In TV, radio and print, local news is dying. Let’s do something about it

Ahead of tonight’s Walkley Awards, former winner Brian Johnson argues that news is no longer local – and it is time that the journalists’ union The Media Alliance exposed it.

There are many reasons (and culprits) that have brought us to this place where the bean counter mantra of digital delivery short changes almost everyone, bar the immediate shareholders, and threatens to become fool’s gold.

And as our media networks creak and crumble, the key journalist union seems to be presiding over an expansionist Walkley industry. A burgeoning array of categories, including a separate range of trophies for junior journos.

Thankfully these gongs remain recognised as the ultimate accolade for those at the peak of the profession. And so they should be. But lately the Walkley Awards have felt like a borderline Logies-on-steroids extravaganza (complete with a TV show and the occasional drunken antic). The main event is now preceded by Oscar-wannabe finalist announcements held concurrently in various cities.

Rather than more Walkleys, and good redundancy packages, we need more journalists. Get thee to Canberra (where the ever-expanding Walkleys will be shared around this year) but cancel the tux and crack out the overalls instead.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the big city media. How about Brisbane on a weekday afternoon?

What do you imagine a 4KQ listener would think about “their” news service coming from a newsreader sitting in a booth in Sydney?

Or flick on the telly in Perth, one of the world’s most isolated cities, closer to Jakarta than Sydney. What would they think if they knew that, until relatively recently, Channel Ten’s news – their news – had been arriving from the east? Or how would Adelaide viewers feel about the same network dishing up their “local” news from Melbourne for a fair whack of the 2000s?

What about any major city in Australia, on the weekend, listening to a one-bulletin-fits-all national service on Southern Cross Austereo stations. It’s certainly not the only network that does it, but try not to have something important happening locally on the weekend, because you may not get to hear about it.

Those who worship at the altar of the ABC shouldn’t get too cocky either. The taxpayer network is a master at plug-and-play radio programs, many heading into the nether regionals from big city locations.

Across in newspaper land, we’re told that readers are effectively demanding digital versions of the papers – to the point where you’d think we were protesting in the streets with placards and waving iPads around. Curiously, this message seems to filter through from the newspaper proprietors themselves, who are no doubt eyeing off the possibility of not having to pay for a forest each and every day to get paper copies of their product into our hands.

No one doubts that newspapers face massive challenges (and changes) in the Internet era, but let’s also keep the rationale on the level. There are a great many people, from various places and demographics, who much prefer to buy a hard copy of their newspaper. The last thing they want to do is try to find the same content via a computer screen.

Paper papers still represent a significant segment of the market, and shouldn’t be brushed aside in the digital-will-replace-all argument. For just as the paperless office was a hoax, hard copy newspapers will continue to have people prepared to pay for them – something which doesn’t necessarily translate to the online variety.

And so it goes on, in twists and turns. Like The Wizard of Oz behind a curtain, corporate media sends out mixed messages and we are left with big brands with no real depth of coverage behind them. News content hubs, or the once touted “super newsrooms”, are also being confined to the shallow end of the media resources pool.

Should it really matter, as long as the news consumer is being fed something? Anything? Well, er, yes – quite a lot. And it’s probably best answered with a simple scenario.

Imagine a bushfire is coming at you or a loved one. Not too much of a stretch in this sunburnt country. Your lifeline, your information source, is a junior journalist thousands of kilometres away, possibly in another state, pumping out generic, non-specific national guff to fulfil legislative and formatic requirements. Certainly not for your benefit – the supposedly all-powerful news consumer.

And so far we’ve only been talking about the media emanating from our cities. Do any of us really know what’s happening in terms of local media delivery in rural Australia?

Can the old Australian Journalists Association, now the Media Alliance For This ’n That, or Commercial Radio Australia (which used to be the Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters or FARB) tell us exactly where our news is coming from, local versus networked, on every Aussie media outlet, at any moment of the day?

When you think about it, it is actually not too much to ask or expect of these peak organisations. This is their turf and the Aussie media isn’t massively huge. Hell, it’s getting smaller by the day. And if they can’t tell us, shouldn’t the federal government’s ACMA – the Australian Communications and Media Authority – be providing this information as a primary service to the community and industry alike?

How did we get into this mess?

Put simply, it gets down to government media policy – the legislative template for what we’re getting dished up.

For example, just a generation ago Triple M and 2DAY were healthy rivals, each with their own active newsroom of journalists, sports reporters, traffic reporters, even finance gurus and parliamentary specialists. Hard for the young folk to imagine, but true. FM newsrooms with a real depth of resources and quality news services.

Then the radio station owners did what they have a right to and campaigned for change in Canberra, to benefit their pockets and powerbase. With more lobbyists than politicians, the broadcasters were soon allowed to own not one but two big radio stations in each metro market.

Triple M and 2DAY continued to function as separate entities to the outside world, but sharing one of those curiously named “super newsrooms”. That’s to say, two microphones (one reading booth for each station’s bulletin) and half the collective pool of journalists to feed them.

Let’s be lenient on our politicians for a change. For all they knew they were doing the right thing. They were presented with an impressive argument, no doubt talking about costs and efficiencies, enriching a healthy local media and so on, all wrapped up in shiny spin. So they unwittingly delivered a policy that has seen many journalistic careers fail to even begin, and democracy lose another piece of its dwindling diversity.

It’s just one example of what has been happening across the media landscape for too long, and all too often recently, as the ghosts of journalists past drift from view faster than you can name another Walkley finalist or category.

Old newsrooms have been turned into the proverbial broom and stationery cupboards, as the news gets delivered from a “hub” or via digital format (which tends to mean “from somewhere else” for many Australians).

It seems to be so extensive, so generational, so complete. Can it possibly be changed? Of course it can.

Management will continue to do as it’s programmed to do and cry poor. Yet how many millions of dollars has radio found to go digital? After all, a while back even struggling AM country stations could find money to spawn an FM offshoot that remains on air today. Funny thing that.

TV networks will also talk economics as they punt millions on the latest ratings killers from the US – even though they don’t really know how they’ll perform here. And rest assured, a few redirected millions would replant plenty of journalists, and a lot of lost voices, in communities across Australia.

Meantime, back in newspaper land, journalists are summarily rounded up and shot at dawn (or dusk – depending on the new digital deadlines) while the 2kg weekend Godzilla edition continues to crack the pavement, most of it going (as always) unread. All of which is, again, somehow our fault as the news consumer. Apparently one of us asked for all of those glossy, non-newsy inserts at some point in the conveniently forgotten past.

Perhaps the pointy end of the newspaper is not such a problem after all. It might actually be a worthwhile idea to hang on to the good journos and snappers who deliver the real news. If someone or something has to be trimmed, start with the fluffers and pontificators lurking in those fat supplement fillers that end up on the floor.

Let’s forget the nonsense about recent massive upheavals being driven by what consumers supposedly want. We live in a world driven by shareholders and spin, and digital delivery is a media mogul’s idea of nirvana. It’s also being used as an excuse to throw people overboard and create a brave new and unproven media model. You’ll hear all the arguments about “it is what it is” or “we can never go back” or “the media has changed forever”. But all it needs is vision and action.

Yes, digital media is a huge part of our present and our future. But it shouldn’t be an opportunity to centralise and sack. To do media well, the very scale and nature of this place called Australia dictates decentralised digital. No one wants that bushfire coming at us with the patched-up, make-do media we’ve got now.

The present is the result of the past. It will be again, and that time starts right now.

Rather than it simplistically being “what it is”, there has never been a more important time to understand what the media can and should be.

Like a Hollywood thriller, we need a hero. An unlikely hero. Perhaps the most unlikely hero of all. We need the journalists union to seriously and proactively start driving the game – a game the proprietors have controlled to this point by shaping the rules and defining policy. So what secret weapon can our hero possibly call upon to regain the ascendancy?

Shame, shame and more shame.

Let people know where “their” news is, and isn’t, coming from – hour by hour, day by day, town by town and city by city. A transparent media audit that we can all understand. Plain English, no marketing gobbledegook, clearly laid out for all to see. A full-on national campaign of ads, social media and editorial coverage, revealing the local news component in all forms of media.

And within that information publish contact details for the local media outlet, along with the contact details for the local MP. Cover every electorate. Postcode by postcode. Be in no doubt, a huge swathe of Australians will be stunned by the results. Some may even be in the media themselves.

Let’s see what Australian news consumers really want from their media. Present the facts to everyone. Let the paying public have its say, and let the media outlets and the politicians hear it direct.

Then go to Canberra and demand a better deal for democracy – in radio, television, newspapers, magazines, websites, and any other form of media you want to include. We need a clear policy, a bare minimum per capita/per outlet formula that will deliver true local content, and certainly not just a few token journalists, to every community in Australia.

Don’t mistake this as union bashing. The Media Alliance is no doubt home to passionate people with integrity, forced into messy situations they would rather not deal with. This is about stepping back from the day-to-day battles and taking in the big picture. More importantly, it’s about having a vision and delivering on it.   Because that’s what needs to change to get our media and, without putting too much of a stretch on it, our democracy, to a much healthier place.

Now you’re quite possibly reading this and thinking it does make sense, but it’s just fanciful. Go on, say it: The government is never going to change media policy.

Why not? They have before. It’s the reason we’re here in the midst of a perfect spinning storm. Media policy has been changed in the past and it will be again in the future – hopefully for the right reasons next time. Reasons with a little more vision, and a lot more community relevance, than Friday’s accounting spreadsheet.

What Australia needs urgently is a postcode policy for the media – traditional and digital. That starts with a thorough media audit, a transparent national campaign for change, some sustained ticker – and a journalists union that understands the current dire situation cannot be fixed off the back foot. It’s about changing the reality by changing the template, through federal policy.

Because the alternative is too terrible to contemplate. We’ll end up with more Walkleys than journos. And nobody wants that.



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