Saving news that matters

Those who mourn the death of newspapers and the journalism that print ad revenue once supported should take heart that talented journalists are still working in media, passionate about using new and better ways to keep the powerful accountable.

If you are a keen consumer of news media, you’ll enjoy the technology which delivers it wherever and whenever, but are you complaining about a news desert or having to plough through acres of click bait to find the buried nuggets of expert coverage?

Are you asking where’s the coverage of important local issues instead of the heavy focus on crime and lifestyle that most news sites rely on for page views?

It seems that in this age of instant information in the palm of your hand, important news affecting local communities is becoming scarce. Social media with its rivers of fake news has become the sole information source for many and the key influencer of their perceptions.

The transition to digital is not quite complete in Australia and media companies continue to hunt for a sustainable business model that reclaims much-needed ad revenue from Google and Facebook to keep home-grown journalism strong.

Meanwhile, I’d like to think that rebuilding trust in and growing audiences for great journalism is the key to getting new audiences to pay for news.

How did we get to this point and where to next for journalism? I explored these topics in the 2017 Brian Johns Lecture at the State Library of NSW in May for the Centre for Media History and the Copyright Agency.

Read Amanda Wilson's 2017 Brian Johns Lecture

The 2017 Brian Johns Lecture

By Amanda Wilson, given at the State Library of NSW for the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University

I was introduced to newspapers by my Nana. She was a super recycler, like everyone else in those days. There was a toilet at the bottom of the garden, approached with caution through spider territory.  The loo paper was neatly cut up squares of newspaper threaded with string and hanging on a nail.

The snippets of newspaper were an interesting diversion from helping with the dishes.

I don’t know what the Water Board thought of thrifty people like Nana who clogged the sewers with newsprint, but I tell this story to illustrate how integral the business I used to be in was to the lives of people not so long ago. The newspaper was handy, and a key source of information – even if many politicians, business leaders and enterprising crims – then and now – thought of them and their staff as nothing better than arse wipes.

Nowadays, my local vet is desperate to hear from anyone who has old newspapers to donate. I am popular with neighbours who need newspapers to clean their BBQ drip trays.

But even I – a former veteran of the newspaper game – have almost given up on print. I have the papers delivered seven days a week, but I only get to read them in print on weekends, when there’s time.

I started as a copy kid – that’s a gofer – with News Ltd in Melbourne more than 40 years ago and I’ve worked through one of the most far-reaching disruptions in news media history. I was at the Financial Times in London when they still used hot metal. I was at The Sunday Times in the 80s when Murdoch fought the UK print unions at Wapping and journalists became typesetters too.

I was at the Sydney Morning Herald in the 90s when science writer Bob Beale convinced management to hook up one of the computers to this new internet thing.

In 2011, when I became Editor of the Herald, it wasn’t just the daily drama of the country’s political, business and social issues that cost me my sleep. I also agonised over how the newsroom could embrace the most disruptive of changes wrought by that same technology.

I had to wield the axe over editorial costs in an attempt to survive a disintegrating business model. But at the same time, I along with everyone in the editorial team were trying to work with this fabulous technology to build a media future in which the foundations of public defender journalism remained strong.

I knew it would be tough. That the disruption could be terminal.  Before this, as Deputy Editor, I’d already had to manage two redundancy rounds and the outsourcing of editorial production of the lifestyle sections. With fewer staff to put out a daily and a Sunday paper, I’d had to restructure the newsroom to create a 7-day roster.

But, when I was offered the top job, I had to give it a go. I had to see if I could make a difference, to somehow come up with a way of doing things that would stem the tide of cuts.

I had to see if I could fight management’s deliberate decision to completely separate the brand identities and journalistic ethos of the printed Herald from SMH dot com.

I thought I could prove to management that our fabulous award-winning journalism was the core value proposition of the Herald and of the company. Being the first woman to take on the job of Editor was an exciting personal and professional milestone. But breaking the glass ceiling was a sidebar to the main game.

In fact, when people asked me what it was like to be the first woman Editor of the Herald, I said I’d never thought of myself as a woman journalist – just a journalist.

But of course, it made a difference. It means something in every organisation to have diversity of experience and thought brought to bear on decision-making. In the same way, cultural diversity is as important as gender – but that’s a whole other talk, on how to stay relevant to today’s Australian audiences.

But in reality, there was nothing I or anyone else in team then – and now – could do to fix the revenue losses stemming from the failing business model.  Everyone who has run the newsroom since then has had the same ambition.  Eventually, that have taken the same cold shower.

Cutting costs was never going to make up for the haemorrhaging of advertising and subscription dollars that the commercial side of the business was overseeing.

I won’t go into management’s part in that downfall. For excellent accounts of how successive managements at Fairfax stuffed things up, I recommend you read the books of Pamela Williams and Colleen Ryan.

The story of the failing news media business model is also not unique to Australia. It’s been told over and over here and around the world.

At every round of layoffs and redundancies, the shock and awe is repeated. People wonder how much more can be cut out of editorial, how quality journalism can be maintained. Witness the recent agonising on social media when News Corp announced it was getting rid of staff photographers and asking reporters to write their own headlines. And the trauma when Fairfax announced $30m cuts to editorial, which will mean perhaps another 150 journalists out the door.

I know all the arguments. Photographers –  how can they get rid of them? – digital content is heavily visual. And arts coverage is vital to keeping Australian cultural life vibrant and Australian. How can you get rid of that? And yes, foreign news coverage for Australian audiences needs an Australian eye.

I share these concerns. A fatal loss of journalistic capacity has serious implications for how the workings of government, business and society are reported on. And reported on not just as inventory through which data on hits and engagement is gathered to attract advertisers. But as an integral part of the democratic process.

But to be blunt – for anyone trying to run a media company the maths is simple. It’s cheaper to use freelancers, who buy their own equipment, pay their own insurance, run their own cars, and don’t get paid when they’re sick or on holiday.

Back in 2011, once installed in the Editor’s office, I saw there was no fighting the numbers. There was more outsourcing of production work and more redundancies.

Then came the day editorial were asked to come up with a plan to become completely digital first. This would finally break down the internal silos which kept an infuriating and frustrating separation between print and digital.  We were cautiously optimistic that this might also mean that the split personality of the Herald in print and online would disappear. Just maybe, print’s checks and balances could exert more quality control over the website. No such luck.

I was on the steering committee of this newsroom restructure project that saw my own role – the traditional role of Editor with a capital E in charge of everything – white-boarded out of existence with much management encouragement.

Now, five years and many more restructures and redundancies later, I keep paying for papers I don’t need because I’m loyal to my tribe. They are the women and men who still work in journalism, who believe in what they do, and who mentor the young ones starting out.

They’re trying to keep meticulous, professional and important news-gathering capacity in words and images alive.

I can’t give up on those people who persevere in a profession that seems utterly unsustainable. It’s hard to see how the latest Fairfax cuts will leave any warm bodies in the newsroom – but then that’s why I’m no longer there. I lost my taste for drinking that Cool Aid.

At the other end of the storytelling spectrum, there’s some good news. Earlier this year, I heard Julie Snyder, executive producer of Serial, tell a rapturous young Opera House audience about the success of this podcast, which comes from the same stable as This American Life. When she told them it had reached 250 million downloads, there was enthusiastic applause.

That’s an incredible reach for a piece of long-form broadcast journalism about a murder case. It’s a reach only made possible by the ability to download for free exceptional work by experienced journalists trained in long-form storytelling and working in public radio. It is a reach made possible because word of its brilliance was shared widely on social media, all for free.

And there’s the problem. But more people than ever are able to read or listen to a great piece of journalism, but very few are paying. And the revenue from advertising is going to the distribution platforms like Google and Facebook, not to pay for newsrooms. In the US, 99 cents in every ad dollar goes to them. No surprise there. Almost everyone you know, and pretty much everyone under 40, gets most of their information from social channels. And digital ads are cheaper. So why would businesses advertise anywhere else?

As I said at the outset – this isn’t new. And I’m not going to run through all the fatal numbers here. Suffice to say that news executives around the world have agonised over this for years.

In 2007 I spent several weeks at Stanford University immersed in thinking about what tomorrow was going to bring for news media. I visited IDEO, an extraordinary Silicon Valley design company that specialises in innovation. I asked them how they would solve the problem of newspapers’ demise. They said they wouldn’t take on the job.

I met Guy Kawasaki, Silicon Valley venture capitalist. I asked him what he recommended for newspapers. He looked at his iPhone, then only a few months in the market, he looked at the LA Times I was holding and he said, no contest.

But I came back energised. I thought the iPhone had massive potential. I was on a mission to bridge the print-digital divide at Fairfax. I found it was almost impossible for a print editorial executive to be heard on the subject of digital disruption. We were seen as very expensive dinosaurs whose contributions were more of a thorn in the side of those higher up the food chain – always banging on about loss of journalistic quality and values.

Back when I was managing the lifestyle sections, I saw the writing on the wall when I ran a brainstorming session to work up ideas for a new entertainment section. I invited a range of people in their 20s from non-editorial parts of the business to get a diversity of views.

I knew the game had changed forever when the young woman responsible for selling ad space in Spectrum admitted she never read it.  How the hell can you sell advertising space in a product you don’t read? Well, clearly you can’t. I asked her how she knew what films to watch, books to read, plays to see or restaurants to try, and she looked at me like I was mad. Facebook, of course. She followed her friends’ recommendations.

Getting the newsroom to listen then was hard. Most of the journos were head in the sand, unable to even consider that their work was becoming too expensive to sustain. Most were blissfully ignorant of who read what, how many papers were sold, and why there was a clamp down on expenses.

It came as a shock to most in the newsroom some years ago when we shared market research that showed it was the classifieds, not the journalism that sold the hefty weekend paper.

It began to sink in when the online news editor started circulating a daily email of the top 10 stories on the website by hits. There was consternation that a computer game review or a comment piece on yobbos in Bali might rate higher than hard-earned hard news.

Media organisations in Europe were the same in 2006 when I visited looking for magic bullets. They were digging their own graves as they tried to work out how to triage the injuries inflicted on their business model by digital disruption. They tried to ignore the winds of change blowing in from the US, where papers were failing fast.  There were long debates about whether the decline was just cyclical or more seriously structural.

Back home, we had our fingers crossed that management would find ways to keep ad revenue from disappearing.  This same ad revenue that paid for independent, quality journalism of the kind you see ever-decreasing examples of. Or you now mainly see winning Walkley Awards for the publicly-funded ABC.

I’m talking about the expensive kind that supports the public interest when sometimes only a few keen members of the public are interested and paying enough attention to click and share. Putting this hard-earned information in front of readers and viewers requires commitment, including serious investment in legal backing, and comes with no apparent dollar return on investment.

Expensive journalism is the kind that often resulted in calls to the publisher or editor threatening to cancel advertising contracts. Often the threats were real. The contracts were cancelled. But there was enough money coming in to wear it. And the advertisers came back eventually because there was nowhere else to go. Not so now.

These days, most of the best investigative journalists I’ve worked with are employed by the ABC. News Corp in particular complains bitterly about the unfair competition from the taxpayer-funded ABC. But all the commercial media feel the same way.

I am a big ABC supporter – and yes, their resources are dwindling too. But do we really want a news environment where there’s only one player left in Australia who can afford to produce the goods?

Fairfax has taken a different tack. When it’s not chasing a clickbait strategy, the shrinking investigative teams have joined forces with programs such as 4 Corners to keep going.

As an aside, I believe collaborative journalism of this type is giving news gathering a shot in the arm. The possibilities of what can be achieved were shown dramatically by the Panama Papers, the leak to one German news organisation that ended up with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and was worked on by more than 100 journalists around the world.

What’s the ICIJ’s business model? It is a non-profit that relies on philanthropic grants.

Let me say here that not all news needs to spark a royal commission or win awards to be worth reading.  I don’t have a problem with news as entertainment. I’m as guilty as you are of clicking on the occasional cat video. But the insatiable appetite for page views can drive editorial decisions to the detriment of news that matters.

Is that today’s definition of public interest journalism? They’re clicking on it so they obviously want to read or watch it?

A recent survey of Australians’ news consumption for The Digital News Report: Australia 2016, found that a more than half of respondents said social media was their main source of news. At the same time in the US, the Pew Research Center found that figure was 62% of adults.

A media consumer survey by Deloitte in 2016 found that the preferred entertainment activity of 60% of respondents of all ages was using the internet for social interests; only 19% read newspapers either online or in print.

As print disappears, in theory it should be easier for big publishers to find a workable business model. After all, having news in the palm of your hand means publishers can remove the huge costs of buying paper, maintaining printing plants, and distributing a physical product across large distances.

The wrinkle there is that digital advertising has failed to live up to its promise and has not replaced print ad revenue.

Surely newsrooms which have never had the burden of print can be more agile, more cost effective, devise a business model that pays its way? Apparently not, as has been seen with Salon, Vice, Mashable, Gawker and Buzzfeed all cutting back.

In the US, something of a bellwether for us, the most successful media organisations are the big trusted brands – the New York Times and the Washington Post. At the Post, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos came in on a white charger to inject both funds and a digital mindset to save one of the world’s most famous mastheads from its deathbed.

The US is also seeing a resurgence of interest in paying for good journalism because of the Trump factor. They’re calling it the Trump Bump. I hate to say it – in fact I’m not really saying it – but Australian media could do with a Trump of its own, to bring paying customers screaming back to the fold.

So – other than that – how do news organisations convince people, especially those under 40, of the value of their business proposition?

The NYT, as part of its push to rejuvenate readers, recently announced it had 1.3 million high school student subscriptions. Great, but all of them were subsidised by $2 million in reader contributions, with one anonymous donor putting in $1 million.

That’s nice. The idea of readers donating to big media organisations would have been unthinkable not so long ago. But there is some serious money being put into researching how the membership model might be leveraged.

This is coming from the quarter which argues that perhaps finding a sustainable business model is less important that restoring trust in the media. (Some of us actually believe that the two go together!)

NYU academic Jay Rosen, is working with a Dutch group, The Correspondent, which is free of advertising and commercial sponsors, and is funded by 56,000 members, who peach ay about $63 a year. They are expanding to the US, and Rosen has a grant of half a million dollars to research their membership strategy in the US context. Nice work.

The money is coming from the Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and First Look Media (which is Pierre Omidyar of eBay). Pierre Omidyar Philanthropy has promised a total of $100 million to support investigative journalism, fight misinformation and counteract hate speech around the world. The Panama Papers’ ICIJ will benefit to the tune of $4.5million.

In the absence of such an angel, The Guardian is chewing up the Scott Trust which funds its journalism, and is giving the membership model a go. Its pitch is that if you trust us, you will want to help us to keep doing what we’re doing. I’ve read that The Guardian internationally could lose $100m this year. That’s hardly sustainable no matter how many members they sign up.  Although I understand the local operation is on track to break even this year, which is heartening.

As newsrooms strive to be more innovative to survive, they face stiff competition from everyone else who is taking to social media, flexing their fingers to write, create videos and podcasts to broadcast their opinions around the connected world.

Anyone can have a go. How far their opinions are pushed out on this electronic tide depends on how punchy their headline, how arresting their video or how polemical their view.

Newsrooms are either embracing or grappling with this challenge. Too often, they face it by making their “shareable” content outweigh the dull-but-important content to boost all-important clicks and engagement.   A successful business model needs a unique proposition. It is not helped when readers complain there is nothing worth reading and they turn to social media for interesting sources of information.

Social media has done more to change journalism and kill the business model than the introduction of the internet, which disrupted absolutely everything.

In 2004 I spent a month in the US doing media management training at Northwestern University. All the cutting edge thinking then was how to preserve print. There was also a lot of radical talk about how journalists might come out of their editorial bunkers, work with the commercial side of the business and think more entrepreneurially. This was a few months after Facebook launched. We all signed up and played with it. Who knew?

Back in Sydney, I recall a research briefing from a newsprint supplier worried that its customers might soon be going out of business. It was the dawn of the smart phone era. They described the various “tribes” of information consumers and told us the future was grim but we shouldn’t lose heart. Yes, there would be some who had never cared about news and would just use the internet for entertainment.

And yes, there’d be the digital animals who would reject the media because in the future they wouldn’t turn to journalists for synthesised versions, they’d find the source documents without our help.

The hope, said this purveyor of newsprint, was in the fact we editors were also curators. There would always be a need for professionals who could scour the web and the wires for great news and information to re-publish or point out to our readers. We left the briefing vaguely reassured.

Falsely reassured, as it turns out. No one needs journalists and editors as gatekeepers of information when they have social media.

Facebook has 1.86bn active users around the globe. That’s a very large country whose citizens are sharing a lot of news. Much of it is important, interesting and well-sourced. But what they see is at the mercy of Facebook, which can change its newsfeed algorithm so people can see [quote] the stories they find most meaningful”, so that it is [quote] subjective, personal and unique”. You can live in an echo chamber where you only see news and information shared by people whose views you agree with.

The problem for news organisations is that when they try to compete for eyeballs in this space, often their executives make decisions based on what the algorithm is going to love. And based on what large chunks of their audiences with short attention spans will tolerate.

That’s not good for news executives struggling to find money to resource expensive, public defender journalism.

More worrying still is the huge numbers of people who are in a state of what is being called radical ignorance. The vast amounts of misinformation and completely fake news available in the palm of your hand is leaving some people – voters among them – with a false sense of expertise on any number of subjects.

Radical ignorance is a phenomenon described by Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford University, who first looked at it in the context of how Big Tobacco spread misinformation about the perils of smoking under the guise of balanced debate. It is how climate change deniers today get to argue against the evidence and convince enough people in the community they’re right.

I’d like to think that rebuilding trust in and growing audiences for great journalism is the best way to cure this rash of fringe views legitimised in the echo chamber of social media.  I also like to think it is the key to getting new audiences to pay for news.

Pretty much everyone who calls themselves a journalist wants to produce news that matters, work of consequence that causes inquiries to be held, corruption to be exposed and unscrupulous characters held to account.

But there’s a reason the profession is low on the trust scale – not all newshounds were or are talented, ethical defenders of the truth.  And some news outlets do themselves no favours by playing the man – or generally the outspoken woman – in the name of journalism.

There were plenty of reporters who made a living penning pretty scurrilous reports, or dressing up the slimmest of facts into something resembling a story. Indeed, you could say that’s often how click bait stories are pulled together.

In the apparently good old days, there were also people who could and would make a story out of anything. They could walk out of a grieving mother’s lounge room with her only photo of a dead child and promptly lose it.

When I arrived in Fleet Street looking for work, I got some reporting shifts at the Daily Mail. They sent me to the Cotswolds to hang out in a certain pub and pose as an Aussie tourist to expose an illegal cock-fighting ring. After three days perched in the public bar trying to get the local rugby club to spill the beans, I only just escaped with my life, but no story. The newsdesk was furious. Apparently, I was supposed to come up with something, anything, to justify my excursion. They sent me packing with a curt “best of luck with your career!”

That’s when I decided to try sub-editing. I figured being stuck in the office would be better for my morals and my liver.

There were plenty of reporters who could embellish the facts but couldn’t write to save themselves. But never mind, the subs could turn any pile of rubbish into a front-page piece that had the paper walking off the newsstands.

Journalists also had a well-tended blind spot when it came to worrying about what mattered to their readers. That can’t be ignored now because their work is judged by the traffic it generates, and there’s no escaping the commentariat on social media.

Journalists can be smug. They can think they know what’s best for audiences. The problem with that is they themselves tend to be a niche audience. Of course, I’m generalising, but they can be taken completely by surprise when populists appear and tap into what ‘ordinary people’ are thinking and feeling and voting.  Where social media can be an echo chamber of same-same opinions and stories that reinforce one’s world view, so can newsrooms be.

All journalists pride themselves on their objectivity. Some are more objective than others. Even before the frenetic 24/7 news cycle, when there were still plenty of good editors with time for rigorous checking, the accusations of bias were a familiar refrain. So were demands that the Editor do something about it.

The claims of left-wing bias were as frequent as those of right-wing bias. Any news executive in any organisation will tell you the same thing. People have always wanted their favourite media organisation to echo their own views or reinforce their outrage.

Someone recently asked me what was the point of being Editor when I couldn’t stop what they said was the Herald’s bias.

Well, there are editors and editors. Some like to command and control every output and wage ideological wars to the bitter end. I didn’t want my newsroom to be a collective or to have no direction, but nor did I want journalists to second-guess an editorial line handed down from the mount. I tried to foster a culture of excellence – where accuracy was paramount, where all sides of the story were aired, and where reporters were given the opportunity to convince me their idea warranted time and resources to keep digging.

And I tried to do those things in an increasing atmosphere of fear in the newsroom that more redundancies were around the corner, that the editorial budget would be slashed yet again, that foreign bureaux would close, the paper might close.

It was important for me to stay grounded in the journalism when I became Editor, even as I worried about the business. There were a couple of my colleagues I approached to mentor me, and the late Adele Horin was one.

Adele represented Australian journalism at its best – fearless, tenacious, beholden to none, and with a nose for exactly what people needed to know before they knew it.  She knew how to tell stories that mattered. She never spared me, and I was grateful.

I left the Herald in 2012 after 17 years, and Adele left soon after along with another 80 journalists. We talked every week. While I pondered what was next, Adele had no such doubts. She loved her readers and she had many more important stories to tell. So she started a blog, working for free. It was really taking off when Adele became too ill to continue.

I mention her because she deserves to be named here tonight. Journalism like Adele’s is what people mean when they talk about quality journalism, when they talk about public interest journalism. Journalism like Adele’s is still there – it’s just harder to find.

Thank goodness we can still find Kate McClymont. She is still there, plugging away at the bad guys, and guiding journalists as chair of the Walkley Foundation board. Hers is one of the few remaining big names on whose shoulders the reputation of the SMH rests. As she told me: “People say, if Kate has written it, you can believe it’. That’s nice, but it’s a burden.”

Kate describes herself as “deluged by the weight of stories’ with not enough time to do it all.  In March, she said if she didn’t take another phone call all year, she would still have more major investigations than she could ever have time to produce this year.  There’s hardly anyone left in the newsroom to pass the stories on to.

It may seem like an odd comparison, and I hope Kate will forgive me for making it, but it’s a bit like the fate of the horse. Equine employment prospects were once terrific. Then along came technological disruption in the form of the car. Now you’re left with some very expensive stars of the track which draw in the big money for their owners and backers.

If news that matters and the people who produce it are to avoid a similar fate in the next great wave of connectedness that will hit us all – the internet of everything – then we all need to work at it. Managements need to work out a business model that successfully gives us the news consumers something we are willing to pay for. And that advertisers want to throw money at. Throwing out talent and experience is not a business model.

As consumers, we need to support Australian journalism. Abundant access to global media doesn’t help if you want top-class journalists lifting the lid on fraud and corruption in your own backyard.  We have to keep up the pressure on media organisations to do their jobs properly.

As journalists – seize the day. The world is awash with crap masquerading as news. Any moment now people will wake up to find they need what you do. Accuracy, context, effectiveness, trust and amazing new tech are your tools. You’re part of a new information eco-system in which everyone must be capable of innovative and entrepreneurial thinking – embrace that.

I am optimistic that a business model will be found, because I believe more and more people will start to become fed up with the inconsequential and realise that real information is power.

So let’s start by re-thinking how news media can become trusted and relevant, and by giving them real news that matters – in ways that work for today and tomorrow.


Michael Egan AO, Chancellor of Macquarie University, with Amanda Wilson.

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