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

Don’t mistake the organ-grinder for the lion-tamer: the media and the 2010 federal election

There’s a lot of outrage mixed with genuine bewilderment being expressed about the role of the media in the federal election campaign.

Much of this angst is due to a lack of insiders’ knowledge about how media, politics and policy work in Canberra and during election campaigns.

Annabel Crabb did a sterling job explaining some of the campaign minutiae in a recent piece. The scorn and derision she received from some readers would have been surprising if not for a related (and heartfelt) complaint by blogger Grog’s Gamut. Even the redoubtable Laura Tingle bemoaned the apparent lack of willingness by the political media to seek and scrutinise policy.

These posts elicited for me an excellent and thought-provoking Twitter exchange with journalism lecturer Jason Wilson during which we pondered why political journalists focus on the superficial drama of the campaign rather than policy. We explored whether political parties’ efforts to tightly manage the media and messages are a defensive move because journalists only focus on drama and superficiality, or whether it is an offensive move to ensure that the key message, and nothing more, makes the TV news each night.

From my perspective, based on real inside experience, it is the latter. Parties are the organ-grinders, doing everything they can to get journalists to dance to their tune, rather than lion-tamers holding a vicious beast at bay.

I believe much of the dissatisfaction with media coverage this election comes from Labor voters/sympathisers because they have not, for many generations, witnessed the degree of media scepticism that is currently being applied to the ALP. Their instinctive reaction is to label this media negativity as bias.

In fact, they are witnessing journalists rebelling against the parties’ (particularly Labor’s) “media management” strategies. Most journalists have finely tuned bullshit detectors and can identify even the most subtle attempts to manipulate them. Journalists’ instinctive reaction is to subvert and therefore expose this constraint in any way they can.

Before you jump to label me a Tory sympathiser, dear reader, cast your mind back over the past 30 years. Can you remember a time when the conservatives were overwhelmingly treated well by the media? I cannot. I’ve observed over that time that most journalists are “small L” liberal or left-leaning. This is no surprise considering that liberal philosophy fits so well with the journalistic motivation to facilitate the public’s right to know.

Journalists’ liberal values were clearly observable during the Hawke, Keating and Howard years. During that time, conservative politicians and parties felt they could never win a trick with the print media, television networks or the ABC.

The political media participated in the Australian community’s adoration of Prime Minister Hawke during his heyday. As Hawke’s light faded, many journalists shifted to actively support Treasurer Keating during his campaign to destablise and ultimately overthrow Australia’s most popular Prime Minister.

At no time in the 80s or 90s were Opposition Leaders Peacock, Hewson, Downer or Howard feted by the media. The conservatives’ only allies were found amongst the conservative shock-jocks in the retail-communication worlds of tabloid newspapers and talkback radio.

Kevin Rudd, in fact, was the first Opposition Leader since Bob Hawke to be given the overwhelming support of the media. Can anyone remember a conservative Opposition Leader who enjoyed this support? No. Labor supporters may be upset at the current unprecedented lack of media support, but it cannot be labeled bias. Its real name is rebellion.

Ironically, and with foresight, the media’s support for Opposition Leader Rudd was begrudging. This sentiment sowed the seeds of the campaign media’s current discontent.

Kevin Rudd is known to have vigorously worked the media during his rise from regular Sunrise guest to Leader of the Opposition during the dark and final days of the Howard government. But once the election campaign-proper commenced, Rudd mimicked the successful small-target strategy utilised by Howard in 1996. Under the tight media-management direction of former Carr spinmeister Bruce Hawker, Rudd became unavailable to the “real” news media. Rudd opted instead to appear on youth-oriented radio programs and television variety shows – affording him the double benefit of direct access to mainstream Australians without having to address pesky questions of policy and substance.

Nevertheless, the political media were so enthralled with the community’s growing dissatisfaction with Howard and the prospect of the government being overthrown, that they were prepared to humour Rudd for the duration of the campaign. A story at the time featured former Hawke media adviser and now ABC Insiders host, Barrie Cassidy, candidly quoting another journalist saying ‘We all know we have to go to war against Kevin Rudd as soon as the election campaign is over.’

This media “war” was held off by the unprecedented honeymoon that Prime Minister Rudd enjoyed with the Australian public during the first two years of his term. Not only did the media sit back in awe of this popularity, so did the political hard heads in the ALP.

In the end though, perhaps Rudd the organ-grinder forgot that monkeys also have teeth. Or that other sidewalk entertainers can be ruthless enough to knife you for the optimal position on the street corner.

Those who wish to lay blame for the behaviour of political media in this election campaign should look no further than the genial Bruce Hawker and the entourage of former media advisers that he brought to Canberra in 2007-08 from the deeply unpopular NSW Labor government. While Hawker’s tight media management strategy, aligned to the relentless 24/7 news cycle, may have delivered for the state government, it did not fit well with the communication needs of a federal government.

Journalistic resentment about Rudd’s media management, and the ALP’s more generally, had been simmering for some time. This was exacerbated by Rudd’s inability to fulfil the great expectations that he created during the 2007 election campaign to positively differentiate himself from the ageing, discredited Howard.

As shocking as Rudd’s removal was, many journalists were relieved and optimistic that the Gillard era would herald a more sensible and less frantic approach to newsmaking. Some of these journalists are young and are travelling with the Leaders’ teams in their first election campaigns. Regardless of their experience, it is easy to infer from their various writings that most campaign journalists are tired, dazed and disoriented. They are sick of being herded from one pic-fac to another, told nothing, given no time to absorb or analyse, and no latitude to report anything other than the message of the day.

It is no wonder then, that they subvert the process by ignoring the strangled notes of the squeeze-box and dance instead to their own tune, asking the most inconvenient and embarrassing questions, and attempting to catch the Leader off guard? Is this natural reaction enough to justify their policy-free questions?

No it’s not. But it should also be remembered that the campaign we see on the nightly news is no more than a flimsy facade. The only campaign that really matters is being deployed in the marginal seats. The purpose of the national campaign is to maintain the status quo (not lose any “tribal” voters) and secure enough supportive voters’ attention/engagement to guarantee they turn up on polling day.

Most policy announcements are designed to do nothing more than grab a headline to reassure a particular demographic. While it is understandable that amateur politicos would like to see genuine analysis of these policies, it’s worth remembering that most political journalists are not policy specialists and do not have a good understanding of how policy is developed or implemented. As a consequence, they pay less attention to these processes and only focus on what they know – the political dimension of policy.

In closing, let me remind you of one small matter. While I have lamented in the past that we do not elect our media, we are ultimately still responsible for their behaviour and their output. At no time have ordinary citizens had more power than now to shape their news media; with their purchasing power, with their voices and with their keyboards. I look forward to reading further contributions to this debate!

Postscript: This excellent piece by senior political journalist Tony Wright is an illuminating addition to the subject

This post was also featured at The Notion Factory.