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Media report card 2017: The good, the bad and the ugly

The annual New News journalism conference has kicked off in Melbourne, with a headline session of leading Australian journalists reflecting on the highs and lows of 2017. Nicholas Nakos reports. 

Words by Nicholas Nakos

The challenges of maintaining journalistic quality in an era of digital upheaval, and of fighting back against fake news, dominated the opening session of Melbourne’s annual “New News” journalism conference.

But there was cautious optimism, with leading journalists reflecting that seismic events on the world stage meant that journalism was “having a moment”, in the words of The Guardian Australia’s political editor Katharine Murphy, as audiences sought out quality reporting. “It’s enough to make the heart of a journalist sing”.

After years of job losses – an estimated 3000 Australian journalism positions have been lost in the past six years – and shrinking editorial budgets, the sense of value being restored in good journalism had delivered a much-needed morale boost to battered newsrooms, Murphy said. “It’s good to have that sense of mission, it’s great …  (but) whether it can be sustained, I don’t know.” The panellists were in furious agreement that the only certainty about the future of media was more uncertainty.

The session at the Wheeler Centre began on a sombre note, with the news of the death overnight of esteemed journalist and Gold Walkley award winner Philip Chubb from cancer. Associate Professor Chubb was Head of Journalism at Monash University, which co-presents the New News forum together with the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism.

“A Game of Thrones article will get 330,000 views for BuzzFeed. That brings with it an enormous amount of revenue which funds quality journalism.” – Simon Crerar, BuzzFeed

Professor of Communication at Deakin University, Matthew Ricketson, chaired the panel, which also included BuzzFeed Australia editor Simon Crerar, the ABC’s Director of News Gaven Morris, and chief executive of premium news subscription startup “inkl”, Gautam Mishra.

Morris was particularly upbeat about the trajectory he saw digital news taking, beginning proceedings by nominating the way that news was reaching audiences in new ways and on different platforms as his 2017 highlight.

A few years ago, he said, he was concerned about the rise of clickbait, and about the recycling and “pick-pocketing” of news stories to feed the churn, singling out the Daily Mail for sharp criticism.

“It felt like clickbait was always going to win,” Morris said. “There is still clickbait and the Daily Mail, who steal stories from others to raise their own revenue. But the solution to that is to support outlets that do good journalism.”

One of the Internet’s dominant clickbait-style publications was BuzzFeed, which opened its Australian arm in 2015. But editor Crerar argued the case that clickbait could be a force for good, emphasising the importance of audience-building entertainment as a driver for funding investigative journalism and hard news at his publication.

“A Game of Thrones article will get 330,000 views for BuzzFeed. That brings with it an enormous amount of revenue which funds quality journalism.”

The high-impact work Crerar refered to included the recent scoop by BuzzFeed’s Alice Workman, who broke the story that an unnamed staffer in Employment Minister Michaelia Cash’s office had tipped off the media about police raids on the Australian Workers’ Union.

But contrasting these sunnier themes, digital entrepreneur Mishra, whose inkl site funnels paying users through to articles from some of the world’s premium publications, warned that fake news loomed as a huge threat. The scale and potential of fakery seen so far was “the tip of the pyramid.

“There is now face-to-face technology that can modify a video to change facial expressions and words, without it even being obvious.” His solution was to limit the free dissemination of news, urging publishers to rethink positioning their journalism on platforms like Facebook, which could ultimately damage the media brand. “Scarcity of news is the key. Information has no value if it is free.”

Crerar and Morris argued that the rise of digital, much of it via free platforms, had delivered audiences greater choice, bringing new players into the game to compete with legacy mastheads.

“Thirty years ago there were two publishers in this city. Now people have access to three new publishers that weren’t here five years ago,” Morris said, declaring he had great faith in the evolving digital ecosystem.

But Katharine Murphy, a superstar staffer of one of those new players, countered by canvassing concerns around the vanishing of substantial areas of grassroots, local civic journalism.

Asked to nominate lowlights as well as highlights of the year in journalism, she pointed out that journalists had for a long time missed the story which today consumes the Australian political scene – the citizenship crisis.

“Who’s your granddad? It was the biggest political story of 2017, and it was hidden in plain sight, and we all missed it.”

The New News conference continues at the Wheeler Centre until Saturday. For more information, and links to current and previous forums, click here

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