John Birmingham: Old And New Media Are Less Obvious Than They Appear

John Birmingham: Old And New Media Are Less Obvious Than They Appear

In this guest post, author and Which-50.com journalist John Birmingham (pictured above) highlights the ongoing problems in Nauru (and its reporting) to dissect the real problem of what constitutes news gathering in Australia in 2016…

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Few industries have been as fundamentally, even ruinously, disrupted by digital technology as the news media. The transition from hard copy to online appeared to promise wondrous opportunities for venerable publishing houses to further increase their power and market reach. The whole world lay open to them. Star columnists and reporters could aggregate massive international audiences. Sales teams could offer advertisers global market share.

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And then Google ate everyone’s lunch.

The depth of the old media barons’ initial delusion is measured by how totally they lost their shit over the prospect of el Goog stealing their precious content, caching stories and poaching readers. That was a very old-fashioned reading of Mountain View’s plan.

Google couldn’t care less about content. It wanted to divert the fabled rivers of gold — the classified advertising which was the real business of newspapers. News was just the wrapping; ads were the content. Thousands of newspapers and magazines have died because their owners didn’t understand that.

While the consequences of digitisation for the business model of the news media has been a live issue ever since the media realised it didn’t have a business model anymore, the effect on the actual product is sometimes missed.

The New York Times, with its hallowed exaltyness and tradition of heritage, has moved quickly and aggressively into the free fire zone cleared by digital disruption — adding a legion of international subscribers to its iPad app, while it sheds print readers in Manhattan.

By way of local comparison, The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald have sacked a lot of their best — but most expensive — people, including most of their legendary sub-editors.

And the Sith Lord, Darth Rupert, sent his young apprentice Chris Kenny to Nauru …

Flippant much?

No, not really.

Kenny totally owns the role of William Boot in Rupe’s reimagining of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, the great 1930s novel of a foreign correspondent bumbling his way to greatness.

Kenny was famously despatched to Nauru last year, the only journalist permitted to report from the island on Australia’s offshore detention facilities.

Unpacking the politics of how Kenny scored that visa would be fascinating but fruitless. More interesting is what Chris Kenny’s reportage reveals about the contending responses to disruption by The Australian, Murdoch’s flagship broadsheet, and The Guardian — commercial and ideological nemesis to the Oz.

The Guardian’s massive info dump of thousands of incident reports from the refugee detention centres on Nauru set the national political agenda for the last fortnight and fixed the online-only news site firmly in the centre of the ensuing firestorm.

The Nauru Files — as the site christened its collected coverage —was initially data-driven. The huge volume of material from over 2000 leaked files, including dozens of reports of assault and sexual assault on children in the care of the centres, threatens to overwhelm the reader before she can process even a small fraction of the information.

Arranging the individual reports in a month-by-month grid, with each incident colour-coded for its severity, allowed skimmers and the “too long, didn’t read (TL;DR)” crowd to appreciate instantly the scale of story, if not the granular detail. With so much of that detail unpleasant and distressing, it provided a social media salve for the feelings of the squeamish and outraged.

Facebook and Twitter Share buttons took the place of angry letters to the editor or the nearest guilty MP. The habitual slacktivist response of a Retweet, Share, or Like performed the double duty of amplifying the story across social media channels, while harvesting increased traffic for The Guardian at a crucial time: the news site had recently gone public with its sponsorship drive.

Guardian spokesperson told me that to date, “The Nauru Files have received over 887,000 page views, 347,000 unique browsers and 631,000 visits in Australia and 2.2 million page views, 1.14 million unique browsers and 1.6 million visits globally. It also reached the front page of The Guardian print edition in the UK, showing the power of our global newsroom.”

The traffic is inclusive of both browser and app readers, and the data reflects the totals as of 19 August 2016.

Chris Kenny walked a different path. There was little or no data in his story, but plenty of anecdote. We followed ‘Scoop’ Kenny to breakfast at a cafe where “the television is turned to ABC News 24,” running a Nauru story, “including comments from Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs about the island’s ‘detention’ centres.” At that time, Triggs, a thorn in the side of the conservative government, was often framed as a nightmare figure for the readers of The Australian. Kenny informed his readers that he found her presence over breakfast, and her complaints about detention “jarring,” because right opposite the cafe refugees are operating a car wash.

Kenny’s piece, a meandering diary of his island visit — cafes and restaurants are a recurring feature — is highly personalised and deeply subjective, while often presenting itself as rigorously objective. For instance, when he scolds the Nauruan government for its secrecy, because surely any journalists who actually visited would find the horror stories to be grotesque exaggerations.

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“Eating breakfast last week at an island cafe, the television is turned to ABC News 24. It runs an item about Nauru, including comments from Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs talking about “detention” centres. This is jarring when right opposite the cafe refugees are operating a car wash. There is no longer any detention on the island; refugees and asylum-seekers either live in the community or in centres from which they can come and go as they please. After hearing about tough conditions and alleged abuse in Nauru for years it is confronting to suddenly find yourself inside one of the centres, surrounded by children, women and men eager for your attention.”

Chris Kenny, The Australian, October 26, 2015

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Another report from that month told of a girl who had sewn her lips together. A Wilson Security guard saw her and began laughing at her. The girl’s father sought an apology the next evening but was told the guard was at the airport. According to the report the asylum seeker then went and “significantly self-harmed”.

The next month a child under 10 was overheard by a teacher talking to her friends. She said she wanted to drink mosquito liquid so she could die. “[REDACTED] then said she was joking,” the teacher wrote. “She went on to say that everyone was becoming a refugee or going to Australia because they were sick or having a baby – but not her or her family. She then said that [REDACTED, her country] was very dangerous now so she wants to go back to her country to die.” The girls all giggled. The next month a child at the secondary school took a numeracy test. The child simply wrote “I like death” and “I don’t want life”. She drew what looks like a drooping flower. 

Paul Farrell, The Guardian, August 10, 2016

There’s little point, however, comparing The Guardian’s coverage with The Australian’s. They are very selling different products, and for all of its colour and movement, its technological sophistication and almost seamless blending of old and new forms and techniques, the Guardian’s Nauru coverage is the more conservative.

Its data-driven journalism is not far removed from the practices of the past two centuries.

There is an activist element to its pursuit of the story, but in the end it is selling information and leaving the consumer to determine whatever meaning they think it might have.

Kenny, The Australian and beyond them the Murdoch empire as a whole — but most especially in its Fox News guise — are not selling information. They sell meaning.

This is a more radical — and probably more sustainable — practice for a news business. After originally running hot on the promise of digital, Rupert Murdoch realised the scale of the threat which would ride in on the heels of disruption. Stewart Brand’s much misquoted aphorism — “information wants to be free” — had a caveat which is mostly forgotten: “Information also wants to be expensive. That tension will not go away”.

Murdoch, more than anyone, knows that most of the information in old fashioned newspapers is the sort that can be had for free on the internet. Indeed, much better information can usually be had for free in specialist blogs and podcasts. Much timelier information is available in Twitter’s never-ending timeline.

So The Australian does not these days provide information, the same way The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News does not provide information — not as a core business. It provides meaning. The world is explained by reference to agreed myths. Climate change is a scam. Refugees will swamp us all. Unions are corrupt.

The myths don’t need to be true — they simply need to be coherent enough to give complex and bewildering events an agreed meaning. In this way, threatening developments can be explained and a course of action recommended. (Renewing your subscription, and voting for Rupert’s anointed candidate are usually a good start.)

People won’t pay for information they can easily get for free, but they will pay to have the meaning of that information explained to them if it seems to carry with it the threat of disruption to their settled existence.