Speed of Bytes – the conclusion

31 Jul

The Walkley Foundation has published a report: Journalism at the speed of bytes – Australian newspapers in the 21st century‘.

The 44-page report concludes that:

Daily newspaper journalism in Australia is changing dramatically. This study is anything but a lament for the demise of print media (“dead trees”), rather we set out to systematically examine the implications of current economic and technological pressures for news delivery, newsroom structures, workflows, editorial priorities, media standards, and interactions with readers. Our underlying concern is how Australians will keep themselves informed or be able to participate in democratic politics if there is a significant drop in the current supply of original news content produced by professional journalists. That question takes on new urgency now that the next phase of the commercialisation of news – paywalls – has started to be rolled out, heralding further audience fragmentation, increased competition for audience attention, and new demands for reader engagement. The results of our investigations, outlined above, combine to provide a rich picture of an industry in rapid transition as well as insights into what newspaper journalists are doing to renew their values and practices, and maintain the trust of the public, at this challenging time. The views of newspaper journalists provide the key findings for this study. We draw on them in this concluding discussion, which is arranged as a response to the research questions.

What do we know about quality journalism?

We know the term “quality journalism” is hard to define and not universally accepted; for some, it is code for resistance to change, while others see it as the keyword that will unlock journalism’s digital future.
No one talked about quality journalism in Australia, 20 or even 10 years ago, and past journalism research tended to focus on what was bad not what contributed to good journalism. Even today, studies about tabloidisation or “the dumbing down” of news far outnumber investigations of the concept of quality or journalism standards. The term has garnered increasing prominence in the past five years in the context of newspapers seeking to “monetise” online news content. In purely commercial terms, then, the focus on quality can be seen as a by-product of efforts to raise the reputation of newspapers’ print products to attract consumer and advertiser support for their websites.

Journalists, for their part, have taken up the issue of “quality journalism” in relation to two key challenges facing their profession: first, job cuts, increased workloads and re-jigged routines and, second, the exponential growth in competition from non-professional news providers (aggregators, bloggers, and social media). Journalists have publicly questioned how the quality of news reporting can be maintained when they are asked to produce multiple story versions, for multiple platforms, aimed at multiple audiences (often without training). Moreover, they have disputed the idea that “everyone is a journalist”, insisting that Australian society still needs a workforce of salaried professional journalists who know how to produce accurate, credible, public interest news.

We know from this study that journalists are now using the term “quality journalism” as shorthand for the news content they hope readers will pay for. This begs the question of whether readers appreciate or notice changes in news quality, or if they stop to consider the economic and technological constraints under which news is produced. One key finding of this study is that journalists need to talk to readers about journalism standards and values if they want them to take an interest in the future of quality journalism.

What does the transition to digital journalism mean for news quality?

The jobs of professional journalists working in large newsrooms are at risk as the industry moves to “digital-first” editorial models, print editions of major titles are being downgraded, news production is outsourced, and staff are laid off (again). Employment in newspapers has become more uncertain, less rewarding and more intense. Workloads have expanded as news delivery platforms multiply. Three years ago, there was print and online; now there is print, online, mobile phones and tablets.

As news moves into the next phase of commercialisation, the trend in freely available multiplatform publishing is toward breaking and continually updating stories, as well as re-versioning and recycling them across platforms and titles, while longer and more deeply researched news stories will likely end up behind a paywall.

Experienced print journalists are learning audio/video production and other digital journalism skills, either through employer provided on-the-job training or, more likely, through individual initiative. They have to. Across the industry, the trend is toward hiring new staff with digital media skills, to work on the digital platforms.The newsroom-training deficit, described to us in detail by both editorial executives and journalists, is bewildering. Many of the journalists we spoke to wanted to know about best- practice digital journalism, not just how to use the latest content management system or software package. As one journalist noted: “I know myself and my colleagues are crying out to be taught multimedia skills, and to actually have control of our own websites for the area we work in, where we can put up our stories, and put out our documents, and engage with readers, and hold forums whenever we have particular interests or stories in the paper … we see that as utilising all the tools and changes that are here … and there is frustration that we are not being given the training or resources to do that.” The lack of employer-provided professional development opportunities in this area, documented in this study, arguably amounts to a form of de-professionalisation of the workforce. This is another key finding.

What could journalists do – perhaps in league with readers – to renew and extend their standards in this transition period?

A third key finding is that more work is needed to define excellence in digital journalism, explain what it looks like and identify the criteria that can be used to evaluate what it does best.

The Walkley Foundation is already taking the lead in this area and Laurie Oakes, chair of the Walkley Advisory Board, has announced a major review of all the Walkley Award categories in 2013. The idea is to adjust the prize system so that it more directly encourages professional journalists to produce “highly differentiated, boundary-pushing digital story-telling”. In this way, the Walkley Foundation hopes to boost the profile of innovative digital journalism and at the same time encourage the consumption of professionally produced journalism by readers, viewers and listeners. We agree with this strategy.

A complementary initiative might be to open a public dialogue about digital journalism standards, with wide-ranging input, including from journalists and readers engaged with web- only news sites – for example, Crikey, mUmBRELLA, Business Spectator, Global Mail, Inside Story, The Conversation, and New Matilda.

The US-based Online News Association’s (ONA) award system provides another reference point for developing criteria to judge excellence in digital journalism. The ONA gives prizes in 13 categories, including innovative investigative journalism, data visualisation, community collaboration, technical innovation, blogging, and non-English online journalism. The last category raises the important issue of how to better reward cultural diversity in journalism, a further challenge, beyond the remit of this report, that nevertheless needs to be addressed to achieve a more balanced news representation of Australia’s multiculturalism.

David Craig’s recent book, (Excellence in Online Journalism, 2011), commends the ONA approach. He argues there are four key features of quality online journalism that deserve to be reflected in awards: speed and accuracy with depth in breaking news; comprehensiveness in content; open-endedness in story development; and the central place of conversation. Craig says these features marry print journalism traditions with evolving digital journalism practices. He argues the discussion of excellence in online journalism benefits from an ethical framework that specifies the purpose or rationale for good practice. He also defines journalism as a social practice (rather than an individual enterprise), which enables democracy by providing citizens with the information they need. In sum, he argues that journalists who are interested in excellence need to pay more attention to these particular features of online journalism. We agree with this approach and recommend that the Walkley Foundation take it into account in the 2013 review.

As we go to press, journalists are waiting to see whether the Gillard government intends to leave the newspaper industry to self-regulate via the Australian Press Council – recently cashed up, with a new national advisory panel, and on a mission to provide its members with “practical” journalism standards – or to introduce some form of mandatory standards regulation via a News Media Council, as recommended by the Finkelstein Inquiry, or some other statutory body. We welcome the debate that will follow either decision. The lesson we draw from this investigation is that robust public argument about the future of journalism is a thousand times preferable to a slow, silent newspaper deathwatch.

Mumbrella has some further comment here:

Sixty-two per cent of those asked said the most difficult challenge they face is coping with tighter resources, while 56% said it was proving difficult to keep staff motivated.

And this is impacting on the quality of journalism in Australia, the report found.

Sixty-two per cent of respondents said that the quality of newspaper journalism in Australia was “average” or “poor”. Only 34% said it was excellent.

Two-thirds of respondents described the quality of online journalism in Australia as “average” or “poor” while only 14% said it was “excellent”.

The survey follows in the wake of troubles at Australia’s top newspapers, which have claimed 1,500 jobs, according to the Alliance.

The report also found that journalists are slow to embrace digital techniques.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: