Friday, 16 January 2009

The death of newspapers - murder or suicide?

Claire posed the question not long ago - how can newspapers survive ?(I'm paraphrasing).

I would like to pre-empt that by asking, "Do we care if they do or not?" We seem to get by quite well these days without telegrams. Not many people miss lamps lit by whale oil - even the Nips. Whilst newspapers and editors and journalists and so on view themselves as guardians of some special place in society, I don't.

They think they are tending some sacred grove consisting of a mixture of speaking truth to power, excellence in fact finding and reporting, literary genius and hardboiled insight - but I see them as standing guard outside the dunny on a prawl trawler.

The newspaper business is a fetid garbage dump of conflicting interests, titanic egos and the most uninquiring minds this side of a gaggle of glue sniffing teenagers.

I have thought of a better way of producing newspapers. I call it the "showbag" method.

When you go to the Royal Show, you can buy a wide selection of showbags. One might contain a comic, a balloon, some chocolates and a mask. You can produce a newspaper the same way - instead of bothering to typeset the paper and print it, you just ask all the real estate agents and car dealers to deliver a stack of flyers to your warehouse, and you then tell the likes of Harold Scruby to deliver a stack of press releases to the same location. Publicists for movie stars, singers, celebrity wanna-be's and so on can do the same. Several thousand trained baboons then stuff the advertising flyers and press releases into bags, and voila, you have your newspaper.

Because that is the guts of the modern paper. There will be an editorial, to lend it gravitas, and opinion pieces that show that the paper has an intellectual side. Unfortunately, they are just a sprig of parsley garnishing a rotting fish.

In effect, most of the journalists are doing little more than sorting through a tray full of press releases, deciding which ones to run, and then selecting the bits from them that they want to use. Occasionally, they'll ring someone else to get a conflicting comment, so that they can claim their stories aren't biased.

And we are expected to pay money for that. [snort!!]

This sufficed for a very long time, because there was no alternative. When I was at Uni, I used to read The Australian from cover to cover every morning. I read almost every single story - even Philip Adams. It was that, or nothing. The West Australian was not so much a paper as an inch thick stack of junk mail from every local supermarket, endlessly advertising legs of ham and cartons of Coke. The Australian was manna from heaven by comparison.

A man dying of thirst in the desert will suck on camel turds if there is moisture in them. That's how I now view the newspapers of the 1980's.

The drought is now broken. We can drink from wherever we like, and I no longer have to put up with that annoying pillock, Philip Adams. If I don't want to be annoyed with him (and I really don't want to be annoyed with him), I just never click on a link to one of his fantasy ramblings.

Learned opinion these days thinks that the media has splintered - that people have gravitated to reading a lefty media source or a conservative news source or a greenie news source - or a gay news source or a religious news source. To the commentariat, this is a new and worrying phenomena. They argue that the death of the newspaper is a bad thing, as people no longer get a balanced diet of news. The big city dailies, which supposedly supplied that well rounded bowl of balance and fibre, are dying. They worry that we are filtering out that which we do not want to read, so our viewpoints become more strident and we are less willing to compromise and bend. We no longer meet in the middle.

I think that is crap. People have always yelled at their newspapers, radios or TV sets, saying, "That is utter bollocks". I remember rolling up many newspapers in disgust and flinging them across the room, or drawing a big penis on the forehead of a particularly annoying writer. Once I got smart enough to conclude that Phat Adams was 99% normal crap and 1% other crap, I simply skipped past his bits in the paper. Very few people have ever read the paper from cover to cover and looked at everything contained therein. We have always had a selective diet when it comes to news. The big difference now is that this selection is blatant.

If you go back to the days before the internet, it was hard for editors to determine what stories people were reading and whether they liked them. You had to sit people down, and have someone watch over their shoulder as they looked at each page, and described what articles they were reading and then rating them.

Your web stats can now tell you all that. How many people clicked on each story is automatically counted. How many seconds people stayed on a story is tallied up. If they lingered, you can infer they liked it. If they clicked away quickly, they hated it.

Our choices are now clear, that is all. The fog that covered the newspaper industry has been lifted. The problem that editors and journalists face is that they don't like the results. In the past, they went on gut feel and guess work, and I imagine in many cases, they have been proven wrong - and they don't like that. They suppose that they are experts in what people like to be told, that they know our information tastes, and as experts, they know what we should be fed.

They think they know better. That really is the core of why someone would go to work for a big media outlet - to lord it over the peons, and to control what they are told.

I can tell them one thing - I don't want to be fed a diet of press releases that have been lightly basted and flipped around by a "journalist". I want reporting. I don't want to read what a Policy Officer of Media Advisor has written on a subject. I want the reporter to go and find out for themself, and then write about what they saw and heard. To me, that is independent journalism. What we have today is dependent journalism - it is totally dependent on the press release.

The ABC, which tries to claim the banner of independence, is no more independent than the commercial media outlets in this regard. Because it gets its money from the taxpayer, it does not face all the commercial pressures of the other players - but it is still reporting the same crap. All it does is baste (or spin) it in a slightly different fashion. Same crap, different smell.

And attending a press conference is no different to regurgitating a press release. A press conference is often little more than the person up the front behind the microphone reading a press release. The words are the same. All you get is some video and a few photos, rather than a bit of paper with some banal words printed on it. They are called "press conferences" or "news conferences" because they are designed for the convenience of the press - to make it easier for the press to package up some news and serve it up to an unsuspecting public. You'll never hear someone calling an "information conference", because the idea is not to give out information. Information is dangerous, especially in the hands of the public.

Good reporting requires digging. I doubt most newly minted reporters know how to wield that proverbial shovel. Unless they work out how to dig, their days are numbered.

I have made some notes on a scrap of paper about writing. That will have to wait until tomorrow. Same with the stuff on expertise.

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