Speakers: Stuart Baines (S), Katherine Murphy (K), Matthew Ricketson (M), Steve Lewis (SL), Mark Piva (MP)
S: "Newsrooms were these crazy universities, full of experts on the strangest things, people with real understanding and experience of things that mattered, places where you could ask anybody anything ‘though you might get your head bitten off if you interrupted someone on a deadline. You’ve also got company, noise, yahooing and jokes. I discovered I’m made for that kind of place." The words of David Marr, strangely sounds exactly like the National Library.
Good evening, everybody. Welcome to the National Library of Australia, particularly for you in the theatre with us tonight who have braved the cold. Thank you for coming along to this very special event, Upheaval: Disrupted Lives in Journalism. My name is Stuart Baines and I’m the Director of Community Engagement of the National Library of Australia.
I’d like to acknowledge Australia’s first nations people as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give my respects to their elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
We are thrilled to have you all here tonight for this conversation about Upheaval: Disrupted Lives in Journalism. Welcome to all the people watching on our stream or through our YouTube channel and I do not judge you for not braving the cold.
Upheaval was borne from the Australian Research Council project known as New Beats and brings together material from interviews with 57 journalists who with one exception experienced redundancy between 2012 and 2016. These whole of life interviews were recorded in association with the National Library and cover regional, rural and metropolitan journalists from radio, TV, online and print media.
To bring to life the work encapsulated in this book we have here tonight Matthew Ricketson, Katherine Murphy, Steve Lewis and Mark Piva. My introductions will be brief so we can get to the main event so apologies in advance to our panel tonight.
Matthew Ricketson is an academic and journalist. He’s Professor of Communication at Deakin University and has worked at The Age, The Australian and Times Australia among others. He along with Andrew Dodd edited Upheaval taking on the mammoth task of distilling the many hours of interviews which resulted in 4,885 pages of transcripts into a 360-page book.
Katherine Murphy has worked in Canberra’s Parliamentary press gallery since 1996 for The Australian Financial Review, The Australian, The Age before joining The Guardian Australia where she is Political Editor. She won the Paul Walkley Award for Excellence in Press Gallery Journalism in 2008 and in 2012. She was a Walkley Award finalist in the digital journalism category.
Steve Lewis who is joining us online tonight is a best-selling author and former senior journalist in the Canberra Press Gallery. He worked as a political reporter for The Australian Financial Review, The Australian and News Corp metro papers and is currently Senior Adviser at Newgate Communications. You might also recognise his name from the political thrillers he co-authored with Chris Uhlmann, two of which were adapted into the television program Secret City. Steve Lewis is one of the journalists who was interviewed for the project and is featured in Upheaval.
Mark Piva is the Assistant Director of Technical Acquisitions and Finance. He has worked in the Library’s Oral History section for a number of years and was one of the key team members who worked on the New Beats project.
Please join me in welcoming Matthew Ricketson, Katherine Murphy, Steve Lewis and Mark Piva for Upheaval: Disrupted Lives in Journalism.
K: Well thank you so much for that really kind and comprehensive introduction and also I’m really sorry just at a personal level to be looking at Steve Lewis on a screen rather than with us here at the Library but anyway that’s the COVID world, isn’t it? I’m very grateful that you’ve all come out this evening for this conversation about this really important book that my friend, Matthew, pulled together to basically document the experiences of journalism at a really interesting time.
Just so I can join some dots just so how we all know one another Matthew and I worked together at The Age and we’ve collaborated since with him being a proper academic and me periodically doing various things at the margins. Steve and I worked together in my first journalism job at The Australian Financial Review, we were in the Canberra Bureau together for a number of years and we also worked together at The Australian for a couple of years and we’ve served on the National Press Club Board at various times together as well so these two are very important associates of mine. Mark I don’t know but I will very much enjoy his insights into the conversation this evening.
So we’re just going to kick off. Obviously we got a general view about what Upheaval is about and the project around Upheaval but Matthew, why don’t you kick us off by taking people through the genesis of this particular project?
M: Sure. Thank you for that, Katherine, and yeah, it’s a real pleasure to be here tonight. We have been trying to hold this event for some time. Steve’s been cruelled by COVID but the launching of this project up here at the Library has also been cruelled by that beforehand.
Look, it’s actually – by coincidence it is actually 10 years ago this week that Fairfax Media as it was then known took what as far as we could see was the unprecedented step in its history of large-scale redundancies across the whole company, 1,900 jobs in all but that included lots of people other than journalists but it was about 20% of the journalistic workforce at Fairfax Media at the time and then two days later Kim Williams, the then Chief Executive of News Limited, as they were then known announced also very large redundancies – refused to say how many people were going but gradually that information has been pieced together over the years.
So it was a real shockwave in the media landscape at the time and only a few months before, media chiefs had been saying to everyone look, everything’s fine, we’re not going to suffer the same sorts of issues that are going on in England or in the United States, that our business model is fine until it wasn’t. We now know comprehensively that the business model was having significant problems. One of the ways the companies tried to deal with that was to engage in large-scale redundancies. Some people then decided to go happily, they were in their 60s, they were nearing retirement so they got a very nice big payout to leave. Other people were – people like Steve were right in the swing of their journalistic career and so they had a different kind of decision to make. Some people went off into public relations, some people went off and worked at universities, some people fell into a funk quite frankly and didn’t know what to do.
So myself and colleagues at a number of universities, Andrew Dodd who’s a co-editor of the book with me but Lawrie Zion at Latrobe Uni, Merryn Sherwood at Latrobe, Tim Marjoribanks at Swinburne and Penny O’Donnell at Sydney University, we all kind of serendipitously decided this was a project that needed to be done. So we started trying to work out what impact is this going to have on the people who were leaving journalism maybe ‘cause at that stage we didn’t know where they were going and what impact is this going to be having on the news media industry as a whole? We’ve spent now a number of years documenting that in a number of different ways, whether for academic articles or books like this or an academic monograph which looks at the more academic issues and looks at them in comparison with international events and so on.
So it’s been a big project over a number of years and even in that 10-year period things have changed enormously. We were trying to chart it as the kind of – well you’d be familiar with this problem – as the ground was kind of shifting underneath us so yes.
K: Steve, why did you – two questions, why did you choose to participate in this oral history project or why was it important to you to tell your story? Also perhaps for the folks here and watching on at home virtually why don’t you describe the journalism of your era?
SL: Thanks, Katherine, and I'm sorry I can’t be there tonight, I was very much looking forward to appearing but alas I got struck by COVID last Saturday after flying in from Europe so I’m here in Sydney at home. So I spent about 25 years in journalism, I came to it late. I was 28 years old when I was employed by Gerry Noonan who was the then Editor of The Financial Review as a cadet and I’d been to university, I went to UTS but started late. I think I was 26 years old and was flirting with a political career at the time but then stepped into journalism. So fast forward – so I spent 25 years in the business until I was made redundant.
I wasn’t part of that big wave of mass redundancies, mine was – in my case I was made redundant, I was working for News Corp at the time and I had a senior political reporting role in the Canberra Press Gallery as you recall, working for the group, all the tabloids but I was – in a sense I was a victim of the internal News Corp politics because Kim Williams who you mentioned, Matthew, before, Kim had been brought in to run news but he fell foul of the News Corp editors who were incredibly powerful at the time, people like Chris Mitchell and Paul Whittaker and what Kim tried to do was to bring all of the various News Corp mastheads together and to consolidate them so instead of having 12 sports reporters across 12 mastheads you’d have a small group of say three or four who could report for various mastheads and I was part of that cohort. But when Kim left the company the editors basically got control back of their mastheads and so I was made redundant.
So it was a pretty wild ride for me, 25 years and when Matthew approached me – I can’t remember exactly when, Matthew, but several years later to participate in this I thought it was very good idea because in journalism I didn’t feel that I had a chance to really draw breath over those 25 years. When I left journalism in late 2013 I took a six-month sabbatical and it was a wonderful opportunity to breathe, to consider what I would do next. So this I thought was a good opportunity to reflect on my journalistic career but also the changes that I had seen over that 25 years from ’88 to 2013.
K: What – like obviously you’ve left the profession, Steve, but you’re still connected in terms of your work in communications and you obviously remain a keen observer of your former zone. What do you think are the principal differences between journalism as it’s practised now that we’ve really gone right through the internet transformation now and we’re almost entering another upswing which we could get into I think probably a bit later? But what are the differences, do you think?
SL: Yeah. I’m still very heavily involved in journalism. I mean Rosie, my daughter’s working for The Aus in the press gallery so she continues that tradition if you like. I spend far too much time on the phone each day talking to your colleagues in the press gallery, Katherine, about all sorts of things including in my job at Newgate.
So when you and I worked together, you joined The Fin in ’96, right? I got to Canberra in ’92, 1992 working for The Financial Review and for the first six, seven years in the Canberra press gallery I covered policy. I wasn’t a political reporter, I was a policy reporter and you remember that I covered communications policy, industry policy and transport policy etc. The biggest change between then and now in journalism is that we don’t have policy specialists. You used to have half a dozen health reporters or every bureau in Canberra had a defence reporter, education reporter, communications reporter and they would cover those particular policies and cover them forensically but now with very few exceptions you don’t have policy specialists.
The mastheads don’t have the resources unfortunately and the bureaus – I mean some of them are still significant, News Corp’s still got a significant bureau, not as big as it used to be, Guardian of course, I mean you’ve built up. Guardian’s one of the few success stories in journalism over the past decade or so but most of the big mastheads don't have the same resources.
So the biggest change is you don’t have the policy specialists that you used to have. The other really, really, really big change which I’ve noticed or which is clearly obvious is that the emergence of social media has changed journalism and it means now that journalists, just about all journalists have to built a brand around social media and I think that has had a huge impact on the quality, the quantity, the nature of journalism. I think – unfortunately I think far too many journalists spend their time building – working on their profile, their social media profile rather than doing the fundamentals and doing the fundamentals well. So I think the emergence of social media has had a huge impact. I mean it’s had a huge impact on society, right? Massive impact on the political landscape. It’s impacted on the capacity of us as a country, as a society to have nuanced, layered debates on just about any issue but it’s had a huge impact I think on journalism as a whole.
K: To Mark now. Obviously the Library has collaborated on this project, this really interesting project. It’s basically an oral history. Why did the Library consider that it was important really to record the histories of people like Steve and a number of others who are profiled obviously in the book?
MB: Yeah, no, thanks, Katherine. So in terms of what we do in the Library we have an oral history collection that dates back to the 1950s, we’ve been collecting since then. We have over 56,000 hours and we have the largest oral history collection in the world to do with the Australian people. So we’re always interested in looking at ways to expand that and to bring in more stories. I think this project is an excellent example of a really strong collaboration between the research group and us because it not only focuses on a specific time in social history of journalists but also it covers many other important themes such as change and resilience across a group of people.
So with this we were able to assist in the recording of 60 interviews which means there's like 286 hours of content there and it’s really broad as Stuart indicated in the introduction, we’ve got a really wide range of people. It just meant that it was just such a valuable opportunity that we thought it was something that we should take up on.
K: We were talking about this before you lovely folks came in. I’m curious because to my mind the history of journalism is rolling history of technological disruption. If you think about our origins as radical pamphlets back in the early printing press days through the onset of mass market commercial journalism both in print, on television, another major disruption, radio, all these other mediums and then through to the internet. I’m curious about what it is about the internet-related disruption to our profession that warrants this level of study.
MB: Well I think we’ve been interviewing people from the journalism field for a while so we do have in our collection journalists as well as cartoonists and photographers, that sort of thing but I think it’s just this project because it does have that multidimensionality to it, it means that not only are we capturing an event but we’re also capturing a group of people as well. I think one of the things which is mentioned towards the back of the book is what we – the style that we do here of interviewing is called whole of life which is probably very different to the standard journalistic kind of approach in that when we talk to people or when we interview them although as in this case there is a specific focus that we’d like someone to talk about what we’d really like is them as a person.
We want to have a real insight into what made them the people they are and although you’ve made certain decisions or acted in certain ways, why? How? What is the view that meant you did come to that conclusion or made those decisions? The beauty of this collection and using whole of life interviewing techniques with this is that not only do we have an incredibly rich collection to do with this event, it also means that we have now narratives that can be woven amongst all the other narratives within the collection so that way if you’re researching or even listening you can weave common threads thorough the entire collection.
In terms of the reason why this was important too is along with being approached so in terms of collaborations like this what will happen is the research group will come to us and there's a really great complementary arrangement where you're providing your expertise in being able to – because you’re leaders in the field of the knowledge you’re able to guide us in terms of people who should be interviewed and we can provide support in terms of well how’s that sample going to be constructed? How do we get proper representation because although we’d love to interview everyone we can't?
So we work with you to make sure that there’s nothing to make up there. But then along with that we also provide all the technical support as well so we have studio-grade field recording equipment which we trained all the interviewers in and we looked after those recordings, they’re now safely stored in our archive but also we enable the delivery of those interviews all around the world. Of that 56,000 hours mentioned 25% of that collection is available online and even of this collection we’ve got 22 interviews which people can listen to right now for free through Trove and our catalogue. So it’s a really fantastic way to be involved and also to collect.
Also I think the distance of time as well, Steve, you brought up the ability to reflect. One of the things with oral history is that it’s not an immediate thing, it takes time and although the events happened in 2012, 2013 many of the interviews weren’t started until five years later and that means that allows the interviewee to reflect and process what has happened so again lending a richer interview.
M: I mean that’s – all of those things we absolutely found in doing the project. It was also whole of life which was a term that we weren’t familiar with which we are now very familiar with but what has come through in the book is it’s both constructed chronologically and also phonetically and so while we might if you like as journalists have been focusing on the big event that is large-scale redundancies and their effect by doing a whole of life interview and starting with – whether it was with Steve or with David Marr or Sophie Tedmanson or Gillian Lord or whomever we started with well how did you know or think or want to get into journalism? What led you to that? How did you get into the industry? What was your first by-line, that first big moment when you realised you could do this? What sort of ethical sticky issues did you encounter? Did you encounter reporting on really difficult, traumatic events which might have had an effect on you? So all of those sorts of if you like events and issues that occur in a workplace.
I mean I should add actually another one which was really quite striking during the research was the amount of sexual harassment that occurred in newsrooms back then and even as we know sadly to a degree today. That really came through with some really quite horrible stories about things that people, particularly women, had to endure. So all of that is part of the whole of life and then there’s a lot of reflections as you say on how did the industry come to the point where it felt it needed to do all these redundancies? How did people receive that information? ‘Cause it was shocking for a lot of people and quite brutal and how did you react? I mean Steve took sabbatical and some people did something like that that they also – they were just knocked sideways by having been in that daily crush of journalism day after day after day and then not, you’re suddenly not and so what do you do now? Some of them as we’ve kind of discussed later in the book, they went into other paths, they – etc, etc.
So I mean I should have mentioned earlier on one of the people involved in the project is Brad Buller who took that massive amount of material that was gathered and did a whole lot of what we call chunking where he’d take – here’s everything that was in the interviews about your first by-line or here’s everything in the interviews about sexual harassment or whatever and broke that down for each of the other members of the team who wrote chapters. Brad in effect wrote one himself as well. So it was a very complicated editing process and just to give you one small example because we have slices of people’s lives, we’ve got three people who we profiled if you like. Amanda Meade who now works at The Guardian but used to work at The Australian, David Marr who’s been mentioned already and Flip Prior who’s now at the ABC but began over in the west as a reporter.
Those profile sections in the book are 4,000 words but - I know ‘cause I did the David Marr interview. The transcript is 26,000 words long so the editing process was really difficult but the pleasure if anyone wants to, there is 25,000 words or six hours if you want to listen to David Marr’s entire career or indeed Steve’s. I think Steve from memory was about four-and-a-half hours, I think, I can’t remember exactly. But it’s all there if you want to go and listen to all of it or you can – there’s bits and pieces if you like of Steve cut up and sprinkled through the book and in the case of David Marr there’s a big chunk, a 4,000 word chunk. So there’s a variety of ways that you can come at it.
K: I know a number of people who would line up to have the 26,000-word version of the David Marr transcript. Steve, I want to ask you just to Mark’s point that obviously there was a bit of a lag, right, between when you left journalism and when you participated in this interview so you were able to filter and process and all of that sort of stuff like I’ll just ask the idiot journalist question. Obviously we do a lot of interviewing in our line of work, we’re not interviewed that often so what was it like to be interviewed for this process rather than being on the other side of it? Also just what do you think that that time lag might have given you in terms of the storytelling about your own experiences, right?
Obviously when the redundancy happened that was an awful lot for you to take in and there were a whole spectrum of emotions associated with that, I’m not personalising this to you obviously, I mean I just know that so many of our colleagues went through all the spectrums of emotions about this. So to distil the question, one, what was it like being interviewed as opposed to asking the questions? Two, what do you reckon that the passage of time did or gave you as the storyteller of your own professional experience?
SL: Yeah, thanks, Katherine. I enjoyed being interviewed. In fact I went back and listened to not all but some of the interview the other day and it was a very comprehensive interview. I recall speaking with Matthew at the Library and starting with my early life growing up in Sydney through to university and then through to journalism so it was that whole of life approach. I enjoyed being interviewed and I mean I’ve done quite a bit of publicity over the years, particularly promoting the novels that I wrote with Chris Uhlmann and I’ve always enjoyed that process, to be honest. So I didn’t feel uncomfortable but I think - and to your second point as well I think it was – I don’t know, four years or so from the time I was made redundant in late 2013 to the time that I was interviewed by Matthew – is that correct?
SL: 2017, maybe a bit earlier, Matthew.
M: No, 2017 is when we did the interview.
SL: Yeah, right, okay so that was about four years. So it gives you a chance to I guess reflect and think back about those 25 years, the good, the bad and the ugly, there was a fair bit of all of that in my journalistic career to reflect back on it so it was a really, really good opportunity. I mean I think it’s really positive to talk about these particular issues, talk about journalists and I like talking about journalism as a profession ‘cause I care about it very deeply and I think it’s obviously very, very important and there’s a lot about journalism that I’m not all that fond of, frankly, at the moment so it is a very useful process to do that.
K: I’m conscious that we’re up against it timewise and I’m just putting in the mind of folks here that of course we would like to take a couple of questions from you for any of the panellists here this evening. But I think we probably just need to do a little bit of quick reflection on what’s happened since in essence. Matthew, situated as right at the beginning in that period in Fairfax where there were mass redundancies, when just again before you folks arrived, Matthew said it’s – do you realise it’s 10 years almost to the day of those mass redundancies at Fairfax? I remember that like it was yesterday and the months that followed and the trauma that that inflicted on the organisation which is hard to actually even still talk about without getting emotional.
So that was let’s just say those years where we felt we were in freefall professionally where I was a practising journalist thought in 2012 maybe we’ve got another five years of life if I’m lucky. We are past that now, we’re not – and I don’t think we will ever return to the golden years which sadly I missed. I think that’s impossible. I don't think we will see that industrial scale journalism again because I don’t think there's a viable business model for it but we have rebounded somewhat off the lows of that period that were genuinely existential for the industry and for practitioners in Australia. So Matthew, where are we now, do you think, compared to when those emails arrived?
M: Well yeah, I think it is important to recall it did get pretty grim, not only right, that seismic kind of shock but for several years afterwards. I don’t remember how many years exactly but I’d say five, six, seven, there was no cadet intake at what became the Nine Newspapers which historically it was kind of annual seasonal event both for people wanting to get into journalism and if you’re in my shoes now in a university preparing students to get into journalism it’s that kind of annual event. It kind of didn’t happen for several years and it kind of got to the point where it really felt so many of the media outlets were so thin that they - it almost couldn’t get worse and there seemed to be a realisation we’re actually not just hacking off fat here, we’re kind of slicing into bone and it’s really affecting what we think we’re doing which is providing journalism to the public.
Then there – I mean you would have known and reported on many of the inquiries that have gone on into the media, Senate inquiries and so on has been an almost annual event for several years. The ACCC, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission led by Rod Sims was charged by the former Treasurer, Scott Morrison, to inquire into this as an issue seriously and they did and they did some original research and they came up with what they call the News Media Bargaining Code and that’s a whole other seminar if you like in itself so I won’t bore you with all of that for the moment. But the key point that came out of it was that the money that had left the industry, Sims found a way for some of that money to come back to the industry, okay, that’s the key point and the Code enabled that to happen.
As I said there are significant other issues to be discussed but we probably don’t have time for them now but that’s the key point. So as of last year, the beginning I think of last year both Facebook and Google who have been the main kind of villains of the peace, sucking all this money out of - not only in Australia but elsewhere – they’ve been doing deals with various media outlets to give some money back to them nominally for affecting their ability to earn money from their journalism. So Guardian Australia, Katherine, you can talk to this much more than I can, but there’s money that’s gone into Guardian Australia which has meant a good number of journalists have been able to be employed and the same has been true at Nine, at News, at Crikey, for example, run by private media, where else? I think at the Schwartz Media which publishes The Monthly and also publishes The Saturday Paper and so on so there’s some - estimates range from $200m a year to $300m a year have come into the industry and you hope most of it’s being spent on journalistic resources and enabling that. So there is actually more resources around.
I know there’ve been reflections by a number of people about the quality of reporting that occurred during the recent federal election, some pretty harsh criticisms of that and so there’s some questions to be asked about that for us as a profession, as an industry but there is certainly more money coming in and you can see the fruits of that in a number of really good reporting projects that have been occurring.
K: Yeah and as an adjunct to that obviously news organisations have sought more viable business strategies from the paywalls that existed at The Aus and The Fin Review where Steve and I worked together to our model at Guardian Australia which is a reader revenue model where we invite people to become members in essence but we keep all our journalism open. So it’s sort of been a combination of not giving away content for free which is what we did in the opening stages of the transition coupled with the News Media Bargaining Code injecting some revenue back into organisations which has been helpful to just putting a floor under the freefall.
Now again I will come to questions from you guys just for a second but I just want to conclude by asking you two, Steve, Matthew, what do you think - ‘cause this is obviously – Upheaval is obviously the story of the people who left, what do you think the people who stayed make of the story of the people who left? Steve? You want to kick off? I guess Rosie read it. Has she got thoughts about it?
SL: I think there’s a lot of - it’s a hard question in a way, Katherine. I think there’s – are you asking me to give my sense as to how people who are still working in journalism feel about those who left?
K: Well it’s not at some visceral personal level, I just mean this history encapsulates a journalistic world that both continues to exist but has also passed so it’s what do you reckon that people who didn’t leave who staggered through the digital transition make of these reflections of the bygone world?
SL: Oh I see, yeah. Those brave souls like yourself who are still –
K: No, it’s not a humble brag on my part, I’m genuinely interested.
SL: It’s an interesting point, I mean you’re probably – I mean my sense is, talking to a lot of journalists in the press gallery and elsewhere, that I think journalists feel a lot more under pressure, a lot more stressed. I don’t think there’s the sense of camaraderie that there used to be. I mean those – I think those opening remarks which were attributed to David Marr had the newsrooms of yesteryear, they were more exciting, there were more people, there were a lot more people in the newsrooms and there was that greater camaraderie. I mean just people were able to enjoy themselves more.
I think the pressures now of 24/7 journalism, the fact that journalists are – when I was working in the press gallery in the ‘90s, Katherine, with you at The Fin Review, there was a daily symmetry to the journalism. You’d start mid-morning, you’d finish around about 7pm at night and it was pretty much – it was a stock standard day but it’s just so much – to me it’s sort of much wilder now and people are having less fun. I think – you mentioned the last federal election. I think that was – to me looking at it from the sidelines it was journalists – often people who hadn’t spent a lot of years as journalists but they were trying to – the gotcha questions reflected the fact that people were trying to build their profile and what have you or felt that they had to sort of build their profile on social media rather than actually sticking to the graft.
So I don’t know, my sense is that – a lot of people I speak to who are journalists, senior journalists across the media, I don’t get the sense that people are really happy with the profession so do they look at people who’ve left with a sense of oh I wish I’d taken that redundancy cheque as well? A bit of – I don’t know. It’s a hard one to answer.
M: Well I – well the first thing is apart from asking you that question, Katherine, I haven’t spoken to lots of younger people in newsrooms so I don’t – perhaps that’s the next project but - what they’re thinking about this but what I would really hope for is that they do actually – and not just because I want the book to be read but I do think – one of the things we say in the book is that there’s a lot of what is called practical wisdom within journalism both in the past and I daresay in the present, because it’s all done in the day, of the moment, problem here, solve problem, right problem etc, you solve problems under a great deal of pressure. You develop a good deal of practical wisdom, whether it’s researching skills, writing skills, working out legal issues, working out ethical issues and so on, there’s a lot of stored wisdom. I hope – one of the things we – I don’t think we necessarily aim to do this openly but what really comes through is there’s this huge amount of stored wisdom in here of how to do good journalism, how to avoid doing bad journalism, how to recognise if you’ve mucked something up and so on.
So rather than necessarily read another textbook or I mean not – classes are fine but there’s lots of interesting material and valuable material in here which would – I would – whether it was Rosie, your daughter, or other younger journalists, you think oh that’s how it was done. It doesn’t mean we have to go back and do it the way it was done then but there are certain perennial things that go through, you do have to find a story, you do have to write a story, you do have to make sure you don’t get yourself into legal hot water and so on.
Those things have not been changed by the internet, those fundamentals and so I hope that happened and then there can be a really useful dialogue between younger people who are, as Amanda Meade says in her profile, incredibly not only savvy about the internet but really good at working with different platforms and knitting them together and so on, those skills and those other skills that people from an earlier age had talked to each other about them and learned from each other rather than these people, young people today or you old fuddy-duddies or whatever which is a conversation that ends up in a dry-gulch very quickly. I think there’s a really rich conversation to be had among journalists and within newsrooms about what’s in there already.
K: Very good. Who’s got a question? Oh lots, gosh. I think we’ve got a microphone coming. Just down here at the front.
S: We do have a microphone coming and for the benefit of those watching the stream at home please wait for the microphone and for the benefit of those using the hearing loop.
A: Okay, you’ve distilled a whole lot of interviews down into 246 pages, was it?
M: Three hundred and –
A: Oh sorry, 300 –
M: It’s alright, 360 but who’s counting?
A: Three hundred and 60 pages, okay. You must have heard some stories in there. You haven’t told any stories tonight about things that journalists said.
K: That’s poor moderation.
A: No, that’s part A of the question. Part B is what sort of conclusions do you come to? I mean what analysis? What does your analysis of all this distillation of poring over transcripts, what general conclusions have you come to about the state of the industry?
M: Let me start with a story. There is one. I’ll just read it to you. This is Simon Mann who used to be the Deputy Editor of The Age, began as a – down in Victoria, in Anglesea, in country Victoria working on a local paper there, desperate to get onto a big city paper and went to what was then The Sun, The Sun News Pictorial, now The Herald Sun and he talks about going – he had a friend in journalism who’d recommended him to the Editor, a guy by the name of Lee Stevens. He went to meet him in his office one night at 11:00 in between editions as they were coming out and he sat there and Stevens was very pleasant and he sat opposite me - this is direct from Simon – and he started to ask things and then he said to me look, I’ve got to be honest with you, I don’t know what Geoff Eastdown said to you but all we’ve got here is a job going in the finance section, shares, money, that sort of shit. I didn’t really take this in but I was keen for a job and I said look, that’s fine, Mr Stevens, I’m really keen to come and have a crack at the metro papers so I don’t mind but I have to be honest with you, I failed fourth form maths and dropped out of economics at university. There was a pause and Stevens tapped his cigarette before lighting it and he took a long draw and he said terrific, when can you start?
That was about 1983 or ’84 so that’s – there are lots and lots of stories, I’m very happy to say there’s lots and lots of stories in the book like that and sad stories etc as well.
But general conclusions, okay so apart from some of the things we’ve already said or I’ve already said and Steve’s already talked about one of the – we wrote this - the very final section we wrote, trying to do the conclusion, we wrote that right in the shadow of the 6th of January 2021, the riots at the Capitol and if I can just – if you’ll indulge me for a moment I’ll read a little bit of the last bit ‘cause that in a sense I think goes to your question.
It's possible to harness the best from the past while rising to the new challenges of the present and the future. It’s a cliché to say we need good journalism now more than ever but you can see why we’ve been hearing it a lot lately. Look at the events of the Capitol in Washington on the 6th of January, it’s hard to fathom that so many Americans continue to believe the lies Donald Trump told about the Presidential election result and that some of them planned an assault that came close to lynching the Democrat Speaker of the House and the Republican Vice President.
We know this level of detail because journalists told us just as they informed us about the 30,000 plus lies Trump told during his Presidency as well as his attacks on democratic institutions and failure to combat COVID-19. That many Americans did not see these stories or chose to reject them has a lot to do with our social media, has been used to distort and misinform. It may also help explain why 74 million Americans voted for Trump. But surely a key reason why more than 81 million voted for Joe Biden is the work reporters did to hold Trump’s presidency to account. Journalism is central to a healthy democracy. That’s why we need to keep saying it matters now more than ever.
So that’s the kind of conclusion of the book and I'm happy to stand by that as a conclusion and hopefully as an answer to your question.
K: Okay, who else?
A: Hi, I’ve been reading about the Tories and Ofcom are trying to rip the guts out of BBC, basically. They don’t want the BBC to be reporting news, they don’t want them paying for having their taxpayer-funded going to news [meter] 49:05. Do you think there’s some sort of validity in that? Do you think the Australian Government shouldn’t be paying the ABC to report on news?
M: Short answer, no, I think the Australian Government should be funding the ABC to do exactly that.
K: I could add just a supplementary. Look, obviously I'm a massive fan of the ABC and I appear on many ABC programs and I think the really precious thing about the ABC in our media landscape at this point in time is that research demonstrates that the ABC still commands an audience from people of all political persuasions. If you think about the digital media landscape as a plain littered by campfires of various types that people gather around well the ABC is a really precious media asset in this country because it exists outside of what I would describe as the Balkans of the rest of the media landscape where a lot of readership is driven by confirmation bias rather than open-minded inquiry so I think it’s very important.
I would also say though as a person who has worked exclusively in the commercial media landscape, never for the ABC, that it is extremely difficult for commercial media operations to compete, particularly in the freefall period that I was talking about, against a well-resourced public broadcaster that could cover the field in ways that the commercial media were unable to do, particularly during that point of real, real bearing down pressure on our operations. So while I absolutely support the ABC and will defend it to my dying breath because of its contribution to the country and the polity and the democracy I would also say on behalf of myself and my other commercial media colleagues that it does make it difficult. Up the back.
A: Just to pick up on an earlier point about the US politics does anyone on the panel see us going down the same path in terms of the recent reports of many journalists being threatened, intimidated, bullied, harassed, pepper-sprayed and so on even by law enforcement officials? Is that because of America’s polarised climate or does anyone see that happening possibly in Australia where it becomes like an occupational hazard to put up with those sort of threats and intimidation?
K: Do you want to pick that up?
M: Sure. Some of that already does happen here. If you do watch Media Watch on the ABC you may remember that the opening credits show two or three incidents recently of Australian journalists being attacked by various mobs, whether it was people protesting about COVID restrictions or other things. I do think there is a difference between what’s been happening in America and what’s been happening here but there is also some of that bleeding into our body politic as well which I really don’t think is a welcome thing at all.
K: Yeah. I can say from somebody who covered the COVID protests in Canberra that there was a lot about that environment that was quite intimidating for a working reporter so there are – and look, it’s - obviously there's a particular dynamic in the US which means that the polarisation of that polity is a lot further down the derangement path than Australia fortunately but all the conditions exist here which could lead to and accelerate into a set of circumstances that would not make life here much different from the States. This is something that we have to be vigilant about and it’s why I think it’s important for people to invest psychically and practically in the great precious democracy that we have in this country and participate in civic life with a degree of duty of care for – because there is this coarsening of discourse and the threat environment both for politicians and for working journalists is increasing. So I think if we care about democracy and that’s the reason I do what I do we need to be very vigilant about that.
A: Hi, in the not too distant past I worked as an archivist and librarian at the ABC in the TV newsroom in Sydney. I left a few years ago because even then I could see that the changes had just been announced in terms of cutting staff, that that was on the cards back then. I didn’t like what that meant for my profession but I didn’t like what it meant for journalism as well and I’m just interested to hear from the panel and your thoughts about what impact it’s likely to have, not just the cutting of archives and library staff but all the roles that support journalism. So just interested to hear on your reflections of that, please.
K: I should just cue Steve in Sydney too, obviously if you want to chime in here please do. Yeah so archives, Matthew.
M: Yeah, I’m in heated agreement with you, it’s a problem. The – and you would have seen just recently there’s some further jobs in the archives area at the ABC that are going to be cut. I have heard the ABC Chair, Ita Buttrose, interviewed on that and she said that some of those jobs would be replaced like some of them were going but some of them would be – there would be some new ones coming in and the people who were there could apply for the new ones. This is a fairly familiar story in the media in the last 10 years as you know. But look, two things, I do think it is – I haven’t seen it satisfactorily explained yet why it appears there’s less importance being placed on archives. Now I think Ita Buttrose did say that was not the case but I haven’t seen it satisfactorily explained how that can be when I don’t think this is the first batch of people from the archives who’ve been cut, I think this is a story that’s been going for some time. You probably know it much better than I do so there’s that.
The question about roles that support journalism is a very under-told but very important story like I - again I am an ABC watcher so I do notice that every evening if I’m watching something there is archival footage in a story and it so enriches so many stories to see the Harbour Bridge 40 years ago, 50 years ago or to see how families were living 30, 40, 50 years ago, the housing prices and all of that sort of thing. It’s absolutely vital kind of celluloid fabric if you like for us as a nation. So it is really important and it’s – I don’t think – journalists – if there is some suggestion that journalists are going to do this archiving themselves, apart from howls of derisive laughter, Bruce, I mean the two jobs are separate and different. A, they should be respected for their differences but secondly, just even if journalists do want to do a lot of archiving I think there are some really practical problems. When a journalist’s job is as I said find the story, do the story, get the story out and then move to the next story immediately so how that fits with the steady, thorough, meticulous archiving, I can't see. As I said I can’t see it, hasn’t been satisfactorily explained as far as I can see. It is very, very important, I completely agree.
K: Just quickly it’s sort of – the troubling thing about it is it’s sort of a further diminution of our role journalistically as being the first draft of history. I had a practical experience of this myself recently where because I’ve contributed a chapter to a book that Julia Gillard is editing on the 10th anniversary of her misogyny speech and I went back as a reporter to try and find a record of the live political blog I did on the day for Fairfax because I wanted to basically look at what I’d written on the day and critically assess how stupid I was, basically. I had real trouble actually tracking that down. I mean I found it eventually but it wasn’t easy and there’s the sort of – and Mark may have a perspective on this from a history perspective. There are all the reasons that Matthew’s outlined about why that celluloid memory or that written memory is really important in a first draft sense or an ongoing reflective sense but also just in a practical legal sense. News organisations are supposed to keep records for a significant period of time because obviously cases can be litigated years after the fact and if there is this tendency in news organisations to think oh well record-keeping’s no longer important well then we really are up shit creek.
Are we on time or can we do one more?
K: One more.
A: You spoke earlier about the fact that in political reporting there used to be policy specialists. What do you think we as news consumers have lost with the loss of those specialist reporters? Is it a lack of scrutiny or what are your thoughts on I guess for everyday people what that lack of insight potentially has created?
K: Steve, do you want to lead on this one? This was your point.
SL: Yeah, thanks, Katherine. Yeah, well it has led to much less scrutiny of particular areas. I mean it means that journalists are more generalists if you like and I mean defence is I think a very good example. There are still some very, very good defence and national security reporters in the press gallery working for the ABC, for News Corp, for Fairfax etc, for Guardian and that is absolutely so critical because you’ve got areas of government where billions, tens of billions of dollars are being spent in - often not being spent very well and it’s absolutely critical that you’ve got journalists who actually understand these areas and can then report on those. So I think it’s absolutely critical and I think it’s – it is a cause for concern but unfortunately I don’t think there’s any way we’re going to go back to that old system.
K: Yeah, we are trying, we are trying, I think, like I think Steve’s diagnoses is bang-on, particularly in The Fin Review. If we think about that Fin Review bureau that both you and I worked in that had 12 people and had basically every round, every policy area covered, we are not in that resourcing environment anymore. I don’t know how many people work in the Fin bureau now but I would guarantee it’s half what existed at that time and my bureau, I have a bureau of six and we do try and allocate – well we have a specialist foreign and defence reporter and we try and allocate policy areas amongst ourselves.
I do a lot of writing on climate change. Paul Karp, one of my colleagues, does lots of great stuff on law and accountability like we are trying to do it but we do not have the resources to do it in the same way that we did when I started in journalism and what do you lose as consumers? Well you lose a degree of specialist knowledge and insight which informs policy debates which matter to you in terms of the quality of services and other things that are provided by governments so it is a significant problem. While we are absolutely working flat out around the clock to try and catch all those balls news organisations do not have the resourcing that they had 20 years ago. That’s the unvarnished truth.
M: Can I just add to that ‘cause I think it’s really important, a really important point? I’d say I would exhort us all to do better and there – I mean it’s a common criticism of a lot of reporting now that there’s too much emphasis on the horse race if you like and not enough emphasis on the policy and there’s always got to be a balance between the two ‘cause they are interrelated and one affects the other. But I think we can and should do better as a kind of industry.
The other thing that I would add to that is that a lot of material now is available that used to only ever be available to journalists like you can see Hansard very quickly, you can see reports, you can see legal judgments and so – and not only can you see them, some people clearly do read them and do inform themselves about whatever the issue might be. A colleague of mine, Margaret Simons, has written an essay in Meanjin, the current edition of Meanjin and she makes the point, she laments – a peeve I think is her word for it – that in Victoria which is where I’m from, the – when – some reporters even after there’d been a comprehensive Royal Commission done into the failure, the various failures in the early part of the COVID lockdown in Victoria, the hotel quarantine and I won’t rehearse them all again, we’ll all get a headache again but there’s a report done, several chapters devoted to topic X and topic Y easily available, click here, read the report like that was not the case 20, 30 years ago that we’re talking about, the ‘90s when you began in journalism.
So citizens can do their own work as well and I would encourage them to do that as well, us, all of us to do it. What Margaret Simons was lamenting was that reporters who were then turning up at press conferences and asking the Premier further questions about hotel quarantine had clearly not read what Jennifer Coate, Judge Jennifer Coate had found in her – after her inquiry. So that’s not that hard to do. Yes, you’ve got to read it but that's all, you don’t have to go and use a whole lot of shoe leather as you used to have to do to find basic documents and so on. People like Steve and so on would be down at court houses cultivating contacts behind the counter and getting – so finding out where documents were and how to get them and so on and so on. You don’t kind of have to do that so often now, you can – it’s all there for you, there’s so much available online that we can all do more of that as well as exhorting us in the media to do more of that work ourselves and more analysis and actually add value for our readers and viewers and listeners.
S: Well thank you very much. I wasn’t sure if anything could outdo Katherine’s shoes tonight but that conversation was fantastic. Can you join me all in thanking Matthew, Mark, Katherine and in particular for Steve who’s dragged himself off his COVID bed? I know how that feels so you can probably switch off and go back to bed very shortly. Ladies and gentlemen, please thank our panel.
S: I’m going to hold this book up for those people watching online just in case you haven’t spied the cover. For those of you who are here Katherine Murphy are going to be available to sign some of these upstairs and if you haven’t got it it’s available from our bookshop upstairs. I can hear people kicking themselves online right now thinking I’m not at the Library, how am I going to get this book? Well we’ve got a shop that you can access online so feel free to buy the book online as well. Thank you, everybody, for coming, thank you for your questions, thank you for braving the cold and we hope to see you at the Library again soon. Thank you.
Newsrooms, the engine rooms of reporting, have shrunk. A generation of journalists has borne witness to seismic changes in the media. In this panel discussion led by Matthew Ricketson – academic, journalist and co-editor of Upheaval: Disrupted lives in journalism – and featuring representatives from the media, hear from journalists themselves on these changes and unpack the experiences of those shared in Upheaval.
The book captures the unique insider perspectives on the transitions underway in journalism, and includes material from interviews with 57 journalists who, with one exception, experienced redundancy between 2012 and 2016. These whole-of-life interviews were recorded in association with the National Library and cover regional, rural and metropolitan journalists from radio, TV, online and print media.