The continuing decline of journalism

It looks like Greg Presland as made use of a quiet time to have a good look at the media in New Zealand in 2015, and how journalism seems to be continuing it’s decline.

The media in 2015 is a worthwhile post to read for anyone interested in where we are headed with media coverage.

This year saw the continuation of a trend that has been evident for some years.  The media became dumber and nastier and more superficial as cuts to spending on serious journalism increased and power was increasingly dominated corporate interests.

A fight for commercial survival by corporate media is cutting back on more left friendly journalists.

While on the left we celebrated the fitting conclusion of the right’s attempt to manipulate the media for their benefit the basic fact is that overall the media has been damaged and is worse off because of what has happened.  There has to be a better way.

Everyone in politics tries to ‘manipulate the media’. Some think they are more successful than others.

The reverberations of Dirty Politics continues although it is noticeable that National, while denying that Dirty Politics is even a thing, is busily taking steps to remove any remaining links that previously existed.

I’m not aware of National denying that Dirty Politics is ‘a thing’. Rather they have tried to bury it (a standard political manoeuvre) because it was a very bad look for them.

It is clear however that National is no longer using Slater to attack its opponents and he is now no longer the recipient of Beehive sourced information.  I am sure that Judith Collins’ return to Cabinet was made on the promise that she will no longer feed Slater with the sorts of information that she used to.  The tip line I suspect is now permanently out of order.

It’s good to see Presland acknowledge that Slater has been dumped as a useful idiot.

I think Collins committed to being seen to separate herself from Slater some time ago. Otherwise she may not now be back in Cabinet.

Overall I would rate the current year as just like last year only worse for those interested in quality independent media.

This is not a peculiarly New Zealand phenomenon and elsewhere through the Western English speaking world similar issues of corporate control and the slide of the media into irrelevance and bias are occurring.

For instance in Australia Jim Parker in a post titled the business of anger recently made these comments:

A perennial tension in journalism arises from balancing the professional requirement to accurately inform the public and the commercial one to actively engage them.

The destruction of media business models, where classified advertising subsidised across a Chinese wall the quality journalism that attracted the eyeballs, has gradually swung that balance from the professional to the commercial imperatives.

Of course, every journalist wants their work to be seen, shared and remarked on. After all, there are plenty of people on the web and elsewhere writing worthy but dull tomes that bury the lead. (And not all of them are tenured academics).

But in the brutal supply-demand economics of new digital media, where an ever growing surplus of content competes for an ever shrinking quota of attention, the only strategy (garage band style) is to turn up the volume….and bugger the standards.

His conclusion appears to be as relevant in Aotearoa as it is in Australia:

The media wants conflict for its own sake. And it doesn’t just want polite and civil disagreement. It wants desk-thumping, spittle-spraying, shoe-chucking tantrums – whether it be on talkback radio or Q&A. The issues in dispute don’t much matter. It’s anger, fury, hatred, and blind incoherent rage as a business model.

An example is what happened to the Herald this year.  Competent accomplished journalists were sacrificed for those able to generate the most noise and clicks.

This is a real problem with no sign of it getting any better or easier for journalism.

It’s not just the dumbing down that’s a problem, the fragmentation of media means reducing resources are spread over a much wider spectrum.

A six edition a week newspaper now has to also keep drip feeding an online presence. Six o’clock television news is now an often glib summary of what’s happened over the last day or two with a bit of ‘breaking news’ if the timing of disasters fits.

The only thing known for sure is we can’t go back to how things were.

Journalism as we knew it is likely to continue to decline. We can just hope that good alternatives get better.

We have available many more sources. We used to rely on, typically, a daily newspaper, a tv news bulletin and radio news through the day if we could listen.

At least now there are many more eyes and ears able to witness what is happening and able to find a media outlet.

Can this be harnessed? Or do we just have to ride with the changes and get what we can out of it.

Ben Rachinger speaks again

Ben rachinger has kept popping up from time to time thrioughtout the year. He popped up here in Whale Oil jumping the Rawshark yesterday

This prompted quite a bit of reaction and discussion. Some tried to discredit Ben, some tried to shut him up, while some tried to push him into revealing things he was unwilling to talk about. Some did all three in various ways.

Here are some of the things Ben wanted to talk about.

I am not Rawshark. Always wanted to be an independent investigative journalist and to an extent I’ve done some good digging in all this. However I’m a young guy with my own upbringing and shortcomings. Those have long been on display.

The reason I’m here on this site now commenting is that I believe if you are going to be politically tribal, you police your own. Rawshark et al should be policed by their own – that didn’t happen. Slater et al should have been policed by their own – that didn’t happen.

So where does this leave us? It boggles the mind.

And:

Due to the nature of the digital skills of the hacker we can only really find out the identity of the hacker from Mr Hager. Hager has stated he met the hacker and knows his identity. No amount of digging can provide info that isn’t there. Whether I was right or not with my initial musings means little.

This is really internecine political warfare writ large. I’ve done my time on both the Left and the Right. Neither is truly for the people in my opinion. So possibly what needs to happen is the writing of a book/story that is balanced and shines the light on all the players involved.

And:

For myself, my ‘Moment of Truth’ was when Hager didn’t provide the details on the journalists who had been working with Mr Slater. To decide that one is a god, in a way, and to control the destiny of the media or a political faction is something that no one person should ever aspire to or want.

That’s the root problem here. Each side has, in their own and distinct ways, tried to play God with our system of governance. The clusterfuck that this represents, in that no side is clean or clear, has only exacerbated the general publics dislike of the political scene.

That is the issue. Instead of a new flag? We should look at what our democracy really is. Who we vote for. How they work. What tactics they use. Examination of their agendas and motives is both enlightening and disheartening. Because truly, we have no champions. Just bad and worse self-styled ‘liberators’.

And:

I’m of the opinion that the identity of RS is a straw man for all of us. We are missing the point. The point is A) whom was involved in the hack and for what motives.. And B) Do we want what Mr Slater is alleged to have done with XYZ people to go unchallenged? I’m of the mind that both are important points but very difficult to balance in your mind unless you’re independent. Mr Hager will end up naming Rawshark or he won’t. But his relationship with Rawshark and the how/why/where and whom is not my story to tell.

Ben has had a chequered short history online but I think there’s some important issues raised here that haven’t been given enough attention, in particular the abuse of power, the abuse of democracy, and the abuse of journalism.

Please in comments stick to the issues raised in these comments, peripheral issues have had plenty of airing on other threads.

The end of newspapers?

An article by Eric Beecher in The Monthly ((Australian politics, society and culture) is predicting the end of major printed newspapers in Australia, and the end of journalism as we have known it in our lifetimes.

The death of Fairfax and the end of newspapers

Where is the journalism we need going to come from now?

As Fairfax owns a number of New Zealand newspapers this has major implications here as well.

Beecher has extensive media experience including a stint as editor of Sydney Morning Herald. His article has been described as…

…the best article I have seen about Fairfax. Ever. lots a journos interested in that one in NZ/Aus

…by New Zealand journo @caffeine_addict (Dave).

The key point made by Beecher is that for decades newspapers subsidised journalism with lucrative advertising revenue, especially the classifieds. This advertising, along with significant shifts online of Situations Vacant, Cars and Property segments, has collapsed in print media. In some papers it is only a quarter of what it was ten years ago and is still shrinking.

I was seeing evidence for a prediction made a decade earlier by media savant Marshall McLuhan. “The classified ads (and stock-market quotations) are the bedrock of the press,” he observed. “Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold.”

An alternative source is now well established. The Internet.

So newspapers are losing money, and are having to cut costs drastically. This means cutting how much is spent on journalism. We have seen cuts in New Zealand too and this is likely to continue.

The incongruity in that business model – profits from ads for jobs, houses and cars bankrolling the journalism that is vital to a functioning democracy – took several decades to play out.

The “newspaper business model”, as it’s now derisively known, has imploded.

People no longer line the streets outside newspaper presses at night to be the first to see the ads. The internet has poached most of Australia’s newspaper classified advertising. The money that financed quality journalism for a century is disappearing, with no likely replacement.

This hasn’t just suddenly happened. It has been obvious for years that there has been a major shift – you only need to see how small the For Sale section has become in your local newspaper, and how the focus has shifted to sites like Trade Me.

The story of how Australian quality journalism fell victim to a commercial market failure has been known to insiders for years, but Australia’s newspapers of record have shown a deep reluctance to disclose or explain that large-scale journalism has become unviable, and no one has yet found a formula to subsidise it in the way newspaper advertising did.

That’s the big problem – while sales activity has moved to the Internet the revenue hasn’t. A few large newspapers were virtual monopolies. Now there are a myriad of options available, many free, and those that charge have to be cheap to compete.

For Australia, the story is more significant than just the demise of an industry business model. In a small robust democracy with relatively little commercial quality journalism, it has the makings of a civic catastrophe.

That’s because the serious journalism of influence in Australia, apart from the government-funded ABC, resides mainly in four newspapers — The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial Review and The Australian. Between them, these four mastheads provide most of Australia’s coverage of politics, justice, economics, business, science, health, welfare, public policy, international affairs, arts, culture and ideas.

Until recently, these four employed around 1500 journalists. Today that number is closer to 1000. Within two years it could be as few as 500.

That’s a massive change.

The online world provides a wonderful new platform for journalism, bringing the reader inside the tent and, to the dismay of old-school media barons, removing the power of the gatekeepers to use (and abuse) their media to influence society.

It has been a significant power shift, and that is continuing.

There are obvious problems with the changes. Fewer journalists means less coverage of news and of politics. And in politics that means less investigating, and less holding to account.

The Fourth Estate has been seen as an essential part of our system of democracy.

The earliest use in this sense described by Thomas Carlyle in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship:
Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.

If that Gallery is decimated, who will keep our politicians open and honest?

We have already seen many journalists move to the other side, employed by politicians, parties and governments to manage the message, to manipulate opinion and perception.

Many of the gamekeepers have become poachers.

The Internet has made it easy for an influx of amateurs. Like me. We can fill some of the gap. We can cover gaps that old school journalists missed, or ignored.

But politics, government and journalism is entering a new world. It has entered a new world already, a very different world. No one can predict what this world will be like.

Rather than wait and see what eventuates – and that will probably never become static, we live in a fast changing world – should we look at what might balance the reduction in journalism?

Do we need more state funded journalism that has a clear separation from politicians?

An obvious (and cheaper) solution is for our politicians and parties, and for our Government in particular, to be far more open and transparent.

Instead of employing people to hide and deceive, they could put in place systems that make information and the workings of Government more open and accessible.

Alongside that they should substantially improve the connection between Parliament and the people.

Have our politicians got enough confidence in what they are doing to be open and honest? Do they have the guts to ditch their smoke and mirrors and be up front about what they are doing?

We still need quality journalism, if that is at all possible in the new world of communications with drastically affected business models.

But we would rely on the Fourth Estate less if our politicians represented us and trusted us – by including us, not shutting us out. By properly informing us and listening to us.

Newspapers as we known them may be dying. The end may well be nigh, for the old informers and power brokers.

If we had politicians with integrity, honesty and openness we could move to a new age of communication, transparency and accountability.

The power of the newspapers could easily become the power of the people.