The federal secretary of the Media Alliance talks about the future of journalism in Australia, unveiling new research.
Welcome to the Walkley Media Conference – the first of what I hope will become landmark events in the journalism calendar.
Over the years the Media Alliance and the Walkley Foundation have stood for excellence in journalism. We’ve been at the forefront of the discussion of how we preserve and enhance that excellence. So that Australian journalists continue to serve democracy in Australia as we have over the past 100 years.
I say 100 years because this year marks a century since a group of forward-thinking journalists banded together to form the first national trade union for journalists in Australia. We’ve fought – and won - a lot of battles since, but I can say without hesitation that the challenges we now face are greater than anything that has gone before.
There will be plenty to discuss, over the next few days, about this changing world of ours. Even as I speak we’re deep into an election campaign which is proving to be both display case and test tube for the new tools and techniques of news journalism.
Thanks to websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter, we’re getting what often feels like minute-by-minute updates and minute detail about they way the candidates are prosecuting their campaigns.
Some of it is fantastic. Some of it leaves room for improvement. And some of it – like the Latham stunt over the weekend – just dumb. The exciting thing is that people are trying new things and developing new ways of doing journalism.
And in this room, as we talk about the exciting new ways of doing our business, there’ll be people relaying that information to a broader audience from their laptops and mobile phones.
We have a team of journalists who’ll be here over the next few days tasked with liveblogging the proceedings – aggregating video, Twitter feeds and blog posts to provide a constant stream of commentary as an instant – and lasting – record of events.
We’ve assembled an impressive line-up: from the USA, John Nichols will lay out his blueprint for a way to sustain the core democratic function of journalism. Tomorrow we’ll be hearing from Jay Rosen, whose insights have changed the way we think about the nature of news itself in the digital age. We’ll hear from Bob Dotson, the legendary NBC correspondent, about the craft of storytelling while Harry Dugmore, from South Africa, will bring us up to date with his experiments in mobile journalism in Africa.
And we’ll have some of the most influential and exciting thinkers about Australian journalism to offer their ideas and opinions about where our industry is headed in these exciting and turbulent times.
In all this excitement about new tools, we should not lose sight of the fact that the principles, the craft of journalism remains. The very title of this conference: What’s The Story – Powerful Narrative and Other Tales From the Future, reminds us all that the craft of storytelling, remains at the very heart of what we do, whether it’s in print, over the radio, in a 24hr rolling new service or via a stream of 140-character tweets.
Two years ago, when we gathered a mile or so down the road at the ABC for the first of our future of journalism summits, we’d begun to question whether – and how – the news industry would survive the buffeting it was receiving from the perfect storm created by the twin perils of the global financial crisis and the disruption of the digital revolution.
We heard from the likes of Roy Greenslade, the Guardian’s media commentator, who confidently predicted the death of newspapers, sooner rather than later, as the business model that has always underpinned print journalism disintegrated with dismaying rapidity.
The hallmark of those few days in 2008 was that no one really knew what was going to happen to our industry (except it was unlikely to be anything good). At the Alliance we made it our business to consult as widely as possible about the future of journalism. I led a mission of senior journalists and alliance officers to talk with journalists in the US and Western Europe to get a feel for how their journalists were dealing with change and what they thought was in store for the news industry.
We also surveyed journalists in Australia about their changing workplaces and work practises, we asked them about the new skills they needed and their hopes and fears for the future. We wrapped all of this into a major report, Life In The Clickstream, which some of you will have read. It was a snapshot of the changing face of journalism and a reflection of the uncertainty of the times.
Two years on we are working on another major report – which this discussion over the next couple of days will inform. Like before, we have talked to journalists at every level around Australia and overseas. This time we have also asked the Australian community some key questions about what they want from journalism: how they consume news, who they trust to tell them the news, whether they would be prepared to pay for it or not.
We’ve also asked the investment community for their health report on the news media and it is a happier picture than we might have been given two years ago.
The first thing to note is that compared to a lot of countries we’ve come off relatively lightly. The OECD estimates that the publishing market has shrunk by just 3 per cent in Australia, compared with 21 per cent in the UK and 30 per cent in the US.
As far as the headline circulation figures go, Australia has held up remarkably well. But these graphs can be quite misleading. If we look at the same numbers in their real terms – that is, adjusted for population growth over the same period, we can see that the decline in sales is rather more precipitous.
This suggests a longer term decline than is often suggested. That it’s not just the disruption caused by the internet that is impacting journalism, certainly when it comes to print.
On the other hand all the indications are that the flow of advertising dollars which has slowed in the past couple of years will strongly recover and the proportion of that flow provided by online advertising revenue will increase.
The challenge for all news organisations, though, is how to attract that advertising revenue in the teeth of competition from a vastly increased array of players, big and small.
Now more than ever the power is in the hands of our audiences. And what do they think?
According to our survey of 1000 people last month, TV remains the most important source of news, but behind that comes the internet – 26 per cent of people said the internet was their main source of news.
People want news as a form of connectivity, a civic obligation, entertainment – in that order. While only a few said they had to follow the news for their work, the vast majority said they were interested in news and current affairs. For them, local news –what’s really going on around them is the most important thing they want to know about, followed closely by national politics and international affairs. Much more so than entertainment and celebrity, which come way down the list of people’s priorities.
(Many people told us they felt the news media is far too obsessed with entertainment and celebrity)
They appreciate how important journalism is for democracy and they feel overwhelmed by the amount of news happening around them. People say they depend on the media to act as a watchdog to protect their interests.
But would they pay for the news online? The answer is a resounding no. Only 3 per cent said they would and 91 per cent said no, they wouldn’t.
This tallies with audiences in the UK and us and may give pause to the paywall purists among us.
The next couple of slides will also provide food for thought for those in the paywall camp who are convinced that signing up a slate of big name journalists will ensure that readers want to subscribe to their service.
This will surprise and delight in equal measure. It will delight Andrew Bolt and his colleagues at News Ltd – and surprise quite a lot of the rest of us. But this is not the whole story. When you include the number of people who simply don’t care about who wrote a story, you get a completely different picture.
But the growing number of people getting their news online and the growing revenue to websites – here and elsewhere – gives us a certain amount of reason for optimism.
And that optimism is being felt in the newsrooms. Two years ago, people were pretty pessimistic about their jobs and the future of the industry. These days far more people are telling us they feel positive about both of those questions, which is great to hear.
On the other hand everyone still tells us they are working harder than ever before. They still feel it is affecting the quality of their work. Half of the journalists who answered our survey felt that the quality of journalism had slipped over the past five years.
Very few people are getting any recompense for the increased intensity or longer hours, even in terms of being given time in lieu. This continues to have an adverse impact on their quality of life.
No one was whinging here, it was a very matter of fact and positive survey.
What everyone really wants – what lies at the heart of people’s concerns is training. More than half of the people we talked to said they were getting no training.
In an era where journalists’ jobs are changing faster than at any time in living memory, 54 per cent of journalists say they are getting no training and are just expected to “pick things up as they go along”. A further 42 per cent told us they were just being shown what they need for their jobs.
Only 5 per cent told us they were getting the sort of comprehensive and systematic training they want to understand the new challenges.
This must be addressed. As a matter of urgency.
The Alliance has started to roll out new media training modules – we’ve run pilots in Sydney and Melbourne and we’re working on expanding the program around the country to answer the needs of our members, freelance and full-time employees alike.
Conferences like this are a form of training. We’re here to learn from each other, to talk about what is working and what isn’t, to hone our craft and to develop new ideas about the best way to do things.
Over the next three days we’ll be doing just that – but I’m pleased to tell you that while the discussion continues in the main auditorium here, in nearby locations we’re offering a more structured form of learning in the form of masterclasses by some of the smartest journalists and creative thinkers around.
Quantum mechanics tells me I can be in two places at once – and there are several points over the next three days where I would like to be able to invoke these laws and literally be in two places at once. You must make your choice.