Keep Real Journalism Alive

Jonothan HolmesAfter five years in the host’s chair, Jonathan Holmes is leaving Media Watch. It would be easy to assume that after documenting the scandals, the mistakes, the ineptitude and often the downright sleazy antics of media organisations he’d have nothing but contempt for the way ‘journalism’ is conducted in Australia. From the Sunday Telegraph’s fake Pauline Hanson nudes to The Australian’s continued War on Climate Change, to anything the Herald Sun has ever published, it’s hard to think that the nation’s premier media critic could have anything nice to say about the media. But Holmes finished his final program not with admonishment but with praise, and an appeal. “Media Watch regularly shows you the worst”, he notes, “but the best, I still believe, is worth paying for.”

So my parting plea is this: whatever your politics, or your preferences, and even if you’ve never bought a newspaper, start subscribing to at least one media website: whether it’s the Herald Sun or New Matilda, Crikey or the Sydney Morning Herald, old media or new, pay just a little to keep real journalism alive.

– Jonathan Holmes, Media Watch, 1 July 2013.

My first reaction was of surprise and vehement disagreement. I have always believed that pay-walls are a stupid idea – as long as someone is willing to report the news for free (be it an advertising-supported or government-funded institution, a blogger or even social-media) then only fools will pay for it. And these days there is always someone else who will report the news for free. News organisations have never had anything close to this kind of competition. Take any news story on any given day – as an example, I’ll use the racist abuse aimed at Australia’s first Muslim frontbencher Ed Husic – and have a look at how many sources Google News has. Currently there are 208 online news sites that are reporting the very same story. And they’re reporting the very same facts and the very same quotes.

So why pay when I can get it for free, right? But, if I’m honest, that’s a bit naive. Sure, it applies to basic reporting – the What, Where and When of journalism. And it even applies to analysis – the How, Why and ‘So What’. In short, the mostly-public goings on in the world are by definition widely available to anyone and everyone. But the point Holmes makes, and I agree with him, is that investigative journalism costs money and carries great risk. Investigative journalism is undercover work. It’s ‘Deep Throat’ style car-park meetings with whistle-blowers, it’s digging through trash-cans to find shredded documents, it’s doggedly pursuing leads that may take weeks, month or even years before the story breaks. Investigative journalism is expensive.

The work they do requires time, and money, and the willingness to risk huge costs incurred fighting battles in the courts.

– Jonathan Holmes, Media Watch, 1 July 2013.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the only way to fund investigative journalism is through pay-walls. Far from it – there are a range of funding-models available to all news organisations. The first that springs to mind is advertising. But unfortunately online advertising is weak tea – another victim of the range of online sources. The same amount of advertising money is now being spread not just on the few big Australian newspapers, TV networks and radio stations, but also the international news sites, the smaller independent news sites, and, well, all the other websites in general. The King’s Tribune highlights the difficulties facing smaller news organisations wanting a slice of the ad-revenue pie: “We’re too small to attract big advertisers and too big to get the small ones.”

Nor can we expect the government-funded organisations to be the sole bastions of investigative journalism. The ABC and SBS are terrific institutions and their fierce independence is to be lauded. But their belts are already tight, and ‘more money to the ABC’ is not a catch-cry we hear very often from policy makers. They do their part, and perhaps punch above their weight in many regards, but they simply don’t have the resources or funding to be the lone providers of investigative journalism. And nor should they. It’s not healthy for a democracy to have the only institutions that keep a check on government, funded by the government. Like them or loath them, independent news organisations are vital.

So I’ve decided to take Jonathan’s advice and “pay just a little to keep real journalism alive”. I’m looking into various outlets to see who’s worthy of my coin. Crikey came highly recommended when I asked on Twitter.

And of course The Conversation is an exemplary site which clearly puts accuracy and ethics ahead of speed and populism. And while it’s free (getting most of it’s funding from universities and some government programs) it does accept donations.

Walter Cronkite