Quick response to Tim Dunlop’s piece at The Drum, ‘Hold your nose and support the coming media paywalls‘
Here’s Dunlop’s argument in a nutshell:
Constant, day-to-day, up-to-minute, comprehensive, fair, balanced, accurate and compelling journalism that can hold power to account is the work of big, mutha-fuquing corporations, not half-a-dozen well-meaning people and the smell of an oily rag in somebody’s spare room.
Put simply, the mainstream is the only game in town and we have to support them – with actual cash – even if we have to hold our noses to do it.
If I genuinely thought that we could starve the mainstream into better journalism – that is, if I thought that the loss of one of the two big newspaper corporations would somehow open the way for a viable alternative – then I would be all for it.
But the if-you-destroy-it-they-will-come plan is a fantasy, and as Robert McChesney says in Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights, “It is impossible to conceive of effective governance and the rule of law … without a credible system of journalism.”
In other words ‘support your local multimedia conglomerate’. My position on this issue, having spent years thinking about it, including being paid to do so in a newspaper company, is that I’m very short traditional newspaper companies, but long journalism. Here’s my response in bullet-form:
1. If he really believes that, then the battle’s already lost. No scaled industry or business ever survived on that kind of quasi-charitable appeal. Not for long anyway. People have been saying ‘buy Australian-made’ for decades but it failed to stop our manufacturing sector going into steep decline. Industries survive because they provide value to customers, not on philanthropy and good intentions.
2. Why is media special? Many industries – e.g. manufacturing, above – have gone through equally painful restructuring and decline, with hundreds and thousands of job losses, and yet (a) Australians have more, and cheaper, consumer durables than ever, and (b) unemployment sits at a respectable 5%. In other words, the ‘if-you-destroy-it-they-will-come’ scenario is not a fantasy. It’s been played out many times in this country, and the market has always done it’s work because the underlying consumer demand is there. Demand for journalism is there – based on time spent with media there is more journalism consumed in Australia now than ever before – so why not be bullish about its ability to restructure?
But to the detail: where’s the journalism going to come from? Here is what I think.
3. About 90% of newspaper journalism output can be easily supplied by the market. Newspapers do 3 basic kinds of journalism: 60% is basic reportage: who said what, when, and where. 30% is opinion. The smallest part, 10%, is hardcore investigative journalism.
- Basic reportage is a commodity that will consolidate with fewer companies. Put simply, it’s absurd, irrational and unsustainable in the future for 50 media companies to provide 50 slightly different descriptions of a single football match. So the market for commodified reportage will simply consolidate, whether with a wire service like AAP or with a news masthead.
- The internet can supply opinion. I don’t think we’re in danger of running out of opinions.
- The last 10% – investigative journalism, proper journalism – is the hard bit. Here’s what I think will happen…
4. It’s the age of the whistleblower. The internet makes it possible for any insider with juicy information to get it out. Two of the biggest stories of the past 5 years – Wikileaks and the MP expenses scandal in the UK – were broken as a result of whistleblowing activity. Obviously both used newspapers to disseminate the information, but it’s impossible to argue that newspapers were necessary in this. In the case of Wikileaks whistleblowers newspapers were simply more convenient; for the MP expenses whistleblower, the newspaper route was infinitely more lucrative. But both stories could have happened anyway, without the support of the NYT, the Guardian or the Daily Telegraph (UK).
Investigative journalism is expensive because of the investment of time and effort in journalists understanding the issues, chasing down leads, finding the right people to talk to etc. Reaching all those people and finding out what they know takes a long time and is very hard to do – that is, unless you are already one of those people. An insider in a corrupt organisation already has the info the journalist strives for and the newspaper invests $ in acquiring, and they can now disseminate it for free. The barriers to whistleblowing have never been lower, and the potential liabilities are not stemming the flow of information.
One of the best examples of investigative journalism has been the phone hacking scandal in the UK, with The Guardian’s Nick Davies leading the charge. But surely a big reason the story came to light is because the hard yards were already done. The journalists already knew the main players in the story – other journalists – already had a full book of contacts and phone numbers, and probably knew peripherally that the practice was going on. Journalists-investigating-investigative-journalists is a comparatively easy beat. If the same scandal was happening in a mining company or a software company, it would likely never have been discovered, not without a whistleblower.
Phone hacking is the worst example to use to make point: “If it wasn’t for professional journalists, it wouldn’t have been discovered”. If it wasn’t for the professionalised, industrial journalism, under pressure to fill pages with content to support advertising targets … it would never have happened in the first place.
5. Crowdsourced investigation has a business model. Look at TMZ. Seriously, don’t be put off by the fact it’s lowbrow, it’s still ‘investigative’. When I worked at the Daily Mirror in the UK, celebrity journalism was the most expensive thing to do – they sent multiple journalists and photographers overseas, often to expensive locations, to hunt down reports of celebrity behaviour. Now TMZ has a business model of supplying the exact same product at a fraction of the cost using crowdsourced tips, photos and stories. The company is valued at $100m. Explain to me why this can’t be done with ‘hard’ journalism?
6. Enthusiastic amateurs are pretty amazing. It’s easy to say that amateurs can’t do investigative journalism. But why bet against it? Amateurs have put together high-quality full-length feature films with basic equipment; they’ve built incredibly sophisticated and powerful pieces of software. There are thousands of people doing these two things right now. No offence to the journalistic profession but both of these things require astronomically higher skill levels, and a much bigger investment of time, than journalism.
7. There are too many newspapers anyway. I don’t think all newspapers will disappear. I just think many of them will because the sector will consolidate around a few key titles. Newspapers in the pre-internet days relied on a monopoly of distribution in their geographic area. The New York Times, the LA Times, the Washington Post all owned their cities. But thanks to the internet that monopoly is gone and these mastheads all compete in a geography-free marketplace, and frankly, there’s just way too many of them.
So the weaker of these mastheads will fail. And you know what – who cares? Because if the WaPo falls over, the NYT moves in and eats up its audience. So the WaPo is conservative while the NYT is liberal and famously NYC-centric? The NYT puts more journos on the ground in DC, employs more conservatives (probably ex-WaPo ones), and repositions itself.
As the NYT has gone behind a paywall The Guardian is ramping up its website coverage of USA news, including employing more US-based journalists. The Daily Mail (UK) is doing the same. Should paywalls in Australia fail, who’s to say that successful media brands like the NYT, Guardian, BBC won’t expand out here and fill the gap? Why bet against it?
Summary: Demand for journalism is as strong as ever. There’s no reason to think the market won’t supply this, and in fact it’s already happening. Short newspaper companies / long journalism.