and how the sum of these parts ultimately impacts the world they live in. This is an effort to explain how the change in my world impacts yours. To explain how my disruption is your disruption.
I don’t want this to be an in-house conversation, I want to engage news consumers and get them thinking about the sum of these parts, and how the sum of these parts ultimately impacts the world they live in.
I don’t want you to care about me. I want you to care about you, and the society you live in. That’s the point.
It’s hard to be precise about when our world changed; God knows I’ve tried to find a precise point in time when we weren’t the old thing anymore and we were the new thing – definitive moments are massively helpful when you are writing a book – but the fact is change I’ve documented came in waves around the time John Howard lost office and Kevin Rudd washed up in Canberra in 2007.
Instead of filing once in the evening as we had in the last days of Keating and through the entire span of John Howard, we began filing through the day and the night as the news broke, or preferably, as we broke the news. Just as Uber has changed what people consider to be a taxi, and air BNB has changed our fixed views of what is a hotel, the computer, the tablet and the mobile phone gave us breaking news on the go, which sounds like an increment, but in our world, is actually a revolution in who we are, and what we do.
Audiences wanted their news right now, not a day later, and they flocked in droves to live coverage – which I had a role in pioneering by authoring a live politics blog first for Fairfax and then for Guardian Australia. I can’t blame anyone else for that. Taking that out as a daily offering was 100 per cent my idea.
Audiences wanted their news right now, not a day later, and they flocked in droves to live coverage
On my blog I filed every ten to fifteen minutes all day, from eight in the morning through to the evening, and later if events demanded. Once you pull out the plug you still have to remain vigilant given if the landscape shifts, the audience expectation is you will be there, calling the play.
The consequences of the shift for work intensification are pretty obvious. As we sped up, it also became abundantly clear that we would be speeding up with fewer people. The business model that sustained print journalism through its golden age was now in serious strife.
As we sped up, it also became abundantly clear that we would be speeding up with fewer people.
When the technological disruption hit, we gave our content away for free to audiences we’d previously asked to pay for it. All those classified ads that once bankrolled prosperous newspapers were also now migrating to the burgeoning online economy … and the giants who now dominate eyeballs in the digital eco-system.
The redundancy rounds started, and they kept coming. 1,000 jobs went in 2012 alone. The people walking out the door were largely highly experienced journalists – according to a long term study of the departing cohort the average age of the redundees was 49, people with at least two decades experience on the job – the people we most needed around to mentor others through the challenging transition.
The people walking out the door were largely highly experienced journalists
We were in a raging river, with fewer river guides. Digital also gave us analytics that allowed news organisations to understand the habits and preferences of their readers more than ever before.
During the print era, we could only guess why readers bought the paper. Now we know what people read, how long they read it for, whether they share it, where they found it. Then there’s search engine optimisation, which is all about getting content in front of eyeballs.
Analytics have had a profound effect on the news business, and also profound effects on the way journalists view their own work, setting up a new performance metric that can mess with your head if you let it. Readers also moved closer to journalists in the digital world.
Readers also moved closer to journalists in the digital world.
In the print days, readers were quite distant – some got through on the phone periodically, they were on the letters page, some wrote direct – but it was very rare for a print journalist to be recognised and baled up on the street. Picture bylines weren’t the norm. If you weren’t Paul Kelly or Michelle Grattan, you had enjoyed a rumpled sort of anonymity.
But the rise of social media transformed the proximity equation. Journalists entered a period of equality with the audience. The voice of God conceit, which is a hallmark of the print era, where all knowing journalists graciously handed down their stone tablets of wisdom every day on the news and opinion pages – fancying themselves omniscient narrators – began to be called out by audiences, many of whom were micro-publishing on blogs or social media.
When the disruption hit, emperors were replaced by the variety devoid of clothes. The environment felt saturated, and cacophonous, and highly uncertain. The online behemoths, Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon first took the advertising that once sustained journalism, then some began distributing content – ours, and other content that looked for all the world like ours – through their channels.
The online behemoths, Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon first took the advertising that once sustained journalism, then some began distributing content
These companies became publishers, but devoid of the responsibility news outlets apply to publishing. Material was shared without applying due diligence, so it became really difficult for consumers to tell actual news from fake news.
Recently my eldest son was home from Seattle, where he works in the tech industry, and told me about some new technology that allows video footage to be manipulated, new voices overs, lips moving in sync, totally fake. Terrifying to me. Terrifying to people who like to consider facts core business.
From the inside, I can tell you what all this feels like. It feels deeply unsettling. Anyone inside my eco-system who tells you they’ve felt no anxiety at all during this transition is either cracking hardy or kidding themselves.
At a more practical level, what journalists have had to do over the last ten years is to relearn our trade in front of a live audience, without any time to reflect, to strategise, to polish, to practice, to innovate in some private room before bursting in a state of high accomplishment onto centre stage.
I share a car making analogy in the book. What happened during the shift from print only to digital is a bit like this … You walk out of a factory after your shift and then when you come back the next morning, you find all the machines replaced, all the work flow disrupted …
There are massively increased expectations about your productivity, significantly fewer staff, and a management with a very detailed understanding of what the consumer wants and when. And there’s a consumer at the end of the line who isn’t prepared to pay for what you do, in part because they can’t be certain whether the car is real or fake. And all of this is playing out in front of a live audience invited in to the factory with loud hailers, telling you how you could put that car together much more efficiently.
there’s a consumer at the end of the line who isn’t prepared to pay for what you do, in part because they can’t be certain whether the car is real or fake
What could possibly go wrong? Well, let’s be honest, things have gone wrong. The digital revolution has refashioned public life, politics, the media – we all now dance to the same thready beat.
In writing this book I wanted to ask myself the most challenging question I could think up about the current state of play. It took me a while to settle on the question but I got there in the end: the question was: are we, the disrupted media, making things worse? Posing this question puts me on a collision course with journalism’s foundational myths.
Journalists think of ourselves as value adders, as the speakers of truth to power. Institutionally, we believe what we do is valuable, and sometimes, it demonstrably is. But we also have to own the possibility that we are making things worse, not because we want to, not because we want to fail our audiences, but as a consequence of the transition we are currently living through. We have to be sufficiently self aware to step inside that possibility, and let it settle on us, if we are to have any hope of living up to our professional ideals.
It is possible that, after a decade of constant change, the media is collectively hollowed out, hyper-extended and a bit untethered. It is also possible that we are burning both ourselves and our audiences out in the relentless chase for the new – a minute by minute crusade that ultimately generates more heat than light, and plunges civic conversation into a state of chaos and borderline unhinging.
It is also possible that we are burning both ourselves and our audiences out in the relentless chase for the new – a minute by minute crusade that ultimately generates more heat than light
I hit that nadir on page 65, just in case you are interested, right in the middle of trying to assess whether journalists created the conditions that got Donald Trump elected. Please be aware that this is a book that does not spare us. The times are too serious. We need to face up to the truth.
The other place I explore is conflict, and the commoditisation of conflict. News has always been about conflict. My first bureau chief, Tom Burton, told me early in my apprenticeship it’s not a news story if we don’t hit conflict by the third paragraph. So the conflict prism is as old as journalism itself, and is certainly a driving force of political journalism.
But there’s a heightened dimension to the conflict in our disrupted eco-system. In democracies rhetorical conflict is what we use to synthesise ideas without resort to violence. It’s meant to be a means to an end, a pipeline to a settlement of some type. Increasingly, conflict is manifesting as a commodity in itself. It’s a means of differentiating you from your opponent, whether it be a political opponent, or a competitor if you happen to be a news outlet.
As people become less trusting of institutions, then institutional players, like politicians and news outlets, feel they need to rally their tribes. We see a lot of narrowcasting in the public square, people talking to one another in bubbles rather than engaging with people they disagree with in an attempt to find some common ground.
As people become less trusting of institutions, then institutional players, like politicians and news outlets, feel they need to rally their tribes.
A lot of the conflict we see is manufactured product differentiation, frankly, rather than an actual battle of ideas. Partisans locked in studious dialogue with other partisans. A kabuki play for a boutique audience, with politicians egged on by shock jocks and bobble heads in the media, intent on their own narrowcasting exercise.
Tribalism has become a commodity, both for establishment politicians who want to hold on their core supporters and not see them drift to the outsider insurgents who now populate the landscape in the aftermath of the global financial crisis – and for the media companies who need engaged and preferably paying audiences to survive the disruption that has played out brutally in the last decade. From my perch, it feels like we are chasing each other through the same wormhole.
From my perch, it feels like we are chasing each other through the same wormhole.
So where do we go from here? Well the truth is I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody does. Since the book was written, the latest survey of digital media trends by Reuters, Oxford and the University of Canberra has provided some encouraging signals.
Trust in media in Australia has improved in the last 12 months, and more people are also paying for news. The increase here is the most substantial in 37 countries surveyed. I think, as time passes and we adjust to the uncertainties of our new normal, we are doing better as a collective at balancing the new and the important. I think if you look closely at news web sites, they are a bit less frenetic in terms of turnover of content than they were 12 months ago. I suspect this isn’t an accident.
I’ve dwelled this evening on the downsides of the digital revolution, the adjustment costs if you like, because I think they aren’t discussed as openly as perhaps they should be, but of course there are upsides.
What digital offers is a community of interest between journalists and readers. The flipside of the abuse journalists now cop is the enrichment provided by experts in constant communication with journalists – and the possibility that some of those conversations are more transparent for readers.
The flipside of the abuse journalists now cop is the enrichment provided by experts in constant communication with journalists
I cop a lot of abuse, some of it disgusting, women seem to get the bulk of the nasty stuff, but I also get a huge amount of encouragement from readers every day. I’m profoundly grateful for it. I believe that telling the truth can make things better, even as the environment makes it harder to establish what the truth is. I believe if you have a platform you should do your best to serve causes larger than yourself. I believe that the appropriate response to adversity is bravery, innovation, hard work.
Life doesn’t give any of us certainty. All it gives us is the opportunity to try reach deeper understanding, and make the world a better place. My little book ends this way.
I don’t know if journalism will survive the great disruption; I don’t know if I can sustain myself through this period of change or whether I will burn out or be tossed out or go crazy. Every day I mourn our losses, the mentors who are now living their lives beyond journalism, and I worry that we are the problem, not the solution, and I wonder how on earth this history will ultimately be written.
I don’t know if journalism will survive the great disruption; I don’t know if I can sustain myself through this period of change or whether I will burn out or be tossed out or go crazy.
But, rather than worrying ourselves to paralysis, my colleagues and I press on, trying to understand and explain. We hope. We try to navigate the cross currents. In the end, it doesn’t matter if we can’t know the future.
As the great diarist Samuel Johnson said: It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.
The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.