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No names rule in media jungle

14 Dec 2010

First Published on The Drum 14/12/2010

Here is the word cloud that will prick a thousand egos – and restore some reality to the debate about the future of the media.

In an era of celebrity journos building Twitter empires and media business models inspired by the porn industry, the truth is that very few members of the public have any idea who is writing or reporting their daily news.

That’s what Essential Research found while working with the Media Alliance’s Future of Journalism Project – when asked to name  a journalist, the vast majority of respondents could come up with only one name: ‘Don’t Know’.

Just sticking their head over the parapet are a few of the more senior members of the fraternity – Andrew Bolt whose Herald Sun rantings are now fodder for the Sydney Daily Telegraph as well; alongside Michelle Grattan and Laurie Oakes who have been around almost as long as QEII and the Duke.

But what this finding really pricks is the idea that the journalist as celebrity can be a model to base a future media economy around.

This is what I call the porn industry business model – base subscription around accessing exclusive content from your favourite ‘star’, who is housed behind a pay-wall, with a little bit of free eye candy to drum up interest (and build a marketing data base).

This is not how News Ltd would describe its pay-wall plan; nor is it how the ABC online team would describe their strategy; but stripped to its bones, this is how the media seems to be building engagement – make consumers want to follow personalities.

Journalists with the talent and imagination of Annabel Crabb, Leigh Sales and David Penberthy – three of the best Generation X media operators – have done everything by the online media book, publishing and opining over multiple platforms.

But if these findings are to be believed, they are just not on the radar. From our sample of 811 respondents Annabel received 11 mentions, Leigh and Penbo just one mention each. It’s not their fault.

It’s backed by another question we asked for the Alliance.

When you are reading an article or watching a news report do you take notice of who has written it?

Always 3%
Usually 16%
Sometimes 35%
Seldom 30%
Never 16%

What we are witnessing is the ultimate reality check for the Australian media – people want the news, not the people telling them news.

The finding is one of the key take-outs of Life in the Clickstream II the report we helped the Alliance produce, launched by Chris Warren last week on the day of the Walkely Awards, to mark the centenary of Journalists Unions in Australia.

The report is the first serious attempt in Australia to come to terms with the changing nature of the media – and what this means to working journalists and the public they inform.

Some of the other key findings are worth reflecting on.

Paywalls are no panacea: We asked the question and 91 per cent of the public said ‘go away, Rupert’. There is still a residual of 3 per cent who say they would be prepared to pay, but it’s a tiny fraction of the public. If this is the silver bullet, the target is a very small one.

More people aggregate content: More and more people get their news not from established online mastheads but from search engines; entering their areas of interest, playing the role of editor themselves. When you ask ‘Where do you get your news online?’ the top response is not ABC Online or SMH, it is search engines like Google and Yahoo. The old media power structures may market their stable of stars to hold an audience, but the audience is just skating across them and picking the content that interests them.

Newspapers are losing their foothold: Just a third of people now view reading a newspaper as part of their daily ritual. And it is an aging group of loyalists, 57 per cent of 30-to-39-year-olds say they rarely buy newspapers. And why would they, when it’s all online free?

Radio still relevant: The medium that appears most resilient to change is radio, in an era when information is fast and mobile we have stumbled on an old technology that ticks these boxes. Compared to newspapers, radio audience is holding firm, with higher levels of trust than the press.

Twitter is a closed conversation: For all its hype, the take-up rate of Twitter is still low – talking to some of the high-profile media tweeters and you get the sense they are still working out what to do with the networks they’ve worked so assiduously to build. That’s because 140 characters is a very limited medium.

Journos open to change but mugged by reality: The refreshing thing about the Alliance report is that journalists are not whinging – they are largely happy to try new ways of telling their stories – provided they are trained and there is recognition that multiple platforms take time. What they are saying though, is that the shift in news production is placing more and more pressure and that accuracy – which is one of the real strengths the traditional news media still enjoys.

Oh, and people don’t trust bloggers: Finally on issues of trust, columns like these don’t rate. But maybe that’s the point. The changes in the media allow more people like me to throw my ideas out there – and more readers (and trolls) to throw their’s back. It’s not traditional news, it’s not based on trust, but it seems to be engaging and a way of enriching the news experience.

The Alliance report is worth a read – I won’t canvass the recommendations here but it sees a role for government, the public broadcaster, commercial operators and working journalists in defending the industry and the profession.

But as this debate continues, the clear lesson is that, like most things in life, porn is not the answer.

– Peter Lewis: Director, EMC