Funding Journalism, Writing and Content in Australia
by Sue Ellson
As a member of the Melbourne Press Club, tonight (17 December 2013) I attended a public lecture on the ‘Futures of Investigative Journalism’ at the Monash University Conference Centre, Level 7, 30 Collins St, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
Brant Houston, a former investigative reporter in the United States is the James L. Knight Foundation Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting and teaches investigative and advanced reporting in the Department of Journalism in the College of Media at Illinois.
Bill Birnbauer, Senior Lecturer at Monash University interviewed Brant Houston on various topics related to the future of investigative journalism.
It is hard to believe that in the last 35 years that the landscape for print, broadcast (television and radio) and online media has changed so much. Newsrooms in the US have traditionally only spent 0.5% of their annual budgets on training compared to 2-3% in other businesses. The change brought about by the publication of huge amounts of free intellectual property on the internet has created a generation of people who believe that they should be able to access content free of charge.
This has led to the demise of many publications and broadcast programs and generated multiple mergers and acquisitions. America has a well known reputation for philanthropy, ties with universities and advocacy organisations but unfortunately, also many commercial and political interest groups have infiltrated the media landscape and the quality of content is variable.
Journalists, who Brant Houston suggests are cannibals that would rather eat one another than die, have found a variety of creative ways to continue their investigative journalism craft. They have found other roles in advocacy organisations, internationally funded networks, niche enterprises and even more amazing, collaborative forums.
Universities are supporting newsrooms with student labour and data gathering specialists are reducing the amount of time it takes to collect and analyse facts for original stories. New publications from reputable organisations are being used to substantiate articles. New resources like http://data.gov.au/ are providing public datasets that can be mined for new trends and topics.
Unfortunately, it is still possible to be murdered or suffer financial ruin for publishing a story. Consequently Journalists are creating collectives without a legal framework so that they cannot be sued or in some cases, traced, for publishing sensitive content. They are gaining extra protection with insurance and pro bono media lawyers sympathetic to their cause and support from colleagues still in the ‘industry’ because they can assist as they are not relying on each story to pay for their next meal.
It was pleasing to hear that despite the huge changes in the media industry, Brant Houston believes that for genuine quality content, the public will pay to receive it. Publishers need to find engaged citizens, not just readers. The quality and reliability of civic and citizen journalism is varied and not sustainable in the longer term with only 2% still effective after 12 months of operation. There is a belief that hyperlocal content is extremely valuable.
Alas, I am not a journalist and I was reminded that journalists are often the ‘court of last resort’ but also that they do not publish their content unless it has been verified, crafted and edited appropriately (unlike this article that I have bashed out on my computer in less than two hours).
Ensuring that a journalist remains independent is no easy task. Although it is not regulated, there is a big push in the US to provide funding transparency for all news organisations where one’s credibility is also assessed by the quality of its investigative journalism (AKA research!). The public needs content and past trends indicate that if we are not getting it, someone, somewhere, will pay to make sure we do receive it. Whether it be the latest unfair personal transgression, corporate greed case or waste of taxpayers money, citizens and consumers want to know what is happening.
Measures are in place – so it is no longer just audited distribution numbers that publishers , are seeking – it includes views, clicks and even hover time. 24 hour news has become repetitive and borders on the category of ‘entertainment’ rather than ‘verified news.’
Private content created by ordinary citizens is not ‘consumption ready’ and is unlikely to excite viewers, listeners or readers. Eight minutes of a YouTube video of an army truck on a road in Afghanistan with a bomb going off at the end does not tell a story about the current situation, what are the causes, how it can be solved etc. Journalists organise and edit stories for quick access and equity. Accuracy generates credibility.
A newsroom also provides a firewall for ethics. A group of people can collectively decide whether or not a person should be interviewed for a story and also work collaboratively with law enforcement personnel. Content that is published without these sensors has the potential for serious consequences.
It was interesting to hear that Bloomberg have the Bloomberg Terminal colloquially known as the Bloomberg Box which provides subscribers with direct access to financial markets data and this is a virtual ‘cash cow’ for their various media offerings. Additionally, other companies have various apps and income streams that enable them to continue publishing despite the steady decline in traditional income channels like classified advertising, subscriptions and anonymous and uncontrolling benefactors.
As I contemplate my own online publishing journey, I remember that when I started Newcomers Network online in 2001, I realised that it would be many years before I would generate an income from an online publication. It has proven to be even longer than I expected as 12 years later, I am still earning a living from consulting rather than advertising.
Brant Houston agreed that Australia does not have the same ‘philanthropy’ ethic as there is in the US but he has been inspired by the fact that the media ‘story’ is remarkably similar worldwide – from Africa to South America, Europe to Asia. Bill Birnbauer believes that a closer association with universities is a potential way forward for our smaller population in Australia but also that new funding models will emerge. Both agreed that crowd funding or crowd sourcing is unlikely to generate sufficient funds at this stage.
What I love about human nature is that there are always a certain number of people who are willing to change or challenge the status quo to keep authenticity, integrity and a fair go available despite the odds.
I came away from this lecture feeling that the younger generation still have a future in journalism but that like most businesses now, we have to constantly look for ways to be sustainable, valuable and reliable to remain in operation.
Sincere thanks to the Melbourne Press Club, Monash University, Brant Houston and Bill Birnbauer for sharing this opportunity with the public.
Let’s hope that many other people will continue to ‘keep the bastards honest’ because if we want a fair and just society, in my view, we have to make both an individual and collective effort.
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