‘Most exciting era ever’ keeps newspaper pages turning

Opinion

Video: sebra/Adobe Stock

Video: sebra/Adobe Stock

The Courier-Mail editor and UQ graduate Chris Jones (pictured) says despite drastic changes to newspaper newsrooms in recent years, they have helped journalists to better serve their audiences. He shares his views on why the future is bright for current journalism students.


A recent opinion piece for Contact argues that the future of the print news media is bleak; that today’s university students will either find themselves working on a specialist website “or the new media website of what is old media, in which they toe the company line… rather than providing disinterested and accurate information”. I couldn't disagree more.

The author of the opinion piece, Andrew Kidd Fraser, is absolutely correct when he says the newsrooms of today are different to the ones in which he spent several decades working. As in every other profession, the past 20 years have brought almost unthinkable change to every single part of our business. We have, after all, just lived through the third industrial revolution – a revolution every bit as disruptive as the first, but one that has upended the world in a quarter of the time it took the machine to replace the craftsman.

Yet I believe the digital revolution has enhanced, not undermined, the opportunities for our craft. We are on the cusp of arguably the most exciting era ever for storytelling – one that I see will provide a rich and deeply rewarding career for today’s journalism students.

I started at The Courier-Mail as a cadet in 1998, while in my second year of studying journalism at UQ. I walked into a massive newsroom that housed easily 300 journalists (more if you included the Sunday Mail’s separate operation), all funded by a monopoly on the classified advertising “rivers of gold” – a cash cow that even then had not reached its peak.

There were many differences to today’s newsroom. The internet, for example, was something you booked a 15-minute slot in the newsroom’s library to use. As a reporter, you were expected to file just once a day – in the evening. Your story would be sent to a backbench of experienced journalists who would copy-taste it before sending it on to a small army of subeditors, where it was subbed and then checked before being returned to the backbench and night editor for final sign-off. There was even a full-time subeditor employed just to look after page one!

More than two decades on and those rivers of gold have dried up, forever. Today, The Courier-Mail must operate as any other business, monitoring our balance sheet carefully and making tough decisions about what we stop doing and what we start doing.


We have had to adapt to the challenges of today and the future. And if I’m being frank, it has been a good thing. It has made us engage with our audiences more than at any other time in history, to understand what they want to know and to listen to them – giving a voice also to those in society who need a vibrant, modern media to champion them when injustices are done.

Journalists today are driven by the same impulses any reporter from any period would understand. But today our storytelling now happens in real time, across multiple channels that are constantly evolving. My colleague Hedley Thomas, who is a little bit older and greyer than me, started many years ago in Queensland bashing out his stories on a keyboard. He is today’s premier news investigative podcaster. And he’s not alone in that transformation. Reporters are now telling their stories straight to video for us on web, apps and Instagram.

These are stories told with an immediacy unimaginable in the not-so-distant past, reaching growing audiences of Queenslanders and being accessed by them when, and how, they want to receive their news. This is a time when journalism for the consumer has never been more important.

The newsroom I am privileged to lead remains the biggest in the state, home to about 150 journalists. We have streamlined production to focus our priorities on our frontline reporting staff – journalists who investigate and break the stories that really do matter in Queensland. But the professional checks and balances of trusted journalism continue. Every story we publish goes through a rigorous process of scrutiny by experienced journalists. Lively news conferences where stories are pitched and challenged are now held three times a day. We still expect our reporters to develop contacts so they can break exclusive stories, as well as covering the news of the day in their round. But instead of a single daily deadline, we now ask our reporters to file through the day, to ‘build’ their own stories for digital publishing, and to ‘seed’ those stories into social networks. Despite these additional pressures, the team I lead breaks the vast majority of the big stories in the state in real-time – and sets the agenda every morning, whether on our front page or homepage, delivered to your front door, your mobile phone or tablet. It’s a remarkable story of successful change. Newsrooms are adapting to the challenges of the new media age.

An image of The Courier-Mail editor Chris Jones.

The Courier-Mail editor and UQ graduate Chris Jones says despite drastic changes to newspaper newsrooms in recent years, they have helped journalists to better serve their audiences. He shares his views on why the future is bright for current journalism students.


A recent opinion piece for Contact argues that the future of the print news media is bleak; that today’s university students will either find themselves working on a specialist website “or the new media website of what is old media, in which they toe the company line… rather than providing disinterested and accurate information”. I couldn't disagree more.

The author of the opinion piece, Andrew Kidd Fraser, is absolutely correct when he says the newsrooms of today are different to the ones in which he spent several decades working. As in every other profession, the past 20 years have brought almost unthinkable change to every single part of our business. We have, after all, just lived through the third industrial revolution – a revolution every bit as disruptive as the first, but one that has upended the world in a quarter of the time it took the machine to replace the craftsman.

Yet I believe the digital revolution has enhanced, not undermined, the opportunities for our craft. We are on the cusp of arguably the most exciting era ever for storytelling – one that I see will provide a rich and deeply rewarding career for today’s journalism students.

An image of The Courier Mail editor and UQ graduate Chris Jones.

The Courier Mail editor and UQ graduate Chris Jones.

The Courier Mail editor and UQ graduate Chris Jones.

I started at The Courier-Mail as a cadet in 1998, while in my second year of studying journalism at UQ. I walked into a massive newsroom that housed easily 300 journalists (more if you included the Sunday Mail’s separate operation), all funded by a monopoly on the classified advertising “rivers of gold” – a cash cow that even then had not reached its peak.

There were many differences to today’s newsroom. The internet, for example, was something you booked a 15-minute slot in the newsroom’s library to use. As a reporter, you were expected to file just once a day – in the evening. Your story would be sent to a backbench of experienced journalists who would copy-taste it before sending it on to a small army of subeditors, where it was subbed and then checked before being returned to the backbench and night editor for final sign-off. There was even a full-time subeditor employed just to look after page one!

More than two decades on and those rivers of gold have dried up, forever. Today, The Courier-Mail must operate as any other business, monitoring our balance sheet carefully and making tough decisions about what we stop doing and what we start doing.


We have had to adapt to the challenges of today and the future. And if I’m being frank, it has been a good thing. It has made us engage with our audiences more than at any other time in history, to understand what they want to know and to listen to them – giving a voice also to those in society who need a vibrant, modern media to champion them when injustices are done.

Journalists today are driven by the same impulses any reporter from any period would understand. But today our storytelling now happens in real time, across multiple channels that are constantly evolving. My colleague Hedley Thomas, who is a little bit older and greyer than me, started many years ago in Queensland bashing out his stories on a keyboard. He is today’s premier news investigative podcaster. And he’s not alone in that transformation. Reporters are now telling their stories straight to video for us on web, apps and Instagram.

These are stories told with an immediacy unimaginable in the not-so-distant past, reaching growing audiences of Queenslanders and being accessed by them when, and how, they want to receive their news. This is a time when journalism for the consumer has never been more important.

The newsroom I am privileged to lead remains the biggest in the state, home to about 150 journalists. We have streamlined production to focus our priorities on our frontline reporting staff – journalists who investigate and break the stories that really do matter in Queensland. But the professional checks and balances of trusted journalism continue. Every story we publish goes through a rigorous process of scrutiny by experienced journalists. Lively news conferences where stories are pitched and challenged are now held three times a day. We still expect our reporters to develop contacts so they can break exclusive stories, as well as covering the news of the day in their round. But instead of a single daily deadline, we now ask our reporters to file through the day, to ‘build’ their own stories for digital publishing, and to ‘seed’ those stories into social networks. Despite these additional pressures, the team I lead breaks the vast majority of the big stories in the state in real-time – and sets the agenda every morning, whether on our front page or homepage, delivered to your front door, your mobile phone or tablet. It’s a remarkable story of successful change. Newsrooms are adapting to the challenges of the new media age.

An image of someone reading the news on an iPad.

Image: Andrey Popov/Adobe Stock

Image: Andrey Popov/Adobe Stock

Adapting to audience needs

It's important to acknowledge the grit today’s journalists have shown in adapting to the challenges of the new media age. Fraser says in his recent article that “what appears now as ‘news’ is quite different from what appeared for years in daily newspapers”, a claim I believe is unsubstantiated. Nor is there any evidence that reporters of today have stopped “finding something new happening and then following through on how, what, where, why and who”. Any suggestion that newsroom leaders have ceased demanding that young reporters present both sides of the story is baseless.

The way social media algorithms are wired to reinforce political views do pose very real dangers to our democracy. It is no coincidence that the marked increase in accusations of bias against traditional – dare I say it – ‘mainstream’ media sources in recent times has coincided with those algorithms fuelling an increasingly polarised political discourse. But professional journalism is not the enemy of balanced news. In a world where everyone is now a publisher, traditional newsrooms actually protect balance.

As journalists, our job has always been to call it as we see it – without apology. This inevitably means we are usually upsetting someone. But this isn’t new. It’s an occupational hazard. Always has been. As the old joke goes, journalism is a tough job with insane pressure and pretty crappy pay… on the other hand, everybody hates you.

Inevitably some readers will dislike views contrary to their own, or particular stories we publish. People will also question the decisions editors make. They always have, because newspaper editing is a subjective science. I learnt that when studying David Manning White’s 1950s research on newsroom gatekeepers while in my first year at UQ. But many readers also place the highest value on what we do, the campaigns we run, the bad or unfair laws we help change, and our willingness to represent and advocate for our communities without fear or favour.

In many respects, it is our readers who are the key beneficiaries of the traditional business model of the newspaper industry, having been so disrupted and severely challenged by the digital revolution. That disruption has forced us to stop putting out newspapers for the amusement of other journalists, and instead relentlessly focus on our audience. Consequently, the ‘dull but worthy’ stories of past eras have been replaced today with far more interesting versions of those same worthy news events. Yes, we need to always avoid the temptation of clickbait and protect at all cost every journalist’s inbuilt desire to deliver on the higher purpose side of our craft. But focusing on our customers has not made us worse. I believe it has made us better. Our newspapers are livelier. Our websites are more engaging.

The new model that's emerged – one which is increasingly built on digital subscriptions – remains true to journalism's past but in no way is it a prisoner to it. Fraser says he believes “possibly the way of the future” is a digital subscription to your trusted masthead’s website and then an actual newspaper on the weekend. Perhaps he is right. At The Courier-Mail we do now have more than 90,000 paid-up digital subscribers. That was up 21 per cent in 2020 – a customer growth rate that any business would be proud of.

Extra, extra! Newspapers aren't dead

But, to me, the claim that “it’s hard to see anything but a downward trend for newspapers” suggests the true value of a newspaper is the paper it's printed on, rather than the news it publishes. This is, however, a challenge. Daily print sales have indeed declined dramatically over the past decade, and many of Queensland’s regional and community mastheads are, as a result, now digital-only publications. However, something remarkable has happened in the past few months: a massive news year has put a brake on the decline in print sales in most Australian markets. This change has been so marked in Queensland that we will sell, through our retail channels at least, more copies of The Courier-Mail today than we did on the same day last year. Our print audience is growing. The latest official survey found that readership of the Sunday Mail print edition was up 5.2 per cent year-on-year to September 2020. Readership of The Courier-Mail on weekdays also edged up, by 1.1 per cent. These are remarkable and unexpected results that prove the resilience of trusted masthead brands.

And so, the purpose of me penning this piece is to reassure today’s journalism students that our industry is not dead at all, nor on its last legs. While the job has certainly changed in the past two decades, the core tenet of our craft has not: to always seek to tell the truth.

Journalism, in my view, also remains the best job in the world. Being an up-close witness to history is a privilege that few, if any, other careers can offer. The variety of the job, the rush of an exclusive, the camaraderie of the newsroom – these are the best parts of journalism that will never be lost no matter how much the world changes.

Fraser says he expects to have trouble explaining to his not-yet-born grandchildren exactly what it was he did for a living. Personally, I can’t wait to see them follow in our footsteps – there are few jobs more fulfilling and also fun than being a storyteller.

To those studying journalism at UQ, I look forward to seeing many of you join our fine craft and my newsroom – and for you to share with me the rewarding honour of serving and informing your local community every day.


Chris Jones is a UQ graduate (Bachelor of Arts ’00) and the editor of The Courier-Mail. He was a state and federal political reporter for the masthead before editing the commuter paper mX in 2008 and couriermail.com.au between 2009 and 2012. He was appointed deputy editor of The Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail in 2013 before moving to Hobart to edit the Mercury in 2017, returning home to Queensland in January 2020.

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.

Image: Sunny studio/Adobe Stock

An image of a young boy spruiking newspapers

Extra, extra! Newspapers aren't dead

But, to me, the claim that “it’s hard to see anything but a downward trend for newspapers” suggests the true value of a newspaper is the paper it's printed on, rather than the news it publishes. This is, however, a challenge. Daily print sales have indeed declined dramatically over the past decade, and many of Queensland’s regional and community mastheads are, as a result, now digital-only publications. However, something remarkable has happened in the past few months: a massive news year has put a brake on the decline in print sales in most Australian markets. This change has been so marked in Queensland that we will sell, through our retail channels at least, more copies of The Courier-Mail today than we did on the same day last year. Our print audience is growing. The latest official survey found that readership of the Sunday Mail print edition was up 5.2 per cent year-on-year to September 2020. Readership of The Courier-Mail on weekdays also edged up, by 1.1 per cent. These are remarkable and unexpected results that prove the resilience of trusted masthead brands.

And so, the purpose of me penning this piece is to reassure today’s journalism students that our industry is not dead at all, nor on its last legs. While the job has certainly changed in the past two decades, the core tenet of our craft has not: to always seek to tell the truth.

Journalism, in my view, also remains the best job in the world. Being an up-close witness to history is a privilege that few, if any, other careers can offer. The variety of the job, the rush of an exclusive, the camaraderie of the newsroom – these are the best parts of journalism that will never be lost no matter how much the world changes.

Fraser says he expects to have trouble explaining to his not-yet-born grandchildren exactly what it was he did for a living. Personally, I can’t wait to see them follow in our footsteps – there are few jobs more fulfilling and also fun than being a storyteller.

To those studying journalism at UQ, I look forward to seeing many of you join our fine craft and my newsroom – and for you to share with me the rewarding honour of serving and informing your local community every day.


Chris Jones is a UQ graduate (Bachelor of Arts ’00) and the editor of The Courier-Mail. He was a state and federal political reporter for the masthead before editing the commuter paper mX in 2008 and couriermail.com.au between 2009 and 2012. He was appointed deputy editor of The Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail in 2013 before moving to Hobart to edit the Mercury in 2017, returning home to Queensland in January 2020.

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.

Image: Sunny studio/Adobe Stock

An image of a young boy spruiking newspapers.

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This year marks 100 years since UQ first began graduating journalism students. To celebrate the milestone, Contact will be publishing regular features this year tackling the major issues facing the industry today, while celebrating the success of UQ’s journalism students, graduates and the School of Communication and Arts. Keep checking the Contact website throughout the year to view these stories.