How is Australian Journalism operating today?

This would seem to be a simple enough question with a simple enough answer, but the current journalism landscape in Australia, as we have found, is more complex, and more dense, than it appears on the surface.

It is no great secret of course, that the commercial news sector in Australia is largely owned and operated by two major players, Fairfax and News Limited. Australian media ownership is among the most concentrated in the world. Fairfax operates major Australian publications including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Canberra  Times, and the Australian Financial Review. News Limited’s titles include The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, The Herald Sun, and The Mercury. Both companies also control news websites that operate alongside their print publications, and some websites that even run independently, as ‘online-only’ news (for example, Fairfax’s brisbanetimes.com.au). Together, these two corporations dominate the news market. For many years they operated on the traditional journalism model; that is, professionally trained journalists writing the stories, professional news organisations publishing them, with reader input and opinions coming from ‘Letters to the editor’, or in the case of broadcast media, ‘phone-ins’ to radio shows. When newspapers made the shift and began publishing their content online as well as in print, reader input came in a similar fashion, with leaving comments on stories or opinion pieces becoming the digital equivalent to a ‘letter to the editor’. The online world however, opened up brand new opportunities for accessing, and publishing news. As Karthika Muthukumaraswamy notes,

No longer reliant on journalists to function as their representatives, people chime in with their own voices, whether on an online forum, a blog, or the websites of newspapers. (2010)

Muthukumaraswamy is quite optimistic in her article about the what she refers to as crowd-sourced or citizen journalism, and believes that while initially wary, news organisations are embracing a more open model of journalism. However, she does not refer specifically to the Australian journalism landscape and it appears that here, there is far less to be optimistic about.

Print circulation has been steadily dropping. This is because, quite obviously, readers are increasingly accessing their news online. Advertisers are also distancing themselves from newspapers, in line with the drop in revenue. Some newspapers have even shut down their print editions and are only available online (which is cheaper to produce, although whether they make up the same revenue of print newspapers is another matter). It is clear that News Limited and Fairfax are increasingly looking to subsidise the industry online. Fairfax, for example, is cutting down on unprofitable print circulation, printing less copies of newspapers such as The Age. However, even though print circulation may be dropping,  overall readership has increased, with a 7% rise in readers of The Age and theage.com.au as reported by thebrisbanetimes.com.auIt is clear that, as best they can, Fairfax and News Limited intend to use the online market to their full advantage. Indeed, digital revenue is forecast to rise 11% of what it was in 2012, and Australian newspapers generally perform much better than other global markets in terms of revenue (Newspaper Works, 2011 report). Revenue and readership is not the main issue here. With the rise of the digital age, and online journalism, the question that remains is ‘Is the Australian journalistic landscape moving towards a more open environment?’ If we take the idea of ‘Open Journalism’ as a philosophy, is this gap between the more traditional journalists and the bloggers being bridged? Are we moving towards a more dialectical, collaborative approach?

Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Limited, in a piece written in 2009 expressed his views on the direction that online journalism was taking very emphatically.

Quality content is not free. In the future, good journalism will depend on the ability of a news organization to attract customers by providing news and information they are willing to pay for.

In outlining his vision for a new business model, it is Murdoch’s idea to have people pay to subscribe to news online, a model which has begun to take effect very recently, with The Australian beginning to implement a subscription based service (though at the time of writing this, it is still possible to freely access most articles, although for ‘exclusive’ content, you must sign up. A free, 28 day trial is currently on offer). There is nothing new, or open, about the model that Murdoch is here proposing. It is his view that bloggers and citizens who take it upon themselves to write about news or give their own views are merely re-writing the content that his corporations are putting out. He even goes so far as to refer to it as stealing.

Taking a step back for a minute, let’s look at what ‘open journalism’ entails, as we have defined it. It is an ecosystem – a form of organisation, in which different forms of journalism (be they professional or citizen) are curated and shared. It is a philosophy, an environment that aims to bridge the gap between the journalists and the bloggers and the citizen journalists. Whereas a traditional news article/publication is closed, fixed or static, a publication that adheres to the open philosophy is just that – open. It is never ‘finished’, as it is commented upon, transformed, and a process that is continually built upon. There is dialogue between the journalists and the bloggers. Establishing this, are Australian news publications following this open philosophy?

The short answer is no. Mr. Murdoch has made it very clear the attitude that his vision for News. Limited is to keep the role of the journalist, and the role of the ‘reader’ as close to what it has been as possible. The introduction of pay walls around online news websites is not only another source of revenue to supplement online advertising, but another example of news corporations attempt to claim the news as their own content – to stop bloggers ‘stealing’ it, or re-appropriating it. According to data journalist, Lisa Cornish (2012),

…we definitely come from a more closed society that thinks ‘This is our information, we’re holding on to it’, which is completely different in Europe and America. This may be impacting the journalism aspect as well.

Unfortunately, evidence points to this idea that a lot of journalists and news organisations today have this very attitude. Moving news online doesn’t necessarily guarantee a more open model of journalism.  Indeed, Alan Knight (2007) summarised Fairfax’s strategy in the face of the rise of online journalism as this:

Fairfax Media had engaged on a three pronged strategy; defend and grow its existing newspapers and magazines, aggressively expand its online portfolio, and build a digital media company using broadband as a driver for growth. (p. 4)

Part of this strategy seems to have been not to try and connect with the bloggers or the citizen journalists. According to Knight, they are seen as ‘amateurs’, and the major extent of the interactions with them comes primarily from comments on left on published stories, or the opportunity to ‘suggest’ a story available on most news websites. The continuing flow of dialogue that is so often craved is simply not there.

This isn’t to say that journalism in Australia is completely closed off, but it is certainly moving forward a lot slower than we would like it to be. Data Journalism is emerging as a launching pad for a more dialectical approach to journalism. The whole concept of data journalism is that the story itself comes from the data and an analysis of the data – but the information itself is on display, and open for the readers to interpret in the way they wish. The journalists interpretation of it is just one possible interpretation of many. It is, unfortunately, still a very young development here in Australia compared to overseas. One news service that has begun to incorporate this form of journalism is the ABC. The ABC, a government funded organisation, seems to be embracing the digital age and the concept of a more open approach to journalism than it’s commercial news counterparts. With sites such as ABC Open, ABC Pool, and the Drum, the ABC are facilitating discussion and dialogue around it’s news, and allowing the consumers (who are increasingly becoming producers) to contribute and interact, to create their own stories. Admittedly, ABC Open in particular is more about creating stories that are specific and of interest to local rural communities, rather than hard-hitting political stories that seem to be the focus of the issues of trust and authority that plague journalism today. The idea and the method, however, are still valid and perhaps a model to consider.

Returning once more, and finally, to Knight:

The Internet overwhelmed journalists’ monopolies on international news distribution. It challenges their presumptions to the truth. It may replace professional reporters with citizen journalists and traditional editors with an interactive online community.

An open model of journalism is not necessarily about replacing journalists completely, but about redefining their role and the way journalism operates in an online space. Change in the landscape of Australian Journalism however, is happening very slowly, and certainly not fast enough to dispel the growing mistrust of our major media corporations.

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Data Journalism

Another interesting aspect that we’ve come across in our research is the field of Data Journalism, which could easily be considered a part of the Open Journalism eco-system. From the Data Journalism Handbook, I was able to glean these key points on what this form of journalism is:

  • Combination of traditional journalism, with the ability to tell a story with the scale and range of digital info now available.
  • Complex stories can be told through engaging info graphics, or how a story relates to an individual, and it can open up the news gathering process.
  • Data as the source, and data as the tool with which the story is told.

Once again, the Guardian is showing everyone how open it is to new models of journalism by employing this model, but it seems Australian news broadcasters are not out of the loop either. The ABC (already looking to work more collaboratively with their audience using projects such as ABC Pool and ABC Open) is also working on implementing data journalism on its website. One of the main benefits of data journalism seems to be however, that it allows for a more open and transparent look at the facts of a story, and allows the audience to interpret the numbers for themselves, without simply taking a journalists word for it.

The Coal Seam Gas By the Numbers project that the handbook mentions is still up on the ABC site, and contains corrections from the editor down the bottom, where data has been revised or incorrectly stated, a list of references used in compiling the report, and invites users to have their say on Twitter, Facebook and the comments thread.

Geoff McGhee, an online journalist who specialises in multi-media and inforgraphics, produced this video piece about Journalism in the Age of Data that is very informative.