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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

the state of journalism: Crabb's reflections « Previous | |Next »
October 31, 2010

Australian journalists are not known for their critical reflections upon the practice of journalism, nor for their acknowledgment of the decline of quality in journalism associated with the emergence of the internet and the new media. If they ignore the criticism sit is mostly to shoot the critics. Critical arguments about journalism have been only open to practitioners and journalism academics - a closed circle of gatekeepers.

Annabel Crabb in her The end of journalism as we know it (and other good news) at the ABC's is a text version of Crabb's AN Smith lecture in journalism, delivered on October 27, 2010 at Melbourne University. It is a serious look at the state of journalism, how journalism is adapting to the changing technological environment, and the future of journalism as emerging opportunities. Crabb describes the new media landscape thus:

It's what happens when the damn system is democratised. News journalism as we have known it in the past - a sort of daily feeding-time in which news is distributed to a passive audience at a designated hour and in the order selected by the zookeeper - is over, or well on its way to being so. Audiences are splintered, but demanding. They want new news, and if something complicated has happened, they want instant analysis. Commonly, they want an opportunity to express their own views - not only on the event itself, but on how it has been reported...This loss of control is such a hallmark of the new media. And that's true for everybody it touches...For journalists, the loss of control is about the loss of centrality.

She rightly points out that journalists are just not necessarily, automatically at the core of the media landscape any more.

She adds that journalists:

are - belatedly, and for reasons entirely unassociated with Government-led deregulation or any of the other usual reasons - contestable. The community of news and commentary is getting stronger and more populous. We are just not necessarily, automatically at the core of it any more. And we are open to criticism - some of it savage, some of it worryingly accurate - like never before. Our passive, profitable audience is disappearing. In newspapers, which is where I come from, the panic is about advertising, of course. And how to monetise content online.

That is an accurate description. I agree with her when she points to future opportunities---what lies ahead is not a blasted heath. It's a building site.

Crabb then goes onto talk about information being free and this is where things start to go askew. She says:

And 10 years later, what do we have? Leading news websites, and an audience which has been trained to expect this stuff for free. Which has had the unintended effect, to some extent, of devaluing the actual product - and I use this bald term intentionally. Thanks to the expectation - inculcated by us - in readers that they should enjoy unmetered access to the work of most major newspapers, we journalists are in rather a novel industrial position...Why is my intellectual property suddenly worthless, while the guy who invents hilarious ring-tones is still entitled to the customary presumption that his day's work warrants some kind of commensurate recompense? The answer is that journalists have already ceded the field. We've already given our stuff away....Free information is usually free for a reason. Mostly, it's free because it's a press release, or an ad, or it's been nicked from, or because it's so incredibly banal that even its creator can't bear to look you in the eye and shake you down for cash. Free information, ladies and gentlemen, tends to be crappy information.

This is disingenuous as Crabbe is being paid by The ABC to write commentary on political events and that money comes from the government and public taxation. Unlike
many I support the ABC's innovation around The Drum and Unleashed.

Secondly, it is the old advertising based business model that is on the skids and that causes Fairfax problems. If a newspaper goes behind a pay wall--as Murdoch is doing--- that is fine. I'll subscribe if the content warrants it. The trouble is most journalism is now of such poor quality and of such little use---eg., The Australian's reportage on the national broadband network --that this kind of partisan opinion does not warrant me paying money to read it.

Thirdly, Crabb's criticism of free information is based on the repudiation of free and knowledge. She does not consider the possibility of free as knowledge in a digital world. So much for Wikipedia or Project Gutenberg. Or the body of work propduced by photographers such as David Meisal?

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:06 AM | | Comments (6)


Crabb says:

Free information is usually free for a reason. Mostly, it's free because it's a press release, or an ad, or it's been nicked from, or because it's so incredibly banal that even its creator can't bear to look you in the eye and shake you down for cash. Free information, ladies and gentlemen, tends to be crappy information.

That equates bloggers with the publicity industry! Such a sneaky putdown.

Towards the end of her lecture Crabb says:

My first dream is that we could put an end to the old media - new media wars. Seriously, everybody could calm down a bit and the world wouldn't end. By the second week of the Grog's Gamut skirmish (Grog-gate? Really?) it felt like the crucial scene from Spartacus. Do we not have anything more actually outrageous to fight about? Does everything have to turn into World of Warcraft, with paragons of evil and of saintliness at either end, and nothing in between? To my colleagues in the mainstream media, on the subject of online journalism, I would say: Don't knock it till you've tried it. To the blogosphere, I would say: Don't knock us when we try it. That's all.

She may dream for an end to the media wars but her comment that free information tends to be crappy information continues them. Wikipedia anyone? Quality blogs?

Crabb doesn't say much about journalists in the mainstream media recycling the political parties' press releases; the entrenched journalist style of horse racing about polls; the 'he said she said' style of journalism, journalists interviewing each other about their opinions; and the lack of policy nous.

These are criticisms of the low quality of the current practice of journalism, not knocking journalists because they write online.

Crabb claims 'Commonly, [readers] want an opportunity to express their own views - not only on the event itself, but on how it has been reported.'

I wonder how common this really is. Yes 1,000 online comments on a story might seem a lot but it's a drop in the ocean of potential readers. And if the same 1,000 people constitute the commenter base for the site, it's insignificant. The tendency, as I believe is occurring in many sites, is for poster and commenters to become a small, insular online community. It can end up thoroughly exhausting for the person writing the raw material, as I know at first hand, but in the broad scheme of things it is not really disseminating anything to more than a tiny fraction of the population.

I surmise that there are deeper social and cultural influences at work than just the changing nature of the medium. Journalistic output has become 'product', to quote Crabb, and I don't know that there's much demand for the straight news variety any more.

Yes it's true that the quality of the MSM has declined but I'm not convinced this has been the fault of the supplier; it is more likely to reflect the publishers' accurate understanding of what consumers want. 'Quality' news and analysis regardless of the medium might be in the process of becoming a niche product of interest only to the comparatively small number of people who remain engaged with politics and public affairs.

The extent that there ever was such a thing as a singular news audience, we're seeing a clearer division between those consumers who want the declined version of MSM, and the engaged audience. The engaged one is the one complaining.

There's also a crowd of lurkers at every online site, and another crowd of unhappy tv news consumers who haven't migrated online yet.

The ground is still shifting, but you can't talk about 'the' audience any more, or 'consumers' even if there is still a majority type.

The Australian's commentary is evidence-free rancour