City Standard

No news is not good news

Annie Hastwell
Jonathan van der Knaap
Peter Drew
Lauren Bezzina

Fake news is causing global anxiety, but the devastation of the traditional media has resulted in another less obvious, but equally insidious phenomenon: No news. While there’s more “content” available than ever before, there’s also fewer journalists and less capacity to report on the things that matter. And here in SA, that means we never get to hear the stories that need to be told.

Today Tonight reporter Hendrik Gout has just returned from a four-day country assignment, travelling with a cameraman, sound recordist and drone.

The trip through Northern South Australia took in Leigh Creek and Hawker, up to Roxby Downs. Hendrik was on the hunt for regional stories – and for a visiting journalist, usually the first port of orientation is the local media.

Hendrik Gout
“Reporters are under so much pressure to produce so much material…”
— Hendrik Gout

“I don’t think I went to a single town except Port Augusta that’s got a vibrant media,” he says.

It’s a story that tells us a lot about the times in which we live. First, it’s very rare indeed nowadays for a major media organisation to send a reporter on such an expensive gig, unless there was a fire, a cyclone, or a salacious backpacker attack to cover. And secondly where are those rural newsrooms, the eyes and ears of greater SA?

News is everywhere these days, but the people who make it are disappearing.

As with manufacturing, it’s easier to consume the cheap product made somewhere else than to invest in home-grown news. The blizzard of information that pours into your tablet, phone, social media streams, largely consists of what Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian are up to, along with distracting opportunities to find the best way to lose tummy fat, or check out which ten celebrities are losing their hair.

And if you are a more serious news addict, you’ll be hearing a lot about the more colourful moments in the Press Gallery in Canberra that day, because that’s where a decent array of journalists are still clustered.

In a digital revolution, traditional media has lost a large share of the advertising that paid for content. Those dollars have moved online, but mainly to Google and Facebook where the ‘eyes’ are. All major media organisations are bleeding money – having to make hard decisions, and journalists, those individuals whose job is digging out the stories and making the news, are being laid off as fast as horses were when the motor car arrived on the scene.

The big players are circling the wagons; using technology, networking and centralised production to do more with less.

At the ABC it’s meant the loss of a local 7.30 Report and the closure after 55 years of the Adelaide TV production unit, with the loss of about 40 jobs. In 2015, Fairfax announced a restructure of its SA country newspapers – shedding the equivalent of 35 journalists and production staff. The Advertiser has steadily lost subeditors and recently entered its fifth round of staff photographer redundancies since 2012. And a city long disadvantaged by having only one monopoly newspaper now has just one locally-made television current affairs program. It used to have four.

MEAA SA Branch Secretary Angelique Ivanica
South Australian journalist Terry Plane. This photo Lauren Bezzina

The journalists’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), recently told a Federal Senate Committee that more than 2,500 Australian journalist jobs had been cut in the last six years.

“The squeeze on reporting staff, reductions in production staff and in-house photographic staff, and an expectation that those staff remaining can do the same or more with less, is putting staff under extreme pressure,” says the MEAA’s Angelique Ivanica. “This all impacts quality news production and local South Australian stories made by and for South Australians.”

Veteran South Australian journalist Terry Plane, who has worked in news for decades and across many roles including local bureau chief of The Australian and 12 years as news director at Channel 7, says shrinking staff numbers corresponds to shrinking quality of coverage.

“It affects newsrooms in two ways: breadth of coverage and quality of reporting,” he says. “As budgets continue to be squeezed, the more expensive reporters are made redundant and replaced by far cheaper reporters, which usually means less experienced people.”

In the TV world he’s seen it change from a time when there was a specialist roving country reporter to an attitude that, “Elizabeth is a long way away”. He relates stories from print colleagues of country stories now done by phone, with pictures emailed in. The main effect of contracting news budgets, he says, is lack of investigative reporting and breaking news.

Channel 7’s Hendrik Gout also argues that the pressures of reduced news staff, and the demands of technology and a non-stop internet news cycle, are giving the public a diet of fast and superficial coverage.

“Reporters are under so much pressure to produce so much material across so many different platforms for the same organisation that the amount of time to make that second phone call or check a primary source is getting less and less expected,” he says.

In the days when there was a robust local media and competing news crews, he says, there was more coverage and real discussion of important local issues, like the future of the Adelaide Parklands.

“Here we are about to turn over the old RAH site, public land, to private housing, and the debate is more about what it’s going to look like,” he says.

“We’re developing the Riverbank, changing it, and though some people may find it attractive, every comparable city in the world has cafés, boardwalks and souvenir shops. In 100 years for Adelaide to be a capital city with a natural river flowing through it would be a remarkable thing. Once that would have been keenly debated.”

Former SBS journalist turned Flinders University media officer Karen Ashford has also watched as the quality of local coverage succumbs to the cost imperative. She says technology means a journalist is now expected to be a one person band, juggling notebook, camera and sound equipment, and the rapid-fire publishing of a story through social media has changed the news cycle, and threatens depth and accuracy of reporting.

“To be the one that is seen to be first puts the reporter on the ground under a lot of pressure to hit the send button, even if it’s 60 seconds before someone else,” she says. “There’s less opportunity to really be sure of those facts.”

Australian Science Media Centre CEO Susannah Eliott

At the Australian Science Media Centre, CEO Susannah Eliott says the decline in state-based journalist numbers has been noticeable, with SA stories increasingly covered from east-coast news desks.

“We often see a story with a strong SA angle being covered more generically because it has been written for multiple mastheads,” she says.

She is concerned that this leads to a loss of ‘narrative’, with matters important to the state rarely followed-up or given little airtime for debate.

“There are some really important issues in SA that I think have suffered from this, including the massive loss of biodiversity here, the worst rate in the country for native birds, mining in the outback, and water resources, including the use of bore water and the inevitable restrictions we’ll have to face in future,” she says.

For Karen Ashford, trying to get media interest in local but often globally important research developments is also a challenge.

“Not just mainstream media but even industry magazines and journals are under pressure,” she says. “Resources are very thin on the ground and we find we need to do a lot more work to form and present the story to the media. They want it on a plate and if we can give them the audio clips, video clips, overlay vision that they can use to form the story, all the better.”

The worldwide trend to replace specialist journalists with general reporters often means any story that looks like it’s been done before will be immediately rejected.

She gives the example of the world-first Vortex Fluidic Device developed at Flinders, a machine able to unravel complex proteins.

The first press release sent out explained the invention using the analogy of ‘unboiling an egg’. It was a simple idea, a local scientific discovery story with a ‘wow’ factor, and the media loved it.

“It went gangbusters – but the real story is how it can be applied,” says Karen. When she tried follow up press releases that showed how the machine could turn water into anaesthetic in field hospitals, or cut nanotubes allowing the extremely precise targeting of cancers with drugs, the mainstream press glazed over.

Karen Ashford
“There’s less opportunity to really be sure of those facts.”
— Karen Ashford

“Getting coverage was really tough. The reaction was ‘we’ve done a story on that already’.”

Of course, the argument goes that the mainstream media (MSM, if you don’t mind) is no longer relevant anyway. Papers are dying, no-one under 50 reads them or watches the nightly free to air TV news. America has a President who gets his message out on Twitter. Pauline Hanson has blacklisted the ABC and also opted for the social media option where, she says, her devoted followers can get a purer version of the news, undiluted by the MSM who, she believes, ‘distort’ the story.

The gatekeepers – the editors and radio and television producers who traditionally sorted the news and decided what the messages of the day were, what would get a run, are rapidly becoming historical figures.

News is now democratic; anyone can get their message out there, take footage on an iPhone or write an opinion piece and press publish. The financially ailing major media organisations have been quick to see the opportunities in crowdsourcing news. There has been a huge rise in the number of opinion pieces filling news pages. “Tweet us a picture” is a common call from media to the public.

A news and information site run by a 25-year-old citizen journalist in Mt Gambier has twice as many followers as the local paper. And a recently launched app, Newscar, will allow Uber drivers to be used as drive-by camera operators for breaking news footage to feed the 24/7 media beast. Newsrooms will be able to check which drivers are near news events and send them a job request.

But in a world where everyone’s opinion is out there, where anyone can set up a news site, where Uber drivers are the cameramen and accidents and fires are the news, who do you trust? That’s where, says Professor of Journalism at UniSA Kerry Green, trained journalists come in.

“The stuff on social media platforms largely is not curated and I’m worried on society’s behalf that people are relying more and more on un-curated information and less and less on fact-checked information which is what journos do,” he says.

Professor of Journalism at UniSA Kerry Green. This photo Lauren Bezzina

He points out that the background work in the journalist’s world, of sub-editing, researching and making sure all voices are represented on an issue, is what’s missing.

“You just don’t get that on social media. What you do get is largely people giving opinions rather than facts, and that’s not the sort of information society needs if it’s going to make really good decisions.”

Media law Professor Rick Sarre takes a more optimistic view of where the whole media train is heading. Take a look at any café, any morning, he says.

“You’ll see a stack of newspapers untouched and 99 per cent of the people there looking at their online feeds. That’s the nature of the new world, and since those feeds come from a number of sources, I have no doubt we are not suffering from paucity of major players in the proprietorships.”

He says he was much more worried ten years ago than he is now.

“I used to show my students a graph looking at the number of proprietors of newspapers in 1901, 1931, etc,” he says.

“And it had gone from 30 a century ago down to two or three. In Australia we were bemoaning the fact it was concentrating mass information in the hands of a few players, and if they agreed with each other, for example, over the Iraq war, we were not getting a robust exchange of alternatives.”

Prof Rick Sarre
“The communication between me and the rest of the world… is unbelievable.”
— Prof Rick Sarre

He says the current flurry of information, far from being a confusing Tower of Babel, offers diversity, and is something he can navigate through to make up his own mind.

“I can now go online and get ten different views, turn the TV on and get 20 stations. If I was multilingual I’ve got SBS and I can now tap digitally into any radio program in the world. On TV I can see someone talking in Syria, in Damascus, on the ground.

“The communication between me and the rest of the world, regardless of where I’m living, is unbelievable. When you’ve got that many sources I’m far more upbeat that what I’m seeing can be believed.”

And while Rick Sarre is enjoying the multi-layered landscape as a news consumer, editor of Adelaide online news site InDaily, David Washington, is making it work as a player.

“It would have been inconceivable 30 years ago that you could have started a news website without a large bit of property, a fleet of cars, equipment and printing presses,” he says.

“So the good news is that people who have the wherewithal can find a niche audience rather than a mass audience.”

David Washington
“The good news is that people who have the wherewithal can find a niche audience rather than a mass audience.”
— David Washington

InDaily began as the hard copy Independent Weekly ten years ago, and has since moved through several incarnations – and many predictions of its demise – to become the now-successful local online news site. It manages, through a model funded by ‘advertising partnerships and events’, to employ a small team of serious journalists, and has a steadily growing audience who don’t pay for its offering of local news, politics and arts.

“The culture of the city is our bread and butter,” says David. “We aim for an audience of critical minded, maybe sceptical news consumers, people who love the news and have traditionally been a broadsheet audience.”

David believes that in a world where so much information is at one’s fingertips, there’s an increasing appetite for local news.

“[American investment guru] Warren Buffett surprised a lot of people by buying up local newspapers, saying they have a unique proposition and a unique understanding of their communities. People want to make sense of things, they want to read the story of their community,” he says.

If this is true, it’s time to take a closer look at the countryside that Hendrik Gout found so empty of newsmakers. Country Press Association president Ian Osterman says we need to look again before declaring it vacated. Maybe it can be blamed on the NBN, but he says country SA newspapers have survived the Fairfax cuts and are now – in many cases – thriving.

Ian Osterman reporting for The Courier at an anti uranium export march sometime in the early-mid 90s. He’s speaking with John Coulter, an Australian Democrats Senator for SA
Country Press Association president Ian Osterman

While from the outside such publications can look very ‘parish pump’, he points out that “every story posted in a local newspaper is a world exclusive”.

“If I want to know about the Paris Presidential election I can get that information anywhere for free, but nowhere else in the world can I find out about local road closures, or plans for a bypass.”

He says that the sense of community has not been acknowledged in decisions like the ones Fairfax is making.

“City tower block executives don’t get community because they’ve never lived in one.”

Half of South Australia’s 30 country papers are independently owned. Michael Ellis publishes Yorke Peninsula’s Country Times, and he says business is good, with a circulation of between seven and eight thousand for the weekly paper, and several hundred paying online subscribers.

Yorke Peninsula’s Country Times publisher, Michael Ellis. This photo supplied

“I’m not pumping out 64 pages as a donation to the community,” he assures CityMag. “People read it and I make money. Independently owned papers do well because we have skin in the game.”

The paper’s motto is ‘local local local’, “whether it’s an 80th birthday or the closing of a hospital”.

There are signs the world over of green shoots of hope for journalists in the scorched earth of the traditional media landscape.

In the UK, laid-off rural journalists are trialling community owned and co-operatively run media models. Others are turning to crowdfunding to get support to investigate stories. There is a growing trend in the US for institutions like health funds and banks to hire journalists to create content for their own news sites – though the main game there is to use the credibility of good reporting to drive traffic to their business site, which is something that would ring ethical alarm bells for most independent journalists.

News sites like Buzzfeed, the original internet parasites who repurposed and distributed content created by others, are now employing journalists and paying them to produce real and independent news.

Journalism professor Kerry Green says news organisations like Fairfax who are ditching editorial staff at a record rate all around the country should take note of overseas trends.

“The knee jerk reaction by industry has been when things get tough to sack some journalists and put on more advertising reps,” he says. “Research from US and Scandinavia says news organisations that don’t sack journos last longer.”

In the middle of a revolution, he says, it’s hard to discern what the future holds, but in the confusion of sources he believes journalists will still have a place.

“The explosion of media and the explosion of people enquiring into issues is going to provide us with alternative platforms, and I’m talking not about Facebook and Twitter but something that we haven’t yet come across. In the future I think investigative journalism and Fourth Estate quality will migrate to these platforms.”

But one thing is rapidly becoming clear: those journalists won’t necessarily be operating in what we now know as a newsroom. It’s more likely to be an Uber model of journalism, with independent operators contributing freelance to a number of sites and publications.

News Ltd defended its recent cutting of photographers saying the use of freelance and agency staff was in line with a “global standard”. Freelance journalist Royce Kurmelovs is already in that space, and he says it’s an edgy existence.

“Being freelance frees you from office politics and churn, but also from a stable income and the security of knowing that if you go after something difficult or someone big there’s an institution that has your back, that will protect you if things get rough,” he says.

Royce files South Australian stories for a range of national and international media and is the author of a book about Elizabeth, The Death of Holden, just one of many topics he feels is not being addressed by local media.

“If there is to be an Uber for journalism who is paying for it?” he asks. “If you want to do good journalism you need to know where your money is coming from.”

Royce Kurmelovs
“If you want to do good journalism you need to know where your money is coming from.”
— Royce Kurmelovs

His feature writing and investigative journalism only just cover the bills.

“I have been doing it on a bootstrap and I’ve been able to make it work, but what happens in the future I don’t know. I’m deeply concerned because newsrooms are still my client base. I’m increasingly aware they’re under pressure and if they go I may have to become a real estate agent or work in a small bar…..and I’d rather not to do that. I’d rather keep doing what I’m doing.”

Hendrik Gout too worries that “journalism will end up like bookbinding. No one will go into it because the chances of making a quid will be so small.”

And, he says, when journalists can’t afford to ply their trade properly and independently, society will be the loser.

Disclosure: It’s Adelaide, and it’s the Adelaide media – so there’s plenty of crossovers. CityMag works in digital partnership with InDaily, and CityMag’s editor Farrin Foster has previously worked with David Washington, Hendrik Gout, and story author Annie Hastwell.

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Words Annie Hastwell
Pictures Jonathan van der Knaap
Video Peter Drew
Cover image: Concept and styling Lauren Bezzina

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