Essay

The crumbling estate

NEARLY FIFTY YEARS ago I walked into the Dickensian editorial offices of The Age in Collins Street, Melbourne, to start a cadetship in journalism. Old men in green eyeshades sat around a horseshoe-shaped subeditors' table shuffling papers and grumbling. Rowdy correspondents, full of beer and arrogance, scuffled for the few broken typewriters available in the reporters' room.

The place was worn and grubby, the air full of shouts and curses and cigarette smoke. I was assigned the daily Shipping Movements list (Due Today, Due Tomorrow, Sailing Today, Sailing Tomorrow, In Port) and the Weather, Mails and Train Times. From that first morning I was captured by the idea of unearthing, explaining and commenting on the affairs of the day.

I soon advanced to reporting inquests in the Coroner's Court, where matters of life and death, public reputation and lethal crime were presided over by the bespectacled coroner, Harry Pascoe, SM, and where sadistic coppers in the morgue behind the court delighted in showing virgin reporters their chilled clientele stretched out naked on gurneys with labels tied to their toes. It was a humbling and horrifying start for an innocent working-class lad. But we somehow learned to care about the issues of the day and about the words we wrote to report them, and we shared a naive belief in the value of free and independent journalism in a democratic society.

 

A COUPLE OF years ago I retired from the Canberra bureau of the Australian Financial Review. I had no regrets – I had run a long and enjoyable race. I had been a reporter, feature writer, leader writer, news executive, political columnist, and a correspondent in Europe and the United States. I had managed to squeeze in a degree in philosophy in my spare time (which the old sweats insisted would ruin me as a journalist). I had covered the Cold War and hot wars in Northern Ireland and southern Africa, and the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the fall of the Soviet Union. I had been with Ronald Reagan in Berlin when he called on Mikhail Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall'. And I had spent my later years in Canberra, writing on defence and foreign policy for the Australian Financial Review. The paper has generously allowed me to continue to write a fortnightly column and other occasional pieces.

 

YET, DESPITE ALL my positive experiences, I believe I am witnessing the long, slow death of Australian newspaper journalism. The craft is in decline; it is being tamed, shackled, diminished. I am conscious that old men tend to the view that things ain't what they used to be, that all around them is decay and destruction. That is not my opinion. There is much about Australian journalists and journalism that remains lively and creative, witty and informative; most Australian newspapers still do a creditable job and much of the new online journalism is effective, if handled with care.

But now-established trends are throttling the life, authority and influence out of newspapers. Circulations are falling, at best stalling; newspapers are shrinking or, in the US, going online; profits are disappearing as advertisers desert newspapers for other media. It is often said that these trends reflect changes in education and the wider sources of information now available on TV, radio and the internet, all of which are quicker and easier to consume than newspapers. But it is worth asking whether the declines in circulation and revenue result partly from decisions by companies' managers who, desperate to ensure newspapers' survival, have embraced a range of practices damaging to the craft of journalism.

 

THE FIRST TREND is the rise of managerialism which has displaced journalism as the dominant culture in newspaper offices. Newspapers are run by executives with little regard for serious journalism as a vocation involving a public trust. For them, journalism is a costly and troublesome undertaking; its practitioners are difficult and unhelpful, and have to be kept on a short leash. Newspaper editors now tend not to be journalists experienced in national and international political reporting, and are likely instead to be managers more comfortable behind a desk. They spend less time on editing than on staff control and corporate planning.

They want quick results: increases in circulation and revenues to boost ‘shareholder value'. They want a ‘fast turnaround' on stories. They are impatient with notion of careful enquiry, and uncomfortable with the exposure of public and private swinery, which can involve serious legal risks and embarrassments. Cost considerations ultimately determine how – and sometimes whether – events are covered, regardless of their national or international importance.

In this culture – a world of endless planning and ideas conferences – journalists are regarded, as one former Fairfax chief executive famously put it, as ‘content providers for advertising platforms'. They are pressed to write more and to write it more quickly, to supply not only the newspaper but also its website. Journalists are valued according to the number of times their name appears over articles, meaning that the most automaton-like information processors – purveyors of what Nick Davies calls ‘churnalism' – are the most valued staff. Journalists who want to take time to observe and reflect, to put events in context and put some effort into their writing, are regarded less favourably.

 

SECOND, NEWSPAPERS ARE engaged in a perpetual effort to cut costs and staff. While journalists were once undoubtedly profligate in their pursuit of information, they are now under strict financial constraints: travel and communications allowances have been cut so ruthlessly that journalists cannot pursue important lines of enquiry. Some staff cuts are justified: all newspapers have non-performing staff. But newspapers make little effort to replace retrenched staff with better and brighter journalists, preferring to hire young, inexperienced people because they are cheap, uncritically enthusiastic and untroubled by the demands made upon them.

Third, the way in which journalists work has changed. They are increasingly chained to the computer keyboard, the TV screen and the phone. Many lead second-hand lives, far from the action, processing information instantly as they monitor events from screens and from transcripts emailed by obliging political staffers. From a managerialist perspective this is quick, efficient and cost-effective. From a journalistic perspective it should be a last resort. Newspaper journalists in Canberra assigned to Sunday shifts have one of the most soulless jobs in journalism: they spend their day writing reports of the political talk shows, based on transcripts helpfully provided by TV networks that like the publicity. They are processing stale information for news executives for whom the Sunday talk shows are a cheap and easy source of ‘news' to fill the Monday paper.

Fourth, and not surprisingly, young journalists now seem less likely to see their job as a vocation. They are more likely to regard it as a means to a more lucrative and prestigious position. A few years as a journalist are useful on the CV of a person seeking a job in political or corporate public relations. Young journalists tend to be well trained in information processing, even if they are not particularly well educated. They are taught to follow orders – which is precisely what most politicians and business executives require in a ‘strategic communications adviser'. Journalism, it sometimes seems, is becoming a repository for first-rate egos and second-rate minds.

Fifth, journalists are outgunned and out-thought and out-paid by the army of political, bureaucratic and corporate communications advisers who have colonised public affairs. These advisers' role is to shield their bosses from potentially embarrassing enquiry, to spin information favourably while posing as facilitators aiding journalists in acquiring information. Getting past them is frustrating and often impossible, and weasel words crafted by flacks for politicians and executives are now among the more familiar clichés of the daily press. Recent disclosures about the intrusive role of PR flacks in a court case over the withdrawn anti-arthritis drug Vioxx offers alarming evidence of how far they are prepared to go to intimidate reporters. It is hardly surprising that young journalists are tempted to get among the big bucks rather than to struggle thanklessly to develop independent reportage, for it is easier and more congenial to be a massager of messages than a raker of muck.

 

SIXTH, COST-CUTTING has prompted Australian newspapers to buy in ever more material from notable overseas publications, including the New York TimesWashington PostWall Street JournalIndependent and Guardian. This foreign material is usually good, but it is not written for Australians; it often reflects different values and priorities. Moreover, in their search for cheap and free material, Australian newspapers have opened their op-ed and features pages to corporate and political flacks. They provide free articles for publication to advance their careers or the interests they represent. Again, there is nothing wrong with this – except the uncritical and extensive way in which the material is published these days. It further limits opportunities for newspaper journalists to develop intellectually and to do more analytical and thoughtful work.

Seventh, the practice of dumbing down – avoiding or downplaying difficult issues and highlighting sensationalist material, emphasising sex, scandal and sport – is now universal in Australian newspapers seeking to halt declines in circulation. Newspapers publish large pictures of showbiz and sporting celebrities, and make crude appeals to fear, envy and patriotism. The practice leads to serious mistakes – consider, for example, the recent publication of semi-naked photographs of a woman falsely claimed to be the former politician Pauline Hanson – and to dishonest and inaccurate reporting.

Australian newspaper ownership is notoriously limited and owners have always sought to ensure that their political attitudes are promoted. They are entitled to do so, and generally they understand that it is in their interests to allow a modicum of dissent. But these days, most notably in Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, there is a sustained right-wing agenda that permeates the presentation of news as well as the opinion pages. Much space is given over to insulting ideological opponents, questioning their motives and intelligence, and to attacking the personnel and professionalism of other newspapers, especially Fairfax publications. Newspaper readers must wonder why the press regales them with these internecine hatreds, as it cannot improve their understanding of the world or their respect for the press.

 

EIGHTH, AND ANOTHER product of the quest for money, is the breakdown in the separation between the editorial and advertising functions of newspapers. The long-term credibility and reputation of newspapers demands strict quarantining of editorial from advertising; both departments, as well as readers, benefit from it. But in an era of lifestyle journalism, special supplements and advertising features, newspapers compromise their independence to satisfy the demands of advertisers for some editorial quid pro quo. Perhaps no newspaper is more blatant than the Canberra Times. It publishes supplements in the middle of its editorial pages and acknowledges only in the tiniest visible letters that they are advertising features. Yet each advertisement on each page is accompanied by a puff piece about the product or service offered by the company that has placed the ad. Even The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald are not immune. Media Watch recently revealed that they published unlabelled and arguably misleading advertisements disguised as fun holiday supplements for children.

Ninth, there is now little sustained investigative journalism undertaken by Australian newspapers. Newspaper managers and editors seem reluctant to release journalists from daily reporting duties in order for them to conduct enquiries that might or might not produce publishable material. They seem appalled by the possibility that an investigative team might spend time and money on a project and then conclude that there was nothing worth reporting. There seems little sympathy for the view that the reputation and circulation of a newspaper is likely to be substantially boosted if it produces the occasional major report following sustained investigation.

Tenth, newspapers are closing expensive foreign bureaus and bringing journalists home to serve local markets. This is a result of cost-cutting, but it also reflects a desire to downplay systematic coverage of foreign and even national news in favour of local news. Major newspapers that once had international and national reputations, notably the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's Age, now emphasise state and local stories involving political, administrative and criminal scandals. Their foreign news coverage, much of it purchased from overseas, tends to be limited and patchy. Vast regions of the planet are simply ignored.

 

AGAINST ALL THIS it might be replied, ‘It was ever thus.' Newspapers have always been hotbeds of tension between the demands of journalism and the demands of commerce. There have always been managerialists whose natural inclination is to slash and burn, and there have always been journalists who defend newspapers' public trust to inform and persuade. Yet the strategic decisions made by newspapers to defend themselves against technological change and economic difficulties have only worsened their situation. Rather than seeking to raise their standards, newspapers have raced for the bottom. Rather than honouring their social role, they have chosen to cheapen it.

If there is any room for optimism, it is that few Australian newspapers are beyond redemption. Most still employ good journalists and most still publish much valuable information that is relevant to readers. But they also publish much that is dubious and, despite their vigour, newspapers are increasingly at risk from their misguided attempts to save themselves. They will remain in decline and compromised until they find a way to rebalance the imperatives of commerce and journalism. I hope they succeed in doing so. Free, independent, muck-raking journalism is more important than ever in a world dominated by political, bureaucratic and corporate authoritarians supported by armies of flim-flam communications advisers whose mission is to conceal and mislead, and who are delighted to see readers distracted with a fast-food diet of sex, sport and celebrity scandal.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review