I generally don't discuss politics on this blog because I'm not available to comment in real-time on current affairs, which tends to be required for a blogger to be relevant on a topic.

This post was sparked by Laurie Oakes's Andrew Ollie Media Lecture (transcript) in which he fired quite a few shots at quite a lot of people. Laurie's lecture centred on the impact that real-time news was having on "traditional" journalism, but thankfully with a non-alarmist viewpoint.

The gist of his lecture is that while audiences have shorter attention spans, this by itself doesn't (or at least shouldn't) spell the end of traditional journalistic values. He also made four key predictions; two of which I'll discuss here as I think that they're worthy of further discussion.

Prediction 3. Political journalists will be bypassed more and more.

Yep.

Prediction 4. Bloggers will start to usurp the role of determining what is news.

Also yep. Read the article for the context.

I'll say that again: read the article. Please.

The response of many people to political commentary is TL;DR ("Too long; didn't read"). So... now that you're feeling ashamed of yourself, have you read the article yet? :)

The TL;DR response leads to the straw-man argument of, "If we don't give people a seven-second sound bite then they won't listen to the message at all." In other words, that politicians need to dumb politics down because people don't listen to intelligent, reasoned debate.

Bollocks. People don't listen to politicians droning on for more than about seven seconds because most of what they're saying is bullshit. Ouch? No, not really - they know it themselves. It takes people about seven seconds to decide whether someone's a) knowledgeable about their topic; and b) not putting their own spin on it. If either criterion is not met then of course people disengage - they know when they're being lied to and they're just not interested in giving it any more of their time. They'll Google the issue instead. Anyone remember Joolya's awful "Moaving Foawud" speech?

Laurie makes the point that Australians do, by and large, want to understand the issues and have their voice heard. I suspect that he's giving the average bogan a bit too much credit on the former point - anyone who shouts "My team won!" after an election should stick to football, IMO, but that's another issue. Nonetheless, there are enough people who do want to understand the issues and their desire for insight and analysis simply isn't being fulfilled by old media.

So, again:

Prediction 4. Bloggers will start to usurp the role of determining what is news.

Absolutely. And that's because the traditional news media suck at it.

For example: the ABC News recently reported that the United States would be withdrawing all of its troops from Iraq, "despite a request for 5000 troops to remain in the country." This sounds like Barack Obama (belatedly) honouring one of his election promises. Hooray! What the ABC didn't state, however, was that the reason that the USA is pulling its troops ahead of schedule is that the Iraqi government has refused to grant US soldiers continuing immunity from prosecution. In other words, if they're going to shoot innocent people, torture "suspected" terrorists (or anyone, for that matter) or shoot from helicopter gunships at unarmed civilians and journalists - and laugh about it - then they're going to have to answer for their actions in court. That's hardly an unreasonable request from a sovereign government, is it? The ABC didn't even bother to mention the fact that these two decisions were related in any way. Dumbing down the news? You tell me.

So why would someone who's even moderately well-informed use old media to acquire news when they know it's not only slow (23 hours old? That's not news!), but also not telling the whole story and not providing any insightful commentary? Seriously? By the time the ABC News rolls around at whenever it's on, it's been out on Twitter all day, all over the blogosphere, bloggers have commented on it (obviously with their own biases), have been rebutted by other bloggers and commentators  (key point here), have engaged in debate and clarified any misunderstandings - and all of this before some talking head gets given a script on an autocue that was based on the very first reading of the tweet anyway.

So how do old media stay relevant? Well, by not being old media, for one - but equally, not trying to be the new media. There's a place for bloggers and tweeters, and some of them are excellent commentators and are very insightful. There's a very strong market for insightful, informed political commentary and this is where the "old" media need to step up to the plate.

  1. Provide the analysis and the insight that you claim the blogosphere doesn't have.

  2. Engage with people (i.e. your audience) directly. Allow them to post comments on your articles, and respond with the dignity, maturity and insight that you claim that the blogosphere lacks.

  3. Maintain your professional reputation as if your life and livelihood depend on it - because they do, and if you haven't realised that already then you really do suck at your job and you should quit. A journalist's integrity must be their paramount concern, and the reason that people hold old media in so much contempt is simply that they don't believe that there is any integrity any more. Who trusts Rupert? Or James Packer? And why on earth should they, given all the evidence to the contrary?

One last comment:

But we DON'T need to convey the impression that everyone involved in politics is deceptive, venal or useless.

Because, apart from anything else, it's not true.

I'd add to that: journalists may want to portray everyone in politics as deceptive, venal or useless, but the rest of the public sees journalists in exactly the same light.

This isn't a dig at Laurie or a few other notable exceptions, but to the wider profession: Pot? Kettle?

I honestly do worry about what's going to happen once the likes of Laurie Oakes and George Negus retire. We need political journalists who ask the hard questions, but I don't think we as a nation are going to realise just what we stand to lose once they're gone until they are gone - by which time it'll be too late for them to train a new generation of journalists in the honourable version of their craft.