Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Future of Journalism

Forgive the weighty title but a series of events recently have left me contemplating the future of the industry I work in.


Last month The West Australian lost forty staff or the equivalent of one quarter of its work force. The job losses were mostly redundancies taken by staff including a senior editor who expressed disillusionment with journalism's clickbait-generated focus on kittens, puppies and Kim Kardashian's behind. 

It's sad to see the paper losing such quality staff. But perhaps those taking redundancies are the lucky ones. The resultant reshuffle at the paper has resulted in overworked staff covering multiple roles often in areas they have no interest or knowledge.

It has also spelled the end for freelance contributors. After fifteen years of writing for the paper I was told my contributions were no longer required. In-house staff would now be covering the arts reviews. Almost the entire freelance section for the arts pages has been cut in a huge loss of industry knowledge for the paper.

Seven West Media's proposed acquisition of the Sunday Times is another issue creating uncertainty in the local journalism world. There are concerns about the impact of a media monopoly caused by the amalgamation of the state's two newspapers and Chanel Seven television. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will hand down its findings on Thursday 15th September. The West has given no indication what it plans to do with the Sunday Times and journalists everywhere are holding their breath.

The situation in WA is a mirror of what has been happening on the east coast and all over the world in the past 5-10 years. The rise of digital news has meant not only less readers for traditional print media but also less advertising revenue. There is now more news content available than there is advertising dollars to support it.


Arts Journalism in Crisis

The losses seem most acute in areas of journalism that require in-depth investigation and specialist knowledge. The arts in particular are taking a hit - very few papers or websites are publishing classical music reviews. It is an international crisis for the arts industry. Whether The West intends to allocate reviews to non-specialists or to cut the arts reviews entirely, it spells an unhealthy future for WA's thriving arts industry.

I believe criticism is an essential part of a healthy arts scene. Reviews don't just provide artists with grabs for their self promotion; a good review will also evaluate and creatively express the experience for the audience, interrogate the concepts being presented and hold accountable organisations who are often receiving substantial government and philanthropic funding to pursue their artform. The contribution of critics should provoke debate, inspire excellence, and above all celebrate the art form. My (rather lofty!) endeavour is that my words will have the same richness, integrity and excellence as the music being performed on the stage.  

The Arts pages were one of the few areas in The West's pages that were focusing on local news. Like local sport these events are created by locals, attended by locals and should be covered by the local paper. The WA Symphony Orchestra's artistic manager Evan Kennea predicted the biggest impact on WASO would be felt not by conductor Asher Fisch whose career is already internationally established, but by people like composer-in-residence Lachlan Skipworth whose composition for the 2017 program may not get reviewed. If the local paper doesn't cover it, who will?

Well of course there are the bloggers, some of whom do classical music reviews. There are issues with online writing though. Firstly it requires discernment by the reader because not every blogger is the expert they appear. Secondly, it doesn't pay! Digital revenue has bypassed news sites and gone to Facebook, Google, Seek etc. I don't know any online blogger making an income as a music journalist. It is mostly volunteer work, which makes it difficult to buy food! (Read an interesting post about disillusionment with blogging by UK critic Jessica Duchen here.)

Photo by Tom van Hoogstraten

What will the future be?

At a Future of Journalism panel discussion in Fremantle earlier this month there was a lot of shrugging going on. No one really knows what the future will look like. The trends are changing so often and the leading newspapers in the UK and US are madly leaping between online/print/paywalls/free content to try and stay ahead.

What was most clear from the panel is the conversation has changed. News is no longer the property of the traditional media figureheads. Facebook and Google hold the reigns of news distribution and the increase in public interaction around news gathering and sharing means journalists must now participate in a dialogue. Many journalists are morphing into 'content gatherers', 'infotainers', 'aggregators'. 

Apparently none of this is new. The arrival of CNN Cable News revolutionised the news 36 years ago. More newspapers died in the 60's when TV arrived than are folding today. The news industry has survived cataclysmic changes before.

There is hope.

Martin Turner, sub editor from Community News pointed out that social media has started to address the (im)balance of power inherent in newsrooms which until now has been dominated by white middle class men.

Joseph Fernandez, associate professor in journalism at Curtin University says there is hope; 'the fourth estate' is not in danger. There is still power in telling a story and giving information. So how do we maintain a (paid) presence for investigative specialist journalism?

I've recently heard two success success stories worth sharing.

Peter Law, head of news at the Sunday Times, painted a surprisingly healthy picture of WA's Sunday paper. The paper is bucking the trend and has in fact increased its readership by 3.5% or in real terms an additional 17 000 readers. Their online website Perth Now is Perth's most popular news site with a viewing increase of 16% this year. Together the Sunday Times and Perth Now have 1.5 million readers. Their staff team is small, young, innovative and attracting a younger readership. They are also breaking significant stories that are generating the WA news cycle. 

Peter argued that print carries gravitas and can be a force for change. His paper's focus is on content that is important but also readable. Sunday Times journalists are being creative about delivery and working alongside program designers to make their content attractive. 

When Andrew Batt-Rawden discovered in 2013 that Limelight magazine - Australia's national dedicated arts magazine - was on the verge of insolvency  he declared 'not on my watch'. He purchased the magazine and under his management and the editorial leadership of Clive Paget the glossy monthly has grown from a debt-ridden shrinking magazine to breaking even. Batt-Rawden has doubled advertising revenue and expanded the magazine's previously eastern-biased coverage of events to a a more national focus. It is now the only national print media to be providing coverage of arts events in Perth.

While the magazine's subscriptions continue to fall, the online website is hugely popular. The magazine is about to launch an Australian Cultural Fund campaign to overhaul its website and broaden its coverage. Batt-Rawden is also investigating nanotransactions as an alternative to a paywall and a philanthropically-inspired 'Friends' patronage system. He is one the few in the arts industry I've spoken to who is thinking innovatively about how to continue and enrich arts journalism in the digital age.

What do you think?

I'm interested in hearing stories about how the changes in WA's media landscape are effecting those in the arts industry and those consuming the news.

Is anyone else missing reviews from their favourite arts critic? Are there people worried about where to send their press release? Who is wondering what gigs to go to or how last night's concert was received?

Perhaps someone has a favourite source of arts news they can share. Or a story of hope?

And I'll do my best to keep you posted about how I go finding a way to do arts journalism in this uncertain world!









2 comments:

  1. It's great that you've put your thoughts down and shared them Rosalind. I think sharing experiences and information can only benefit freelancers.

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  2. I agree.
    I'm slightly stunned by how much interest this post has generated! Thanks for your comment and others coming from readers on email and Facebook - the discussions have been great.

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