Holmes and Megalogenis, like most well known journalists, do not expect to confine their journalism to a single medium. The lines between print, radio, TV and online have blurred as media professionals use their presence on various mediums to support and enhance their audience for the primary output.
The lines between serious journalism and entertainment have also blurred — being one no longer automatically prevents something from also being the other. Holmes says “we are definitely entertainment, its got be to a mix of entertainment and genuine criticism. If it’s not entertaining at least some of the time, it won’t hold its place in prime time television”. But this doesn’t detract from the serious purpose of Media Watch, “I do think it’s a really important program and I do think it has some important effects. Obviously I think that or I wouldn’t have spent five years of my life doing it”.
Holmes knows that Australian political Twitterati love Media Watch and he doesn’t underestimate the value of the Monday night line up on ABC, or how valuable Twitter has been in increasing the visibility of that line up. It’s a mystery as to why commercial networks haven’t yet tried to incorporate the live tweeting phenomenon into shows like Masterchef and The Voice, thereby increasing their appeal to advertisers, but the ABC has certainly laid out the path for that with #QandA and the concurrent uplift in the audience for its surrounding programs. (update: @FelicityMoore got in touch to point out that, in fact, The Voice did do exactly that, which was a salutory reminder of Megalogenis's point about the importance of fact checking. Thank you Felicity.)
As well as increasing the Media Watch audience, Holmes sees Twitter as an invaluable tool for obtaining feedback on what stories the audience are responding to. “I don’t think we rely on it but it gives some responses that we weren’t getting before, there were the very few people who would get onto the website and give us their thoughts, but it was a tiny number in comparison to the Twitter feed, which can very be instructive. Just the sheer volume of discussion can tell us something too.”
Megalogenis concurs: “…the bigger reason for you to be out there is to know your reader. That’s the first rule of journalism, to know your reader….(but) I do have to be wary of self selection; people who have access (to the internet) will warp the stats…they taught us the first day of cadet class at the Melbourne Sun, know your reader. You’re not writing for yourself.”
Most media and political professionals have some sense of how crucial it is to know your reader or to understand your electorate and, in the long history of mass communication, social media has provided the first opportunity for mass communication to go both ways. Where most senior politicians and corporate media types fall over here is that they think of voters and readers in terms of demographics, not individuals. They have to, the populations they deal with are too large and too diverse to understand any other way. But you can’t talk to demographics on social media. It’s a medium full of millions of small, personal interactions. The hoots, cackles and moans on Twitter may seem unintelligible from the outside, but the participants are fully engaged, they have an eagle eye for fakes and merciless derision for them when they’re found.
This is where individual journalists, particularly when they specialise in one particular field like economics, politics or entertainment can break the hordes down into smaller and more homogeneous groups. News services can provide information on social media and build a loyal following if they do it reliably, but two way communication requires a relationship and very few people can build that with large, unwieldy groups. This is where corporations are going to be forced to rely on individuals to build those relationships for them. Again, the ABC seems to have understood this better than the commercial organisations and encourages its most visible people to go and build that personal loyalty on Twitter, knowing this will also benefit the organisation. Holmes and Megalogenis both cited ABC staff like Annabel Crabb and Mark Colvin as examples of journalists who do very good work on Twitter.
Megalogenis, while acknowledging that three months is not really enough time to fully understand the impact that Twitter will have, is fully cognizant of the dangers of access to mass communication without having any experience or training in how to deal with it. He also gave some insight into why so many of the older journalists seem to be managing it better than the newer people:
“Tabloid training is a pretty cool way to learn journalism and I would still recommend it to anyone. They put you out there for the first couple of years — the traditional version of the old Melbourne Sun cadetship — they put you out there doing menial tasks to teach you accuracy, like the shipping news or the fruit and veg prices, caption writing and then, what appears to be the most menial of tasks, picture stories. Meeting people, coming back, writing for this one person, writing their little story, knowing they’ll pick up the phone if you’ve made a mistake, so you get exposed, almost the day you arrive on the reporting floor, to the privilege and the danger that comes with telling someone else’s story.”
“When I was a young print journalist I probably got carried away with some stories and they probably had some effect, and then what happens is that you see the unintended consequences of your reporting and you learn from that. I would hope that it’s not different in social media but the danger is that, simply because of the numbers of people you can get to so quickly and because there’s no filter it can cause damage. Reputational damage, or to bend an issue, so the government or the opposition moving a particular issue can’t actually get any air time at all.”
“Today of course, and here is where the trap is, someone who tried to do what I do now, but without the 20 something years of experience might be able to hop on Twitter quickly, get themselves a few thousand followers, get themselves noticed by the mainstream media and become a part of it. But then the inherent danger in that, especially if you haven’t had any calls, is that, if you get it wrong, your first call can be your last”.
He’s right of course; it would be very easy to get that first call wrong. Doing a good interview is not as effortless as Leigh Sales makes it look, especially if you don’t have experience or training in how to do it and how to write it up afterwards. But we didn’t get to talk about what would happen if, by chance, you didn’t get that first call wrong.
He says, as others have before him, “the privilege of a job in the media is the access, it opens all sorts of doors and I think Tim Dunlop has made this point, that there hasn’t been the same connection to the online community in Australia that there was in America, where the politicians feed that beast almost as much as the mainstream media beast. I still have the advantage over a blogger, which is that I can get to Julia Gillard and they can’t.”
This may have been true once, but while the assumption that it is true still exists, the facts don’t quite support it. Mia Freedman had access to the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader, based, one would assume on the size and loyalty of her audience. Greg Jericho interviewed a number of senior politicians for his soon to be released book on social media; he contacted all of them directly on Twitter and was granted access based on the credibility he had built up by producing a high quality political blog. The rest of the blogging work seems to still be working under the assumption that the lack of access myth is true and none of them, to the best of our knowledge, have actually tried to get an interview with the PM. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the online world ignored the access assumption and started trying to talk directly to politicians.
Megalogenis assumes that the reason he can get access to the Prime Minister is because of his role with The Australian. Were he to go out on his own, however, he would still very likely have the same access he has now, because of his reputation for what he describes as “first principle journalism”. He is reliable, trustworthy and credible and has spent years proving that. It’s not just his employer who gives him creditability, it’s his career. What his employers, past and present, have given him, that no blogger has, is twenty six years to build that reputation and creditability, to learn his craft, prevent him making mistakes and cover him when he made them anyway.
Blogging is too new a phenomenon to have any twenty six year veterans. Who knows what the blogosphere will look like by the time it does, but it is very likely that serious political bloggers like Greg Jericho, Paul Barratt, Scott Steel and Tim Dunlop, if they start slowly and proved their trustworthiness over time, could develop the sort of access mainstream journalists have now. This is no different to the path professional journalist have to take. No newbie journalist is going to get an interview with the Prime Minister in the first year or two of working, regardless of how credible their employer may be.
The thing that professional journalists have that bloggers have no way of accessing is corporate support. Individual journalists (and anyone at the ABC) don’t have to worry about profit, or at least they shouldn’t be. Megalogenis can and does judge the success of an article by the debate it raises and the quality rather than the quantity of the response he gets. Holmes judges the success of Media Watch by the level of counterweight it provides to the pressures on journalists to cut corners or indulge in unethical behaviour. They devote all their considerable experience and skills to these ends and do not have to concern themselves with maintaining servers, paying for bandwidth or with any of the costs that go into producing a print publication. They’ve also had decades of training from large organisations, where editors, sub-editors and senior journalists have provided support and mentoring as they learned their craft. Your average blogger, writing on the couch after work, can never access that kind of backing.
It’s easy to devalue the media corporate types: they’re pushing an agenda or kowtowing to advertisers or fudging distribution numbers or cutting jokes for fear of offending people or firing staff to cut costs. None of these things are admirable or inspirational the way altruistic journalists wearing out shoe leather in pursuit of truth and democracy are. But my small experience with trying to fund, edit and produce our little magazine has given me far more respect for them than I was wont to have. Good writing and professional quality media takes huge resources. Time and money are getting harder to find, experience and skill are required to help even very good writers produce their best work and avoid public stumbles.
Australia has some very accomplished bloggers, who are producing high quality work, but individuals will never be able to compete with the quality and experience corporate groups can pull together. New technology and the merging of journalistic mediums will inevitably change the way we produce and consume media - and the way we pay for it. But no one should be foolish enough to believe or hope that the corporate model of media production is over.
We covered a lot more in both interviews than I had time or space to do justice to here, so we're putting the transcripts of the interviews up for anyone who would like to read the full conversation. The Jonathan Holmes one is here. The the George Megalogenis one is here.