Senate media inquiry must broaden scope to be relevant

Parliament House Canberra
Parliament House Canberra

By Nathan Clarke

Fake news, Facebook and Fairfax. That trinity forms the core of the Australian Senate inquiry into the future of journalism. But, unless Australia’s politicians widen their scope they risk missing the story; the rise of new corporate content creators and the challenge they provide for the country’s traditional news organisations.

A lot has happened since 2011 – the last time we had a politically-led 70-696 inquiry into media in Australia. Back then, it was the Gillard Government that said it wanted to consider the influence of media ‘in the digital age’. Fast forward six years, and we’ve had the UK phone hackings, the growth of Wikileaks, the spread and increased use of social media as a news source, two US elections and the proliferation of fake news.

Which brings us to the May 2017 inquiry. This time, the Select Committee intends to focus on fake news, Facebook and Fairfax. And while these issues are important and interesting – they miss the main game and prove that politicians really aren’t the best people to lead this inquiry.

Because to most politicians, fake news is a term used to describe stories they don’t like, journalism means coffees at Aussies café in Parliament House, and journalists are the people who live and breathe politics, have a byline in a newspaper, and never leave the press gallery – unless it’s to go to the pub.

But, as we know, that’s not all there is to journalism. And it’s certainly not all there is to public interest journalism.

What’s missing from the inquiry committee line-up, is media industry credentials and an understanding of the fast-evolving communication landscape in this country. Particularly, an understanding of the wide-reaching reforms to media, such as the fundamental changes in the supply and creation of content. Because, while traditional newsrooms are shrinking, sources of content are expanding.

The most obvious reason for this is that the revenue that sustained traditional journalism year on year is now going elsewhere. As reported in The Australian recently, Google and Facebook alone are earning about 85 per cent of all new digital advertising revenue. As a result, more than 2,500 journalists have been laid off by Australia’s media companies since 2011, about a quarter of the total.

Third party content creators however, once considered the retirement home of journalists looking for more money and less stress, have become premier story breakers and newsmakers in their own right. How, exactly, they can be enabled and incentivised to serve the public interest should be central to any inquiry into modern-day journalism.

Take for example the rise of the AFL Media newsroom. With 35 staff in the editorial team, there are more footy reporters at the AFL than the Herald Sun and The Age combined. As Matt Pinkney, head of content at AFL said recently, the AFL is disrupting traditional news models and pioneering a new form of journalism.

It’s something sport fans all around the country are getting used to, with other sporting bodies including NRL, Cricket Australia and the racing industry following the AFL’s footsteps and establishing their own internal editorial teams.

“Because, while traditional newsrooms are shrinking, sources of content are expanding.”

And then there’s corporate Australia. ANZ has developed BlueNotes – a home to insight-led news, research, opinion and analysis on a range of issues that’s 700-505 aimed to be published with editorial objectivity.

The content on BlueNotes comes in the form of articles, video, photography and infographics, much like a news outlet’s website. And a wide range of people are subscribing, from analysts to public policy wonks and even journalists themselves. It’s not uncommon to see traditional finance media write stories sourced from BlueNotes.

If there’s any concern about corporate publishing like this passing a public interest sniff test, we need only turn to our respected journalistic institutions for a barometer check.

At the March Melbourne Press Club Quill Awards, RACV Royal Auto Magazine won the 2016 TAC Towards Zero Road Safety Quill for ‘Impact – Victoria’s Hidden Road Toll’. The corporate publication, along with its digital and social channels, beat traditional TV and print journalists to win the prestigious award.

Given we’re unlikely to replace this existing inquiry with an independent one, or indeed interrupt it with updated terms of reference, it’s important the senators involved consider the prominence of the new content creators and how they can be harnessed to serve the public interest.

Without this focus, a significant portion of the modern media landscape will be neglected, the hearings will lack relevance and the senators involved will offer nothing but lip-service to the cause of public interest journalism.