Traditional media: what have we lost?

We asked some of Australia’s leading journalists and writers what they see as the biggest challenge to our craft — and what we need to do about it. We’re no longer the gatekeepers — and the horse has bolted, writes Andrew Probyn. This is a preview from the March print edition of the Walkley Magazine focused on Press Freedom. Image credit: pixabay.com

It wasn’t until my sons become technologically adept that I fully realised it.

The shock of it was as much at the realisation of the media industry’s collective arrogance as it was what it meant for our future.

There were my two pre-teen sons, with the benefit of a spanking new so-called “smart TV”, navigating away from what was already on offer via the main channels.

They were using the wireless connection to surf the web, using YouTube to find any manner of silly amusement; people flipping half-filled bottles so they landed upright (who knew that was a treasured skill?) and teen stuntmen leaping stupidly into pools, sometimes cracking the diving board.

Two things struck me immediately.

The first was obvious: Where’s the bloody parental control on this sodding TV?

And secondly … Oh Lordy, we’ve lost control!

By “we”, I mean the media industry of course, the one which for centuries has been so unappreciative of the privilege and power in being the curators of consumption.

It might’ve begun with rich, opinionated toffs whose deep pockets could afford a printing press, but it’s since included rich proprietors of newspapers and TV networks, editors, chiefs of staff, executive producers, sub-editors, headline writers, reporters and even layout compositors deciding what made the final cut in five-point sports results.

It was us who decided what was news and what wasn’t. We decided what was important and what wasn’t. We decided what you needed to know and what you didn’t. We were the tellers of stories, the sifters and arbiters of truth and fact, folly and fiction.

Curation. Control. Little did we know these were temporary privileges we had mistaken as our profession and preserve.

What really counted was in the newspaper’s forward pages and the broadcast news bulletin, ranked and ordered according to what we thought the population should or needed to know.

Curation. Control. Little did we know these were temporary privileges we had mistaken as our profession and preserve.

Because there were my sons, watching gormless videos of some unintentionally self-harming fool filmed on a shaky iPhone, rather than picking from a wide selection of properly produced, cleverly cut programs on offer from the ABC, Seven, Nine, Ten or SBS, each multi-channelling.

The revolution had arrived at the Probyn household.

In retrospect, it was there to be seen long before. Maybe I just didn’t want to see it.

I’d tweet a story I had filed for The West Australian, sometimes after painstaking work convincing a contact to cough up a golden nugget, only to elicit vicious complaint from a cynical readership citing bias, one way or the other, about the “MSM”.

It was some weeks after when I idly asked a colleague what on earth “MSM” stood for. It turned out it meant mainstream media. Stupid me, not knowing my place.

With that epithet, we became something to distrust, according to self-appointed sieves of the virtuous from the vain; from the people we had formerly served as arbiters and curators.

Oh gawd.

Healthy skepticism had been replaced by outright hostility and disrespect, nourished by a social media that encouraged homespun opinion rivalling responsible journalism.

This is what we have found is our troublesome inheritance: a nihilistic landscape where the consumers herd into self-selecting silos shaped by their own hardening perspectives.

Whether it’s coincidental or contributory, the erosion of the media establishment has come as trust in the political orthodox collapses.

The media, perhaps blind or complacent in its arrogant belief it was irreplaceable, saw its political journalism increasingly being spurned by the Left and the Right.

In politics, predictable tribalism has faded, replaced by a scattering populism at both ends of the spectrum. The political centre has thinned.

The mainstream media and politicians, combatants at the best of times, found they were now regarded as bedfellow elites.

The news media, with its own undeniable imperfections, has been invaded by cuckoos laying lucrative deceits into the news nest.

And then came Donald Trump, the Great Disruptor.

Trump’s anti-establishment juggernaut has come at a perilous time for journalism and politics.

And he has set about using the American presidency to smash both.

The manner of his ascension, fuelled as it was by fake news, only confirms the sickness of distrust has infected media and politics.

Buzzfeed offered alarming analysis showing that the 20 top fake election news stories got more engagement on Facebook in the final three months of the campaign than top news reports from outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post and NBC News.

The bogus “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement” story topped the charts in online engagements.

Creators of such fake news promulgate and amplify their scumbag commodity on Facebook, turning mouse clicks into big dollars. In the process they further traduce the old media’s platform and product.

The news media, with its own undeniable imperfections, has been invaded by cuckoos laying lucrative deceits into the news nest.

How appropriate that a nihilist candidate who played cuckoo in the Republican Party should have prospered.

And yet even in victory Trump continues to appal, turning the Oval Office into the world’s biggest bully pulpit.

“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Trump tweeted on February 18.

He has turned post-truth politics on its head, haranguing the establishment media for crimes committed largely by shysters on the shadowy fringe.

So, how does the industry combat bootleg news spun by a rampant social media and the global anti-establishment virus?

Cat videos will kill us.

It’s a question establishment politics is asking itself too.

Media and politics must somehow restore faith. Journalism may have deep flaws but it is a grand profession. And false prophets, frauds and hypocrites are eventually found out.

Maintaining trusted news brands is more critical than ever. That’s easy to say but in the world of shrinking audiences and advertising revenue, the temptation for click-bait sensationalism must be resisted. Cat videos will kill us.

We might hope that consumers learn greater sophistication in their consumption, or at least develop stronger bulldust detectors until Facebook, that other great disruptor, cleans up its act.

But the old world of journalists being the monopoly curators of news consumption is long gone. We have no option but adapt, get smart and reassert ourselves.

We must embrace the new platforms but not let them define us.

We are obliged to use these platforms to get to our kids if it helps us appeal to their curiosity and their insatiable appetite for the new.

Viral videos are not the enemy, but our duty is to make sure that in a world of more information and mass distraction it does not also become dumber.

Andrew Probyn (@andrewprobyn) is ABC TV’s 7.30 Political Correspondent. A Walkley Award finalist and Gold Quill winner, he has spent 16 years in the Federal Press Gallery in Canberra and has twice been named the Press Gallery Journalist of the Year.