Why ‘quality journalism’ should be left to die

In this guest post, journalist Hal Crawford argues why the government’s media inquiry is the opposite of good sense

The print media inquiry, announced on Wednesday, is a bad idea. And it hasn’t been pilloried quite as much as it deserves.

This is from the press release:

“The Australian government believes it is incumbent upon government to ensure regulatory processes and industry structures are sufficiently strong to support the continuation of a healthy and independent media that is able to fulfill its essential democratic purpose, and to operate in the public interest.”

The more you think the about that statement, the more ridiculous the undertaking seems. The government is going to ensure the government watchers are doing their job properly? It’s foolish and dangerous, and it trashes 300 years of liberal democratic history – as has been elegantly pointed out by the ABC’s Jonathon Holmes.

What Holmes doesn’t go into is that on the flipside of this bad idea is another equally horrible assumption – that the government knows what quality media content is, and should protect it.

Stephen Conroy has confirmed the government considers ‘quality journalism’ to be under threat and that it may need to be supported in some way. The idea that technological change – that is, online news – is a malevolent force eroding journalism pervades the inquiry press release and terms of reference. It’s an assumption shared by most traditional media commentators and it’s entirely false.

When you come from digital, and your business is only digital, you get a different perspective. Old school newspaper newsrooms are massively wasteful. That prodigal staffing used to be matched by big revenue – increasingly, it’s not, and that doesn’t worry me. I know you can still make money turning out news, and you can still employ journalists and you can still believe in telling the truth and a good story.

Online journalism isn’t squalid or shallow. It’s as good as the people who write it and the people who read it. And the link between those two groups is closer and stronger than ever before – for a journalist, there is no hiding from the audience. Real time data tell you exactly how popular a story is, and to maximise your audience size you need to weed out stories that no one wants to read. This kind of brutal treatment can be hard for an old school journalist to take.

Initially you may get upset that no one is reading the ‘important’ stories, but that arrogance fades quickly. Truly important stories rate. If some piece of news is going to change lives or become socially necessary or is just plain interesting, it gets traffic. It can take a lot of swallowing, but eventually every online editor comes to the conclusion that the audience is right.

One caveat: the journalist does not stand apart from the process. I said web content is as good as those who read it and those who produce it. You can’t stand back like a farmer throwing swill into a trough – you’re making calls about what is important and what is interesting. You do what you think is right, if you think something is important, you make the call and publish. NineMSN has been doing that for years and turning a profit.

I wish I had more money to support my newsroom, and I think in time I will. Print audiences are shrinking and ad revenues are following suit. That ad money will move somewhere, and I want as much as I can get to employ more journalists and make a better and more interesting site. A lot of the money will also leak away from newsrooms – for example to search engines and social networks. But when you delve deeper both those areas have a big hand in wider ‘media quality’ – search engines provide unparalled access to information and social networks have a tendency to improve news media through their power as distribution networks (see the Share Wars project).

The money brings us back to the inquiry. The suggestion that the government props up a broken business model through regulation or subsidy is the opposite of good sense. ‘Quality journalism’ in this context is just the old way of doing things, and the old way of doing things should be left to die. Any move to artificially prolong it will hamper the development of good journalism.

Hal Crawford is head of news at NineMSN


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