A love letter to journalism

And a lament for the future

“Journalism is like sex: First you do it for fun/Then you do it for friends/And finally you do it for money” — old newsroom saying, source unknown

IN MORE than 15 years as a newspaper journalist, I never experienced any redundancies or a strike.

Now both are commonplace.

We went close to stopping work in defence of a colleague once while I was at the Herald Sun, but that was it.

It was only eight years ago when I left the industry, but it truly feels like a lifetime ago.

These were the days before mastheads were digital-first publications, before you carried a computer in your pocket or on your wrist, before Facebook and Twitter.

The last newspaper I worked for, The Australian Financial Review, had a website and I guess my stories were published on it, but I never went looking for them. Online was very much an afterthought; we were all focussed on the next day’s paper: that was where the prestige was.

Looking back, I was working in the tail end of the golden age of newspapers.

(As an aside, let’s face it, the “golden age” was 40–45 years at the most, beginning in the mid-60s. Before then, newspapers in Australia were either bland or trashy, and those working as journalists were primarily dilettantes, unemployable boozers, or low-paid school leavers. We have Rupert Murdoch and the establishment of The Australian to thank for the change, forcing others to lift their games and introducing a greater professionalism to the trade).

And now, to borrow a famous passage of writing, if you stand at the top of a hill and look west, and have the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the highwater mark, that point where the wave broke and rolled back.

My friends say I was prescient to see the future and quit full-time newspaper journalism when I did. Of course, I was nothing of the sort. It was dumb luck.

From the age of about nine, I had dreamed of being a journalist and I longed for the day I could describe myself as one, the word rolling off my tongue as I flashed my press card. I devoured books on journalism and made my own scrappy newspapers at home.

I loved just about every day working for newspapers. Not only the chasing and writing of stories, but the buzz of the newsroom when a big story broke, the adrenalin rush of a fast-approaching deadline, the black humour and camaraderie of an eccentric cast of workmates, the photos, the look and design of a newspaper down to the typeface chosen for a page.

And most of all, the sense that what we were doing was more than a job; it was a vocation. We were making a difference, serving a public duty, not only filing the first draft of history, but acting as the Fourth Estate.

Newspapers were good to me. I travelled overseas on paid junkets, worked in close proximity to power as a Parliamentary Press Gallery reporter, met some amazing people, wrote some incredible stories and enjoyed myself. Sometimes the job was so good, you would have done it unpaid.

I bought in totally to the hard-drinking, hard-boiled journo culture. Loved it, just loved it.

I met my wife, a journalist, through newspapers – and most of my best friends are journos.

THE reasons I chose to leave newspaper journalism were complex, but most of all, I wanted to make a more direct contribution to social change than I felt I ever could working for a major commercial publishing company. I also wanted to gain new skills and experience, that I could use again later in my journalism. I didn’t want to be a one trick pony.

And, if I am to be honest, I was a little disillusioned, not only that my career seemed to have hit a temporary ceiling, but also at the state of the industry, the crassness of much of the journalism I saw around me, and the mentality of publishers and editors who put commercial interests ahead of what I regarded as the purity of journalism – the clickbait of its day.

But I always intended to return. Give me a couple of years working in unions and politics, and I’ll come back a better journalist, I told myself.

But in the meantime, the bottom fell out of the newspaper business.

Wave after wave of redundancies swept through newsrooms and dozens of my former colleagues left the industry with uncertain futures. No-one was hiring any more, or if they did, it was the cheapest raw university graduates they could find.

And now we have got to this place where there is nothing left to cut. Thousands of jobs have gone, the guts have been ripped out of newsrooms, entire floors of newspaper offices stand empty, the lights turned off; rounds are gone never to return. But still the accountants keep cutting, as if that is the solution to a crisis that is of their own making.

And the answer of the grey undertakers who seem to manage media companies these days: we are cutting editorial numbers to maintain quality. Orwell never did doublespeak so well.

They point to the investment in investigative journalism as a measure of continuing quality — and investigative journalism is an important part of the role of any media organisation — but while this is laudable, it is a fig leaf for the overall decline of quality. Measures of quality include accuracy, breadth of coverage, not missing a major story, but when you cut back on sub-editors, reporters and photographers, how can you claim this is being maintained?

The biggest story in the country at the moment is the royal commission into child sex abuse and the cover-up at the top echelons of the Catholic Church, but no major newspaper has a religion reporter any longer. They are cutting back on their foreign bureaus, closing offices in the US at the same time as a presidential election. They use agency photos rather than employ their own photographers. And spelling and grammatical mistakes are so commonplace after all those subs were axed, that no-one even complains any more. Who would you complain to?

A week ago, Fairfax Media announced plans to shed another 120 editorial jobs in its Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra newsrooms. These cuts come after a conservative estimate of 500 jobs gone since 2012, and probably a comparable number at News Corporation.

The announcement was met with white hot anger by journalists at Fairfax’s main publications who walked off the job for between 24 hours and three days in protest. For many, this was seen as the final nail in the coffin for Fairfax’s once proud reputation as a bastion of quality journalism.

Whether the number of jobs to be cut can be reversed or reduced remains to be seen, but if any good has come out of this, it has been that thousands of ordinary readers have shown they still care about quality journalism by signing a petition organised by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

And make no mistake, the union will fight for every last job.

LET’S be clear, though: this is primarily a crisis of the business of media, not a crisis of journalism.

The rivers of gold that sustained journalism for decades are gone never to return. For years, they provided the illusion that journalism was strong, but it has always been fragile, largely dependent upon the goodwill — and more importantly, the deep profits — of the proprietors. And when the revenues began drying up, it has been the journalism that has been cut to spare the profits of the owners.

Many worthy books have been written about why this has come about, but in short, the internet has cannibalised the revenues of newspapers, television and radio, and the owners were either blind to the threat or wilfully ignored it. There are countless examples of opportunities missed, such as Fairfax forgoing the offer to buy the jobs website Seek at a fraction of its current value a decade ago (today, Seek is worth multiples of Fairfax).

To understand what has happened, consider the traditional business model of a newspaper. If not a monopoly in its own market, it was part of a very small cartel.

Before the internet, if you wanted to stay informed at all, you had no choice but to buy a newspaper: whether you wanted news, were looking for the footy results, wanted to find a job or sell a car, see what was on TV that night, even while away some time by filling out a crossword, you bought a newspaper. Because they had a monopoly on information.

But today, thanks to the internet, we are spoilt for choice. If we want footy results, we go to our footy club’s website, where in addition to the results, we can read and view exclusive content and inside stories about the team.

If we want news, we pick a news site depending on whether it is specialised business news we want, trashy celebrity gossip, incisive opinion and comment, deep political analysis or foreign news (take your pick). You only need to spend a few minutes filling in your profile and you can start getting potential jobs emailed to your inbox, eliminating the need to search. We don’t even have to worry about TV listings as we can watch our favourite programs at any time, on demand, through catch-up platforms like iView. And who needs crosswords when there are a thousand game apps you can play on your phone.

Given those choices — all free — why would you subscribe to a newspaper?

And just in case you still don’t understand, remember that the business of newspapers was never about the work of the journalists. They were simply a vehicle for the real business: drawing eyes to the advertising. Newspapers have never existed to sell journalism; they exist to sell advertising.

The harsh reality for every newspaper journalist is that to the shareholders and money people, your content is worth nothing in dollar terms. Journalism is a valuable public interest, but it isn’t a business.

As Greg Hywood, the CEO of Fairfax Media, said recently, even in the glory days, 70% of newspaper revenue was from classifieds, 20–25% from display ads, and 5–10% from subscriptions. Getting people to pay for a newspaper has never been the answer. People never paid for TV in the days when the TV networks were making massive profits; they have never paid for commercial radio. It’s always been funded by advertising.

Media proprietors have failed to identify alternative revenue streams to replace what has been lost from paid advertisements, and journalists are the victims, because journalism is expensive.

A common refrain from journalists is that if only people paid for the content, everything would be okay.

But it is overly simplistic, bordering on naive, to think that putting up paywalls or forcing people to subscribe to your content is the solution to the problems now besetting the business model.

JOURNALISM itself is far from dead. People are reading more than ever. They also have more choice than ever. But journalism in the form in which it existed for the past century, produced in giant factories called newsrooms funded by proprietors made wealthy by advertising revenues, well, that’s in a very unhealthy state.

But journalism as a public service . . . well, that’s never been more important than now, when governments routinely lie to us, spy on us, and commit atrocities on our behalf. When powerful vested interests use their clout to undermine or overturn good governments implement bad policies, and when the super rich oppress and exploit working people to feather their nests even further.

It is to expose those types of behaviour and hold the perpetrators accountable that most of us became journalists in the first place.

So the big question is: if media proprietors no longer have the financial wherewithal to fund independent and fearless public service journalism, who will?

We can’t rely on the ABC, which has suffered its own devastating cuts in recent years and in any case is so fearful of a right-wing fatwa that it is often hopelessly compromised by its own false balance.

There is some hope among the plethora of digital start-ups, although most seem to be more obsessed with clickbait and churnalism than real journalism.

There are tentative greenshoots of investigative reporting from Buzzfeed, for example with its expose of corruption and gambling in world tennis, and a commitment to longform journalism from the Huffington Post’s Highline site. Vice has also invested in some solid journalism, and there are hopes for publications like Vox and The Texas Tribune. But they are rare.

Another source of optimism is philanthropy — whether individual or collective — and there is no shortage of wealthy individuals wanting to be media moguls. One interesting case to follow is First Look Media, launched by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar in 2013. First Look publishes The Intercept, headed by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras of Edward Snowden fame, and also produced the Oscar-winning ode to investigative journalism, Spotlight.

ProPublica, which is funded by a philanthropic trust, has been around a little longer, and has won a slew of awards for its investigative journalism.

But tellingly, all of these examples are in the US, where not only is the market over 10-times the size of Australia, but tax laws allow philanthropic investment in journalism on a far greater scale than in Australia.

Here, Morrie Schwartz has been a lone force in developing quality journalism at The Monthly and The Saturday Paper, both of which ironically are print-first publications. The online quality varies from the slick but uninspiring The New Daily to the worthy, but narrow, New Matilda and the pioneering Crikey!

Perhaps the future lies in owned media, in which organisations invest in their own newsrooms, and attempt to build an audience around that niche. This was the model I developed for Working Life, a daily website funded by the ACTU which seeks to fill the gap of solid industrial relations reporting which has been left since mainstream media cut their own coverage. But publications like Working Life — and the journalism they produce — suffer from lack of money, a small audience and a perception that they are a mouthpiece for the organisation that is funding them.

So, for all these efforts to find an alternative model, the last hope remains for traditional publishers to find a way of generating enough revenue to avoid having to continue cutting quality journalism.

For Fairfax, it really is a race against time to see if the journalism can be saved before the cuts are too deep; and for News Corp, every journalist understands that they are, to an extent, a protected species while Rupert Murdoch is alive, and fears the day when he drops off the perch.

WHILE the future of journalism — or more accurately, whether public interest journalism has a future — keeps the likes of this author awake at night, beyond the chattering classes does anyone else really care?

The practice of journalism has become so degraded over the years, that the average person in the street sees no distinction between an incorruptible investigative reporter Adele Ferguson, whose mission is to uncover malfeasance in the corporate world, and a sleazy Fleet Street hack peeping through the curtains of some unfortunate reality TV contestant. To the average person, they are one and the same.

So perhaps it would be easier to make the rest of the world care about the threat to quality journalism if journalism itself hadn’t travelled so far down the low road over the years. If journalists themselves hadn’t betrayed the public’s trust and let standards slip through repeated breaches of people’s privacy, bullying, outright lies and beat ups, chequebook journalism, bias and a plethora of other unethical behaviours.

Perhaps if journalists lived up to the standards they expect of others, the general public would be ready to march in the streets to defend quality journalism.

But too many are still burying their heads in the sand, unwilling to concede that their days as sole arbiters of public discourse have passed.

Most journalists I know are decent, hard-working people committed to their jobs. A few are genuine heroes who take seriously the responsibilities of their jobs “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” (my favourite description of what a journalist’s vocation should be). In my experience, it really is a case of a few rotten apples ruining the barrel for the rest of us.

I was lucky that when I chose journalism as my vocation almost a quarter of a century ago, it was incredibly competitive to land that first job, but once you did, you felt assured that as long as you were honest and ethical and worked hard and had a modicum of talent, you could build a career as long as you wanted.

It is my desperate hope that a solution can be found to the current crisis of the media so that can continue to be the case.

Declaration: the author works for the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Mark Phillips’s story.