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

From Atlanta to New York, via Washington DC

I’ve not been very good at keeping this up to date.

Trouble is, I’m just totally in holiday mode. Living ‘in the moment’ and not thinking about keeping people updated with my travels. Sorry ‘bowt that, Chief!

So Dragon*Con in Atlanta was a blast. Lots of really interesting talks and panels on everything from science fiction (Mythology, Philosophy and Truth in Star Wars), science fact (DNA Sequencing and You!), space (The 100 Year Spaceship – NASA & DARPA working on manned intersteller flight) and skepticism (Everything Evolves – Including Creationism). And of course the parade was SO MUCH FUN! Just great to see so many people having a good time and being crazy!

I stuffed up my planning, though, and booked my hotel in Atlanta (and therefore my flight to Washington and check-in in DC) for the last day of the convention, so I missed a few panels and talks. Oh well!

Washington was great. It’s definitely a beautiful city. I went to the International Spy Museum which, as you might expect, is all about spycraft. With all the gadgets and things associated with espionage: cypher wheels from the American Civil War, bugs, micro-dot cameras and poison-dart umbrella-guns from the Cold War, footage from the McCarthy era, models of the Vietnamese tunnels etc right up to cyber-warfare and modern day espionage. A really interesting museum! They even had an Astin Martin DB5 like in James Bond: Goldfinger! 🙂

I also went to the National Air & Space Museum, where I saw the actual command modules from the early manned space flights and Apollo missions – tiny! Like tin cans!

The Museum of Natural History is also fantastic. Really well laid out and lots of interesting fossils and demonstrations.

I did a night-tour of the city, which included stops at all the usual landmarks – Capitol; Lincoln, Roosevelet and Martin Luther King memorials; Washington Monument etc. Only due to security restrictions we weren’t able to see the Whitehouse. Fortunately, I have watched all seven seasons of The West Wing so I’ve a pretty good idea what it looks like.

One of the newest and more interesting museums I went to was the Newseum. Originally at Arlington, Virginia since 1997 it moved to a huge building on Pennsylvania Ave in 2008. It takes a really in-depth look at journalism – from the invention of the Gutenburg press in 1455 right up to the modern internet age. And by doing so, it highlights many of the defining moments of history, particularly in the last hundred years. Lots of original newspapers and footage, and lots of commentary both on the events and the way the events were covered. There are a few special exhibits – a September 11 room with a piece of the WTC TV aerial, and covering the walls are front pages from newspapers all around the world. There’s also an exhibit about Hurricane Katrina, detailling how long it took the government to react and commemorating Pulitzer-prize winning newspapers like the Times-Picayune, a New Orleans paper that kept printing every day (sometimes two or three times a day) with updates and news. It also posed ‘ethical’ questions that confront journalists in such situations – at what stage do you stop ‘reporting’ and actually get involved with saving people etc.

Anyway, a fantastic building and excellent museum – sorry, Newseum. Well worth checking out.

I also took a long journey – train, bus and taxi – out to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. This is where many of the unmanned NASA missions are controlled. Unfortunately, though, the Visitor Center was much smaller and more boring than I’d expected. I possibly spoiled it by doing the Air and Space Museum the day before, but Goddard turned out to be a few models of the Space Station, the Shuttle and a bunch of “press this button to see how gravity works” type displays. Sure, would probably be great for young kids, but it was nothing new, interesting or exciting for me.

And yesterday I jumped on an Amtrak train and made my way to New York. Wow. Especially going from Atlanta and then Washington, once you get to New York it’s a huge culture shock! No longer can Sydney or Melbourne be called ‘cities’ – they’re barely even large towns compared to NY! I can’t believe how huge and more importantly how BUSY it is. Particularly Times Square, of course. Once I got settled I went for a walk to Broadway which is just phenomenal. Apparently Broadway now rivals Las Vegas’ strip in terms of ‘illuminated signs’.

Of course, 9/11 is on everyone’s minds, today being September 11. There are police on every street, and it was quite confronting when I got off the train and saw armed soldiers. And yet, they aren’t threatening and I feel oddly very safe and grateful for them. Although I know there’s not a lot they can do and if someone really wanted to do something it wouldn’t be too hard, it’s still strangely reassuring. It definitely doesn’t have a ‘police state’ feel to it.

I don’t know what my chances of getting to the WTC site are today – I’ve heard it’ll be survivors and families only. But I’ll wander over and see what’s happening. I can always go tomorrow, or later in the week. Also planning on a visit to the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium which are supposed to be excellent. Apparently you can get good views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island from the Staten Island ferry, and I might go for a walk on the Brooklyn Bridge. I’m very close to the New York Times building, which has a 9/11 memorial exhibit so I might look at that too. And then there’s the Empire State Building – I might do that in the evening to avoid crowds of tourists – and I’ve got tickets to a comedy show sometime this week.

So much to do, so little time!