Journalism at the Speed of Bytes

About the Report

  • Journalism at the Speed of Bytes was published by the Walkley Foundation in July 2012. It is a major industry report on the future of newspapers.
  • The report is by Dr Penny O’Donnell (University of Sydney), Associate Professor David McKnight (University of New South Wales), and Jonathan Este (former Communications Manager, Media Alliance).
  • The research was supported by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant (LP0990734) and by the Project Partner, the Walkley Foundation for Excellence in Journalism.

Foreword

Report forward by Amanda Wilson.The faltering economics of the newsgathering industry has left journalism in a climate of fear. A cloud of doom has descended on those who care about quality, independent journalism as they watch the means of funding it – revenue from advertising – move from the steady decline of recent years into freefall. The bottom of the cliff from which it has taken this dive is not visible at this point.

A little like Europe’s financial crisis, the numbers just keep getting worse and no one has the answer. There are various corporate and editorial strategies for breaking this fall and I fervently hope that something cuts through. The evidence would point to the most nimble and flexible strategy – and newsroom – as having the most chance of survival.

I am lucky enough to have worked in newspapers for 40 years – as a reporter, sub-editor, and section editor and, finally, as the first female Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald in 180 years. Since this research project was launched, I have been at the centre of one of the most far-reaching periods of disruptive change in Australian news media history. It was not the usual preoccupations of newspaper editors that kept me awake at night. The day-to-day drama of the country’s political, business and social issues were exciting, challenging, fascinating and exhausting to cover. But rather, it was the questions raised in this report that cost me my sleep.

How much cost-cutting is too much? How thinly can you spread your resources without affecting the quality? What can a superb narrative non-fiction writer bring to the digital news platform apart from an extra 5,000 words? How do you fully integrate a newsroom that serves print, mobile, tablet and website while keeping the journalistic foundations strong?

The profound structural and cyclical change in our industry is claiming not only hundreds of journalistic jobs, but also traditional newsroom roles. Ongoing restructuring of the newsroom I led until recently meant I was not only the first female Editor of the Herald, but also the last Editor with a capital E – that is, a newspaper editor who ran the whole show.

The big question, as those leading the media industry search for new strategies, structures and revenue streams to keep audiences and advertisers engaged, is how to keep “public defender” journalism alive. So far, digital revenues have not reproduced the profits of the bigger, trusted, print brands, which would make this kind of journalism possible.

There has been some erosion in public trust in news media as the 24-hour news cycle has collided with shrinking resources and the traditional view of what constitutes news versus opinion versus advertorial is increasingly blurred by the need for profits and by newcomers in the digital space: bloggers, social media, content farmers, etc.

Over the decades, I have been privileged to work with hundreds of intelligent, sceptical, passionate, values-driven journalists who care about the public interest and who show no fear or favour in their reporting. What’s at stake amid this great disruption is the ability to train, to hire and to retain in meaningful employment the calibre of journalist who can produce news which people in a democracy need to know. These are journalists who can dig up the truth no matter how long it takes, no matter what threats are made against them, who can write seriously gripping narratives that leave the pyramid news story for dead and who can work with a video team on a series that works across print, web and tablet to take storytelling to a new level.

That’s not an easy ask, even in the best of times. Now, with the decline of newspapers and magazines that not long ago were raking in the dollars, you can see why media proprietors are trying anything that holds out the merest glimmer of hope. They know they need to keep pumping money – that lifeblood of journalism – through the heart of their business, the newsroom. And time is short.

According to recent research by the Pew Centre, in the US, five technology companies accounted for 68 per cent of all online advertising revenue by 2011. That did not include Amazon and Apple, whose earnings are from transactions, downloads and devices.

It poses the question: will we soon see a tech giant like Google or Facebook buy an ailing “legacy” media outlet and its newsroom so it can offer the complete package to the connected consumer? Adding real journalism to their offering would be icing on their cake. But where would the public interest protections be in that? Would they still deliver the goods for citizens interested in scrutinising their government, business leaders and civil society?

Meanwhile, we must wait to discover which of the strategies being pursued in media in Australia and globally will prove to be the Holy Grail – that is, a revenue model that goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to allow journalists to continue to protect the public interest. And, if I may also say, that keeps and promotes more women in newsrooms as a means of attracting a wider audience, and with it more dollars. But that’s a whole other report.

Amanda Wilson

July 2012

Amanda Wilson was editor of The Sydney Morning Herald from January 2011 to June 2012