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.

Analysis of the terms of reference of the Independent Media Inquiry Part 1

The terms of reference of the recently announced Media Inquiry are dense and need to be unpacked. I am writing up some brief notes here that I will probably use as material in my online news units I am teaching next year. I started this a few days ago and when it go to over 2500 words halfway through the second entry into the terms of reference I decided to split my post into four. This is on the first entry in the terms of reference I shall post the other parts when they are finished.

The terms of reference:

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.

‘Technological change leading to media platform migration’ describes a long process that has changed the media landscape. The two key ideas here ‘technological change’ and ‘media platform migration’ have been discussed a number of ways in scholarly literature.

Firstly, when we discuss ‘technological change’ it is important to clearly define what the character of this change as it will come with various built-in assumptions and expectations. There are three schools of thought about technological change. First, the view that ‘technology’ determines change. A key proponent of this view is someone like Marshall McCluhan and this position is summarised well in the media inquiry context by Bernhard Keane in Crikey:

Let me grotesquely simplify a complex issue to explain: the internet has had two kinds of socio-economic impacts: we all initially thought the boundless ocean of content it provided to users was the revolutionary change wrought by new media. To use McLuhan’s phrase, the message (the content) was supposed to be the message (as in social impact), because there was so much more content than ever before. But in the past decade, and especially in the past five years and with the growth of mobile online access, interconnectedness, primarily via social media, has become the main socio-economic impact of the internet. How we use the internet is its biggest impact, bigger even than the content we get from it. As per McLuhan, it’s the medium (how we engage with it) that is the message of the internet, not the content.

The affordances of the ‘internet’ enables or produces ‘interconnectedness’. Another way to think about this is from a social perspective. You want to talk with friends — as a form of social interaction — you can do this in a variety of ways online. The need to talk to friends and other examples of sociality serves as the driver of technological change. This is called social determinism. A more relevant example is the emergence of ‘interconnected’ media ecologies organised around core cultural values where content, ‘sharing’ practices and ‘engagement’ are determined by the sociality of participants. In partisan ‘culture war’ battles played out in the media these are often referred to as ‘echo chambers’ to describe their social function of accentuating the apparent ‘voice’ of a given perspective that is out of proportion with the actual frequency of the cultural values in a given population. Another example are niche or specialist media enterprises that service particular areas of interest. Just as an enthusiast-run arts and craft forum fits this definition, so do global enterprises such as The New York Times or The Washington Post.

The third perspective on this is a mixture of the two and is derived from sociological work into science and technology. What is examined here are ‘socio-technical assemblages’ rather than a specific technology or sociality often associated with such technologies. Keane’s piece in Crikey has some elements of this in the way he emphasises the importance of how internet-based technologies are used. Other examples everyday socio-technical assemblages include the road-car-driver to describe the way drivers are empowered in certain ways and new practices or habits emerge premised on the interaction of the more or less three elements of the assemblage with each other. Think about how you engage with ‘traffic’ as a pedestrian versus as a driver, or different suburbs with suburb-speficic rituals of courtesy (or bull bar use) and so on. There are different habits and ways of perceiving of what is ostensibly the ‘same’ environment of the ‘road’.

A way to think about this in the context of online media and ‘technological change’ is by thinking about the habits of media audiences that have embraced and adapted to relatively new ways of engaging with media content. There are different compositions of practices and habits across the production and consumption of media content and even entire media enterprises. A practical example is that in the magazine world I come out of we would speak of ‘toilet length’ features! The practice of reading magazines while going to the bathroom meant that these specific habits of reading needed to be factored into the production of stories. There is a socio-technical assemblage of reader-magazine-toilet for which there are certain habits and practices. What new habits have emerged based on practices of reading/engagement with new technologies? Is there a ‘train journey’ feature? A ‘waiting in line for coffee tweet linking to a blog post infographic’ habit?

You may already see why this is a problem for established media enterprises that relied on revenue streams organised around now extinct habits, such as the role and function of the weekend classifieds. There is no longer an early morning classifieds brigade that used to attack newsagency distributors for early copies of newspaper to hunt bargains. The habits of classifieds-hunting have been dissassembled from the socio-technical assemblages that included print newspapers and have develeped into newer assemblages organised around eBay (Australia) or Craig’s List (US). There are new rhythms and practices that characterise these emergent media-based assemblages.

Secondly, ‘media platform migration’ describes another process and this part of the inquiry has strong connections to the much larger Convergence Review. Again there are a number of ways to think about this ‘migration’ process. What precisely is being ‘migrated’? Is it content? Is it a specific medium? Is it a set of social relations and functions that used to be associated with a particular medium or form of content and now is associated with another medium or form of content?

In terms of an entire medium appearing in another medium, this practice has been termed ‘remediation’ by Jay Bolter and David Grusin. For example, a PDF version of a print magazine may ‘remediate’ the magazine print medium to an online context. They note there are always ‘traces’ (in the high philosophical Derridean sense) of the previous medium in the remediated version.

Another way to think about a media platform is according to the affordances the medium allows. So the text heavy versions of newspaper earlier in the 20th century relied on primarily temporal modalities. This happened after that. It was structured into ‘narrative’ as the primary modality for representing information. Hence, the importance within journalism for ‘stories’. A narrative-based story frames events of the world and imbues them with an ordered sense alongside other events. Now with the absolute dominance of the ‘screen’ there has been a shift to spatial modalities for representing information. An example is the emergence of database journalism and more generally the visual layout of information (this alongside that). The affordances of the ‘screen’ and spatial modalities have filtered back through print so now print layouts and designs follow cues from websites.

A third way to think about ‘media platform migration’ is in terms of they way digital content can now circulate across a number of screen-based interfaces from the computer screen, to tablets to mobile phones to proprietary ‘walled garden’ networks such as those found in social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). For example, are the rituals and habits of consuming youtube videos on one’s phone the same as watching them through Facebook on a browser on a desktop computer?

A fourth way to think about ‘media platform migration’ is probably closer to the sense imagined in the inquiry’s terms of reference and that is in terms of specific forms of media content undergoing a process of migration from the way it is been distributed for the last 50-60 years through mass media (print and broadcast TV & radio) to the way it circulates now primarily as digital content and ‘online’. But content can not (or should not) be isolated from the specific context where it was produced, how it is circulated and the character of its consumption. I’d be very wary of any kind of essentialised conception of a specific form of media content, such as ‘news’, as it does not take into account the broader context and assemblages that make such content possible. There is no point taking an essentialised view of ‘news’, for example, as it operated in newspapers without understanding the relation between the professional practices that produced this form of media content and the material conditions of production that made it possible. Here I mean banal things like advertising, management structures, established forms of distribution, different forms of social capital that make the media content worth engaging with (‘reputation’, ‘trustworthiness’, etc) and so on.

The ‘current media codes of practice’ again requires some unpacking. Jonathan Holmes explains some of the complexities on the ABC’s Drum site by tracing the patchwork of medium-specific codes of practice and the instutional bodies that oversee or enforce them. As the first entry in the terms of reference specifically mentions the migration from print to online it would seem that the current regulatory body primarily, but not only, for print, the Australian Press Council, is the focus. The APC offers an extract from the Chair’s Foreword to the Council’s 2009-10 Annual Report as indicative of where they see the Council going in a section titled ‘Responding to the Internet’.

It is worth noting that the report states that Council’s existing jurisdiction includes both print and ‘on-line’ publications of its members. It broadly describes the challenges posed to the ‘practical effectiveness of the standards’ by online publishing and the migration of print to online content and (importantly) the changing character of new-based media enterprises. I have summarised these below:

1. Newspapers are in effect becoming multi-media enterprises
2. Two tendencies emerge. a) Greater range of information and opinion that can be disseminated more widely and ‘economically’ [which I think means ‘cheaply’]. b) New opportunities and rate of publication can adversely affect accuracy and quality [of journalistic content?].
3. The same standards are not being applied to online content as that of print. (Evidenced by complaints being received by the Council.)
4. “The rapidly growing convergence across media platforms should be accompanied by an appropriate degree of convergence [not uniformity] between the standards and processes of the Council and other media regulators.”

It seems that the first entry in the terms of reference is tailored towards helping the APC work towards maximising the ‘practical effectiveness’ of its own standards in the ways it has already defined, even without necessarily getting to the third entry in the terms of reference that specifically refers to the APC. For future reference, the APC’s General Statement of Principles has a footnoted definition of ‘public interest’ which is relevant for unpacking the fourth entry in the terms of reference.