Wednesday, November 06, 2013

A round table discussion on media and politics

The Public Knowledge Forum round table took place behind closed doors yesterday at the Intercontinental Hotel, Sydney.

Participants came from a range of media, academic and political backgrounds. Many had presented the previous day at the public conference. Others, like me, were invited to the round table event for alternative perspectives. The stated goal of the US Studies Centre was to generate discussion and insights "into the nature of the ‘civic crisis’ created by the economic and technological disruption of the media industry and what it means for future governance".

Attendees included heads of major think tanks, senior academics, an editorial board member of the Wall Street Journal, a director of the ABC, correspondents, editors and columnists for the Washington Post, New York Times, New Republic, The Atlantic and Time. Locally, participants included senior editors and ABC broadcasters, independent publishers and a federal cabinet minister. 

James Fallows moderated the hour long discussion. It was a tough job, given the topic and the timeframe.

Opening remarks

The discussion kicked off by acknowledging that the internet has created an "uber-platform", which has broken the previous constraints on media delivery mechanisms. As a result of this, and the difficulties faced by commercial media organisations, public broadcasting in Australia was now more important than ever.

Newspaper publishers had seen their business models destroyed by the disruption of new media technologies in recent years, and the next victims are going to be television broadcasters, particularly pay TV businesses.

The reasons given for this revolved around live sport. Live sport is "appointment viewing" on broadcast TV but IPTV will change that. The content owners of major sporting codes, eg the AFL, will be in control more than they have ever been. They will be able to generate revenue directly via, for example, paid apps, thus bypassing individual rights holders and removing key pillars for broadcasters.  

Curated content, however, will still be important. A perceived key to value creation online is delivering credibility and authoratitive information where so much is unreliable.

Questions and comments

Much of the ensuing discussion was concerned with the problems of journalism: how to maintain breadth and depth of coverage, balance and quality in reporting, newsroom resourcing, and jobs for journalists. 

These are not new issues. The "future of journalism" debate was a useful one to have before 2005. The most important issues now relate to sustainability and innovation.

Either way, this round table was convened with a stated interest in exploring issues of civic crisis as it relates to media and politics. We seemed to be getting side tracked into old media thinking.

Some conclusions

The US media industry is a different beast to ours. As, of course, is their political system. But we share a malaise in both and the compounding effects are dire.

It seems to me that whilst "civic crisis" is an extreme description that doesn't yet apply in Australia, there is a real risk. The media has a role to play, but it is not a controlling influence.

There is plenty of agreement that the disruptive influence of new digital technologies will not stop with media business models. The transformation from analogue to digital, with all its benefits has been painful. That pain is felt mainly in the loss of jobs. Something like 50% of journalism related jobs have been lost in this country since 2004. 

Proportionately, these job losses do not represent a large part of the economy. Many of those media workers have relocated to other knowledge related work. 

But the trend continues, and the same impact will be felt on other industries. We are already seeing it in retail; education will be hit too; all service industries can expect the same to happen to them. Deloitte's recent Digital Disruption report goes some way to quantifying the impact. 

However, Deloitte does not go to the next step and detail the social and political impact of this disruption. And there's the rub.

With so many industries being affected, and so many jobs being lost in such a relatively short time, civic crisis is not only possible it's almost guaranteed.

In that scenario, the quality of information exchange as mediated by professional journalists will not be the most important concern for most people. It remains relevant, but there are other more fundamental things that need to be addressed. This is broadly an economic problem. The historical analogy is closer to the Industrial Revolution than to Gutenberg.

The internet is an "uber-platform". And ubiquitous broadband will amplify that. Media is everywhere, and virtually every business is impacted by media technologies. The one advantage that media industries have (for now) is that we were amongst the earliest affected, and if we learn from our mistakes of the past 10 years we can play a useful role in mitigating the crises that are to come.

The Public Knowledge Forum roundtable was convened by the United States Study Centre and the University of Sydney. Chatham House rules applied.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Furniture reshuffle at smage.com.au

Fairfax have today launched a new front page on their news sites, to coincide with the move to compact sized newspapers. 

As a reminder of what they had before, here's the front page of the smh.com.au from last week:


And here's the new one from today:


Personally, I think it's disappointing they didn't do something more adventurous. I understand that they wanted to take the sites upmarket and avoid being criticised for being "tabloid" (theage.com.au and smh.com.au have had that accusation thrown at them for years). And I get that they really, really don't want to alienate existing readers. 

But they could have been more, well, interesting. They could have made this project a small statement about Fairfax's digital competency and intent.

Instead it just feels like a missed opportunity.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Photo manipulation at theage.com.au

Is it just me, or is this front page photo on theage.com.au highly problematic?


The picture makes out that the subject, former Qantas steward Samuel Kaufman, is seated in an aircraft looking guiltily out the window, as if he might be wanting to make a fast getaway with an armful of (what could be) envelopes of contraband. He actually appears to be in the act of committing a crime.

The accompanying write-off with the picture reads: "Qantas first-class hostie Samuel Kaufman told police the envelopes only contained cash. Then they opened them."

However, when you click on the story you see this:


Kaufman is actually ducking as he leaves a building - the caption says "pictured in March" - and trying not to draw attention to himself. Either way, he is not obviously in the act of committing a crime nor  is he about to be apprehended by police.

The most generous interpretation of the doctored front page picture is that it is misleading. Others may be more vigorous in their criticism. 

It's certainly a very poor piece of editing by theage.com.au. And not what you expect from quality media that is soon to start charging for access.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is the media reinventing influence?



Darren Burden and Catherine Lumby discuss the changing nature of news delivery and its impact on journalism.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

News culture eats strategy for breakfast


"Culture eats strategy for breakfast" is one of those throwaway lines loved by PowerPoint jockeys and business motivational speakers (with apologies to Peter Drucker). But in the case of newspaper organizations it has a particular resonance.

A recent survey by the US based Project for Excellence in Journalism has shown what many in the digital side of publishing have known for years, namely that newspaper executives deserve the blame for not changing the culture of their newsrooms. The failure to find a successful business model in the transition to digital is really a failure of leadership.

"The core cultural issue, executives told the PEJ researchers is the tension between the old ways and the new ways — and some of that stems from newspaper leadership that came of age in the days of monopoly newspapers and 20% profit margins.

“'We haven’t needed innovative people,' explained one executive. 'So you get what you need. The kind of people that came into this industry were more operationally focused, executors instead of innovator risk takers.'"

One daily newspaper the researchers looked at with a circulation of less than 50,000 struggled with the change to a web-first organization because, although its managers acknowledged the importance of the new medium, they didn't reinforce that desire through their reward and accountability systems. "Print revenue and circulation remained the benchmarks of success, not digital revenue or pageviews. As a result, newsroom staff struggled to develop the kind of online content needed to expand the web audience."

This same attitude, driven by either short term revenue fears (swapping print dollars for digital cents) or ignorance, or both, has played out across Australian news organizations over the last ten years. There is an Us and Them divide between print and digital staff which is only just beginning to close in some of the more enlightened newsrooms. But still, digital people are being "grinfucked" (as an old boss of mine used to say) by print staffers and seeing their skills and contribution being undervalued as print "news talent" moves into newly created digital specialist positions.

As the print iceberg melts, or the deck burns, the refugees looking to jump aboard the digital lifeboats has increased. And just like an overloaded metaphor, the digital lifeboat is at risk of sinking.

News organisations finally lost their early mover digital advantage in terms of raw audience some time over the last 18-24 months. While Facebook and Twitter saw exponential growth, and Google was experimenting with Wave, Buzz and Plus, news publishers dithered. They waged hopelessly naive campaigns against Google and debated endlessly whether a paywall strategy was the right direction. Meanwhile, they stopped any broadly meaningful digital product innovation choosing to put all their chips on iPad apps, which at best have been a qualified success.

All in all, it has not been a period of distinction for the industry. And once again, the inertia and lack of energy reveals a problem with the leadership.

Donald Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Company has admitted some of these failures. When asked recently by Vanity Fair if there was anything he wished he had done differently, looking back over his life at the Post, he said that he “replays” the mid-90s when the Post was first starting its web operation “all the time".

"We knocked it out of the park. We were in the help-wanted business three years ahead of anybody else. We started it with great editors and exceptional sales and marketing people, and we had good I.T. people, but we should have tripled up on that. We should have understood that this wasn’t a matter of presenting the news in another format. But I think every company in the news business would tell you the same thing."

There is certainly a consistent pattern.

One of those patterns is the ever recurring question: what is the future of print? As a medium news print may survive in a form analogous to classic music, or specifically opera. In other words, as a museum piece for a certain class of cultural animal. Frankly, it's the wrong question. A better question is: how do we ensure the viability of energetic journalism?

Some news organisations are addressing this question seriously, and attempting to resolve the crippling  issues that continue to prevent them from wholesale cultural reinvention. There is a new crop of younger media CEOs now, not all with ink in their veins.

It's a good start. But is it too late to prevent news publishers experiencing their own Kodak moments?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

State of the News Media 2012

New devices and platforms spur more news consumption ... but at the end of the day it's all about mobile.

The Pew Centre's latest report on American journalism.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Guardian's Three Little Pigs


 Just caught up with this brilliant piece of brand advertising from The Guardian.