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The death of journalism: what’s really going on?

A young journalist talks to other journalists to find out what the fuck is going on and why we should bother with a career in the media.

JOURNO WEB

Sian Powell’s career advice is grounded in fact and straight to the point – typical of a journalist.

“Don’t do it.”

Sian is hard-headed by nature, and far too jaded to indulge in dream-big feel-good bullshit.

“I know for a fact that there are no jobs for journalists, not the way there used to be,” she says.

Sian Powell is a veteran journalist in her 50s; she comes from the age of shorthand, cuttings files and weighty broadsheets coursing with the ‘rivers of gold’ of classified advertising. She has spent the last thirty years working for the The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), The Australian, and freelancing in various regions of Asia. Twenty of those years were spent “watching journalism in its death throes”. She was not surprised when, in May 2016, she and 29 other Fairfax journalists were made redundant. Sian is a full-time freelancer once again and, needless to say, it’s not by choice.

Sian describes the atmosphere in the SMH newsroom during her last stint between 2014 and 2016 as “resigned.”

“It would not do to bank on having a job, say, next year,” she says. “And I didn’t.”

“Think of another sphere to be interested in,” she suggests.

I nod and hope that Sian mistakes my grimace for a deep-in-thought face while I briefly try to act on this advice. I acknowledge that my backup career plans — becoming a playwright, a novelist or a soapbox poet — do not count as viable career options either. I wonder if I’ll have a good relationship with the neighbours when my address is No. 1, The Least Prickly and Least Pooped-On Shrub in the Local Park.

Sian’s advice makes me wince. It is demoralising to be told that you are hiking along a dead-end career path, but I, along with many journalism students, expect nothing less.

***

Today’s budding journalists were born into a world in which journalism was, ostensibly, already dying. Optimists would argue that the appropriate term is changing. Pessimists would point out that this change is called death. Semantics aside, there is consensus that technological change drained print journalism of its lifeblood, dollar by dollar, by tampering with the newspaper industry’s two main sources of revenue: sales and advertising.

The advent of the Internet and the personal computer allowed anyone with the gear and the know-how to dial up and command the attention of former newspaper audiences. Cue the rise of a new class of competitor: the nebulous ‘content creator’. The peskiest content creators were citizen journalists and news aggregators. In an attempt to reclaim readers stolen by amateur producers of knockoff news, many major newspapers set a dangerous precedent: they handed their core product over to the Internet, for free.

The web also replaced the newspaper as the intermediary between advertiser and audience. Consumers, lured by easy access to an abundance of free information produced by citizen journalists and naïve newspapers, went online. Advertisers, lured by easy access to niche markets of consumers, followed. Newspapers are belatedly trying to chase runaway dollars but are finding that paywalls are only somewhat successful when consumers can easily find free news elsewhere.

In 2017 we stand on treacherous territory, according to recent data from PwC Australia. In 2011, Australian newspapers generated $4.45b in revenue; that number dropped to $3.70b by 2015 and is predicted to drop to $3.06b by 2020. Newspapers currently make more money from advertising than from circulation, however advertising revenue is set to decline faster than circulation revenue from 2016-2020, at a rate of -5.0 per cent compared to -1.6 per cent. Digital advertising and circulation revenue is catching up to print’s, with digital circulation revenue moving faster than digital advertising revenue, mainly because newspapers have already lost a shitload of money in print.

According to an Australian Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) spokesperson, over 2000 journalist jobs have been cut since 2011, which “represents about a quarter of the total journalism workforce”. When the MEEA provided me with this estimate in April it was aware of Fairfax’s plan to save $30 million and New Corp’s plan to save $40 million, but stated, “it is not yet know how many editorial jobs will be lost as a result”.

Less than a month later, we are privy to a bloody spectacle: last Wednesday, Fairfax revealed its plans to cut 125 editorial jobs — about one quarter of the newsroom of the SMH, The Age and the Financial Review — and to pay contributors per article rather than per word. In response, Fairfax staff have initiated a week-long strike, intentionally interfering with the coverage of the federal budget, which is traditionally one of the biggest events in Australian journalism. The strike continues as this paper goes to print.

Technological change seems to have created a world in need of, and yet hostile to, journalists. We desperately need skilled communicators to hold the powerful accountable by interpreting the glut of information available online. For instance, by stopping the proliferation of disinformation before it is crystallised as ‘fake news’. But by transforming journalism into an insecure and comparatively underpaid profession, digitalisation has eroded journalists’ capacity to meet this demand.

Aside from unashamedly writing self-indulgent features as a form of therapy, how can young journalists make sense of this mess?

***

“It’s more democratic, it’s more egalitarian,” Robert Brown*, a News Corp journalist of Sian’s generation, dispassionately lists the benefits of the disintegration of newspaper monopolies. “Freedom of expression, that’s one area where you can argue things are as good, if not better, now than before.” This is how he talks about the democratisation of journalism: ‘you can argue’. As if it is an argument he is familiar with but is not entirely convinced by.

Maddison Connaughton, an editor VICE Australia roughly 30 years Robert’s junior, is more convinced. She argues that popular irritation with the deluge of opinion and analysis articles obscures an exciting aspect of the democratisation of journalism: diversity. “There is a lot of incredible opinion writing and memoir and analysis that is happening by women, by trans people, by women of colour,” she says.

“It’s opening up who is allowed to give their opinion in the media … You don’t just have to be a 65-year-old white dude with a column in a major newspaper.”

However, as Sian observes, the fact of diversity does not automatically translate into emotionally intelligent, politically engaged citizens of varied social and cultural backgrounds having a cohesive conversation. Diversity does not enrich public debate when niches talk to niches and nodes talk to nodes. Newspaper readers, constrained by the strong borders of the physical form, would serendipitously stumble across topics and perspectives they may not have naturally gravitated toward. The boundlessness of the Internet, ironically, makes it all too easy for content consumers to build their own personal utopias.

To paraphrase Sian, you won’t believe what happens next: “As a result of that you get Donald Trump, the buffoon, running the world’s most powerful nation!”

Sian believes that in an ideal world consumers would stride out their comfort zones. But in the real world, few people are willing to brave the wilderness; we would rather stay cocooned in confirmation bias and clickbait.

As the News Desk Editor of the Guardian Australia, Mike Ticher is part of the team responsible for balancing what sells with what matters. Data analytics “does lead me into a temptation of running stories that only get a lot of attention,” he admits. But, ethics aside, it doesn’t make sense for The Guardian to embrace ‘sex sells’ as its guiding principle.

“Our pitch to people is that we are a serious news organisation that is interested in difficult issues,” Mike says. Maintaining a high degree of journalistic integrity is a key part of The Guardian’s branding. “We’ve recently moved away from just only thinking about reach,” he says. “We’re looking for engagement that will make people become members and want to give us money in other ways.”

***

Much like bigotry is the flip side of diversity, exploitation is the flip side of opportunity.

Sian bemoans the folly of the young people who wander into war zones because they are enrapt by “what they see as the glamour of journalism”. However, she lays the blame on the media outlets that publish these sorts of stories for exploiting citizen journalists’ desperation for recognition and proffering a negligible sum in return. “It doesn’t matter if you risk your life … It doesn’t matter if somebody’s pointed a gun at you and threatened you with death. It doesn’t matter if you walk around giant piles of steaming corpses,” Sian says. “You don’t get paid any more.”

Catherine Bouris is a 23-year-old postgraduate media student who manages a Facebook group in which young Australian writers collectively brainstorm how to not get fucked over by the system. Cathy founded the group in April last year and, at time of writing, the group has 1000 members. It is a grassroots effort to combat a problem associated with the rise of citizen journalism and declining cadetship opportunities. Journalists entering the field through the back door (or the skylight, or the dog flap, or the hidden trapdoor) may be beautiful storytellers; if they are ignorant of media law, their beautiful stories may earn them a criminal record. The group is peppered with posts about rates of pay, media contacts, freelancing advice, internship and job openings, company reviews, and the basic precepts of media law.

Cathy is highly conscious of “knowing what your work is worth” because she snuck into the media industry through one of these side doors. She was completing a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney, rather than a more targeted degree in Media and Communications, when an opinion piece she wrote for Birdee Mag went viral.

“When I first got published I didn’t realise that bigger outlets can just take what you’ve written for a smaller one and repost it and you get nothing,” she says, describing how News.com.au ripped off her article.

“I only got paid 50 bucks and I was like, ‘Can’t I get some News Corp money here?’ But you don’t.”

“Young people are encouraged to bare their souls in exchange for, like, 50 bucks,” she says about the Internet’s insatiable appetite for raw first-person essays. “If you are going to write something that bares your soul, make sure that you are at least compensated fairly.” Often 50 dollars is generous, considering that unpaid media internships pop up increasingly frequently to fill the gaps caused by job cuts.

Cathy finds that rejection stings more when your pitches are personal.

“I kind of wish people talked about their rejections more because then it makes you feel better about your own rejections,” Cathy says.  “It’s cathartic,” she adds, a little more seriously.

Similarly, group members who have undertaken unpaid internships, upon realising that minimalism is not an appropriate aesthetic for a resume, benefit from having an insulated space in which to vent.

Like spam that keeps knocking on your inbox even after you unsubscribed from the relationship, I am going to tell you what you already know: the very act of conceptualising a ‘dream job’ is contingent on cultural context and socioeconomic privilege. Undertaking unpaid internships is a privilege and the normalisation of this privilege exacerbates social stratification. If your living situation or your acute understanding of Marxist economics prevents you from clocking up countless hours of unpaid labour then, to a degree, you are already a handicapped competitor on the labour market. This does not negate the fact that unpaid internships are an exhausting privilege if, like Catherine, you regularly perform tasks that leave you feeling like your bosses are “not even trying to pretend [the internship] is educational”.

Elly Bradfield, a 25-year-old reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Walkley Foundation’s Young Journalist of the Year for 2016, came into her current role as Lead Reporter for ABC News Southern Queensland through interning at the ABC — an internship opportunity coveted by respondents of an Honi survey. Even Robert, who is affronted by what he believes to be the centre-left bias of the public broadcaster, believes “the place to work is the ABC.”

Despite desperately wanting to intern in the Brisbane newsroom, stiff competition prompted Elly to look for work in Toowoomba, a town roughly four hours west of her hometown. The manager of the Toowoomba newsroom answered her call and basically said, “when do you want to come in?” She interned free of charge for three weeks before the ABC took her on as a casual.

Elly urges aspiring journalists to consider regional reporting. “There are so many opportunities in regional because they are so short-staffed you end up doing things that you could never imagine doing in a Brisbane or a metro newsroom,” she says. “I remember sitting in a journalism lecture being told that I would never get a job and now [in Toowoomba] I’m desperately trying to find people to work with.”

She acknowledges, however, that while it makes sense for an established journalist to relocate for a paying job, it makes less sense for an inexperienced graduate to relocate for an unpaid internship that may or may not lead to a paying job.

“The more skills you have, the more employable you are,” Elly advises. As a reporter, she writes, produces and presents her own stories, and works across radio, television, photography, online and social media.

Aspiring journalists can capitalise on elusive opportunities by supplementing a diverse technical skillset with a diverse education. Misha Ketchell, editor of The Conversation, puts it bluntly: “You’ve got to have a shtick. You’ve got to have an area of expertise. Start specialising.” Similarly, Mike says, “If I was interviewing someone I would always be impressed if someone had a completely non-journalistic side to their education.” Young journalists can no longer get away with being either generalists or specialists; we’ve got to be both.

***

By Sian’s standards, this article embodies so much of what is wrong about modern journalism.

“New journalists don’t know how to write hard news,” she says. Sian’s attitude to first-person narrative journalism is: “Rack off! You’re the journalist, just tell the story and keep yourself out of it!”

For Sian, the story of journalism’s ‘demise’ is a story about losing control. Technology has given us freedom, but Sian asks, at what cost? Freedom is clickbait, circular conversations that spiral into ‘fake news,’ and vulnerability to exploitation. Freedom is also finding creative ways to hold the powerful accountable.

The only conclusion I can come to is a cop out. To quote Robert: “I can’t think of any simple conclusions about this whole affair.”

*Names have been changed.

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