Facing the future of journalism

14 May 2008

The Australian media largely ignored a major conference looking at its own future, writes MARGARET SIMONS.

YOU could be forgiven for not noticing, but at the beginning of this month Sydney hosted one of the most significant conferences on the impact of new media yet to take place in Australia.

Why didn’t you notice? Well, if you are an academic it was probably because it was pitched at journalists, and we all know how suspicious the academy is of hacks and, in turn, how anti-intellectual journalists can be.

If you are an ordinary member of the public you may well have missed it because the mainstream media organisations barely reported it at all. This is very strange, given that many of them sponsored the gig, and the title of the conference was The Future of Journalism. You’d think they’d be interested.

The leading British media commentator Roy Greenslade attended the conference and wrote about it on his blog at the Guardian. But the Australia media almost ignored it.

The exceptions were the ABC TV’s Media Watch, which gave a good wrap up of the conference and the issues in a special program, (21) ABC Radio National’s Media Report, which played an edited version of the conference panel on The Survival of Media Platforms for Journalism, and the Age, which had two reports by Matthew Ricketson buried in the business pages.

But nothing else.

Perhaps the lack of coverage was due to the prevailing opinion expressed at the conference that newspapers are dead or dying, and therefore are not investing in journalism any more. This is hardly a view which it is in the mainstream media’s interests to spread.

The conference was sponsored by the ABC, News Limited, SBS, SkyNews and Google, but there was a notable absence. Fairfax Media (publisher of the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review) is the media organisation with most to lose from the disappearance of classified advertising to online sites. It was asked to sponsor the conference, but declined - although individual senior Fairfax journalists did took part in panel discussions.

One of the most significant and, I would have thought, newsworthy moments was surely when veteran News Limited editor Campbell Reid said that he would be glad when the expensive burden of print publication was removed - although he thought it was a fair way off.

The “death of newspapers” line was consistent between both local commentators such as Crikey publisher Eric Beecher and leading innovators such as Jay Rosen at New York University, and Greenslade. The threat to journalism - the issue of who will pay for it in the future when the business models of all our mainstream media outlets are under threat - dominated the conference. But it wasn’t all gloom and doom.

The consensus from Rosen, Greenslade and other participants was that as old forms die and are rightly mourned, new ones will arise. The audiences of the future will be smaller. Media outlets will be niche publications. And the best journalism, including investigative journalism, will be a “pro-am” operation in which professionals sit at the centre of a network of engaged people who are both audience members and contributors.

As if to prove the point, at the same time that mainstream media was largely failing to report this significant conference, alternative media filled the gap. The not for profit e-zine New Matilda had a report on the conference, leading lefty blog Larvatus Prodeo talked about it and the conference was blogged by one of the spectators. Even a newsagent blogged about it, and commented more than once on the lack of Australian mainstream media coverage of the future of journalism, which is a topic of hot and constant debate internationally.

Before I go any further, some declarations. I was a participant in the conference as well as an observer. I have also contributed articles on new media to the Walkley Magazine, which is put out by the journalists’ union, the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance, of which I have been a member for many years, and about which more later. I also reported the conference for Crikey.

The debate about the impact of technology on media, and the future of journalism, has been muted in Australia, particularly among journalists. But I believe this conference has been significant in changing that.

The fact that it has been held is thanks to the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance, which unlike its counterparts in other nations has the slightly uneasy task of being both a union and a professional association. The two roles are in tension. For example, the union’s rules include a Code of Ethics, and a process by which those found in breach can be punished - hardly a comfortable job for a union dedicated to representing members’ interests.

It is fair to say that for most of its history the union has dominated the professional association, but in recent months that has changed. The Walkley Foundation arm of the Alliance, responsible for running the Walkley Awards for journalism, has begun to sponsor and promote a debate within the profession about journalistic futures. As part of this, the Walkley Magazine, which is distributed to the organisations’ 11,000 journalist members, has had an increasing focus on new media.

Given that new media and citizen journalism in particular could easily be seen as threats to traditional union interests and membership, how and why is this being done?

The man responsible for a lot of the change in direction is Jonathan Este, previously a journalist for the Australian and now the Alliance’s communications director. He says that towards the end of last year the Alliance decided that far from resisting change, it should “pick up the ball and run with it.” Este says: “Nobody else was doing it. The Australian media all seemed to be in denial about the changes that were coming. They seemed blithely unaware of what was going on overseas.”

The result was “lots of reading, a very steep learning curve” and the building of contacts with leading new media practitioners and commentators such as Rosen, Jeff Jarvis and Greenslade.

And how are the industrial tensions managed? Este says the professional discussion should be “ecumenical” - open to members and non-members equally. Meanwhile the industrial side of the union is trying to learn who is active among the new media organisations - blog syndicates, Crikey and others - and will probably be trying to recruit before too long.

So where to now? Another Future of Journalism conference will be held by the Alliance in Melbourne in November. More are planned. Meanwhile the Alliance is discussing partnerships with a number of academic institutions interested in researching the impact of new media in newsrooms.

In return the Alliance hopes for help from academia in training its members in preparation for the new age. Este says that while employers are training journalists in narrow “multi-tasking” such as operating video cameras and the like, they are not providing the sort of education most needed - a “shift in mind-set” and a realisation of the fundamental nature of the coming change. To help bridge this divide, the Alliance is turning to academics for help.

I hope the nation’s leading journalism and media studies academics are nimble enough to jump on board.

• Margaret Simons’s latest book, The Content Makers: Understanding the Media in Australia, is published by Penguin.

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