Sunday, June 10, 2007

The end of the world as they know it

The current issue of The Monthly carries the (reportedly) spiked Good Weekend feature on Wendi Deng as its cover story. And what a major disappointment it is. Spruiked as a yarn too spicy for Fairfax it turns out to be a rather drab rehash of the 2000 Wall Street Journal profile with some bland contributions from former classmates and colleagues at Star.

No wonder it was spiked by Good Weekend.

The Monthly also has a piece by Eric Beecher lamenting the threat to quality journalism brought about by commercial pressures generally and the internet specifically. Beecher writes,
"The reason that the internet isn't - and in my view can't be - the saviour of quality journalism is the vast expense of running a serious-minded editorial operation. In the US, it has been estimated that the newspaper industry spends US$7 billion each year on news and editorial operations. Translate that into the cost of running the journalism of a serious daily like The Age, The Australian or The Sydney Morning Herald, and you come up with figures like these: 400 editorial staff (say, $45 million); travel and international coverage ($8 million); news services, contributors and other costs ($4 million); support staff and overheads ($10 million). That's more than $60 million on pure journalism which, on the internet, would need to be recouped in advertising alone. Not a likely proposition."
This is too simplistic by far. $60 million in editorial budget is pretty steep. The Age has been south of $50 million for some time (of course this is still a large amount of money). And why does a digital strategy have to rely purely on display advertising? It's a big mistake to assume this.

So, what is Beecher really after? Is it protecting newspapers in their current form? Or is it safeguarding so called quality journalism? The paragraph quoted above seems to confuse the two.

If it's the latter then there are already examples of online only publications that are attempting to do quality journalism subsidised in one or other of the traditional ways: Slate, Salon, sp!ked, for example, and in Australia On Line Opinion, New Matilda, Smart Company and even Beecher's own Crikey - though not too many commentators would call Crikey "quality" journalism. Nevertheless, quality is a subjective term so we can stretch it in a lot of different directions.

The point is that the operational costs of traditional mass circulation daily newspapers are quite different from online publications. Unlike Beecher I do believe that it will be possible to produce high quality journalism profitably for digital publication.

I actually don't understand Beecher's fear of the commercial demands on journalism. It's always been this way. The Sulzbergers, Grahams and the Scott Trust are so rare as to be the exact exceptions that prove the commercial rule of journalism. Wishing for charities or benevolant billionaires to come riding to the rescue of quality newspapers seems delusional and even irresponsible.

Beecher has his own internet publication, but on a broad scale his message seems to be that it's all too hard to figure out so we should just get misty about the good old days.

He finishes his essay in The Monthly with a Rupert Murdoch quote from William Shawcross's 1983 biography:
'"All newspapers are run to make profits. Full stop. I don't run anything for respectability. The moment I do, I hope someone will come and fire me and get me out of the place - because that's not what newspapers are meant to be about." As we are now becoming all too aware.'
That final sentence seems to completely misunderstand Murdoch's point. Why should quality journalism, or newspapers, be about respectability? If afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted is an ideal of quality journalism it stands considerably at odds with respectability.

That Murdoch quote was from 25 years ago. Here's one from last week:
"How do I see newspapers? You have the opportunity to make a difference. But any difference we make today is providing more choice. We've kept papers alive for years or part of them … took the losses for 15 years or more to develop franchises to give people alternatives.

We've done it with The Australian, The Times in London -- and no one can say that they're not today very, very fine newspapers."
These two positions are not inconsistent. The Times and The Australian are quality papers that strive to be profitable. The fact is they cost a lot of money to run. But respectability is not the issue.

So we come back to the core question around the cost of producing journalism. Are newspapers still the best or most efficient platform for this? And the answer is no.

Editorial independence and the Wall Street Journal

WSJ has a strong Q & A with Murdoch where he let's fly at some unlikely targets. When questioned on his reputation for interfering with or influencing editorial direction he takes a swipe at the Daily Telegraph and its editor.
"WSJ: There seems to be other examples. The Daily Telegraph in Sydney a few weeks ago devoted most of its front page to your announcement that News Corp. would reduce its carbon emissions. The company logo was in the headline and there was an editorial that suggested you were a visionary.

"Mr. Murdoch: [Laughter] I don't know anything about that. And we sure didn't do that in the Post, which I'm closest to, hardly got them to notice it. Actually, it's interesting. It caused huge excitement among our staff in Australia and in Hollywood. And a fair bit in London. New York was pretty cynical.

"WSJ: Isn't this shilling for News Corp?

"Mr. Murdoch: That is, absolutely. Shouldn't be. That's bad.

"WSJ: The editor told us he was proud of it.

"Mr. Murdoch: They're all crazy greenies over there …"
Crazy greenie is not quite the way I'd describe Penbo. Still, there's no denying he's caught the bug.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was horrified that Beecher's piece rambled on through doomsaying after doomsaying quote about the future of newspapers and how audiences are changing.

Your analysis of him thinking that it's all just too hard so we shouldn't really look for any solutions is spot on. There will always be journalists and editors doing "quality" journalism, and it will still speak truth to the powerful and all the other things. I suspect what grinds Beecher's gears is that web traffic numbers are making old print editors like him realise that people never did read the big investigative pieces they poured money into - because they were boring. Readers were skipping to the horoscopes, the TV guide, crossword, letters, and maybe the booze recommendations in the weekend mag.

What the web is teaching journalists is this: if the SMH has a circulation of 200,000 and a readership of 500,000, only a tiny proportion of them - perhaps only a few thousand - will read the story about possible corruption at some local council on page 4. It's not going to be the story that everyone in Sydney is talking about. That doesn't mean it's not worth doing - it just means that the journalist's job, more than ever, is to present these stories in an entertaining way.