Journalism, not dead but barely alive


By Barry Tucker                    15 October, 2013

Guess what? Newspapers are dying but journalism is not dead. Yes, the debate, even among intellectuals and academics, is as boringly obvious as that.

In the latest instalment, Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology (QUT), reports on the address of David Fagan, former editorial director of News Corp in Queensland, to the QUT on Thursday, 10 October, 2013. 

McNair’s report appears in today’s issue of The Conversation.

Together, Fagan and McNair have next to nothing new to tell us. The decline of print media is not new — it’s been happening since the mid-’80s, if not earlier. A frame, window or screen on the interwebs is not a newspaper — they are different beasts and I’m sure most people realise that.

In his closing paragraph, McNair gets close to saying something worthwhile, but just misses:

“Newspapers may be dying out, but journalism becomes ever more central to the everyday lives of billions, striving as they do to make sense of a world constantly growing in complexity. Our job as journalism educators is to give young people the tools and motivations to rise to that challenge.”

I dispute the claim that newspapers strive to make sense of anything. That, surely, is a large part of the problem. Old media, in its struggle to remain profitable, has lost the plot — especially the tabloid section of the industry.

The bit about billions striving to make sense of a world growing in complexity is true. Because newspapers have let them down the readers have gone elsewhere to find the sense they are seeking.

As for the rest of that paragraph, I think the best teachers of journalism are those hard-headed, mean, nasty and cynical tosspots and human wreckage who taught me the essentials of the trade. Short, pithy lessons, delivered with a snarl, a fair bit of abusive comment and contemptuous sneers — lessons quickly learnt and not easily forgotten. When newspapers were good they were very good — today they barely rate as garbage wrappers.

The lofty realm of academia doesn’t convey the same sense of life or death urgency. But it may have elements of the same sneering disregard, especially if the practitioners are anything like my economics lecturer.

Beyond the basics of who, what, where, when and why; excellent or expert manipulation of grammar and punctuation; accurate and catchy headlines; picture captions that convey useful information rather than describing the obvious; research, accuracy, impartiality — what’s so often missing is some explanation of what it all means.

The 24-hour news cycle has not removed the need to provide this explanation and background because consumers come across stories at different times in the lives of those stories. Backgrounding within the text was standard practice in most of the stories I wrote. Newspapers can also provide the background in side panels, if they can be bothered, but online publications do it more easily with active links to external references and other resources.

The surviving handful of bigger newspaper monopolies are pushing the agenda of the corporate takeover of government. They are not interested in helping their readers make sense of anything. Those who want to make sense of the increasing complexity of life have gone elsewhere — mainly to the interwebs, but also into tertiary studies.

The future for political, financial and societal change journalism lies in producing a decent product that will satisfy these inquiring minds.

One curious thing about the rash of speeches on the state of the print media is that they are appearing now. Where were they when they were so desperately needed — when the newspaper industry in Australia was preoccupied with overseeing the destruction of the federal Labor government? There was no shortage of comment and opinion then, but no chance of understanding the truth of what was happening.