UQ graduate and journalist Andrew Kidd Fraser reflects on his long career in print and sheds light on what he believes we can expect for the future of print media.
I am now in my 60s and, should I ever become a grandfather, it occurred to me that I would have trouble explaining to my not-yet-born grandchildren exactly what it was I did for a living.
Because, for several decades, I was a journalist who wrote for daily newspapers. That meant filing stories every afternoon, which would then appear in the newspaper the next day. Then I’d go and do it again.
Andrew Kidd Fraser.
But this form of receiving news is going the way of the dodo and dinosaur. Daily newspapers are on the way out. In most of regional Queensland, and regional Australia for that matter, once-proud mastheads are now mostly already down to a website. Despite the odd brave new publication such as the Warrego Watchman, it’s hard to see anything but a downward trend for newspapers.
My subscription for The Australian, a newspaper where I worked for 15 years, is possibly the way of the future – I have access to a website Monday to Friday and, on Saturday, I get a real newspaper delivered. I know The Australian publishes (we were big on the active voice in The Australian) Monday to Friday, but I suspect this will follow the trend of regional newspapers and eventually become a website with an actual newspaper on Saturday.
But in many ways this emphasis on the way news is delivered overlooks the greater change, which is the actual content of the news itself.
What appears now as 'news' is quite different from what appeared for years in daily newspapers.
On daily newspapers, we would look at a situation or event, talk to the people involved, and then summarise the situation. 'Both sides of the story' was a mantra banged into young journalists throughout most of last century. We were counselled heavily against pushing any particular line. The emphasis was on finding something new happening and then following through on how, what, where, why and who. Any finger-pointing or allocation of blame was generally left to editorials or columnists.
“No-one cares about your precious little opinion”, a variety of crusty old sub-editors would yell at us youngsters.
But opinion is now being presented as news. But it is not news based on fact. It is increasingly calculated to get an emotional response. The connection that is sought by new media practitioners – not necessarily the individual journalists but the management of increasingly centralised operations – is with the heart rather than the head.
The emphasis is on reinforcing the readers point of view rather than giving them information.
There is a simple reason for this, because with new media, an audience is measured not by its size but by the number of hits a website receives.
And the easiest way to get a hit is not to write a well-reasoned and balanced article, but to write something which outrages the reader one way or the other.
So, the bigger imperative is to get the reader to actually like the story, not give them information from which they can make up their own mind.
What is often referred to as the 'culture wars' – although to be fair, it’s more on the right rather than the left – is really a shorthand way of taking sides. It’s like barracking for a football team – my side right, your side wrong, and no examination of the merits of one case or the other.
Take the coverage of the coronavirus. The Australian, with its largely conservative readership, has been a vehement critic of Victorian Premier Dan Andrews, who is regularly labelled as 'Chairman Dan' or 'Dictator Dan'. In these pages, Andrews is solely to blame for the situation in Victoria careering out of control.
In these pages, the criticism of Andrews is considerably muted, and other factors such as the Australian Government’s management of aged care homes (where many of the deaths from coronavirus in Victoria have occurred) are introduced.
Facebook, where many younger people in particular get their news, also reinforces people’s existing beliefs. If, for example, a Facebook reader is sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement and clicks on articles related to that, their social media feed will be completely different to those who follow, say, Donald Trump.
Twitter has also become a news source for many people – Trump claims to have 100 million followers on Twitter, although there are some claims that 80 per cent of them are robots. But even if they are, 20 million is still a substantial audience. Yet Twitter drives clicks, and Twitter, with its limit of 280 characters, is by definition not going to be a source of well-researched and impartial news of the type of which newspapers of the past prided themselves. Twitter seeks a purely emotional reaction, now. Donald Trump understands that.
An example of the way Twitter drives news comes yet again from America. In 2017, The New York Times hired a woman called Bari Weiss as a columnist, who had a background as a conservative writer, in what the newspaper described as an “effort to broaden the ideological range of its opinion staff after President Trump’s inauguration”. Yet she resigned earlier this year and, in a letter posted on her personal website, said “intellectual curiosity” was “now a liability at The Times.”
The issue was that Weiss, regardless of her standing in broader America, was offside with The New York Times progressive and liberal readership. She was regularly savaged online. As she said, “Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor.”
But talking about Facebook and Twitter is also a reminder that new technology is throwing up new forms of information distribution, which have little relationship to new media or the electronic versions of old media.
Focussing on what’s happened in the past few months of coronavirus, the websites of State Health Departments are recording far higher hits than before the pandemic, while non-media websites such as the John Hopkins University in the US have become a major source of information.
The John Hopkins site is probably the most authoritative internationally, while within Australia, there have also been freelance data 'pop-ups' like the COVID Live site. None of these could be called media in any definition, past how people get information. And the largely statistical information provided on these websites inspires more confidence among some consumers, who are increasingly wary of the polarisation of news I’ve described above in the electronic versions of old media.
In all this, it would be tempting to declare old media dead, but it’s not.
Alongside the staggeringly awful, nasty, ill-informed, and deliberately false information, there has been some wonderful journalism through the COVID-19 crisis, making sense of the broader trends around the world throughout the pandemic. For me, the highlight was Wade Davis's The Unravelling of America in Rolling Stone (among other things, it noted that what had been the world’s foremost manufacturing country was now reduced to importing face masks from China as the pandemic hit), but there are lots of other examples.
I put in this trend to give some hope to journalism students. Given that this article will appear in a university publication, let me assure them that there will be jobs for them after they graduate. But they’re not going to be in journalism, or at least, journalism as it once was practiced.
Their future work will either be on a specialist website or the new media website of what is old media, in which they toe the company line or will reach for the heartstrings and seek that emotional response, rather than providing disinterested and accurate information. It’s the way of the future, and it’s happening, but just for a second, we can mourn what’s been lost.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The University of Queensland.
This is the second instalment of 'The Future of News Media' series. Keep checking the Contact website as we continue to explore the future of news media.