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We sat stuffed in a car for over 2 hours as we travelled some 200 kms to get to a Future of Journalism event in Hobart and now, sitting in the back of a lecture space in near stifling heat, we wait over 30 minutes for the advertised session to start. There is no indication of when it will start, nor any apology for the delay. By some measures, it’s already appearing that the organizers do not value the audience’s time.

When we did start, we were told how the print media is under threat in many Western countries like the UK and US. Mainstream papers have been shut down, journalists thrown out of work, profitability down to loss making levels for some. In Australia, staff cuts of journalists have put the quality of journalism under threat.

We were also told that the advent of the Internet, with access available to free news sites around the world, had stimulated and was driving the change. Apparently the media industry hadn’t seen the changes coming and was unready to deal with the new requirements.

The program said there was to be a panel of experts, which seemed to be comprised mainly of people who apparently hadn’t seen the profound changes coming. The audience was almost totally media personnel.

I checked my program Blueprint for the Future was the stated goal.

Blueprint!?

I had to ask was this group really ready to produce something like that when we couldn’t even see what was coming?

Clearly, more thought was needed.

Stages of change

In complex systems work, I have become familiar with many of the normal human responses to change as played out in organizations. These include denial, blame & anger, uncertainty and bargaining and finally, problem solving.

Going by the apparent situation in Hobart and later responses to it, much of the media still appears to be in the denial and anger stages.

Complex systems

In systems theory, the wider purpose of any contained system is to provide valued outputs and services to the containing system (e.g. the heart and digestive systems exist to serve the whole body, a rail system exists to serve a community). This provides us with the means to compare the outcomes/outputs of the system that we are studying, with desired outcomes/outputs for the wider system.

With that in mind, I propose that the vital purposes of media (i.e. public information) to society are:-

1. to deliver timely news of threats and opportunities to help individuals take appropriate action and,

2. to provide wider picture social narratives that help individuals to orient to broader social needs and also to enable individuals to create social meaning in their lives.

It seems that there is a growing number of people who are coming to believe that the media is not achieving those purposes. Indeed many people believe that the media is restricting itself to those narratives that support both the current government’s policies and the consumerist dreams of major corporations.

Evidence is all around, from the public communication failures before and during the Victorian bushfires, to the stories of the West somehow winning in Iraq/Afghanistan, to repeated failures to explore the common causes of many of our difficulties such as the explosion of bureaucracies with their high costs and low levels of performance.

Whatever the causes, the print media is suffering from problems created, at least in part, by alienation of their readership.

Another surprise and a distinct deja vu experience was the hostility directed by some at Tasmanian Times founder Lindsay Tuffin. Indeed, I got a bit hot under the collar when there seemed to be suggestions that Tuffin should not use the forum to state his belief that for all their self-belief, the state’s newspapers are not as warmly regarded by their audiences as they would like to think.

Now to be frank I don’t look at Tuffin’s internet only Tasmanian Times often enough to say anything authoritative about it. It may be a crock for all I know. But the kind of comments and dismissiveness directed at the larrikin Tuffin reminded me strongly of the disdain directed at Crikey founder Stephen Mayne a decade ago and still present in some quarters.  Margaret Simons, featured presenter at the Future of Journalism event.

The very existence and success of Lindsay’s site can, I believe, be ascribed to weaknesses in the offerings of the mainstream media. It is worth considering that a combination of media weaknesses coupled with new technological advances in communication have led to the print media crisis.

A natural question was that if readers were moving away from print media, wouldn’t it have been a good idea to invite lots of readers (enough to balance the media numbers?) along to the Future of seminar to find out what was deterring them and what it would take to win them back?

Profit is king

The headline written on screen at the Blueprint event in Hobart was The $64,000 question is are people prepared to pay for the news? Perhaps as a consequence, the focus of much of the discussion was whether the news media could be profitable.

Profit is vital for business to survive although, as mentioned earlier, profit can usually only be achieved when the people paying the money, in this case print media readers, believe that they will get value from their purchase. (N.B. Exceptions include monopolies)

Unfortunately that same focus has trapped the print media into financial reliance upon a select group of customers, advertisers.

As print media circulation grew so their stories grew in interest to more powerful organizations. In addition, alternative advertising options such as TV and the Internet, caused the print media to lose their dominance over advertising. One effect of these pressures was that they became more subject to advertiser pressures to adopt particular editorial stances. Another was their need to achieve substantial incomes to service the wider readership.

Focused interest

Another problem for print media is that much of their product is not of interest to many (most?) readers. Heres how NYU professor and communications guru Clay Shirky describes it

The coherence of newspapers is not intellectual, it’s industrial. Which is to say, if you’re running a website and somebody’s on your website and they have just done a crossword puzzle and they seem to really like it, what’s the next thing you’re going to show them? Is it news from Tegucigalpa? No. It’s another crossword puzzle, because that’s the only thing you do. 

The implications are that tightly focused, smaller papers will have a better chance of retaining readership.

Repetition delivers profits

The pressures on urban and wide circulation print media are exacerbated by their desire to make profits. A problem with the focus on profits is that it’s tempting for the media to publish and republish non-news, thus diminishing the overall quality of their offering.

With untold examples to choose from, I’ll stick with the story that had run on CNN and all over Western media and told of a 6 yr old boy, ostensibly in a homemade helium balloon that had broken adrift and was speeding across the US. After tracking the balloon to its final resting place and finding the boy was not inside, there was further speculative news that he may have fallen out en route.

After more hoopla, it was revealed that the boy had all the time been at home in his attic, allegedly hiding in a box. The resulting media story was titled Balloon-boy found at home in attic. 

Of course, there was no balloon boy only an attic boy with a dull story that would sell nothing. The phantom story, created by the news medias rush to sell product and draw attention to itself, was clearly more appealing.

With that quality journalism, it’s only a matter of time before discerning readers become cynical about media stories.

Focus on the power groups

As mentioned earlier, many media groups are focusing more on the needs of large, powerful organizations, including governments, at the expense of reporting on the real world of the reader.

How often do we see headlines like, Recession damages Labor election prospects, instead of accurate reporting of the effects of a recession on the citizens? Or,  Shelling and bombing threatens peace envoy mission.

The focus on supposedly powerful figures is too often at the expense of reporting on matters relevant to the reader. This violates one of the critical purposes of public information (see above).

War reporting also appears to have devolved into little more than propaganda driven by governments.

The result of the focus on the interests of powerful groups has been to create an expanding pool of people whose views are not represented in the media.

It ’ s a revolution

We’re living in a revolution in communication that is potentially more significant than the development of the printing press.

The new communications and citizen journalism is accelerated by three major recent phenomena:

1) Internet and mobile phone connectivity and capacity (e.g. send photos, messages)
2) Ability of users to share ideas with each other in real time (see video Here )
3) Costs of production and distribution dropping to close to zero (see video 2 Here )

It is these forces that are threatening the conventional media’s dominance of the public information space coupled with that industry’s failure to focus on the realities of the readers world, as outlined earlier.

During any substantive change, there will exist many who cannot consider the implications of the change without fleeing into one of the normal human reactions. Unfortunately for the evening’s debate, many of those unwilling or unable to discuss the implications were the media representatives present.

It turned out to be just another tame MEAA talkfest, hijacked by management and dominated by issues such as how to monetize online news content. The description of roadshow was accurate. There was never going to be any serious analysis of modern media. An Attendee.

As with so many dying things, a lot of threshing about can be expected as the dying entity struggles against incipient extinction. Readers can expect ever greater media attempts to attract our attention along with continued hostility towards alternate sources of information that they see as their competition.

I’ll develop some of these themes in the future so …

Watch this space.

Mike Bolan

http://www.abetteraustralia.com

Mike   is a complex systems consultant, change facilitator and executive/management coach.

Note. The author welcomes constructive criticism and new information that adds to our understanding of these matters.

As examples of these symptoms, I submit the entire business of climate change - which has been developing over the last 50 years, terrorism - which appears to be an outraged reaction to Western actions and, the global financial crisis which was predicted years before we suffered any real consequences.

Meanwhile, in the real world …