Monday, September 01, 2008

On "quality journalism". I have been following the Fairfax purges and subsequent strike with interest and a feeling of solidarity, even though I haven't written for them since last April. I was surprised by the strength of my feelings on the matter. Determinedly, I refused to read The Age or any Fairfax website during Scab Weekend, and I felt upset to realise that the issue didn't seem to matter to many of my friends and acquaintances. From the disapproving glances I cast at the paper it looked much the same as usual, and people were certainly reading it as usual - some didn't even know there was a strike on.

More naggingly, I felt that a key aspect of the issue was never really addressed. This is the ideal of "quality journalism". Perhaps the striking journos felt the debate over what constitutes "quality journalism" has been rehearsed so often they didn't need to explain it again. They just needed to invoke it a lot.

A tag cloud on Fair Go Fairfax (the MEAA site covering the dispute), yesterday

The striking Fairfax journos argue that "quality" is the historical hallmark of their mastheads and the reason for their public reputation as 'journals of record', and believe the current management's shortsighted focus on cost-cutting is eroding it. MEAA federal secretary, Chris Warren, told Business Spectator:
Everyone accepts that these are enormously challenging times for newspapers and indeed for media organisations generally ... the only way media organisations are going to get through these current challenges is by ensuring that they can continue to provide the sort of quality journalism that will keep people stuck on to these media organisations, either in a online or a print environment.
But what is quality journalism? My former boss Eric Beecher gestures towards the answer in Crikey (subscriber-only) on 27 August. I'd better make sure I don't misquote Eric or he'll call me up in high dudgeon (but dun worry, I'll fob him off by sooking about something Crikey wrote about me long before Eric bought the company). So here's the entire article in question, with the key phrases bolded:
Once you de-code the mangled spin, the real significance of yesterday's announcement is that for the first time in its history, Fairfax has made a public declaration that profits come ahead of journalism. That its role as a major custodian of Australian quality editorial is secondary to its responsibility of maximising the financial outcome.

At one level this is neither surprising nor wrong. Fairfax is a public company whose primary duty is to shareholders who have invested in the company with purely financial motives.

Until yesterday, Fairfax had maintained the pretence that the two aspirations -- profits and public trust journalism -- could coexist. Until yesterday, Fairfax CEO David Kirk perpetuated that charade with his absurd rhetoric about Fairfax newspapers being different to others afflicted by the problems of the collapsing newspaper industry.

Yesterday Fairfax came clean. If you're looking for custodians of high-resourced fourth estate journalism in Australia, they effectively said, don't look here. We're businessmen and our overriding responsibility is to the pockets of our shareholders. Find someone else to deal with the societal responsibility stuff.

At least that's clear. Now the question is: can the quality, well-funded journalism that constitutes a pivotal plank of Australian democracy survive?

Asking whether newspapers can survive is the wrong question -- many of them can, but on a much lower cost base, with far fewer journalists covering politics, business, foreign capitals, courts and the investigative beats. Newspapers like The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age can easily be produced with 150 journalists, not 300. They will be different newspapers, slighter and lighter, but they will carry words and pictures surrounded by advertising and they will dress up like quality newspapers.

The time has come for governments, politicians and other public policy makers who genuinely believe in the place of quality journalism within the infrastructure of Australian democracy to understand that if they leave its future entirely to the marketplace, and to News Corporation, it will almost certainly be gone within a decade.

What will be left will be celebrity/sport/human interest pap journalism and relatively small independent outfits (like Crikey) whose revenues will never allow them to replicate the resources that have made newspapers like the Herald and The Age indispensable partners in the ecosystem of democracy for more than 150 years.
Elsewhere, Eric has summarised the notion of "quality" as "the role of well researched, serious journalism to act as a check and balance in the system of democracy". Meanwhile, besieged Fairfax CEO, David Kirk, is quoted as saying that the job cuts wouldn't affect this "quality" at all:
"Not the ... hard news, not the international news, not the business, sport, local news that is not part of the business that is being affected at all," he told newswire service AAP. "It's really mischievous of people to say that there's going to be a decline in the quality."
And in an editorial by turns spot-on and self-satisfied, The Australian points an accusatory finger at pre-printed lifestyle supplements:
Increasingly, the sparse newsbreaking of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age has been wrapped around pre-printed, stapled supplements, with nothing to do with news but everything to do with the minutiae of home decoration, gardening, style, entertainment, food and gadgets. Such supplements are labour-intensive, drawing staff away from politics, business, sport and general news. They are far more expensive to preprint and insert than traditional newspapers are to produce.

Unfortunately for the 550 people, including 180 journalists, to lose their jobs at Fairfax, lifestyle information, like classifieds, is readily accessible in more user-friendly forms online. Most home cooks, for instance, no longer clip recipes but look them up as needed. The days of lifestyle supplements are numbered. This is demonstrated by the falling circulations of publications that have embraced them at the expense of in-depth news expertise that cannot be replicated elsewhere. That is the real strength and future of newspapers.

Papers such as The Australian, which concentrate resources on breaking news, business, sport, social issues and general reporting, are not only weathering the internet and the downturn, but are also attracting thousands of new readers, mostly in the AB demographic eagerly sought by advertisers. Regional newspapers servicing markets as far afield as Geelong, Townsville and the Gold Coast are also thriving.
So we're getting something of a consensus on what "quality" means in this context: it's a commitment to well-resourced nuts-and-bolts reporting, with a bias towards rendering the democratic process transparent and accountable. However, I think the public's impression of Fairfax's "quality" is quite disconnected from the noble goal of fourth-estate journalism. It's a rather more hazy gravitas stemming from its broadsheet size, from a stable of sober columnists with backgrounds in reportage (rather than the demagogues commonly found in the News Ltd stable), from the remembered scoops of its venerable mastheads, and from a commitment to lengthy features.

Much as I dislike those sectarian stereotypes of "chattering classes" and the "latte Left", I also believe Fairfax appeals to socially progressive, educated and affluent readers precisely because it marries "iss-ewes"-based journalism with a commitment to the transmission of cultural capital. And cultural capital matters. Whether a newspaper actually stands for lofty ideals is pretty irrelevant as long as people have a general idea that the paper will teach them things that will enhance their social status - whether that be politics, real estate trends or which books, albums and films are "brilliant, brilliant".

Furthermore, the paper is actually read in a quotidian context, as part of what The Australian calls the "minutiae" of day-to-day life. Adrian Monck adds to my suspicions on this front by pointing out a 1945 sociological study that revealed people's deep emotional attachment to the sheer routine of reading the paper. If they think something about it is shit, they'll bitch about it or write an angry letter, but they'll continue to buy the paper. Not that I have done any qualitative research about this, but it's been my anecdotal experience that people think of themselves as "Fairfax readers" (as opposed to "News readers") and will buy and read the paper regardless of what's in it - or whether its journalists are striking in support of editorial "quality".

It is dispiriting to realise that there is no public discussion about how to determine "quality' in the sort of journalism I specialise in. I mean, if newspapers (and media commentators) devalue cultural reportage and analysis as mere filler, as "celebrity/sport/human interest pap journalism" to be ghettoised in "lifestyle supplements", then of course readers won't value it either. They won't apply journalistic standards to this content. But that's precisely what needs to happen.

What we need to be railing against is a corporate culture that cuts corners on quality control, lets under-resourced staff regurgitate press releases (aka "churnalism"), and buys cheap syndicated content from international publications rather than commissioning original stories by local writers. We need to condemn Fairfax for making its freelance contributors sign anti-competitive contracts, and for axing their columns without telling them. We need to condemn them for pulling funding from the industry-wide Walkley Awards in favour of an insular internal award, for yanking the Perkin Award and for discontinuing their traineeship program.

Quality journalism should be about rigorous, fair, skeptical, fearless and accurate research, interviewing and writing. It should be about original and thought-provoking story angles, and a commitment to local voices and perspectives - no matter what the story is about.

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