Thursday, June 28, 2012

Media Prometheus, or: Crash of the Titans. Yesterday an image from Ridley Scott's film Prometheus popped into my mind: Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron running desperately to avoid being crushed by a giant lozenge of a crashing alien spaceship:

This image from the trailer doesn't really convey how vast the ship is, and how tiny and precarious the two toiling figures are below. To me, the stricken ship is Big Media, and the humans in its looming path are media industry professionals trying desperately to save their live(lihood)s.

If you were in any doubt that Big Media is a crashing spaceship, consider how several weeks ago, Fairfax announced it was outsourcing subediting and production jobs at its regional mastheads to New Zealand, prompting journalists to strike for three days. Last week, the company announced it was slashing 1900 jobs, erecting a paywall, closing down some printing presses and taking its broadsheet mastheads tabloid.

The editors of both The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald announced their departures this week, bravely claiming they had voluntarily quit "the mothership" (curious wording, that) rather than being crowded out by the restructure.

Not to be left out, News Limited is also restructuring its operations, effectively shutting down regional newsrooms and making 115 jobs redundant in editorial, subediting, support and library services. News's bold plans for a new digital era include shedding up to 70 jobs in its digital division; 30 people have already been given the old heave-ho.

Prometheus the Titan gifted humankind with fire, our first technology, and was punished with an eternity of agony as eagles pecked at his liver. Prometheus begins with a mysterious alien drinking a weird black liquid and sacrificing his body to a primal act of creation. So, in the 'creative' restructuring of their corporate DNA, in the sacrifice of their editors-in-chief, are Australia's media titans doomed to be forever eviscerated, bleeding staff and resources?

"A king has his reign, and then he dies. It's inevitable," says Theron's character Meredith Vickers. Is the collapse of Big Media also inevitable? Will new hybrid media organisations replace them – organisations that, to our eyes, seem alien and abject, that colonise and consume the old ways of doing journalism?

Noomi Rapace is Elizabeth Shaw, the archaeologist who leads a team of freelance scientists on an intergalactic quest for the ancient astronauts whom she believes created the human race. She embodies an intriguing tension between an intellectualised, almost mystical faith ("that's what I choose to believe") and resourceful, atavistic survival instincts.

In my analogy, Shaw's creationism represents journalists' faith in 'quality journalism' as a benevolent fourth-estate ideal, despite plentiful evidence that it does not exist in current industry practice. Perhaps it has only ever existed in its believers' imaginations and in canonised practitioners such as St Woodward and St Bernstein.

Vickers, by contrast, is a company woman. The cold, calculating avatar of Shaw's corporate sponsor, she has her own luxuriously appointed suite on the Prometheus that can, if necessary, act as a completely self-sustaining escape pod. (A golden parachute?) Vickers' first action upon awakening from stasis is to do some pushups, then enquire coldly about the number of casualties en route. This is sort of how I imagine Fairfax or News executives begin their days.

Vickers is disconcertingly like disgraced News Limited executive editor Rebekah Brooks, whose erstwhile employer Rupert Murdoch is disconcertingly like Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the wizened mogul who stubbornly clings to his empire. ("My ambition is unlimited. You know that I will settle for nothing short of greatness, or I will die trying.")

Or perhaps Vickers is PR nincompoop Tina Alldis, who penned a tone-deaf op-ed outlining how publicists could benefit from the Fairfax and News unheavals. It generated more than 200 angry and disgusted responses from PR professionals disavowing Alldis, and journalists appalled by her callousness, before the comments thread was shut down. Alldis and her boss Simone Drewry both subsequently apologised.

When Shaw and Vickers are fleeing the alien spaceship, only Shaw has the bright idea to run sideways. Stuck in the tunnel vision that has defined her ambitious career, Vickers keeps running straight ahead and is crushed. Perhaps so too will be the journalists who remain loyal to the company, to the masthead.

Like Weyland, who has artificially prolonged his life and become a grotesque, desiccated shell, masthead journalism has been the paradigm for too long. And like Weyland, who believes himself an immortal, god-like creator, Big Media believes it cannot die. Perhaps it not only can, but it must.

Shaw alone survives in a hostile universe: a freelancer continuing, poignantly, to believe in quality journalism even despite her monstrous experiences, even if she must mutilate her career prospects by refusing to participate in the new hybrid forms…

But she can only strive for her ineffable goal with the help of technology – the android David (Michael Fassbender) – even if, like David, technology sometimes behaves perversely, at cross-purposes with our expectations. Both our helpmeet and our undoing, new journalism technologies may be our only way to blast off into an uncertain future, but only after they've clubbed Rupert Murdoch to death… aahh, I can sense this precarious analogy falling apart so let's just leave it right there.

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