On November 11, 2020, the Senate referred an inquiry into the state of media diversity, independence and reliability in Australia to the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee for report by March 31, 2021.
This is a submission to the inquiry from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
JNI takes an optimistic view of the future or journalism, tempered with a recognition of the challenges the profession and the news industry face. It is in that spirit that JNI encourages the inquiry to consider the full range of forces — both positive and negative — affecting the diversity, sustainability and quality of news media in Australia.
JNI also believes there is value in an ongoing debate about the purpose and practice of journalism. There was never a golden era in which journalism was practiced flawlessly. There is much about a traditional approach to journalism that should be questioned and, where necessary, altered if it leads to more accurate, informed reporting and ultimately to greater trust in journalism by the public.
But there are some enduring values of journalism that should not be lost, including tolerance for competing ideas and opinion. These things are worth preserving, and worth fighting for, especially by those who work in newsrooms that aim to serve a broad and diverse audience.
There has been much talk of the demise of public interest journalism in Australia. It has been argued that Australian journalism is in the grip of an existential crisis, hamstrung by malign media organisations and hopelessly biased reporting. The reality, as usual, is more complex and more nuanced.
There can be few professions so predisposed to pessimism as journalism, which might be one reason for feelings of imminent doom. Perhaps it is because journalists are often a sceptical bunch by nature. No doubt, however, it has more to do with the fact that the industry in which journalists work is going through massive, prolonged and unprecedented disruption.
The media sector, like every other industry on earth, is living – and in the case of some legacy media organisations cases dying – through an industrial revolution-scale change. And just as the combustion engine revolutionised transportation so too has the internet changed the way we produce, distribute and consume information.
The digital world, and in particular digital companies, have all but destroyed the old news media business model. Advertisers have predominantly migrated elsewhere. Journalists in traditional media roles are losing their jobs. Readers of mainstream news, spoilt for choice, are more fickle and less loyal. Great media brands have rapidly declining sway with consumers. Many want quality news and information at their fingertips but not everyone necessarily wants to pay for it.
Those inclined to gloom predict the darkest of futures. They claim that the end of journalism is nigh, and with it perhaps the end of democracy. In its place is a world filled with fake news, Trumpian populists and news media concentrated in the hands of a few, unscrupulous, partisan owners.
But a more dispassionate survey of the news media landscape reveals a much more complex and more heartening picture.
For news producers the new world is undoubtedly a difficult one, but it is also one filled with as many opportunities as challenges.
For news consumers, including those in Australia, global availability of content has never been greater, or cheaper. This includes quality news and informed opinion. Of course, they are also more exposed to misinformation, peddled by misguided or malicious individuals and even nation states.
This is why it is so important now to examine and debate the purpose and practice of public interest journalism with the goal of restoring, maintaining and creating trusted sources of news and opinion.
Reasons for optimism
The Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas takes an optimistic view of the future of journalism for a number of reasons.
First, it recognises that there are good examples, including here in Australia, of media organisations that are successfully navigating digital disruption and building — or in some cases re-building — successful business models.
Take The Guardian Australia for example. Seven years ago, establishing an Australian edition of this venerable UK institution seemed a foolhardy venture. But what started as a very small outpost, seed-funded via a loan from an Australian philanthropist, has now grown to a 90-strong newsroom that pays its own way, mostly through donations from readers. Today The Guardian is one of the top online news sites in the country, with seven million readers per month, adding considerably to the diversity of news sources and opinion in Australia.
Second, even as traditional media organisations have struggled, successful new media enterprises have emerged. They might not yet have the reach or influence of mainstream organisations, but they are finding their audiences. They might be struggling for financial sustainability at times, but they are not burdened by legacy models nor sentimental about outdated journalism practices and funding.
There are numerous examples in Australia: Schwartz Media, the publisher of Quarterly Essay, The Saturday Paper and The Monthly; Inside Story; New Daily; Solstice Media. Or more established ‘new’ players such as Crikey and The Conversation.
Third, technology is continuing to lower the barriers to entry and creating new opportunities for financial sustainability, further contributing to the diversity of the news ecosystem.
Take, for example, the small but growing number of independent journalists who have left mainstream mastheads to create their own sometimes lucrative blogs, newsletters or podcasts, all accessible by a global audience. Former New York magazine writer Andrew Sullivan’s pioneering blog The Dish once lived on mainstream mastheads like Time and The Atlantic. But in 2020 he moved it to Substack, an online platform that provides publishing, payment, analytics, and design infrastructure to support subscription newsletters.
Already his newsletter has reportedly attracted more than 75,000 readers with at least a portion of that number paying the premium subscription rate of $60 a year, 90 per cent of which flows directly to the author. Former Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi also moved to Substack this year. Former Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore has also gone solo, creating her own newsletter. In time, it is likely some Australian journalists with the potential to build their own audience will follow suit.
The world is now filling with podcasts, newsletters and YouTube channels whose influence, especially among younger consumers, is challenging traditional media. Joe Rogan is just one example of a hugely popular commentator whose political and ideological positions are difficult to characterise as “left” or “right”, further complicating analysis of who or what might influence public opinion or political outcomes these days.
But the main reason that JNI remains optimistic about the future of journalism is because the news coverage and analysis and opinion produced and delivered, no matter on which platform, remains an essential part of the fabric of our democratic society and our communities.
It is not the first time people have predicted the demise of journalism. Modern newspapers evolved dramatically over the first 100 years or so of their existence. Radio was first seen as a disruptive and corrupting influence on journalism, as was television when it emerged in the 1950s. But just as journalism has survived these previous periods of turbulence JNI believes it will survive the current period because people want and need reliable news and informed analysis and opinion.
News consumers want the powerful, corrupt and malicious held to account. They want accurate, balanced information on issues that shape their lives, something that the jump in news consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically underlined. They also want to know what is happening in their community, from the high achievers and role models to the latest restaurant opening and the results of local sporting competitions.
JNI’s optimism about the future of journalism does not mean that it is blind to the challenges that the industry and profession faces. In fact, JNI’s core purpose is to help quality journalism navigate these challenges to the extent that it can with its relatively modest resources.
Three challenges in particular stand out that are relevant to the terms of reference of this inquiry: diversity; sustainability and quality.
A key challenge, as this inquiry itself observes, is diversity. This has a number of different dimensions. Several studies of the news industry in Australia have already highlighted the lack of cultural diversity in newsrooms. To this one could also point to the lack of socio-economic and political diversity of those who set the editorial direction, produce and present the news.
The other key dimension of media diversity and the focus for this inquiry is the diversity of media organisations across the media landscape. Indeed, the terms of reference would suggest that the committee is concerned about the concentration of media ownership in Australia and what impact this might have on Australian democracy.
Certainly a number of studies and reports have pointed to increasing media concentration in recent years although how such concentration is measured is also not straightforward. Observers, and especially critics, of News Corp will point to its domination of the newspaper market in Australia, while seldom conceding that the reach of newspapers continues to shrink and that its online presence across metropolitan and regional Australia routinely presents a range of news and opinion.
COVID-19 has accelerated the industry shakeout and seen the closure of many regional and suburban newsrooms or the reduction in, or end of their print publications. But it has also seen the demand for news and accurate information surge, and agile news organisations are now capitalising on this and advertisers are starting to return.
As already noted, the ability of Australian news consumers to access news media domestically and internationally has also expanded significantly. To paraphrase a former Australian Prime Minister, there has never been a more exciting time to be a news consumer.
Not long ago an Australian news consumer might eat breakfast listening to a favourite radio news program, read a single print newspaper on the train on the way to work and watch one evening news bulletin.
Today that same news consumer might still start the day with a favourite radio news program, but supplement it with a daily news podcast. The trip to work could see them consume aggregated stories from a dozen international newspapers online, curated for them by their favourite pundits on Twitter. They might still watch the evening news, but at a time of their choosing, and then watch a news documentary on Netflix.
Australians now get the news from many sources, both traditional and new, local and international and across a range of platforms. According to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report: Australia 2020, most Australians still get their news from television. But the two next most important sources of news are online and social media, with the latter in particular growing rapidly over the past decade.
Significantly, just over half of news consumers surveyed got their news from five or more sources. This data point alone, when combined with the explosion in choice driven by the digital revolution and changing news consumption patterns, highlights the need for greater perspective in assessing the influence of legacy media organisations on Australian politics and society. The risk of exaggerating influence has been illustrated by a number recent examples where a media organisation’s energetic support for a political party has failed to translate into victory for that party at the ballot box.
Former News Corp CEO Kim Williams made a similar point recently: “I think people behave as if media is frozen in time and that newspapers are in fact the all-being, all-powerful phenomenon for all media commentary and analysis in our nation, and that is patently absurd. For a start, anyone under 35 rarely reads a newspaper.”
He also highlighted the climate change debate to suggest the influence of media commentators influence is overstated:
“Look, there are certainly some virulent opponents of an activist approach to climate change in the media landscape of Australia and elsewhere. That doesn’t make them right and it doesn’t give them some sort of attributed power over the community and the community’s general concern about climate change, which is scientifically undeniable…the community has a profoundly different view from the view that is prosecuted by certain opinion writers. Does that make opinion writers bad and the public right? Well, I think the public is right. It doesn’t mean the opinion writers are bad, they are just ill-informed.”
It is also important to avoid stereotypes about particular news organisations. For example, the ABC and News Corp have often been accused of a lack of objectivity by their respective critics. But it is also true that these two organisations are so large and produce so much news content and opinion that it will always be possible for their critics to point to a particular example of purported bias without it being representative of the sum total of the news content that the ABC or News Corp produce.
Moreover, as the distinguished journalist Paul Kelly, a director of the JNI Board and Editor-at-Large at The Australian has written, “…all modern media align with a political constituency as integral to their identity, their business model and their client-subscriber base.” In fact, as advertising has declined as a source of revenue and subscriptions or donations have become more important, media organisations have only become less inclined to appeal to a broader and more diverse audience. This also reflects the algorithmic approach by the global social media giants that shapes the content to consumers’ individual preferences.
Many people, on both the right and left of politics, will skew towards media organisations they feel most ideologically comfortable with. This is not a new phenomenon, although social media and identity politics have undoubtedly reinforced it. We would argue that news organisations should not be blamed if people do not avail themselves of the greater choice they have.
Nevertheless, it is a challenge that needs to be addressed, even if it is a problem that defies simple fixes. Improving media literacy is undoubtedly one part of the solution and certainly more could be done to incorporate this to a greater extent in school curricula.
Another area to focus on is improving the conduct of our public conversation. Our political leaders and other public figures could do more to show it is possible to disagree with their political opponents without demonising them. And the trend to “cancel”, from the left and the right, needs to be resisted. As columnist Suzanne Moore, who recently resigned from The Guardian, told the Sydney Morning Herald: “I’ve been in newspapers a long time and have often completely disagreed with people. If somebody writes something you really, really don’t like then my response is to go away and write something better.”
Media organisations can also do better at reflecting the full diversity of our society — cultural, religious, gender, socio-economic and political – on their pages and screens and in their newsrooms. We need more voices and forums rather than ad hominem vilification.
JNI is committed to making its own small contribution to addressing the diversity challenge. It has launched a Community Voices project to help individuals from diverse communities, and diverse political and socio-economic backgrounds, to be articulate participants in the national conversation. Run in conjunction with Media Diversity Australia and led by the former Director of News and Current Affairs at SBS, Jim Carroll, it will provide twelve talented individuals with a year of training, support and opportunities to gain media experience and exposure.
And when it opens its permanent headquarters in January 2021, JNI will play host to speakers and viewpoints across the political spectrum, from Australia and internationally. It will provide a platform for vigorous but respectful debates, speeches and roundtable discussions, exposing audiences to diverse and, importantly, provocative and uncomfortable ideas.
A second challenge for the media in Australia is closely related to the first – the sustainability of news media organisations. Obviously, if news consumers are to continue enjoying the choice they have now then a diverse mix of Australia’s media organisations need to survive and thrive.
Unfortunately there is no silver bullet solution to sustainability, no one-size-fits-all business model. It now seems clear that Australia will follow the trend in the United States towards hybrid models where commercial, philanthropic and even taxpayer funding comes together to support a diverse media landscape.
It is entirely understandable that journalists, photographers, printers and others who have lost jobs receive more sympathy and attention than those who are finding new ways to make a living in the new media landscape. But handwringing about the demise of legacy media should not overshadow some of these more encouraging green shoots that are now starting to emerge.
In this respect, JNI is looking for ways to support media organisations as they attempt to navigate this period of transition. In particular, we have provided grants to media organisations to allow them to experiment with new products or to create new reporting positions and thereby reach new audiences. For example, the Institute supported the creation of Squiz Kids, a news podcast for primary school children. It supported the re-opening of The Australian Financial Review’s Southeast Asian Bureau, helping the AFR to revalidate the case for an overseas reporting position that had previously existed but had been withdrawn. And as noted above JNI will help to re-launch Inside Story.
This is where government too can play a role. The Commonwealth already funds the ABC and SBS. And it provides support for journalism in other, ad hoc ways. But these shorter-term initiatives have been responses to political imperatives or sudden market failures, such as the support provided via the Regional Fund at a time when thousands of jobs were being lost in regional and local news.
The Federal Government’s commendable focus on developing a mandatory code of conduct to address bargaining power imbalances between digital platforms and media companies is also a step in the right direction. Not only does this aim at the biggest and most complex issue – the impact of digital platforms on news and opinion – but it also represents an opportunity for the Government to provide more sustained funding for public interest journalism.
Now that the ABC and SBS are included in the Code, one option would be to direct funding that would otherwise flow to these public broadcasters to a Public Interest Journalism Fund. This could be used to support journalism in a consistent, sustained and wide range of ways, from providing money for new community media organisations to funding journalism on important national or community issues that are otherwise unreported or underreported.
There are other ways too that Local, State and Commonwealth Governments can support the accurate and reliable generation of news and information.
One example is the need to update Australia’s outdated media ownership laws to give existing media operators, especially those in regional Australia, as well as new entrants, the best chance to achieve commercial viability. In that regard JNI welcomes the Government’s recent release of a Media Reform Green Paper.
Another example of where government can help is identifying ways to leverage existing institutions such as libraries and universities to help fight disinformation and where appropriate develop credible, non-partisan news outlets.
A strong democracy like Australia should not shy away from looking to public institutions to support critical pillars of democracy, including journalism. While it is right to be wary about government funding of journalism Australia and other democratic nations have shown that such funding can be provided with sufficient safeguards to protect editorial independence and withstand political interference.
Finally, government can also assist others to help the news media industry by supporting and nurturing greater philanthropic support for journalism. Journalism in Australia still lags behind other democratic nations in exploiting this source of funding. In this regard JNI was grateful that in this year’s Budget the Commonwealth Government agreed to specifically list JNI and the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom in the Income Tax Assessment Act, granting them Deductible Gift Recipient status. This will make it easier for JNI to attract additional philanthropic support for journalism into the future.
The challenges of media diversity and sustainability are closely related to a third challenge: how to maintain quality. As already noted, media consumers now have much more choice. But the explosion in choice has also seen a massive increase in disinformation and fake news which can erode trust in all forms of media.
There has been a variety of efforts to fight disinformation, including fact checking mainstream news media, some of which JNI has supported. But there is a bigger issue here which goes to the heart of public trust in the media. Social media has made our public discourse hyper-partisan. This has been reinforced by the tendency of news media organisations, largely for commercial reasons, to increasingly target those of particular viewpoints.
As argued above, this need not necessarily be a problem where people have access to a diverse range of news and opinion. It does, however, become a problem when mainstream organisations walk away from the core tenets of quality journalism that have, by and large, served the industry and its public well for more than a century.
When opinion is treated as news and when journalists preach (as opposed to inform) on social media, it undermines their credentials as reliable, accurate and balanced sources.
As a consequence, news organisations themselves risk losing respect and credibility (and their audience) when they betray a long-standing commitment to quality journalism by caving in to “Twitter mobs” or even, on occasions, internal pressures.
JNI believes that to ensure greater quality as well as greater media diversity we should preserve some of the enduring principles of good journalism. At the same time, the profession must be clear-eyed about the need to adapt to a changing world and avoid clinging to old practices and principles for purely sentimental reasons.
JNI believes there is value in an ongoing debate about what constitutes “quality journalism” with the goal of reaching a shared understanding, within the journalism community at least, of what this means in today’s world. It might well be an unattainable goal but one worth pursuing nonetheless.
In JNI’s view an issue that deserves particular attention in such a debate is objectivity.
Some have argued that objectivity in journalism is an outdated concept. But as US journalist and journalism educator Tom Rosenstiel has said: “If journalists replace a flawed understanding of objectivity by taking refuge in subjectivity and think their opinions have more moral integrity than genuine inquiry, journalism will be lost.”
Former Editorial Director of the ABC, Alan Sunderland, put it like this:
“Impartiality or objectivity is not a state of being, like sainthood or being in love. It is not some kind of impossible state of perfection. Impartiality is a discipline; it’s a thing that you do. There’s nothing magical about it, it simply requires conscious effort.
“If you’re the kind of journalist who thinks it’s impossible to be objective, you’re missing the point. Objectivity is about your intentions and the amount of effort you put in. If you want to fight for a cause or promote something you believe in, become an activist.
“Otherwise, you’re in the profession because what you believe in is journalism — telling the truth, calling a spade a spade. You just have to make really sure it is a spade. Journalism is hard, methodical and painstaking work but it’s honourable work — going out into the world, finding out what is happening, and letting people know about it. Without fear, and without favour.”
Ultimately, preserving objectivity will come down to a media organisation’s editorial judgment and newsroom leadership. Seemingly, however, this is becoming increasingly difficult for media organisations to exercise. There have already been a number of examples internationally and in Australia where editorial judgement and leadership have seemingly been sacrificed to placate the strong political or ideological opinions of some sections of their staff.
In this environment strong, experienced editorial leadership is needed more than ever.
Last week the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Suzanne Moore believes the growing lack of tolerance for a diversity of journalistic views is a global phenomenon. The Herald cited recent high profile sackings and resignations at The New York Times arising from this lack of tolerance, as well as newsroom unrest at The Age.
“Don’t go in to journalism if you just want to be liked,” Moore said.
“It’s a fundamental principle of journalism that there are places you are going to go that will make some people uncomfortable.”
JNI agrees, and believes quality journalism and its audience will be best served if journalists go about their work with curious and open minds, and be prepared to listen more, and talk less.
JNI leaves the last word to New York Times columnist Bret Stephens who said: “No country can have good government, or a healthy public square, without high quality journalism — journalism that can distinguish a fact from a belief and again from an opinion; that understands that the purpose of opinion isn’t to depart from facts but to use them as a bridge to a larger idea called ‘truth’; and that appreciates that truth is a large enough destination that, like Manhattan, it can be reached by many bridges of radically different designs. In other words, journalism that is grounded in facts while abounding in disagreements.”