Steltzner vs Fox: Curiosity Comes Cheap

Today I stumbled across this cute little meme:

Shepard Smith vs Adam Steltzner

So I shared it, and before long was asked: did this actually happen?

I didn’t know, so I looked around. As best as I can tell, no it didn’t happen exactly like that. It wasn’t quite the ‘gotcha’ moment. But the interviewer did definitely have a “dude, why bother?” attitude. Rather than send you off to give Murdoch some money, I’ve uploaded the clip here:

So while it’s not exactly true, I think the meme does make a good point. As I’ve said before, space exploration and astronomy is far cheaper than people realise. Yes, Curiosity cost $2.5 billion, but that was spread over eight years. A few months before Curiosity landed, London hosted the Olympic games at a cost of US$14.46 billion. And as I’ve shown before, the US military is planning on spending $US1.1 trillion dollars over the next 5 years on 2,443 F-35 warplanes to finally defeat the Soviet threat. [Correction: As artio pointed out in the comments, that should read “US1.1 trillion over the next 50 years”. Woops.]

Don’t get me wrong – I think asking about the money involved in science is a valid question and one that definitely needs to be asked. But such funding needs to be held in context. Casey Dreier over at The Planetary Society spells it out far better than I could. Essentially, the question is not “why are we spending so much money on space exploration?” but instead “why are we spending so little?”

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

The Age shows a surprising lack of Fearless Good Judgement

Vile, obscene and offensive. That’s how the Herald Sun described tweets that comedians Wil Anderson and Catherine Deveny made about the Logies. And reading the sensationalist outrage the Herald Sun whipped up about them, I was reminded of Julian Morrow’s brilliant talk at the Andrew Olle Media Lecture last year. Co-founder of The Chaser and executive producer of their controversial War on Everything television program, Morrow knows a lot about public outrage.

The Deveny tweets are a perfect example of what Morrow meant when he described the ‘primary and secondary audiences’. The primary audience is the target of the media production. They’re the people that tune in each week to watch a TV show, the people that buy a particular newspaper regularly or subscribe to a magazine. The primary audience is also the followers of a Twitter user, fans of a Facebook page or subscribers of an RSS feed. The secondary audience, as Julian put it, are those who “come to access controversial content because it’s controversial”. And that’s what the Deveny tweet scandal is all about.

I was following Catherine Deveny’s tweets during the Logies (I was watching The West Wing though, which was infinitely more enjoyable). A few times I raised my eyebrows at some of her tweets, before shrugging and chuckling to myself. “That Deveny, she’s always stirring!” I thought. It didn’t bother me, because I knew I could expect that from her. I was her primary audience. The problem comes with the secondary audience gets involved. When the Herald Sun published selected tweets from her and Anderson – focusing of course on the more extreme – it sparked an outcry of disparaging comments. “What an obscene, nasty, vile woman she is” said one comment. “Absolutely disgusting,” said another, “making fun about molestation and paedophelia about an 11 year is disgusting”.

The old adage “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it” applies in new media just as it did in old media. If you don’t want to be shocked by Deveny’s tweets, if you want to live in a narrow-minded bubble, don’t follow her on Twitter.

Unfortunately, on Tuesday night The Age editor-in-chief Paul Ramadge sacked Deveny, saying her tweets were “not in keeping with the paper’s standards”. Which is odd, because her tweets have nothing to do with the paper. She wrote a column once a week for The Age, but these tweets were made on her own personal Twitter account, which clearly is not at all affiliated with The Age. As Jeremy Sear wrote on Crikey, “off-colour or not, her joking remarks were not in the context of her work for The Age. A personal Twitter feed, whether ‘public’ or not, is not a newspaper column”.

Sacking Deveny has prompted a massive backlash on Twitter and the blogosphere. Comedian Daniel Blurt lamented that “to be sacked for cherry-picking from over 30 Logies tweets reveals truths about the media and this country that are almost too distressing to contemplate.” Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham blogged that “The Age have enjoyed her aggressive, provocative, and sometimes extremely irritating, style for some years but of course once she made a sexual crack about a child, well the sky fell in”. Morrow tweeted that  “deciding to employ Catherine Deveny is debatable but [The Age] sacking her now is deplorable. Ramadge: gutless, unprincipled, wrong”. Others saw the whole affair as a punchline: “I hope I don’t get fired for using my twitter stream to declare that @triplejdoctor is a VAGINA” tweeted Triple J’s Paul Verhoeven. The fake Andrew Bolt tweeted: “We gave Sam Newman a job on MTR just because he IS offensive”.

It’s clear from the huge backlash on Twitter that The Age acted rashly by sacking Deveny. They could have taken the Herald Sun head on and said “no, we are not the arbiter of social debate, we do not succumb to crass sensationalist journalism from rival newspapers”. But instead they folded, sacked her and lost the chance to prove themselves better. Julian Morrow said that “the temporary insanity of editorial crises does slowly abate and fearless good judgement can re-emerge with time”. But in the rush to placate readers from a rival paper, they capitulated. Let us hope The Age regains its fearless good judgement when the next scandal breaks.

Rupert Murdoch doesn’t understand the internet

How the world’s most powerful media magnate doesn’t understand media anymore.

“We’re going to stop people like Google, or Microsoft, or whoever from taking our stories for nothing… I think they ought to stop it. The newspapers ought to stand up and let them do their own reporting or whatever.”

So said Rupert Murdoch, speaking at the National Press Club in Washington. He seems outraged that Google News lets people click on links that take them to sites owned by his papers! Am I missing something here? As far as I know you can’t read the full article on Google News, only a headline and brief snippet. The link to the original publisher is free advertising for the publisher!

In case you think I’m being harsh, or taking him out of context, here’s Murdoch’s exact words taken from a transcript provided by The Independent: “By that I mean that, if you go to Google News and you see stories where it says Wall Street Journal and you click on it, you suddenly get the page or the story as in the WSJ and it’s for free. And they take it for nothing, it’s free… We’ll be very happy if they just publish our headline, and a sentence or two, followed by a subscription form, of course. And that will bring you so-called traffic to your site.” I feel a little sorry for Murdoch. He’s clearly had someone explain in the briefest of terms how Google News works, but nobody’s actually pointed out how it works in his favour.

That he doesn’t ‘get’ the internet was further proven when he commented on the iPad:

“You know I got a glimpse of the future this last weekend with the Apple iPad. It is a wonderful thing … it has brought together all forms of media, music, books, newspapers, whatever… It may be the saving of newspapers. It cuts costs – costs of paper, ink, printing, trucks.”

But if you don’t have paper, ink, printing, trucks… you’ve essentially got a website, right? This is where the Murdoch View of the future crumbles. As Media Watch host Jonathon Holmes observed on The Drum, Murdoch “despite the power and the profits of News Corp’s book-publishing, magazine, television and film production arms, is still a newspaper man”. He still views the world of media as a newspaper magnate would. Wanting to box all his news into one closed off marketable product. The iPad has a Wall Street Journal app – a closed environment – that you pay US$3.99 a week for. The Times Online website has a Pay Wall – a closed environment – that you pay £1 a day or £2 a week for access to.

The media industry is at a crossroads. And companies that go down the Murdoch road of pay walls and closed environments will learn what the music industry kinda learnt the hard way: if you don’t adapt to the internet it will destroy you. For years the music industry thought it could fight the internet’s hippy-like culture of freedom and openness. File sharing sites like Napster and Kazaa took the music Goliaths by surprise and they fought back. Murdoch sees content aggregators like Google and Yahoo as enemies, when it should embrace them as friends. A fascinating study by the Pew Research Group reported that only 7% of people surveyed would be likely to pay for access to a particular news site. “The vast majority of online news consumers,” the report states, “seem willing to browse for news from many sites, do not have a favorite online news source, and even if they do, are not willing to pay for that site’s content”. You can go the way of the music industry, Rupert, and try to force people to pay for your content, or you can go the way of the Huffington Post and Politico – two young, internet savvy media organisations that are making significant growth at a time when news giants are in decline.

Would you or do you pay for news content?

Journalism should be quality, not quantity

As citizens in the Information Age, where we are bombarded every day with vast amounts of knowledge and news, quality is fast becoming much more important than quantity. Today, former Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull announced he was leaving politics, and Google News was showing 256 articles about it within 8 hours. And that’s just for a relatively inconsequential (in world terms) resignation of a Australian politician. On the same day, when a mining explosion in the US killed 25 workers, there were over 2,300 news reports in the same 8 hours. The quantity is there, but I wonder about the quality – the vast majority of those news reports are essentially the same article, rehashed and published for a different organisation. Quality journalism requires two key elements – originality and accountability. Originality is obvious – it’s not quality journalism if you just reworded a few lines of someone else’s story. Accountability, though, is what really makes good journalism. Good journalists will admit when they get things wrong – no matter how minor or trivial it may seem. But how often does that happen? If a journalist reports something that’s inaccurate – or just plain wrong – how often do you see it followed up and corrected? I hardly ever see corrections in newspapers or even online.

Last week I was listening to NPR’s excellent On The Media podcast which had a fascinating interview with Wadah Khanfar, Director General of Al Jazeera, and he had obviously noticed the same thing:

“This is why we are the only TV station that I know of that opens air for audience to phone in and to criticise and to correct our coverage.”- Wadah Khanfar

I may be showing my age a bit but I can remember when the ABC had Backchat, and then later renamed it Feedback and then cancelled it altogether. The ABC now lets you know when it gets things wrong by announcing them on it’s Corrections & Clarifications page, tucked away in a tiny corner of their website. So the ABC no longer broadcasts audience complaints, and it hides it’s own mistakes. That’s the opposite of how news organisations should behave, in my opinion. News, without accountability, is just gossip. Everyone makes mistakes – to pretend otherwise is arrogant and demeaning to the audience. But accurate information is so crucial to a well-functioning democracy that when mistakes are made they should be clearly and loudly announced. Preferably by the organisation at fault, but if not then it’s up to other news organisations and ordinary people themselves to correct them.

How often do you see a media organisation correct its mistakes? Or more to the point, how often do you see media organisations making mistakes?

(In this article “ABC” refers to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the American broadcaster)