Opinion

Confessions of a media writer: why I’m leaving journalism

Today is media and technology editor Nic Christensen’s final day at Mumbrella. As he prepares to step out of journalism and into a communications role, he reflects on his eight years working as a journalist in the multimedia landscape.

Nic-Christensen-headshot“Et tu, Nic” read the congratulatory email from one of my good friends, who – with all subtlety and arrogance that only a fellow journo can wield – made his meaning clear.

In his mind, I’d sold out. To be fair to him, maybe he’s right and I have, but for the record: I have my reasons, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Let me start by acknowledging that as far as journalism careers go I think I can, just about, get away with the claim that, relatively, I’m still a baby. I’ve had eight awesome years in this profession and I can honestly say I’ve loved every minute of the job.

The highs have been tremendous, and if journalism was a drug I’d be an addict. As for the lows, they have been there, too, but somehow are softened by the underlying belief that this job matters.

Modern journalists must be multi-skilled and able to work cross-platform. Over the years I’ve been lucky to have been given a broad taste most of the media landscape: print, digital, radio, TV/video. I’ve been able to have a go at it all.

As radio producer on Radio 2GB I did everything from accepting the talkback calls of the mad, the bad and the criminally insane on the midnight to dawn shift, to panel operating, to the intense pressure that comes with running a major live news radio show, as the summer executive producer of the station’s Mornings show, Australia’s biggest radio show.

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 5.30.54 PM

For a number of years I was a producer for Reverend Bill Crews’ program on Radio 2GB’s Sunday Nights program.

As a newspaper journalist, first as a freelancer for Fairfax Media in my uni student days, then as a tabloid reporter on the Daily Telegraph, I got to report on everything from general news to investigations of Australia’s foreign aid program and foreign investment regime, to the ‘shit kicker’ tasks that are the life of a junior reporter – everything from super vox pops (12 people or more, please, in the one goddamn photo, thanks) to attending Santa school (yes, really).

Life as a junior reporter on the Tele.

Life as a junior reporter on the Tele.

Before moving to The Australian, in 2011, where I first took a job as the series producer on an online branded content video special, called Shaping Our Future (an awesome project, where I had a professional three-person TV crew and wide scope to do what I wanted, a unique privilege given my complete lack of experience in TV or video) and then as a media writer – first, for the national broadsheet and then for the previous four years at Mumbrella.

Looking back it’s been an interesting journey. If journalism has one clear perk it’s this: despite the long hours and sometimes never-ending media cycle this job is never boring.

That being said, on the flip side, if there is one downside to this job – particularly being a media writer in 2016 – it’s that it often feels like bearing witness to the decline of the media industry.

This last decade has seen massive changes in the media, with more to come. We are living through a media revolution driven largely by the rise of digital, but with it comes the consequence for the journalism profession of multiple ongoing rounds of redundancies, as the media business model looks to reinvent itself within what is a seismic transition.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 12.35.20 PMIt’s also a reality that, despite my own relative inexperience, I’ve also known the pain myself having watched countless colleagues lose their jobs over the last few years, and was myself swept out of News Corp’s Holt Street headquarters, in Surry Hills, in a round of cost-cutting in late 2012.

I promise I won’t get too bogged down in all the challenges facing journalism right now, but if you haven’t had the chance take the time to watch John Oliver’s wrap up of some of the key issues facing the profession, it’s well worth the 20 minutes of your time.

Oliver’s eloquent monologue is equal parts a highly impressive critique of the state of modern journalism and one of most depressing things you will watch all week. Particularly if, like me, you really care about journalism.

To my mind, journalism as a job is a licence to be nosey, to ask questions that other people aren’t allowed to ask and, most importantly, to tell stories that no one else can tell.

Journalists have a rare permission to hold those in power to account, and for the past eight years, I’d like to think I’ve done that to the best of my ability.

I was given a real lesson in the power of the media to shine that often intense spotlight very early on, when as a journalism student, Fairfax picked up two stories that I pitched them: one outed the Chinese billionaire Chau Chak Wing and his intricate web of political donations and the other shone a light on an internecine factional war within the NSW Liberal Party.

I wish I could claim full credit for what was published, in both stories, but back then I was very new to journalism and somewhat out of my depth with the stories I had stumbled upon. The Herald paired me with Deborah Snow, a brilliant and talented investigative reporter, who gave me a taste of the power and importance of good journalism.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 11.05.21 AMShe worked with me to help craft these stories into front page exclusives, both with solid impacts: the latter of which saw two Liberal staffers, one a member of then opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull’s staff, resign.

It was in the aftermath of those two resignations that I had my first real “I feel sick” moment – a feeling I’ve had many times since – as I learned the full gravity of what journalism does. Real news – to quote the maxim – is something someone, somewhere doesn’t want told, it has a both an innate power but also the awful burden of consequence.

As a media writer, particularly for a trade publication such as Mumbrella, you’re not always dealing with the big national stories of the day or engaging with the highest levels of government, and media releases are, invariably, a part of the job, but that’s not to say what you’re writing doesn’t matter. Indeed it still can at times have a substantial impact on a $13bn media industry.

When I look back over four years at Mumbrella, the stories that stand out are still those that questioned power, held people to account and spoke to a wider media industry interest.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 12.28.38 PMThere are some that are obvious like the Mediacom misreporting scandal but then there are others that are less obvious, but which I think had an impact: like my challenging of readership metric EMMA over how it was claiming print readerships were rising while print sales were simultaneously falling off a cliff, revealing that public broadcaster SBS had axed one of its biggest shows, after Coles complained about an awkward interview with its CEO, challenging Foxtel over its decision to artificially pad its claimed subscriber base through adding low margin Presto users or revealing how Mamamia very nearly aborted one of the biggest criminal trials of 2014.

Personally, I’ve also dearly loved the ability to do the deep dive and tell a long-form story that no one else had told or potentially would tell. Here, two features stand out: one involved convincing media watchdog the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) which after much harassing let me inside its content classification team, which is responsible for getting child porn off Australian websites and ensuring the perpetrators see justice, and the other was a work of “fiction”, entitled ‘What your media agency might be telling you’, which provided quite specific details of how media agencies, which control $11bn of the $13bn spent in the industry might, hypothetically, make profits through dubious means.

ACMA HotllineI’m proud of all of these stories, although it’s also fair to say that most of these stories have not won me or Mumbrella any popularity contests within the industry.

If I have any regrets about any of these stories it’s this: as any reporter worth their salt knows there’s a thrill that comes from revealing a big scoop but you always have to be conscious that rarely, if ever, do you get to understand the full story.

As a business reporter you spend your life with your nose pressed up hard against a glass window trying to understand what is going on the inside of the businesses you’re reporting on.

To the original question: am I selling out to the “dark side” of PR? Well, no, I don’t think I am.

This shift for me is about crossing over to the other side of the window to be on the inside and understand how it works.

To my mind, the decision to take a digital comms role (with Nine Entertainment) is about seeking a new challenge – to better understand the media business I’ve become quite passionate about over the last six or so years.

My time as a media writer has made me acutely aware of how crucial the next few years will be to the future of the Australian media, particularly at a time when two companies: Google and Facebook – neither of whom produce their own content – are swallowing a bigger and bigger share of the industry’s revenues.

In the wake of the Federal election, media reform is once again on the cards (although, to be honest, in the past six years this felt like the unsolvable perennial issue, always on the agenda, but equally never resolved) and depending on how that deck is dealt we could well be looking at a very different media landscape in less than 12 months. 

There are other big shifts, as well though. Just this week we’ve seen both News Corp and Fairfax report financial results which show that they are increasingly becoming real estate businesses which also happen to also be in the business of news, and likewise I expect we’ll see the other media sectors such as TV and radio similarly have to grapple with digitisation and how to build new revenue streams.

How all of these companies do this in the next five to 10 years will potentially have a huge impact on state of journalism in this country, in the longer term.

As both a reporter and a commentator over the past six years, I’ve been acutely aware that no single media company has the answer.

The likes of academic Mark Ritson have argued that the media trade press is”biased” towards digital, and on this I do plead guilty, but it’s not for the reasons you might think.

Ritson spoke at this year’s Mumbrella360 conference where he claimed he’d done a data analysis of Mumbrella’s coverage, which shows this publication gave around a third of our coverage of media to new digital emerging platforms and the rest to traditional media.

His somewhat simplistic argument was that digital players were over-represented across the media and marketing press and that our coverage should reflect media spend.

My response would be to cite my experience with how this industry has engaged with digital. To be clear, there are still a lot of senior people who don’t ‘get’ digital or struggle with the idea that the landscape is converging regardless of medium.

I can remember, in 2011, becoming The Oz’s digital media reporter, almost by default. All the other beats television, radio, newspapers marketing, etc, were well covered and partly because I was a) new and still relatively junior, and b) the only one under 30, so it fell to me. I was soon pitching stories like ‘why don’t we cover the top news websites?’ and having to argue that it, if not today, but soon it would be important an metric that should be covered, just like TV or radio ratings or print circulations.

Today the Nielsen news numbers’ monthly metric is an important part of how many of the big media players tell a digital narrative.

If pushing that makes me a digital advocate, so be it. Someone has to be.

John Oliver warns that local journalism is under threat. I’d add to that by noting that at a time when the major media outlets are being less and less resourced, the role of the trade press in business journalism is going to become increasingly important.

Our role is not – and to be clear, I don’t think we have been – giving the likes of Facebook a free pass when it tries to claim that The Family Law had 1.1m views on the platform and rather to point out that only 22,978 people actually watched more than 95% of the show, the other 1,077,022 people were just shown at least three seconds of the show via autoplay videos. This is rightly, an important difference.

Kate Mc Kate McLennan : The Katering Show pulled strong audiences but they weren't able to pay themselves.

Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan: The Katering Show pulled strong audiences but they weren’t able to pay themselves.

Likewise, we’ve also noted how Youtube for all the millions of claimed viewers and ad dollars, was unable to provide comediennes Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan from the Katering Show a living wage despite their runaway online success. They have since moved to the ABC.

Where I’ve given licence to digital players such as Buzzfeed or the Guardian Australia to tell their stories it’s been because they have interesting stories to tell and, more importantly, one the whole market can and should take note of.

Today ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie is laying into the likes of Buzzfeed – that’s easy sport and makes for a terrific media story, but in my view Buzzfeed may have some business problems, as underlined in its financial results earlier this year, but arguably it ‘gets’ the internet and online distribution better than many other Australian media players.Buzzfeed

Likewise, the Guardian Australia, as demonstrated this week with the Nauru Files, is showing the industry how quality journalism is done in the digital space. Again, it too has far from nailed the business model, locally or globally, but we can and have noted that in our coverage.

If the media is to succeed in the modern landscape customer experience and good storytelling will only become more important.

Previously I’ve been critical of the TV industry for launching a myriad of different apps for the mobile viewing experience but I’ve also been heartened to see the likes of Freeview come out and announce it is preparing one combined mobile app for the major TV networks. 

Similarly the launch of TV industry marketing body ThinkTV will help the TV networks challenge the narratives of Facebook and Google and demonstrate to the market that they continue to have an unmatched audience reach (forgive me if I appear to be a little on-message, already).

Our digital future isn’t approaching. It’s already here, our industry’s challenge is to develop digital revenue streams and sustainable business models around it.

That doesn’t mean setting fire to the existing business model but we have to acknowledge that digital is bringing about major changes in consumer habits. Those that don’t recognise this are at risk of becoming roadkill.

The future of the fourth estate – of the social good that is journalism – depends on the industry getting it right.

From my side, I won’t pretend I have the answers but I hope that in jumping off this career cliff and into a new world I may be able to make a small difference to a profession and industry that has given me a lot, personally.

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