Monday, August 13, 2007

Journalism Matters: Saturday Afternoon

Over the weekend I attended the Journalism Matters conference in Wellington. The conference brought together journalists, academics, journalism educators and corporate representatives, and was organised by the EPMU to debate the state of New Zealand's news media and what can be done to improve it". Here's a rundown of the Saturday afternoon session.

Disclosure: I was invited to cover the conference by the EPMU.

The first hour after lunch was occupied with a workshop on the morning sessions, with the conference splitting into three groups to discuss the issues raised. The group I ended up in focused on wages and conditions and the decline of journalism as a profession, which pretty much put me off any thoughts I may have had about pursuing journalism as a career. Here's some of the nasty facts:

  • 20 years ago, a journalist could be hired out of high school on a salary of $32,000 plus overtime (or ~$40 K all up). Today, you generally need a degree or journalism qualification, and the starting salary at APN and the Herald is $28,000. Overtime disappeared with the Employment Contracts Act in 1991.
  • Freelancers are even more poorly paid, with a maximum rate of around 40 cents a word. Some publications offer as little as 10 cents a word. It is estimated that they need to pay 85 cents a word for professional freelancers to earn a salary of $60,000.
  • Salaries are tightly capped. After 10 years as a professional journalist, you might be making $40,000 a year. $60,000 seems to be the absolute upper limit.
  • Wages at the Herald have failed to keep pace with inflation over the past 25 years.
  • Because they are poorly unionised, journalists have no real way of fixing this.

As a result, the profession haemorrhages experienced staff, and has an enormous churn amongst the young journalists hired to replace them. As a profession, it's just not economically sustainable - just like nursing or teaching were until a few years ago.

(Apparently other workshops discussed the rise of citizen journalists and the expected future of the New Zealand media. They sounded a lot less depressing).

The workshop / bitch session was followed by a speech from Chris Warren, former president of the International Federation of Journalists, on the international perspective and consolidation of media ownership. Warren talked about a crisis in press freedom caused by the "war on terror", a crisis in safety as journalists struggle to cover it, and a crisis in the way journalists work as large media companies seek to increase profits by cutting costs and screwing their workers. He also discussed the changes in media ownership laws in Australia, which have seen ownership concentrated in fewer and fewer hands with a consequent loss of diversity of opinion. He also talked a little about how the internet was challenging newspapers, shrinking ad revenues while at the same time demanding more and more frequently updated content.

There were some interesting points made in the discussion about the different audiences for print and internet news. Apparently there's only a 20% overlap in readership between the two in Australia - so only 20% of people who read the Sydney Morning Herald will read it both in print and online. The online audience is quite different ("more downmarket"), and so you see quite different story selection and placement between the print and online editions. There was also some discussion of the role of strong unions in preserving journalists' pay and conditions in Australia - collective bargaining has delivered real wage increases of more than 25% since 1992. However, this is now under threat due to the Howard government's ECA-style "WorkChoices". Finally, it was pointed out that our new Evidence Act actually includes a presumption about the confidentiality of journalists' sources, which again runs counter to international trends.

Next was a panel discussion and forum on Journalistic Ethics. This was wide-ranging, with a fairly large number of speakers. Firstly, Tony Wilton (former secretary of the New Zealand Journalists Union) talked about how the EPMU actually has a journalist's code of ethics in its bylaws, and the struggle to get it recognised by employers (they were initially keen, apart from of course the clause about not allowing advertising of commercial considerations to influence things, but it all went out the window with the ECA in 1991). This was followed by the University of Canterbury’s Jim Tully asking "who is the journalist in the 21st century"? Journalism differs from other professions such as law or medicine in that it has been unable to close itself to outsiders. "Journalist" covers a broad range of people from employee-journalists to contractual journalists (freelancers) to citizen journalists (bloggers) to co-opted experts such as political or sports commentators. And all of these roles can overlap. The upshot is that it is impossible to "close" the profession, which in turn makes it impossible to enforce any professional code of ethics.

Freelance journalist Amanda Cropp was next, discussing the ethical problems posed by the PR industry. She cited a story on MediaWatch [audio] last week talking about the massive increase in government PR flacks, and how many freelance journalists do PR work as an extra way of making a living. She had some horror stories about freelancers who mixed their work and who seemed utterly blind to the ethical problems in, e.g. charging PR clients a "placement fee" for being mentioned in a story done under contract for a magazine, or writing press releases for the same people you report on. Not that some of the magazine editors were much better. This breakdown of barriers between PR and journalism poses a threat to journalists' credibility.

Finally, Dominion-Post reporter and Parliamentary press gallery chairperson Vernon Small gave an entertaining talk on "mapping the crossroads between new media and ethics" and where the profession was headed. Like Judy Macgregor before him, he was pretty scathing of the blogosphere, calling bloggers "biased and unfair" and saying that they were way out on the fringes of the media solar system. He pointed out that the convergence of text, audio and video content on the web posed new problems for regulators - traditional newspapers were now putting audio and video on their websites, and had in a sense "leaped the fence" while leaving their regulators behind. He questioned whether we should expect the same rules to apply to new media like the web or cable TV (characterised by being "pull" or "on demand") as older, "push" or broadcast mediums, but also claimed that if we had different rules, it would undermine the entire system. As for a solution, he took his pointers from the web and argued for "more speech, not less" - letting people decide for themselves, perhaps aided by some voluntary labelling scheme which would mark news stories as having been produced by "ethical journalism". Journalistic standards of fairness, accuracy and balance are journalists' point of difference.

There was some quite interesting discussion on this, including a strong debate on the merits of in-house vs. external codes of ethics, and some points about the isolation of freelancers from journalistic norms (50% of them have no journalism training; 50% have been working in the industry for less than 5 years). There was a very interesting question raised by a journalist from Auckland's Chinese Herald, who pointed out that there was a lot of misleading coverage of Asian New Zealanders in the media and that this led directly to racist attacks. He wanted to know why this was tolerated, and what he could say to his readers (and listeners, since he also ran a radio show) about what New Zealand journalists were going to do about it. He didn't get an answer, with the (almost entirely Pakeha) gathering distracting themselves into the safer topic of Debbie Gerbich instead.

The discussion also saw an explanation from Audrey Young on her John Key post (apparently, the title was added by her sub-editor). Young argued that "one of the best ways we can ensure journalistic standards in blogging is for more of us to do it". Vernon Small argued that the blogosphere's "rush to instant opinion" invited trouble in the form of errors born of swift judgement (something I'll ruefully admit to); he thought journalism had a requirement for considered opinion. Chris Warren chipped in with some very interesting points about blogging culture: the problem he thought isn't that bloggers are acting unethically as journalists - the problem is that blogging is fundamentally contemptuous of journalism. We've seen the development of a key communications technology which is fundamentally contemptuous of journalism, with that contempt being driven in part by a belief that journalists are not living up to their own standards. However, he also argued that journalists have "terrible glass jaws" and were perhaps excessively sensitive to criticisms from bloggers.

I was actually hoping to interview Vernon Small about his views on blogging (I think he's right, but I'm also interested in how he thinks we can improve what we're doing), but once I'd introduced myself he ignored me like I was shit on the bottom of his shoe. When I did manage to corner him, I was given the impression that I'd be able to interview him on the Sunday. Unfortunately he didn't show, so I didn't get the chance. Maybe I'll just have to politely bother him by email instead...

I'll have more on the Sunday sessions later.