What’s wrong with the media?

May 21, 2024
Cubes with the word

If you are in Melbourne and travel though the CBD along Collins Street on the 109 tram you pass a nondescript building called Collins House.

It looks a bit scruffy and nowadays it is dwarfed by high rise buildings. Yet once Collins House was the centre of a sprawling empire of mining, media and other companies linked through a maze of cross shareholdings.

The media companies over more than a century waged circulation wars, tried takeovers, and never lost sight of the need to both wield power and wring concessions from politicians. The structure of radio markets and the introduction of TV were determined by newspaper company lobbying of the Menzies Government.

The names involved are legendary – Keith Murdoch, Packer, John Wren, Fairfax, Rupert Henderson and many others.

The story of all this is told in Professor Sally Young’s magnificent – and monumental – two volume history Paper Emperors and Media Minsters. Her story ends in the 1970s and sadly she is a bit reluctant to embark on a third volume to bring it up to more recent times.

It has been a remarkable journey and she is no doubt conscious that the next chapters are even more depressing than the past ones.

A recent talk by a retired journalist brought this history to mind and also the question of why The Age in particular had changed so much from its great days.

The logical explanation is that the whole media landscape has changed. With The Age – and the Sydney Morning Herald – the beginnings of their problems started with the demise of their ‘rivers of gold’ – the classified sections of the papers containing employment and real estate advertising. The Age even built a massive new printing press at Tullamarine – plagued by industrial problems – and completed about the time that the hefty editions containing classified ads were no longer there to print.

Then there is the problem of the nature of modern journalism and the impact of social media.

Media commentator, Tony Jaques, argues that “the single biggest issue is the complete breakdown of the distinction between news and comment, and the next biggest is the overwhelming presence of click-bait ‘non news’ about ‘non-celebrities’. It’s easy to say that’s what people want, but that is a facile excuse for abandoning journalistic standards.”

“A David Renwick essay in the New Yorker made me remember that it’s important not to let your opinions about declining standards in the media conflate with a decline in journalism as such. There are real bastions of great writing and meaningful thought, and the New Yorker is one such plus others like The Atlantic and even Rolling Stone,” he said.

Jaques argues that there is a paradox among younger readers. “We know that many young people these days don’t read anything substantial, let alone a long essay. But I don’t believe for a moment that it is anything to do with ‘attention span’. These are the same people who will watch a three-hour movie or binge an entire TV series in one go.”

The recent journalist’s talk focussed on a different problem – the background and training of modern journalists. He contrasted the once standard system of young people becoming journalist through the cadetship process compared with journalist who undertake tertiary studies of journalism in universities.

He was firmly of the view that the former were not only better and that newspapers were better for it. Yet, in the great days of The Age under editors such as Graham Perkin and Creighton Burns there were many journalists with tertiary educations. The late Tim Colebatch was a prime example. Iola Hack (now Matthews) had a groundbreaking career reporting on women’s issues and activism along with other female pioneers of mainstream reporting.

The days of women being confined to fashion and social pages were over.

Even sports reporting has changed with commentators such as Judy Joy-Davies, Greg Baum and Caroline Wilson. Baum and Wilson – both of the Age – keep sport in a social, political and economic context. Baum, for instance, is probably the only Australian sportswriter to consistently expose the racket that is the Australian Grand Prix.

This is not say that there were no great reporters who came through the earlier system. Admittedly many of them were also legends in their own long lunchtimes but among them were characters such as the Police Round reporters such as Harry the Horse and Jack Darmody who were also great reporters on one of the most read sections of newspapers.

Nevertheless, the real problems of modern newspapers are more fundamental than the educational background of journalists.

Well before you open your print edition newspaper – a declining activity as it is – the news contained in it has already been online. You then find that there is some mention of the news which has broken but much greater attention to the reactions to it. The story is then sustained by seeking out those who disagree with it and the process is subsequently repeated ad infinititum on other stories.

There is also column after column devoted to ‘analysis’ and ‘prediction’ most of it erroneous and quickly forgotten by the journalist who wrote it. Worse, so much of this sort comment is totally predictable.

A few years ago, a long-time acquaintance mentioned a column by a particular Murdoch journalist. Not reading Murdoch publications other than the Times Literary Supplement, the logical thing to do was to ask what the topic was. When told, it was then relatively easy to successfully recount the bulk of what she had argued. This didn’t take any intellectual effort and could have been replicated by almost anyone who followed media trends and prejudices.

The final word might go to Tony Jaques. “Charles Lamb, the English essayist and poet said no one put down a newspaper without a feeling of disappointment.”

Sadly, these days few people pick them up in the first place.

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