The party at the end of journalism
A few days ago I sent an email to a workmate reflecting on my dutiful attendance and his blessed absence from last Friday’s Walkley Awards for “excellence” in journalism, as they are known with the modesty typical of our industry.
I told him that if it wasn’t such a self-indulgent topic I would love to write a piece under the headline “The Party at the End of Journalism” about this morbid, wrist-slashing soiree. He urged me to write it anyway, so here goes.
Please forgive any indulgence, but given that you are a person who is engaged enough to have taken the time to click on our website, you might be interested as a news consumer in an insider’s thoughts on the future of our industry. The short answer to that question, if put to most people at the Walkleys, is that there is no future.
If this event was intended to be a celebration of our industry, it was as much fun as going to the staff Christmas party at a car assembly plant in Detroit just days before they boarded the joint up. You have never seen so many people convinced of the inevitability of their own demise.
Speech after speech was prefaced, concluded or in some cases even wholly comprised of ruminations about whether we will all be here next year, whether newspapers will exist, whether the digital model can make money. If this is industry leadership the industry needs some new leaders. By the end of the night I was inclined to go against my own instincts and knowledge and start believing these doomsayers, as if enough people keep telling you that their business is stuffed, then it might actually be stuffed.
The reason it might be stuffed has less to do with the pressures around delivery, distribution and revenue on mainstream journalism, than the fact that so much journalism has parted company with the mainstream. While much of the work which was honoured the other night was genuinely excellent, so much of what we do in our day-to-day work as journalists is devoted to incremental shifts in stories which are clubby, dull or arcane, and have little relevance to people’s daily lives. The coverage of national affairs in particular is more likely to examine the fairly meaningless question of who “won” Question Time, rather than bothering to look at policies in terms of how they affect our readers. Also, a gripping human story about a tragedy or a triumph is often less likely to excite the journalistic class, hard-wired as it is with a serious case of Woodward and Bernstein syndrome, where so many of us dream of breaking the next Watergate that we ignore things which really fire up the readers.
This mindset was underscored in the Walkley presentations where some of the most gripping and emotional stories of the year were not just downplayed, but even forgotten entirely.
The interminable “highlights” reel of the biggest stories of 2012 devoted an eternity to Julia Gillard’s allegedly seismic misogyny speech, which in my view is arguably the most over-reported and over-analysed moment of the year.
UPDATE: When the reel ended there was a conversation among several journalists as to why the Jill Meagher story was not included, as I originally wrote in this column this morning. The MEAA complained to me today saying the Meagher story did rate a mention. I have since rewatched the tape and I apologise for that honest mistake. But I can see why we all missed it, as it was mentioned for just five seconds, from the 8.04 mark to the 8.09 mark, and this in a 1 hr 55 minute show.
There was plenty of coverage from Question Time on the HSU, the AWU, pick your acronym.
And to stitch the night together, they interspersed the award presentations with old footage from The Chaser, a show which is in real danger of being carbon-dated, and even some lazy old clips from that insiders program The Hollowmen which as far as I can tell came out about 10 years ago and was regarded by several Canberra press secretaries as an absolute thigh-slapper.
Journos are taught as cadets to ask who, where, what, when. More emphasis should be placed on another question – who cares?
There is nothing like the feedback – or non-feedback – of readers to give you a sense as to whether you are hitting the mark or not. Earlier this year I wrote a column about Craig Thomson, making the fairly unsurprising claim that he appeared to be a bit of a bullshit artist, or at the very least quite careless with his credit card, and of the millions and millions of readers of our Sunday newspapers less than a dozen pinged me a note. The following week the column was on the little African girl mauled to death by a pitbull in Melbourne, asking what type of selfish moron would keep one of those dogs in a suburban area, and pondering whether instead of banning dangerous breeds it would be better to ban dangerous owners. By teatime there were more than 500 emails sitting in the inbox and in the end more than 1000, as people are much more interested in things happening in their immediate community than in the set-piece nonsense that often passes for a yarn out of Canberra.
If you look at all the research by smart blokes like the demographer and sociologist Bernard Salt about what motivates the public, it is questions such as the cost of living, maintaining a good relationship with your partner, having happy and healthy kids, being able to find a good school, paying off their house, living in a safe community.
They’re pretty basic questions. If journos spent more time addressing them they could probably spend less time crying woe-is-me behind a Canberra podium at this dire orgy of self-absorption.
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