Analysis of the terms of reference of the Independent Media Inquiry Part 2

This is part two of an analysis of the terms of reference into the recently announced Media Inquiry. Part one is found here. I am no sure how many parts there will be, but I have at least one more in the works.

The terms of reference of the Media Inquiry:

An independent panel will be appointed to inquire into and report on the following issues, while noting that media regulation is currently being considered by the Convergence Review:

a) The effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia, particularly in light of technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms;

b) The impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment;

c) Ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to on-line publications, and with particular reference to the handling of complaints;

d) Any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest.

My students and I have already briefly discussed how the second entry in the terms of reference speaks to precisely what they are grappling with this semester regarding the existing business model of journalism, what it means for online news and what is required to produce a model of sustainable journalism. First critical sweep of the terms of reference made me think that the Inquiry was going to turn into a Mike Masnick and become online media business model engineers, but a more nuanced reading indicates less of a focus on ‘business models’ and more of a focus on how to save ‘quality journalism and the production of news’. I’ve isolated five key points need unpacking from the second term of reference:

1. the business model of traditional media organisations
2. quality journalism and the production of news
3. how ‘quality journalism and the production of news’ can be supported
4. diversity
5. changed media environment

I’ll address the first two points in this post. The crucial third point is in the next post in my series on the Media Inquiry’s terms of reference.

1. From a political economy approach the business model of traditional media organisations involved the production and consumption of an audience or ‘selling eyeballs’ as Martin Hirst and John Harrison (Communication and New Media: From Broadcast to Narrowcast, 2007) pithily describe it. They go on to say:

The media production process has an unusual relationship with its market. It is not simply a matter of putting ‘ideas’ into the public ‘market’ so that price can be determined by ‘supply and demand’. All media outputs are clearly commodities in a capitalist society. Newspapers are sold, magazins have a cover price, and the eletronic media are increasingly looking to narrowcast mrketing to realise a profit, but the real commodity that the media ‘sells’ is its audience, and the real customer is the advertiser. (33-34)

The real earner for newspaper up until the early 2000s or so was derived from classified advertising. In a journal article that explores what he decribes as the ‘fundamental question’ of convergence being the tension between the commercial imperative and the journalistic ethos, Stephen Quinn proffers this quote John Haile to explain why newspapers are adapting to incorporate ‘convergent’ practices:

I was on an ASNE [American Society of Newspaper Editors] new media panel in Dallas [in 1995], and I remember answering the question of ‘why do this?’ with two words: ‘classified advertising’. That is our largest single source of advertising, and it is the most vulnerable to interactive, searchable media. If ad[vertising] dollars start dropping, you can bet newsroom budgets will follow. That will dramatically affect our ability to do good journalism.

The classified advertising boat has set sale. (Apologies!) Mark Day of The Australian newspaper clearly states the problem in his opinion piece on the Inquiry’s terms of reference:

As to the business models of newspapers: You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to know that the loss of classified advertising has put a huge hole in newspaper revenues, and the rivers of gold that used to support journalistic endeavours has become a trickle.

Most journalism students only get a sense of the traditional role of journalists in this business model when they learn about the ‘news hole’ and their job to ‘fill it’. Not only have newspapers lost classified advertising the value of other advertising forms of revenue have decreased for general interest news sites. The value of advertising has radically decreased except when the content is ‘narrowcast’ to specific target audiences that only specific forms of niche content (or sophisticated use of site metrics and data derived from user tracking) can deliver. Advertising-based business models are not the only forms of income that commercial news-based media enterprises can and do utilise, and it shall be interesting to see how much time is spent in the inquiry with questions for existing news-based media enterprises about non-advertising-based revenue models.

2. There have been a number of commentators, including my colleague Jason Wilson, who have suggested that ‘quality journalism and the production of news’ cannot be regulated. Jason frames this in terms of measuring bias:

Even if we disagree with a newspaper’s editorial line, we should be extremely wary in arguing that they don’t have a right to hold it.
Any regulation aimed at policing bias in particular outlets would be abhorrent in principle, and very difficult in practice.

The response from most of the commentariat has similarly been framed in terms of a wariness to regulate ‘the press’. Mark Day suggests that regulation within the institution of journalism should be left up to those organisations with a commercial interest in the industry when he says:

Print media codes of practice in this country are internal – that is, produced and monitored by individual publishing houses or the journalists’ union. They carry no legal weight and have no status, except within their own organisations. They refer to work practices, ethics and responsibilities of journalists and are utterly unaffected by technological change. These codes spell out how employers expect their journalists to go about their business and in no way relate to whether the work of journalists ends up on paper distributed by a truck or is transmitted electronically to a screen.

I am not sure if Mark is arguing for an Inquiry or not solely based on this passage (he is against ‘regulation’, has assumed that the Inquiry is about ‘regulation’ and is therefore against the Inquiry), but considering he is clearly stating that the current codes do not appreciate the medium by which the products of journalistic practice are delivered to an audience, then maybe they should? The concern of the ACP and of various researchers within the academic field of journalism studies is that convergence is based on business decisions and not the ideals of journalism that are enshrined in such standards. So what are the standards of ‘quality journalism’?
The APC lists nine ‘general principles’ that relate to more or less nine areas of specific concern relating to the maintenance of the professional ethos of journalism:

1. Accurate, fair and balanced reporting
2. Correction of inaccuracy
3. Publishing responses
4. Respect for privacy and sensibilities ['Privacy' has a set of an additional seven principles.]
5. Honest and fair investigation; preservation of confidences
6. Transparent and fair presentation
7. Discretion and causing offence
8. Gratuitous emphasis on characteristics
9. Publication of Council adjudications

It would seem that those arguing in opinion pieces for ‘media freedom’ are not actually offering a defence of the professional ethos of journalism. The institutions of the ‘media’ and ‘journalism’ are not the same thing. You can have a mdia organisation that produces news-based content that is congruent with the ideals represented by the APC’s standards without necessarily being works of journalism. Why? Because actual news is a precious resource in the current media landscape. I am discussing part of this problem with my first year students this week. We are looking at ‘pseudo-events’ and the literal and practical production of news. I haven’t yet seen someone come out swinging in support of a radical defence of the institution of journalism (except for perhaps Wendy Bacon in her piece where she notes that an inquiry into online business models for the sake of journalism would be welcome).

In this analysis I am therefore making a distinction between news-based content and works of actual journalism. Collapsing ‘quality journalism’ into ‘media freedom’ by erasing the difference between media content, news-based media content and works of journalism is a rhetorical move to frame an investigation into the state of democratic institution of journalism and the industry that once supported it as an attack on freedom. The ‘attack’ is a strawperson used to argue the case for an unfetted media industry that may or may not be related to the institution of journalism. The existing (legacy) composition of the media industry and the democratic instution of journalism are not necessarily the same thing. ‘The Press’ refers to a specific composition of the media industry where the commercial interests of the industry were congruent with the ideals of journalism being a democratic institution.

If the term ‘the press’ represented a historically specific period where the media industry and the institution of journalism did overlap, then one question that needs to be asked by those who are concerned about journalism, is regarding whether or not this historical relation still holds. In the era of convergent media, do we have a ‘press’? Is there an overlap between the operational composition of the existing legacy media industry and the democratic institution of journalism? For Hal Crawford, head of news at NineMSN, there isn’t.

There are at least three levels to this distinction that can be deduced from the different ways codes of practice/regulation work:

1. A distinction between different kinds of content. First, excluding exemptions born of ‘parliamentary privilege’, defamation law in this country sets up a distinction between ‘honestly held opinions’ of a ‘public figure or event’ and ‘news’. This distinction has existed in practice if not law for decades. Now, however, online media content throws a few other distinctions into the mix. For example, is aggregated ‘news’ still ‘news’? Is a tweet of a link to a piece with a defamatory imputation ‘publishing’? The APC is concerned about the oversight required to maintain journalistic integrity when media content is assembled from the work of others. Second, within critical journalism studies there is a distinction between reporting on newsworthy events that produce news — the ‘gathering of news’ — and the process identitifed by Daniel Boortsin in 1962 as ‘creating news’. The current news-based media industry is awash with ‘pseudo-events’; events designed to manipulate the ‘news hole’ hunger of the media industry and exploit journalistic practices for purposes of generating exposure. (Boorstin’s critical assessment of the news industry was appropriated by Jean Baudrillard for his theories about ‘media events’ and ‘simulacra’, see William Merrin’s work.) There not only a distinction between ‘news’ and ‘opinions’ but the coverage of ‘pseudo-events’ compared to covering actual newsworthy events.
2. A distinction between journalistic practice and the product of this practice. The ACP standards and most codes of practice I have seen for journalism deal mostly with the practice of journalism, rather than what is produced. This is a common way to critically engage with journalism. For example, the ABC’s Media Watch is based around reading work produced by news-based media enterprises in terms of an inferred failure of journalistic practice. For example summarising the critique of a recent Daily Telegraph piece that Media Watch accuses of cherry picking data about pokie reform and problem gambling: ‘This article doesn’t present a contrasting view, due to an apparent failure to seek comment, hence the article is not a product of ‘balanced’ and ‘fair’ reporting. Why is this important? Journalistic content has become more complex. A single journalist filing a single story may have been the way journalistic practice was imagined but the historical role of sub-editors and contemporary role content editors changes this. Journalistic practice has been bolstered by editorial ‘fact checking’ but how appropriate is it to frame the work of online content editors in this way? Are they ‘fact checking’? It will be interesting to see if the Inquiry drills down to this level of distinction and how the existing representatives from the press respond.

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