Opinion

Hartigan: Journalism, not the limited intellectual value of blogs, is the future of the web

Earlier today, News Ltd CEO John Hartigan gave a speech on the future of journalism at Canberra’s National Press Club. He also toook aim at Mumbrella and Crikey. This is the text of his speech.

My name is Pollyanna.  

I’m here to tell you about the bright future facing journalists, particularly newspaper journalists.

I realise my proposition is wildly out of whack with accepted wisdom – that we are doomed.

I’m here to celebrate the future of journalism. Not to consign it to the analog archive.

It’s true we are in the midst of the most traumatic and uncertain transformation in our history.

But I see some strong and encouraging trends for the future.

Newspapers can adjust to the digital age, adapt their business models and continue to reach mass audiences.

What it will take is a complete rethink of the very essence of what is “news”.

We have never been challenged as we are now, to justify why someone should pay for our content.

I believe people will pay for content if it is:

– Original…

– Exclusive…

– Has the authority

– and is relevant to our audiences

Journalism that doesn’t help people live their lives is going to be a low value commodity.

Media companies and journalists willing to embrace these challenges will thrive.

To some of you, that probably sounds like motherhood.

But, let’s test these ideas.

How many journalists in this room have written a story recently that was original, exclusive, highly relevant and genuinely useful to your audience?

I’m not saying there haven’t been stories like this. But, there have been too few.

And I reckon it’s much the same in general news, business and sport, even the lifestyle sections.

Newspapers in the US are disappearing left, right and centre.

Fewer papers are being sold and in my view it’s because many of them are largely boring and irrelevant to their readership.

Their content is ubiquitous rather than unique.

Within a year, some people are predicting that Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit, San Francisco or even Miami will become the first major US city without a daily newspaper.

The LA Times, Chicago’s Tribune and both dailies in Philadelphia are bankrupt.

The New York Times is close to bankruptcy. Losses in the first quarter were more than 70 million dollars.

The Washington Post lost 54 million.

The Boston Globe almost went under last month until unions agreed to pay cuts averaging 10%.

Last year, more than 15,000 people lost their jobs in American newspapers – the biggest drop since the industry census began 30 years ago.

In the first four months of this year, a further 9000 jobs have gone.

The number of journalists on American newspapers is now at the lowest level in 25 years.

Back then, American newspaper sales peaked at 63 million copies a day.

Sales are now at 34 million.

Readership has also almost halved over the same period.

US newspapers are failing to adapt to the digital age.

Their managements and editors have a lot to answer for.

As well as massive cuts to journalism, there has been very little investment in innovation, in colour capacity, in new sections and new content.

Across the Atlantic, British newspapers also face significant challenges.

In the UK last year, almost 400,000 people stopped buying a national daily.

Circulation of the national dailies is down 13% in 5 years – that’s a loss of 1.6 million copies a day.

The once mighty English Sundays have lost 23% over the same period – a staggering 3.3 million fewer sales every week.

It has been assumed, without any rigorous scrutiny, that Australian newspapers will go the same way as their US and British peers.

 

The whole structure of our industry is different – we are far less reliant on classifieds.

 

Some say the trends are the same; we are just a year or two behind.

Frankly, I’m dismayed at how many Australian journalists seem to accept this. Some are even willing to stick their byline on this opinion.

I mean, at its most basic, it’s just bad reporting. There’s almost no evidence.

For starters, newspaper ad revenue in Australia has been growing – not declining over the past 5 years as it has in the US and the UK.

Even in the past year, the decline in ad revenue in Australia is a fraction of what’s been happening overseas.

The falls in circulation and readership here are very modest compared to American and British papers.

In the latest Australian audit, when you’d expect a big drop, overall sales were flat.

Readership in Australia has been relatively stable over 10 years, but, as I said earlier, it’s been decimated in the US and the UK.

In the UK there are simply too many newspapers. In the US, newspapers haven’t kept up with television as a source of news, especially local news.

In Australia, newspapers are very strong locally. Readership is highly concentrated in metro areas where we deliver much better mass market reach for advertisers.

In Sydney, the Herald and the Telegraph reach almost 60 per cent of available readers.

But in New York, the Daily News and the Post reach only 35%. In London, The Sun and the Daily Mail reach a bit less than that.

This superior reach is one reason why Australian newspapers account for 35% of all ad revenue but American newspapers account for less than a quarter.

That explains the business case to some extent but what about the journalism?

If I had a Power Point presentation I could summarise this whole speech with two points on one slide. .

– One. If you want to attract readers, break stories people want to read.

– Two. Give them something they can’t get anywhere else, make it relevant and useful and let them get involved.

There are plenty of examples.

The British MP expenses scandal has sold an extra million copies of the UK Daily Telegraph since the story broke in May.

 

It wasn’t simply because the Telegraph paid for a leak.

 

It assigned dozens of people to the story, spent weeks preparing its coverage and had a brilliant strategy for breaking and then staying in front of the story.

It broke it online and then really went to town in print.

Without question, the moral authority of the paper and the depth and quality of its coverage made it a story that only a newspaper could own in this way.

I know that stories like this don’t come along that often.

In Australia we had the Victorian bushfires. It wasn’t exclusive to News obviously. But our coverage was unique.

We sold an extra half a million newspapers in the week following Black Saturday. Our website traffic more than doubled.

We took an entirely different approach with this story.

We used resources from every newsroom in the country. Online staff in Brisbane helped the masthead team in Melbourne moderate the tidal wave of public contributions. Our editors across the country sent writers and photographers to work with Herald Sun staff on the ground. This gave us more manpower than any other media outlet.

But, what drove readership and web traffic was the content. .

Readers embraced the opportunity to sign online condolence books and write tributes to victims.

We set up online forums so readers could search for news of those lost and those rescued. They told us miraculous stories of those who cheated the flames and heartbreaking accounts of those who didn’t.

Who can forget the images of the fireman sharing his water bottle with the Sam the Koala, perhaps the iconic image of the tragedy?

The images that appeared on television around the world carried the water mark not of Seven, Nine or Ten but of heraldsun.com.au.

The fires were an example of how journalism should directly touch readers and not always remain detached on the sidelines. .

Alongside traditional reporting from the scene, we had incredible eyewitness accounts from readers, including amazing pics and video. .

Three weeks later, we published a book which immediately became the number one non-fiction best seller with every cent going to fire victims.

Some other examples are worth mentioning.

Again, it’s all about the journalism.

 

The Australian relaunched its business section online last June. We hired people, spent some serious money.

 

Since then unique visitors to the site have more than doubled. Page impressions have increased seven fold. Advertising revenue has already recouped the investment.

In April, we launched Taste.com.au, a new food lift-out in our metro dailies, to complement the successful website.

The Taste site already had 150,000 members. Traffic went up almost 20% in the first month after the newspaper launch. In May, almost 600,000 recipes were printed by readers. Not just downloaded, printed. Since January, 6 million recipes have been printed from the site.

Incredibly, this tells us what Australia has for dinner, on what nights of the week. Pumpkin soup is very big on Tuesdays.

This is an incredibly powerful proposition to take to an advertiser.

But, as journalism, it absolutely nails the criteria I mentioned earlier. The content is original, it’s exclusive and people actually use it. .

As some of you may know we are completely reinventing our features coverage with new national sections in-paper and online.

One of them is travel.

Up till now travel journalism has been junket journalism. The airline with the best trip, the resort with the best room, gets the cover. It’s voyeurism but it’s not value.

Instead of the same old destination stories we intend to give readers information that helps them research their next holiday and the tools to book and pay for it. Just by reading the newspaper or visiting the site.

In the past year The Wall Street Journal lifted its cover price and circulation went up 3 per cent.

Traffic to the Journal’s website has doubled in 18 months – to 23 million unique visitors a month. A large number of them are paying for customised premium content.

The Journal is not achieving these numbers by sacking journalists. It’s been hiring them.

So, whether its business, travel, food or major news stories I cant subscribe to the view that newspapers don’t have a future.

Even so, every day, there’s a new study, another story or latest survey telling us how newspapers are dying under the weight of online journalism.

So it’s worth examining what’s happening.

Obviously plenty of people are reading journalism online. But is it any good and what will make people pay for it?

 

The most profitable sites, in fact the only ones making serious money are the sites that aggregate news, like Google and Yahoo.

 

They pay nothing for content produced by newspaper journalists but make money by supplying it in easily searchable forms online.

The major media outlets have encouraged them to take a free ride on our content.

It’s called search engine optimisation.

And when we started our own sites, we didn’t charge anyone to read them, even though the content is produced at massive cost.

The problem is, an online reader generates about 10% of the revenue we can make from a newspaper reader.

So, for every reader we lose from the paper we need to pick up 10 online.

Then there are the news commentary sites, like The Huffington Post, Newser and the Daily Beast and in Australia sites like Crikey and Mumbrella.

Most of the content on these sites is commentary and opinion on media coverage produced by the major outlets.

These sites are covered in links to wire stories or mainstream mastheads. Typically, less than 10% of their content is original reporting.

The sites that produce a high proportion of original content aren’t making a profit.

Almost anyone can start one of these sites, with very little capital, no training or qualifications.

Then there are the bloggers.

In return for their free content, we pretty much get what we’ve paid for – something of such limited intellectual value as to be barely discernible from massive ignorance.

Andrew Keen in his book The Cult of the Amateur cites Hurricane Katrina as an example when:

“reports from people at the scene helped spread unfounded rumours, inflated body counts and erroneous reports of rapes and gang violence in the New Orleans Superdome – all later debunked by mainstream news media”.

Citizen journalists, he says, simply don’t have the resources to bring us reliable news. They lack not only expertise and training but access to decision makers and reliable sources.

The difference, he says, between professionals and amateurs is that bloggers don’t go to jail for their work – they simply aren’t held accountable like real reporters.

Like Keating’s famous “all tip and no iceberg”, it could be said that the blogosphere is all eyeballs and no insight.

 

As Robert Thomsen of The Wall Street Journal says:

 

“the blogs and comment sites are basically editorial echo chambers rather than centres of creation”.

“and their cynicism about so-called traditional media is only matched by their opportunism in exploiting it”

One of the best known comment sites in Australia matches this identikit.

It started as a moralising soapbox; boasting about its lack of standards. Positioned as an underdog, it lectures mainstream media every day.

In the blogosphere, of course, the mainstream media is always found wanting.

It really is time this myth was blown apart.

Blogs and a large number of comment sites specialise in political extremism and personal vilification.

Radical sweeping statements unsubstantiated with evidence are common.

One Australian blogger who shoots first and checks facts later is proud to boast that his site is “Not wrong for long”.

Mainstream media understands, most of the time, that comment and opinion is legitimised by evidence.

Opinions, however strongly held, draw their legitimacy from the factual accuracy that underpins them.

Many of these sites and bloggers say their radical new approach is a modern form of participatory democracy.

But as Andrew Keen says, amateur journalism trivialises and corrupts serious debate – it degenerates democracy into mob rule and rumour milling.

Most online news and comment sites don’t generate enough revenue to pay for good journalism. Good journalism is expensive.

The Huffington Post recently announced it will spend 1.75 million US dollars on a new investigative journalism unit to produce original content.

But it is not being funded by subscribers or advertisers, it’s being bankrolled by philanthropy.

Earlier this year an argument was mounted for public funding of quality journalism. The argument is that as traditional media revenues dry up, there won’t be enough money to support the kind of important journalism our society needs.

Our job is to tell many people what few people know. That takes lots of resources – newsrooms of two and three hundred people. If we can’t afford them, important stories won’t get told.

 

It might mean that those in power and those with influence can avoid the scrutiny and accountability that keeps them in check.

 

However, the argument that public funding might be the answer here in Australia is embroidered with the notion that in Australia today, quality journalism – some commentators call it public trust journalism – is only produced to any significant degree in just three places.

The ABC, Fairfax and The Australian.

There is no doubt that these outlets produce some very good journalism – at times, great journalism.

But, it’s just crap to argue they are the only ones.

It’s a notion, frankly, that says quality has nothing to do with relevance.

Or that popularity is always just populist.

Take this list of important stories of recent years.

 

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