Student journalist nostalgic about the good old days
It dawned on me last week that I might be editing Australia’s last newspaper standing. Honi Soit, Sydney University’s scrapbook of student musings, has been published since 1929 and, unlike many other esteemed publications, looks set to remain in print for a long while to come.
Though not exactly rivers of gold, Honi is funded by a fairly consistent pool of funding from the Students’ Representative Council – which, though damaged by the introduction of voluntary student unionism under John Howard, has recently been boosted by the Gillard government’s student services and amenities fee.
Honi has no commercial imperative: indeed, it has no identifiable raison d’etre at all, other than to provide a platform for student writers and agitators to practise their craft. But practise for what?
Many of this country’s leading journalists, not only in print, first waded into the murky waters of media in their undergraduate years, under mastheads such as Woroni, Tharunka and Farrago. But can today’s journalism schools make promises of future employment with any seriousness, let alone any certainty?
A small part of me dies each time I hear another of my compatriots is to surrender to the dark art of public relations. While our newspapers are increasingly left to fill their pages with the churning of nameless AAP hacks, it seems there’s a veritable boom in the market for agitprop, spin doctors and snake oil salesmen. One does wonder what will happen to the PR industry once there are no newspapers left to puff to. Perhaps Ogilvy should buy a printing press.
Journalism the reality has never borne much resemblance to the lofty way it is taught in universities. Behind those sandstone walls a lot of time is devoted to theories of the public sphere, bleating about the fourth estate, and debate about media ethics – all of which, as one hard-head told me, might be better left unsaid. More pragmatic units, such as “Manipulating Wire Copy”, “Summarising Twitter” and “Phone Tapping for Beginners”, are rather lacking.
But how can journalism schools take seriously their preaching about the public good, or the right to know, or the principle of objectivity, when our foremost career prospect is writing for a glorified blog? For that is essentially what newspapers are poised to become.
There are too many reasons: the evil internet foremost among them. The industry rested on its laurels too long. If only Fairfax and News had behaved more like a regular duopoly and agreed to charge for online content from the beginning. And we can blame Murdoch and Gina and Conrad Black and Howard and this morning’s taxi driver a little bit too: an unending whirlpool of navel-gazing, blame and denial.
But mostly, it’s the readers’ fault. We, the audience, never revered journalism, never appreciated the ‘daily miracle’ for being just that. Last week Readers Digest dutifully published its annual list of “most trusted professions”, in which the standing of journalists improved to overtake sex workers and real estate agents, but still languished behind builders, lawyers and bankers.
The 2011 Roy Morgan “Image of Professions survey” found newspaper journalists were seen as less ethical and honest than insurance brokers, talkback radio announcers and TV reporters. So the Peter Hartchers and George Megalogenises of this world are actually ranked below the Ray Hadleys and the ambulance chasers and the paparazzi sifting through celebrity garbage cans.
And while yes, that may have something to do with the screaming headlines and questionable tactics of some, surely newspaper journos don’t deserve such a cruel indictment. They are the ones, after all, who break the most stories, undertake the big investigations, rigorously plough through detail and develop specialised knowledge.
Editing a newspaper has allowed me to sniff out the cognitive dissonance required of most people’s attitude toward print media. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a student weekly or a metro daily: the readers’ sense of entitlement is the same. People feel strongly about newspapers, more so than other mediums, evidenced by how harsh the criticism is when a paper is deemed to get it wrong.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that most readers refuse to pay for print journalism, and seem to hold its authors in such low ethical regard.
Alas, we are told in lecture halls, the future is bright, just not on paper. It is toward the online oasis that hordes of media graduates are encouraged to run, open-armed, for salvation. But writing under the masthead of Wordpress is not what most of us had in mind when we started down this once-noble path. Nor, without too much hubris, would most of us aspire to a lifetime of enslavement at a niche magazine with circulation of about a dozen.
These days if you want to make a buck out of journalism you’re better off posting Instagram pictures of your dinner or your dress on the web than you are setting foot in a newsroom. That’s the tragedy of it all: the Perez Hiltons of this world are living it up, the Woodwards and Bernsteins are dodging the axe.
You can bet if Roy Morgan were to rank the honesty of “bloggers”, they’d do pretty well there, too.
Find Michael on Twitter: @michaelkoziol
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