The Unconditional Blog

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10

The future of journalism – gifted amateurs or serious professionals?

Posted on: August 25th, 2010 | Filed in Featured, Media commmentary

Newspapers and onlineThis was not the title of the lecture given yesterday by Gavin Ellis, the former Editor-in-chief of the NZ Herald, as part of the Winter lecture series hosted by the University of Auckland – a series titled “The end(s) of journalism”. Gavin’s lecture was titled “Paying the Piper“. I chose the title for this blog post to reflect I guess, what I saw as the challenge raised within the lecture and representative of the challenges facing the broad media industry in general, of how to deal with the changes wrought by the explosion of self-publishing facilitated by the medium of the social web and the blog.

The lecture provided an excellent and compelling insight into the background to the current state of the newspaper industry globally (more of this later) and then moved on to examine the challenges of how to separate the function of the newspaper – to inform; from the role of the newspaper – to make money. Gavin outlined the Trust models established under governing charters which set out to protect the democratic integrity of journalism as verifiers of the truth in news. Great examples exist – most notably The Guardian in the UK and The Irish Times.

However when it came to the often-debated issue as to the credibility of blogs vs serious professional journalists – the analogy Gavin used of feathers vs. lead shot whilst making the point, did not resonate with me. His argument was that serious professional journalists have a natural advantage in having significant inertia in political influence – and collectively a ton of lead (as the analogy of the collective weight of a group of serious professional journalists) can exert that influence through the media to hold politicians to account. However he then went on with his analogy to liken bloggers and their individual influence to that of a feather, and even when aggregated as a ton of feathers does not have the same attacking impact as a ton of lead. This analogy sadly seeks to generalise bloggers as lone individuals with tiny audiences. This is far from the truth.

There are many bloggers with far greater, more engaged and loyal audiences than many journalists and whole media vehicles. These are not uninformed amateurs,  rather they are more often than not serious journalists who are breaking the news – take Bernard Hickey of Interest.co.nz for example. He has the critical audience to be respected as a serious journalist and can unnerve the odd politician, and yet he is not a cog in a giant media empire. He is not alone here in NZ or overseas there are many other examples – the  Huffington Post being a most notable one.

The point with blogs is that they allow specialisation – empowering experts in tight niche areas to have a voice and engage an audience, yes there are many very amateurish ones, but the beauty of the web is that audiences find and share what they like and the cream always rises. So I would have to challenge the notion of the lecture that the only way to ensure the safety of our democracy (for that was the alarmist view) solely lies in the protection through Trust structures within media organisations where serious professional journalists can operate unsullied by the commercial reality of business. There is a place for this model, but it is important to allow the democratic medium of the web and its aggregation of specialist bloggers to add their capability to the future of news in a new dispersed and open manner which allows it to be pushed to those that wish to receive it.

Returning to the research background of the lecture. I was enlightened and impressed by the analysis of the self generated issues that the newspaper industry has collectively got itself into over the past decade presented in the lecture. Paying respect to Gavin Ellis for his extensive research, let me share a summary of his perspective.

The seeds for the demise of newspapers in the western world and especially the English speaking world were sewn in the 1950’s – a time of rapid rise in newspaper circulation. In the US circulation broke through 60 million by 1964 and in NZ it grew from 785,000 to 1,000,000 in the late 50’s / early 60’s. As circulation grew so did advertising revenue – the era of mass market advertising was in its heyday as Madison Avenue splurged on newspaper advertising. Between 1950 and 2000 advertising revenue in print in the US grew by 2251%.

This booming business of newspapers in the 70’s and 80’s saw the stock exchange listing of many newspapers given the fixed cost nature of the industry which was leading to very high profit margins. With every growing revenue and strong circulation their collective stock values rocketed in the 1980’s. This then sparked a round of acquisitions as media empires were built.

However with the start of the 1990’s newspapers began to loose circulation as alternative media appeared. the US circulation peaked in 1993 and fell below 60 million and has been falling since then. In NZ peak circulation at 1,050,000 fell to 727,000 by 2005. Interesting at the same time newspapers began to quote readership rather than circulation – hoping to bolster the data.

The 1990’s also exposed a fundamental flaw in the industry which Gavin Ellis describes as the “service gap” – as circulation fell, newspapers steadily increased advertising rates – endeavouring to sell a scarce resource, however this was always going to come back to bite the industry as it has done in the last 10 years. However to shore up this broken business model the industry consolidation which began in the 1990’s accelerated with the created safety of  powerful monopolies and duopolies as we have effectively had in NZ. This helped support the industry right up until the Great Recession.

The past 4 years has been the worst of times for newspapers globally. Saddled with enormous debt borne of the aggressive acquisitions of the past decades and hyper inflated stock valuations, matched to declining advertising markets, have destroyed balance sheets and lead to aggressive cost cutting. In the US many newspapers have folded and many more may well yet fold.

Now barely limping back from the effects of the recession, newspapers are challenged by the online world of instant access to all the news – no longer needing to wait for the daily print version when news is truly 24/7 and pushed to individual devices rather than being found. Gavin’s prediction for the future of newspapers (which I could see) would be the elimination of the daily printed newpaper, replaced by a online subscription model wrapped up with a weekend print edition. Personally I could buy (and would buy) this concept – as long as quality content is consistently provided – that quality content could come from serious professional journalists or alternatively the aggregation and curation of the collective wisdom of professional bloggers. Ideally a mix of the two.

Gavin Ellis is the former Editor in Chief of the NZ Herald and is currently completing his doctoral thesis in political studies at the University of Auckland. The notes on his lecture are published by the NZ Herald.

Article Discussion

  1. Alistair,
    Nice to bump into you there. Thanks for the HT above.
    I agree. Gavin’s analysis was well worth a listen. He’s very experienced in the newspaper industry and now has a valuable independent eye as an academic.
    However, I agree that he underestimated the impact of bloggers. The feathers and lead analogy also left me cold.
    I’d speculate that Kiwiblog, Public Address, The Standard and many others already have more political impact than many of the ‘established’ newspaper commentators.
    The politicians know this. I speak to them regularly and they are intensely aware of it. David Farrar is one of the most powerful commentators in New Zealand right now, if not the most powerful.
    Even if the bloggers are only feathers now, we are not far off the heavyweight stage.
    You only have to look at what has happened in America, where Obama’s campaign was utterly focused online.
    I’m also sceptical about the value of charitable or low profit trusts as the brave new world for journalism.
    I think there is a bright new (and profitable) future for journalism. It just doesn’t involve the established print or free-to-air broadcasting companies.
    The future is in a flowering of many low cost start-ups that focus solely online and tailor their business models for online rather than try to transition high cost print-style operations to an online one.
    It just won’t work. I’ve been there and tried it. The cultural and structural blockages to the sort of reinvention needed are just too great. The nimble startups will beat the lumbering giants every time online.
    The best the print companies can do is manage decline. I call it the comfortable hospice strategy.
    That’s exactly what Murdoch is doing: building a comfortable hospice for his newspapers so they can have a slow death that strings out the dividends for as long as possible. His paywalls are not about building sustainable or growing businesses. They are about slowing the rate of attrition of existing print subscribers by making it difficult to get the same news online for free.
    Just a few thoughts..
    cheers
    Bernard

  2. Mary MacKivnen says:

    This has been interesting and enlightening – thanks to you both.
    I haven’t read Gavin’s report but I hope there’s mention of the increasingly poor quality of content in papers as a likely reason circulation has declined. Of course cost cutting at papers will be a major cause; but also editors seem not to be ‘customer focussed’ in the content they provide. Newpapers are just not interesting any more.
    Even without big budgets they could be more informative, more reflective of the true concerns of the public, and give voice to a wider range of people and ideas….so blogs have taken off.
    I could be more cynical but that might be defamatory. Ah, the truth.. even with blogs it still eludes us.
    Mary (a journalist)

  3. Phil says:

    Great article Alistair,
    As more and more newspapers try to hold onto their hold by via pay walls or otherwise restricted content I find myself getting pretty much all my news now days via different blogs.
    I know that anything of any consequence related to economic news will be covered by Bernards Interest.co.nz blog, and will have in depth analysis to go with it. keeping up with Real Estate news is a breeze with your blogs and a few others that I follow and your analysis that goes with it is as good if not better than any I have read in the papers.
    Mashable keeps me up to date with another interest of mine tech.there are a few others I watch as well and all in one place in my rss reader. or via links on twitter.
    I look at my home towns local paper and its new web site and I am gobbed smacked that they could get it so wrong. view http://www.ashburtonguardian.co.nz the site looks the part but click on one of the excerpts for the full article and you see that there really is no reason to visit the website at all.
    As more and more of the advertising dollar moves online, this particular paper has captured none of it. with the only advertising on the site there own.
    Compare that site with http://www.ashburtononline.co.nz/site/welcome.html (no affiliation at all) that has a relevant community website that has no shortage of sponsors, and real reasons to visit the site. chalk and cheese in my opinion and Is there any wonder why one site has no traffic and the other is on a growth climb. again great article on a interesting subject.

  4. Matt Harman says:

    Sounds like a most excellent lecture – disappointed I missed it.

    Think that the ‘influence’ argument in relation to journalists is a really interesting one. It certainly still seems true that politicians, big companies and other organisations tend not to react to issues until they are picked up by mass media.

    I wonder though if that’s more of hangover from days past, or a general lack of sophistication on the part of newsmakers, rather than a smart strategy.

    ie: through social media channels and search, more and more of us are aware of and forming opinions about issues that have yet to reach mass media.

    Thinking that an issue isn’t really news until the Dom, the Herald, TV3 or TVNZ run with it seems less and less viable as the traditional filters of news become less important to the general public.

    To me it’s less about journalists v bloggers than it is about the possibility that neither news filter is as relevant when news consumers have the means to get news in ‘raw’ formats, form opinions and then act on those opinions without ever even looking at the filtered output of journalists/bloggers.

    That’s not to say that filtering and validation has no value (clearly, it’s very valuable) – but those tasks increasingly feel more like technical challenges than a journalistic ones.

  5. Alistair Helm says:

    Phil

    Great to hear your views and to see the practical experience in a provincial town in NZ.

  6. And here’s the link to Gavin Ellis’ presentation on the NZHerald…

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10668571&ref=twitter

    cheers
    Bernard

  7. Love your work Alistair. Yet another great article. I chuckled over Mr Hickey’s “comfortable hospice” analogy. I’m so glad I live in an age where common people can empower themselves and have a voice on matters that interest and concern them.
    I don’t think it’s just me who finds the traditional news streams out of touch, biased, Americanised, and stilted in the language used.
    Web based amateur journalism a threat to democracy? I would say that it is just the opposite. Now the common people have the ability to voice their concerns in an open and unstilted and truly democratic way. Now we have the ability to challenge and question the powers that be without the rank censorship that takes place through mainstream big business channels.
    Paperless society? We may be on the brink!

  8. Gavin Ellis says:

    Thank you Alistair for your analysis and encouraging the debate. To avoid a blogger lynch mob, I should point out that I don’t dismiss bloggers (I don’t consider Bernard a blogger, by the way, but a financial news service provider). They and other ‘citizen journalists’ have an important part to play, as do public service broadcasters. However, I don’t think we can afford to kill off professional non-state-funded journalism and organised newsrooms because of their greater institutionalised ability to hold politicians — and other with power — to account.
    The real point of the lecture was to get society thinking about what structures will best serve us in the future. Trusts may work for a lucky few, for others there will be different solutions…but solutions we must have.
    This discussion thread is contributing to that debate.
    Gavin Ellis

  9. Alistair Helm says:

    Gavin

    Thanks for contributing and clarifying some aspects of the debate.

    I very much appreciate your clarification in regard to the generalisation around bloggers. I personally feel the term is now stale as it is often misconstrued with negative connotations.

    The reality is technology has liberated the capability to express freely opinions and expertise. If this is aggregated in a solus form or in an collective form I believe we can have valuable sector specific content which can complement traditional journalism “units”. The smart news “mediums” of the future will provide a platform for the melding of these two sources of content and build new businesses around them.

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