Sunday, July 08, 2007

Festival of Ideas -- 'Digital Ink: the Future of Journalism', continued

Chairing this session on Friday, the editor of The Monthly, Sally Warhaft, was grace under pressure personified as what I presume was a late replacement for National Indigenous Times founding editor Chris Graham, who had been named instead of Warhaft in the program and whom I'd been looking forward to hearing. Warhaft chaired a three-person panel discussion featuring Colleen Ryan, Francis Wheen and Paul Chadwick.

(A digression: I should say before I go on that I don't subscribe myself to the notion that bloggers get to call themselves journalists simply by virtue of having a blog and writing about the things in the news -- any more than journalists get to call themselves bloggers simply by putting their columns online and opening up a comments facility, a lesson that most journos attempting to venture into the blogosphere have not yet learned.

A few bloggers are indeed much better journalists than a lot of the people you read in the papers, but most are not. Many bloggers have excellent writing skills but far fewer have the discipline, the formal training or the gifts for clarity and structure that make a good piece of journalism compelling, and that tend to come with the hard training of observation (including of things that don't interest you at all), followed by reportage to deadline, followed by standing by watching helplessly as your copy gets hacked up beyond recognition if not actually spiked.

I think the premature and extravagant claim for blogging as the 'new journalism' has muddied these waters possibly beyond clearing, as it has led to the energies of the old guard all being directed into the scornful refutations of these claims, rather than looking at the possibilities and the positives of online information delivery.

But (a) almost no bloggers have the resources financial or otherwise to take on a true investagtive role; (b) to accept finance from anywhere else is immediately to compromise the independence that most bloggers prize above rubies; and in any case (c) a blog is really no more than a vector and blogging itself a far more inchoate activity, endlessly pliable and therefore used to all sorts of different ends. I think an increasing number of us, myself certainly included, would echo the words of much-admired Adelaide blogger ThirdCat: 'Blogging isn't the new anything. It's blogging.' But all of that is, for the moment, by the way.)

The first speaker at this session was Colleen Ryan from the Financial Review, who perhaps sensibly focused on one particular aspect of the topic: the question of how journalism -- particularly investigative journalism -- would be paid for if it were to make the transition online. She argued a particular and very clear case about 'quality' journalism, by which she presumably meant the Fourth Estate ideal: that kind of of journalism, she argued, will only survive online if it uses the subscription model, unless higher-quality (and therefore, presumably, more lucrative) advertising was developed to finance it. Clearly she was also thinking wholly within the 'established mainstream media organisation goes online' model and gave no indication of what she knew or thought about the alternatives.

I'm not sure she's right about the subscription/advertising point, but I don't know enough about what kind of money some people make through online advertising to argue the point and neither, I suspect, does she. As I suppose befits a finance journalist, and it is certainly a pertinent question, Ryan's concern was exclusively with how the journalism 'product' would be paid for.

Then British journalist, editor and author Francis Wheen, biographer of Karl Marx, deputy editor of Private Eye and old-school Brit through and through, got up and opened with a bunch of cheap yuk-yuk anti-blog jokes uttered in sonorous and ultra-British baritone orotundities, a combination that got my back up right from the beginning. Yes, 'blog', 'blogging' and 'blogosphere' are indeed already inherently and self-referentially comic words and that is indeed the point of them, something we've all known for some years now. Talk to the hand.

All of which was a pity, because he did of course have a number of intriguing, knowledgeable and original things to say: 'Do newspapers have a long-term future? I suspect probably not. Which brings us to ... Does journalism have a future?' He went on to argue that the decline of news-gathering pre-dates the Internet and can rather be blamed largely on Rupert "After all, we are in the entertainment business" Murdoch and his concentration on what it is that actually sells papers. (This point was reprised yesterday by Norman Swan in the best session I've been to so far, but more of that later.) News-gathering, Wheen argued, is expensive and does not pay its way.

Sounding like a man in late middle age sighing about the cheap values of the young, which was almost as annoying as the easy sniggering about blogging that he kept getting out of the audience, he also mourned an alleged decline in the motivations of young trainee journalists and students of journalism, and told two stories to illustrate his point. Thirty years ago he asked a cadet journalist why he wanted to be in the profession and the cadet replied that he wanted to be like Woodward and Bernstein. Asking a journalism student the same question very recently, he got the reply: 'Because journalists get to meet famous people and celebrities.' If he'd asked different students on different days I'm sure he would have been able to find a shallow one 30 years ago and a dedicated one today, but that would not have suited his line of nostalgic lamentation for a lost golden age.

Sally Warhaft in her otherwise excellent post-panel questions to the speakers, in a skilfully conducted discussion, nonetheless showed no interest in the digital at all except for a few mild passing swipes in the middle of questions about something else. Her final comment -- 'People will always want something to put in their bag and take with them on the train' -- was revealing in that it suggested that she had bought the specious argument of aggro early bloggers that online content would sweep all before it and that hard copy of anything was doomed to the trash heap, which it's quite clear to me is actually unlikely to happen (thanks largely to J. K. Rowling, and no, I am not joking) until bags, trains and quite possibly people are all themselves obsolete. And, of course, there are an awful lot of people now putting their lightweight streamlined wireless laptops in their bags and taking them on the train.

(The attitudes expressed by these three people had reminded me anew of something I've fully realised only since I took up blogging: most people seem either unwilling or unable to go beyond the paradigm of the dichotomy. Maybe it's a hangover from being picked for competing teams in primary school. Whatever it is, I'm thinking of having the words 'It's not a matter of either/or' tattooed on my forehead.)

So it was left to Paul Chadwick, just as I had given up hope of hearing anyone say anything that was both knowledgeable and interesting about both traditional journalism and possible online futures, to restore my faith.

... to be continued, again ...

Broadcasts and podcasts via Radio Adelaide.


lucy tartan said...

As if 'Woodward and Bernstein' aren't celebrities.

Funnily enough, I subscribe to three print publications (LRB, Monthly, Quarterly Essay) very much so as to have something to take on the train / bus.

Stu said...

I was a bit disappointed that blogging wasn't raised as an issue in "Passion for Science" session. There was much talk about the need for scientists to be good communicators, and about the way in which journalists convey science but not a word about the scientists communicating directly with people on blogs. Perhaps, as a blogger and avid reader of blogs I overestimate the importance of this, but it did seem rather relevant. I got up to ask a question about it but I didn't get in in time.
On the topic of reading newspapers. I used to be a daily newspaper reader. I didn't give up because of the internet, I gave it up because the Australian was getting so utterly awful and I didn't want the Advertiser either.

Kim said...


Kim said...

Trying that link again.

Here is a link to a post I've written referencing this one on LP.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

One of the reasons that the journalism /blogger debate got a head of steam up was simply that for a long time there was bugger all real journalism in the mainstream. It was all opinion columns. So people began to think that journalism was opinion stuff.

If you looked at blogging then you saw that bloggers had opinions, most of them were more intellectually solid than most opinion columns, often added a bit of real know how and expertise ignored by trad media. In addition even the worserest blog was often better written and more entertaining than the mainstream stuff. So people correctly said “If Andrew Bolt is journalism then wwww.josephineblogs.blogspot is just as good – so it’s journalism”

I think there is a bit of emerging journalism in the blog world. It’s best done in the specialist areas where a bit of real knowledge and scholarship makes a difference. One example is around climate change and GW issues. Its not too far fetched to say that the best mix of science and opinion is on blogs.

wmmbb said...

It as is self evident, as much as anything else is likely to be, that bloggers are not necessarily good writers. Good writers can be good bloggers, and for that reason ought to be encouraged to join in the interconnected and interlinked flow of conversation.

In a democracy, we are citizens, and it is bravely assumed that we might have something useful to say, even if frequently we skill and the knowledge to say it well. Blogging is a way that allows us to be more fully participants in a the democratic process that was not possible before the technology made it possible.

A discussion topic for the future might be: blogging and democracy.

Matthew da Silva said...

The manichean regime favoured by many is, as you say, just silly.

Bloggers feed off online journals voraciously.

Litbloggers were recently up-in-arms over cuts to culture pages in the U.S. despite the fact that many litbloggers quarrelled (and continue to do so) with the lit page editors over quality and balance issues.

There's a place for both, because they deliver different things. One issue can profitably be debated in several fora for days, weeks even, without exhausting its possibilities.

And I agree that many newspaper readers are thoroughly sick of partisan op ed copy. Bleagh!

I never read the op-ed pages, and stick to what I want from newspapers: hard news, well investigated and thoroughly researched.

Weekend feature sections are terrific, and deserve to be expanded.

Anonymous said...

Colleen Ryan is absolutely right. Think of the arithmetic - pay a hundred dollars a year, along with a hundred thousand other people, and you have a ten million dollar investigative warchest.

Not bad, huh?

Also -

What happens when we have wifi on the train? Tee hee.

We are watching a juggernaut assembled before our eyes.

- barista

Jennifer said...

I'm really enjoying this dip into the Festival of Ideas (almost wishing I lived in Adelaide).

To answer the train point. I usually read my blackberry on the train (work emails from the night before). But I've been meaning for some time to get my bloglines feed set up in it - the train is a perfect time to read blogs. Much more manageable than the broadsheet Sydney Morning Herald.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Jennifer -- yes, it occurred to me almost as soon as I'd posted that that Blackberries and such were the obvious things, but I was focusing on magazine-sized objects for some reason.

elsewhere said...

Thanks for these posts, PC. I've been reading them with interest. I've been 'blogbashed' a couple of times recently by people whom I otherwise respect about why I blog and what the possible value of blogging could be -- which is very difficult to explain to anyone who hasn't had any continuous involvement in the blogosphere.

Don't really have any wisdom to add, but I'm finding the blogging vs journalism commentary interesting -- thanks.

Anonymous said...