Do we need the mainstream media?

Yesterday, mrtiedt left a great comment on my This is not good enough post. The full comment is on the other post, but here’s an edited version:

This raises an interesting point – given there are many excellent sources for information (twitter, blogs, primary materials, those MSM writers who we applaud and value) this lowering in value from the MSM is perhaps not such a big deal… if the MSM is left to those people who can’t be bothered doing anything more than buying the same paper they’ve bought all their life, and the rest of us rely on news sources we trust and respect, is the denigration a problem?

It is an interesting question. One we’ve talked about before, but it’s worth re-visiting at the start of the new year.

My answer is yes, it does matter. But you knew I was going to say that, right? It matters because not everyone has the time, knowledge and internet access to find reputable news from other sources. It matters because newspaper reading is still the best way to increase awareness of public affairs, because when you flick through a newspaper you see all the stories, not just the ones you’re going to read (Schoenbach et al, 2005). This finding wavers when looking at election coverage, but I’ll get to that later. It’s worth noting that there is no evidence that news websites encourage the same level of civic engagement as newspapers (Lee, 2009). No doubt because, in Australia at least, news websites are nothing more than a collection of stories about accidents, stories about videos of accidents, stories about twitter, stories about celebrities on twitter, stories about sex crimes, and stories about turbulence on Qantas flights. News organisations don’t take their websites seriously, so why should we?

Back to why it matters. I’m gonna stamp my foot with indignation and say it matters because we shouldn’t have to go hunting for adequate reporting. If journalists can’t even do basic reporting – Who, What, When, Where, Why and How – then why the fuck are they wasting their time being journalists? Go and do something that pays better and has a more secure future.

Now, to any journalist who says audiences don’t want “serious” news, I say that just means the way you present serious news is boring. Consider this: a 2004 study from the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press found that 21 per cent of 18-34-year-olds learned about the presidential campaign from Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which is almost equal to the 23 per cent who got their campaign info from network news (Feldman, 2007). What makes this very interesting is that the National Annenberg Election Survey revealed that Daily Show viewers knew more about election issues than newspaper readers and tv news watchers.

There is no reason why news can’t be informative and entertaining. And no, that doesn’t mean turning news into a jokey re-write of a media release or putting an infographic into a story that has been written in the usual dull as dogshit way, interviewing the same people and pretending there are only two sides to the story and they are “slamming” each other. If that’s the best you can do, then please change careers and save the rest of us from your mediocre vision.

References not linked to in text:
Feldman, L (2007), ‘The news about comedy: Young audiences, The Daily Show, and evolving notions of journalism’, Journalism, vol. 8, pp. 406-427.

Lee, C (2009), ‘Pixels, paper, and public affairs: a comparison of print and online editions of The Age newspaper’, Australian Journalism Review, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 91-104.

Schoenbach, K, de Waal, E, & Lauf, E (2005), ‘Research Note: Online and Print Newspapers: Their Impact on the Extent of the Perceived Public Agenda’, European Journal of Communication, vol. 20, pp. 245-258.

21 responses to “Do we need the mainstream media?

  1. Maybe I’m coming at this the wrong way. Having made several attempts to respond here (and then starting over several times), I think the view I’m coming round to is that we would be far better served as a community if we had a MSM that was able to inform in an entertaining, interesting way. People would be better informed and (hopefully) polls would push politicians towards better policy.

    What bothers me is this. Let’s say Sydney gets a new Newspaper tomorrow. it hires the best journos (and bloggers) and starts providing relevant, interesting, well written news, both in print and online. How many readers would this paper get?

    I don’t know the answer to that question. I fear the answer is not many – which explains the race to the bottom as news providers appeal to the lowest common denominator. On the other hand, maybe I’m being pessimistic – maybe Sydney would LOVE that paper and prove that we’re smarter than we think.

    What I’m saying (in a round about way) is that a lot of bloggers (not including present company) like to rant and rave about the media but never address the fact that (aside from the ABC and SBS) media companies need to make money. Rightly or wrongly, where they are now is where they think they can sell the most copy.

    Are they right? If the answer is no, then maybe there is hope yet.

    • I’m an optimist. I don’t believe that people who have stopped reading the SMH have started reading the Tele. So, considering the fall in circulation numbers over the last decade, there must be loads of readers without anything to read. And loads more who would stop reading the SMH if something better was available. But it doesn’t have to be a newspaper that you can hold in your hand. It can be online – just not the pile of stinking rubbish that news websites currently are. There aren’t any good news sites in Australia so I don’t know if a good news site would create the same awareness of public affairs in readers.

      My uneasiness with the race to the bottom stuff is that it’s based on the flawed belief – by media organisations – that sensationalism sells. It clearly doesn’t, which is why they are still struggling and still desperately trying to get your attention. They’ve tried giving away stuff, tried giving away the newspaper itself, but it’s pretty bloody obvious that they haven’t tried improving the product.

  2. There is no reason why news can’t be informative and entertaining.
    Good luck with that.

    The default position for just about every mainstream journo in this country is either sanctimonious smart-arseism or dull “he said, she said”.

    Sometimes both.

    In the same article.

    There’s multi-tasking for you.

  3. I’d stop reading SMH online if there was a decent alternative. I don’t want a hardcopy paper. I was going to ask for suggestions. My options seem to be between dumb and dumber.

    • I know how you feel. I still persist with the dead tree version of the SMH, but only just. I’d love a decent paper. Hell, I’d even put up with the Monday-Friday ordinariness if the weekend version was better.

      • I’m happy with The Guardian Weekly. Content, easy to carry, only ads are about Post Grad courses in International Aid and such. Although I do feel a bit of a tosser reading it in public.) With ABC radio news and SMH letters (find out what people are concerned about and the deeper aspects of news stories), a few blogs, that might be enough.
        MSM is good for pointing out to the children why alliteration shouldn’t trump clarity of meaning. And asking them what is or isn’t news worthy.

  4. One difficulty is that commercial media (newspaper, radio, TV and even internet) is funded more by advertisers than consumers. it isn’t just number of readers, but what they can be persuaded to buy.
    As such, you don’t want an intelligent and incisive audience. You want sheep. The only choice is whether you aim for sheep that regularly buy cheap liquor or occasionally buy expensive cars and houses.
    PS. I did switch from the SMH to the Tele partly because a broadsheet is impossible to read on a busy train. I gave up on the Tele eventually though.

  5. As I read today that the Federal Court upheld a decision by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen to use his ministerial discretion to deport an “opera loving gentle giant” who just happens to be an armed robber, it occurred to be that if that “giant of a man” had been allowed to stay he might have been described as a gang affiliated enforcer with “hands like wreaking balls” etc etc who might now pose a threat here in Australia. (after all we get to say who stays here….. )
    We (the public and the media) apparently need a paper that can appeal to everyone. Here’s an idea. If every story gets 2 treatments, from different / opposite perspectives, if both are printed side by side, (on the left and right side of each page of course) we can read the version that suits us; or we might read both, for balance. Facts may tend to stray into the copy, if only to provide an axis. That’s ok. Both can be written by the same journalist. That might be fun too. The “Daily Aussie Mirror Image Times” might not run off the tongue, but DAMIT we need a good newspaper!

  6. NWN,
    I hope you succeed in shaming the present MSM, both the inept, lazy journalists and a management that treats the people who want to buy their papers as thickheads unable to comprehend anything that isn’t big and flash and written to inflame.
    When the story you read is the opinion of someone who has read a handout from a source pushing their own barrow,when you ask your self if this story is true, can be supported by FACTS or as the old magazine called itself “True Facts” and you realise that you the reader can’t tell without your own research, the question you ask yourself is what’s the bloody point. There is no point any longer wasting time with MSM.
    I would welcome a newspaper that supplied varied points on a subject. Given a story that covered the positive and negative outcomes of a situation or policy so we could form our own opinion. We could pretend to be grownups, able to comprehend complex ideas.
    So YES it does bloody matter but the current system is (excuse me) fucked and until a higher regard is once again shown to the readership over the advertisers and the journos find a backbone and decide to write and fight for the right to present interesting articles I will remain pessimistic, with a deep wish to be proved wrong.
    To continually read the MSM with as much enjoyment as I read your blog would be enough for me.

  7. I’m a journalism student, just hitting my third year.
    I have an issue with the lack of quality in the everyday news I read. I’m smart enough – and old enough – to know that uni journalism is not the same as “real” journalism… But facts ARE facts, and this ARE ethics.

    It’s the crap I read in most of the mainstream media that make me never want to work as a journalist (I realize I could go out and forge my own path, be honest, ethical and all of that… But I like being employed and I like earning enough to eat). Having said this, I’m still persisting in my degree (I think I might just REALLY want the cap!!)

    • It’s difficult. I read a study a few months ago – actually, probably a year ago – that said j grads are quick to abandon uni ideals once they get into the workforce, in order to fit in with their new colleagues. That makes me so sad. My advice is that you don’t need to be writing the “worthy” stories, you just need to ensure that every story you write is worthy of your name at the top.

      • I can understand how they do that -especially if they’re graduating at 21. I’ll be 31 when I eventually finish, and hope to think if I DO go down that path, I’ll be wise enough to ignore the crap….

        I think I’d end up keeping my stable job and blogging for free hah!!!

        • Be very careful about that. News Ltd has a policy that stops you saying anything bad about the company or its opposition, and I’m pretty sure Faifax has the same, so you can’t blog about either if you want to keep your job in the MSM. When I worked at News, I got my posts legalled first but that didn’t stop my editor making my work life very unpleasant because of this blog. And that was before I started letting rip on here.

          • Thanks for this – at the moment I don’t work for any media, main or otherwise.
            I keep thinking I’ll make the shift and start using my degree, but the lure of steady, regular employment is too much at the moment!
            If I DID freelance, I’d have to tell my employer, but as long as I steer clear of telling people where I work, and ensuring that theres no conflict of interest, then I think they’d be okay (but I do work for the gov’t, so there’s a chance it wouldn’t work!!$

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