7 Sep 2016

Stuff of substance in a clickbait climate

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 11 September 2016

Is serious journalism being swamped by 'clickbait' in the online age? Is the anguished debate about the future of it helping? Mediawatch asks an award-winning investigative reporter who's just addressed trans-Tasman media top brass about the way forward.

Jared Savage at the Future Forum 2016 in Sydney.

Jared Savage at the Future Forum 2016 in Sydney. Photo: NewsMediaWorks / Lucas Jarvis

"We have oases of good journalism," said the former New Zealand Herald editor-in-chief Gavin Ellis on Mediawatch last month.

"But unfortunately, to have oases you have to have a desert." 

In his new book Complacent Nation, Dr Ellis argues big names in local news media are not offering us the same diet of news any more.  

"Look at the kind of content they carry and what they emphasise," he said.

In an article for NZ Marketing magazine this month, Dr Ellis’s successor at the NZME-owned Herald, Tim Murphy, said its site and Fairfax Media’s stuff.co.nz were pumping out stories to suit social media channels. 

"It perhaps isn’t so much the death of journalism but a big cover-up. Sweeping the journalism under the fluff of the carpet. But there is so much good journalism beyond the clickbait," he added.

Stuff of substance sustained

That was echoed this week by commentator and former Mediawatch man Russell Brown.

On his site Public Address, he picked out a lame story about mouldy cheese from the Herald’s website. Good journalism is being "systematically obscured" on news websites by clickable stories like that one, he said, which offer only "an empty experience" to those who take the bait.

"But the Herald also employs some of the most badass investigative reporters in the country - and it’s doing great things with data journalism," he added. 

In his chapter in a new book Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand, Russell Brown said one upside of all this is now journalism is caught up in a commercial crisis, people are talking more about the purpose and value of it. 

Indeed, Russell Brown and others have talked about that at length at an event he organised in Auckland: "In Real Life".

Christchurch’s readers and writers festival last week also discussed journalism's problems and Gavin Ellis’s book with be discussed again soon in a public forum in Auckland.

Herald investigative reporter and current journalist of the year Matt Nippert seemed weary of all the discussion. 

Too much talk? 

Eugene Bingham

Eugene Bingham Photo: supplied

Fairfax Media investigative journalist Eugene Bingham knows about the pressure on journalism. He reported for the Herald through rounds of newsroom cuts and his award-winning current affairs show 3D was culled at TV3 when its news operation was hollowed out last year. 

"There is a lot of navel-gazing going on about the [media] industry, and that's good," Mr Bingham told Mediawatch. 

"There are big, hairy questions about the business side that need to be answered. But a lot of good journalism that is going on - even in the time of clickbait - is being overlooked because it doesn't suit the narrative on the state of the media," he said. 

Where to from here?

Last year, the leader of the Herald's investigative team Jared Savage won the Hegarty Scholarship at the The Future Forum in Sydney, an annual gathering of the great and good of the Trans-Tasman media. 

He took a tour of the US and reported back to the 2016 Future Forum last week.

"Deep-dive agenda-setting journalism is crucial to news organisations," he said, "But it can't be just that - and it can't be just entertainment-style, light and fluffy journalism either". 

He said commentators complaining about clickbait on news websites were missing the point. 

"You can have a big investigation up online and it might get rolled off the homepage relatively quickly because there's so much news and content coming though. But that story is still there and it's being pushed out through our social media channels."

More than 50 percent of the digital audience comes though social media posts, he told Mediawatch.

Leaving rivalry behind? 

American media are under severe financial pressure too, and some have responded by teaming up with others to spend time on longer-term journalism.

Jared Savage says that's beginning to happen here, and it makes sense where media companies have audiences that do not overlap very much.

Recently the Herald and RNZ both published scoops about KiwiSaver funds investing in the likes of munitions manufacturers and tobacco productions. A co-ordinated approach might have had more impact, even if neither could claim an "exclusive". 

But investigative reporting carried out by Savage's Herald team and Bingham's video-led team at Fairfax Media is expensive. Their employers are seeking permission to merge in order to beef up their presence in the market and cut their costs.

Pundits predict hundreds of journalists could lose their jobs if a green light is given.

"I'm more optimitistic. A new entity could be a powerhouse of journalism. Instead of nzherald.co.nz and stuff.co.nz chasing each other around, we can work together. At the moment we are in direct competition," Savage said.

But he also told Mediawatch he had not been told what plans were in place for investigative journalism if such a merger did go ahead.