Political media, cure thyself – it can’t be that hard

In retrospect, it seemed a little weird. Twitter reported on Friday night that people were queued almost down to Darling Harbour for a sold-out Sydney Writers’ Festival event in the Town Hall titled “Can’t be that hard”.

Judging by the tweet-stream, the literati had been joined by the online commentariat and other political junkies to hear six journalists talk about raising the standard of political reporting. Yes, even the two men ostensibly representing the blue and red corners of federal politics had at one time worked as journalists.

Sitting at home in Canberra, following the excellent commentary provided by @PrestonTowers, I soon realised that there were no solutions to be provided by this apparently extremely telegenic panel.

We heard yet again that media organisations are grappling with the “new” digital world, where consumers choose their preferred news from the online information buffet and complain loudly when it does not accord with their views.  And that the pressure on journalists to continuously deliver content throughout the day left no time for reflection. And that it was challenging to discover through social media what the public “really” thinks.

It occurred to me just before I saw similar tweets from @Pollytics, that the discussion was hardly new or surprising. It was unsurprising because the panel was exclusively a product of the mainstream media, no doubt soon to be dubbed the “old media” by the Greens.

Sure, Turnbull and Harris are adept at using Twitter as marketing tools, Crabb’s quirky reporting is carried on various digital platforms, and Mega has mastered the Twittersphere in record time. Hartcher and Cassidy, on the other hand, seem to be part of the “too cool for Twitter” brigade.

But all are steeped in the old media paradigm where it’s more important to get the story first, instead of writing it best; where the journalist decides what’s in the public interest instead of the community making that decision; and where the personal views of celebrity journalists carry unwarranted weight.

Did we think this time it would be different?
(with thanks to @stokely)

And that’s what was weird for me about the SWF event, viewed as it was through the Twitter-lens. I wondered later why so many digital natives, including me, were so keen to hear what old media journalists had to say. Did we think this time it would be different, that there’d be a flash of brilliance and the television talking heads would divulge what they’d learned from considered introspection? Or was the lure of celebrity just too strong, even for cynics like us.

Whatever the reason, it became quickly clear that old media journos can’t even diagnose their malaise, let alone identify a cure.

The antidote, to me, seems clear. It involves the separation of reporting, analysis and opinion; a shift to rewarding quality over speed; and the dropping of frequently published opinion polls.

It seems nonsensical in this age when any person with a smart phone can be a news-gatherer, for media organisations to persist in maintaining separate reporting teams to cover what is essentially the same set of facts. Why is it necessary for three newswire agencies, seven tv stations, ten radio stations and a dozen newspapers* to attend one press conference? Surely, if there’s no slant put on what is said, then there’s only one way to report the facts. So it makes sense for media organisations to merge their duplicative news gathering activity or outsource it to a single organisation like a newswire agency.

Reverting to a single news-gathering service that provides all media organisations with the same information at the same time would negate the rush to be “first” – a title that holds diminishing cachet in the instantaneous online world. Doing so would negate the need for wannabe celebrity journalists to find the scoop or exclusive that will make their name, simultaneously minimising the opportunity for politicians and their spinners to exploit such journos with tempting leaks and rumours.

Hopefully, the Walkley Awards would follow suit, rewarding quality reporting and analysis instead of the journalist who happened to be chosen by political combatants to receive the most juicy scoop in that particular year.

Analysis of what is said at a press conference is altogether different from what is reported to have been said. The separation of reporting from analysis would give those journos not doing the reporting more time to research, reflect and produce the quality analysis that political news consumers are demonstrating they’re prepared to pay for. It’s clear that subscribers will cough up cash for quality objective analysis such as that provided by Laura Tingle and George Megalogenis behind their respective paywalls.

I’d venture that LaTingle and Mega also attract the consumer dollar because neither proffers their personal opinions as analysis. Particularly in recent times, some formerly respected journalists have become diminished in the eyes of their readers by expressing personal political opinions in their pieces.

That’s why it’s also important for media organisations to re-exert the distinction between analysis and opinion in their political coverage.

Opinions are like bums – everyone has one, and anyone with a spare afternoon and a keyboard can publish theirs online (as I have just done). So while consumers will pay for high quality political analysis, it’s unlikely they’ll pay for opinion. But a well targeted, written and argued opinion piece can bring a lot of eyeballs to a media organisation’s online and dead-tree pages. The encouragement of public comment, with a strong but principled moderation policy, can turn these visitors into a community of support and eventually paying customers.

So that’s it in a nutshell; it’s not really that hard. Media organisations can save money by centralising the reporting function, make money with a stable of astute and articulate political analysts, and build their audience/customers with engaging and compelling opinion writers.

They can eliminate churnalism and reduce workplace stress by taking experienced journalists off reporting duties and giving them time to research and write. And political manipulation of the news cycle can be minimised by neutralising the attractiveness of the leak and the scoop.

There’s one other type of leak or scoop that should also be deligitimised in order to improve political reporting in Australia. The running and publishing of fortnightly opinion polls should be scrapped, on the basis that they signify very little unless taken close to an election but can be used to manipulate public opinion in the meantime.

The business model for political media is not really dead; it just requires a different perspective to see how it can be resuscitated. There are plenty of us standing around giving good advice, but in the end, it is up to media organisations themselves to administer the cure.

*These numbers are my guesstimate only.

This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

26 thoughts on “Political media, cure thyself – it can’t be that hard”

  1. So, I guess the only thing we’d have to worry about with this system is that the one central news wire could get it wrong, either by mistake or malice…

  2. This is spot on.

    Lenore Taylor’s piece in yesterday’s SMH seemed to be railing against the phenomenon you describe, when she was blaming Gillard’s media strategy. The next step is to tie political analysis to policy analysis, but that’s a generational change I suspect.

    1. Yep, agree with you on that. One step at a time – get to proper political analysis, which will lead naturally to proper policy analysis. Will we see it in our lifetimes?

  3. “a product of the mainstream media, no doubt soon to be dubbed the “old media” by the Greens.”

    What’s that about? People who call it old media are the people who have given up on the old media. For all the reasons you stated above.

    On your core premise, this is kin if happening. Latika

    1. Grrr stupid phone app.
      Latika is pretty much just doing reporting. Seldom brings her own observations into it. I like that. I can make my own mind up about whether it’s crap or not.

    2. Just a bit of an in-joke Alan. The Greens have taken to calling ALP and Libs the old parties, and mining industry the old economy.

  4. I’m not sure it’s so simple to achieve completely objective reporting at things like press conferences by having just one media source.

    It seems like a simple theory to just present the facts without a slant but it doesn’t work like that.

    Take even a short, 10-minute press conference by a politician. A newspaper journalist can’t put every quote in the article so they have to cut some out. Already they’re using their judgement to filter the message from the MP.

    If you have 10 different journalists chances are you’ll have 10 different selections of quotes.

    Then it’s up to the journalist to question the MP – again these questions will be based on their judgement.

    If the press conference contains some contentious claims by the MP then it’s up to the journalist to seek other opinions for a balanced article. Who they choose to interview and what they include are again personal judgements.

    It’s an old saying that 10 different journalists covering the same story will end up with 10 different articles.

    Readers will decide which news outlet they feel reported the event best. If one news outlet consistently disappoints the readers it will lose sales/views and eventually go out of business.

    1. You’re right in theory, but if this is true in practice why is it that we see the same story written over and over again by the 30 journos who attended the press conference. In reality, there is really only one piece of news per press conference, media release etc, and the rest is waffle.

  5. Totally agree about the opinion polls point. They create unnecessary hype and distract from real policy discussion. I see what you are saying about centralising the msm, but wouldn’t this leave the reporting of facts extremely susceptible to corruption by whoever controls the all-powerful media hub?

    1. I didn’t see the other comments when I made mine; but it seems others agree. I’m not sure the online/new media could correct misrepresentation by an all-powerful media organisation. I think blogs, online opinions are still very much a response to old media – not sure they could act as a check and balance.

      1. Well, I’d say there a quite a few ways to stop an all-powerful media organisation from misrepresenting the facts. 1. Give the same facts to everyone else 2. Make clear distinction between analysis and opinion so that agendas cannot slip into analysis. 3. More open engagement with opinion leaders in the new media.

        1. the notion of facts is in itself ambiguous. As another commenter points out, the selection of which facts to report in a 30 minute press conference in itself inherently involves a bias and regulation of content. Clearly separating opinion and analysis may work, but again i think it oversimplifies the problem. analysis is infused with opinion – one cannot exist without the other. I do definitely agree that the more commentators and politicians engaging with new media the better though.

  6. Nice post Dragonista, it`s a nice idea. Being the media skeptic I am, I strongly suspect print and TV media will get a big hammering in the next decade. via NBN.

    Their main problem is matching `branding` with demographics. Take Limited News and Bolt, who has a `big` audience of `red necked chooks`. While this works for the Hun, the Oz, running the Bolt junk won`t lure paying `red necked chooks` to read Mega.

    Not only is Limited News in a death grip with the ABC, they also have an internal death grip going on. Online involvement is now overdone too, all those Tweet, Facebook and comments boards to moderate. They won`t be handed the best news, scoops like this. They will need to get out of the office.

    Scoops, if that`s what they want, have way more chance of being picked up by scattered citizens nowadays anyway. Bin Laden, Abbottabad.

    The Limited News and ABC death grip damages both brands, and wastes their resources and pisses off their audience. But I suspect they will keep doing it, and by the time the News Media Council get up, there might not be much to look after.

    1. I agree that branding in order to reach key demographics is a challenge. But there have never before been so many ways to reach distinct demographic groups as there are now on the internet. Ironically.

  7. Oh yeah, the amount of wailing the so-called Canberra Press Gallery do, Pro Mr-Rabbit and Anti-NBN, I suspect they too realize that Politicians may punch a hole straight through their `sideshow` and launch their own youtube, wordpress etc and go `direct` to the politco-junkie. Just as blogs, twitter, facebook users go past, over or around the embedded media today.

  8. Dragonista has it right. It’s curious how people still seek out the views of mainstream media journalists who continue to delude themselves that they hold some elevated view over everyone else – when we can all see the same facts in real time.

    Journalists do best when they stand back from the minute-to-minute noise and provide perspective, explanation and context for their readers, adding relevant links and recognising that there are other opinions out there. Both Tingle and Megalogenis are good examples.

    My view on media is similar to my view on banks post the GFC. It needs to go back to the utility model, and use digitial media rather than try to compete with it. The Guardian is showing the way there.

    1. Agreed. When I curate the No Crap App and start despairing on a Friday that there will be no decent pieces, I usually find on a Saturday that the good stuff has been saved til last. Which means they’ve been dealing out crap for the best part of the week while they work on their “opinion” pieces.

  9. Having been to many a press conference, I can tell you that drag0nista’s idea to reduce individual media presence at these events is neither a good one and nor will it work.

    Each media agency will want, need and should be able to, ask there own questions – these events are not about what the politician’s set piece is, it’s about the answers to the questions. you cannot rely on an agency to ask all the questions that need asking.

    Response to scrutiny is what press conferences are all about, not the re-reading of a press release. Even if Ms D’s clients may which that were not true.

    The interesting question re: old and new media is which organisations are going to be given access to these events in the future? The crowd is not going to get smaller, it’s only going to get bigger

    1. As I mentioned earlier, I wish you were right about there being a diversity of perspectives represented in the audience at a press conference. But all 30 journos end up writing the same story……

  10. My Mum would buy a newspaper daily, twice daily when they were cheaper, and watch al the news and current affairs shows on tv.

    I gave it all away.

    After Mum passed away, I stopped buying newspapers and watching TV news… I know some people cling to it, but to me it’s “old media”.

    I’m not loyal to anyone and can read what I like online, and do.

  11. Please excuse my bad grammar and spelling above – Drag0nista makes me nervous

  12. Dragonista and her commenter`s, seem to be focused on the `opinion` end of reporting. I sort of disagree with this, there needs to be more `factual-truthful` content reported. The Grogsgamut / Massola crap proved that others can do great `opinion` and make the embedded media rage.

    Here is todays wixxy`s HSU update

    Last year Monckton and Alan Jones addressed the Press Club, with a room full of journo`s. I would love to be able to read the transcripts of these, but alas, I have no `access` (media strength) and as far as I Know they don`t exist (out-side paywall, take note ABC)

    Liberal.org put up the speeches their mob make, but NOT the questions and answers. Journo`s seem to prefer to engage in `opinion` (media weakness), trolling, and other BS.

    The Finkelstein transcripts and submissions were great reading. Instead of wailing, they could have learned something. There is plenty at the Press Club falling into journo`s laps to give them content, but they are not bright enough use it.

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