Regular LP commenter, Mr Denmore, is contributing a series of posts about shifts in the media and journospheres in the context of this year’s federal election. Mr Denmore has extensive professional experience in the media, and we trust you will find his perspective valuable and informative. This is the fourth in the series.
The holiday national road toll count was a godsend for journalists at the national news agency, AAP.
When the nation was asleep at the beach, news was at a premium. Thinly staffed radio stations around the country depended even more at these times on the steady flow of “rip and read” headlines from the wires.
So it was that the 24-hour news production desk at AAP, using a rudimentary chart on a wall, had responsibility for collating a national holiday road toll count from the individual counts of state and territory police forces.
This “death chart”, as it was called, became the hook for hundreds of largely internally generated news stories over the long, slow summer slumber.
Fresh angles could be created almost at will as overnight rewrite teams sought to freshen the file for the morning TV and radio bulletins:
* “Police are stepping up warnings over excessive speed after a spate of high-speed car crashes….”
* “The road toll is already closing in on last year’s record just three days into the holiday season….”
* “A fatality-free 24 hours on our roads has been welcomed by traffic authorities, but police say they remain on alert….”
* “A run of three fatalities on a horror stretch of road has triggered a slanging match between federal and state politicians over funding…”
It was an exercise in creating news out of very little. For sure, there were real human tragedies behind the raw death count. But telling those stories would require reporting resources and it was simply easier to conjure up a new lead by jamming together ritual phrases around the headline number.
The same effortless riffing is currently evident in the national media’s commentary on political opinion polls. It’s even easier in this case, though, because the event itself is orchestrated by the media.
Indeed, in the case of Newspoll – the most influential of the major polling organisations – a media company owns the poll. News Ltd can gear its entire editorial spin around a single number in a poll created by one of its own subsidiaries. In business, they call this vertical integration.
There is much discussion on Larvatus Prodeo and other blogs about News Ltd’s shameless political agenda. But the untold story is the economic efficiencies generated by “owning” the news.
The increasing squeeze on editorial resources in the mainstream media in the past decade is well documented. Legacies include an intensified focus on efficiency and shareholder value and a reduced sense of journalism as a “public good”. Event-driven news has been commoditised in an online world, leaving mainstream, capital-intensive outlets looking for new ways to create differentiated branded content.
These established outlets are filling the vacuum left by expensive reportorial journalism with cheap analysis and opinion built around in-house columnists.
This is why the front covers of our newspapers are now less about “what happened” and more about what someone says it all means.
News Ltd has taken this a step further by using its own Newspoll to advance its agenda. In this sense, the polling is not so much a reactive tool, but a proactive one. It drives the news cycle in such a way that journalists, once mere spectators, become actual players in the political game.
For a business organisation looking for a new business model in an online world, this makes a lot of sense. Instead of being hostage to externally-driven events that everyone can cover, you now “own” the news itself. The additional costs are very little. The polling is being done anyway. The “journalism” is just someone’s cheap opinion laid over the top.
Hence, we see The Australian dictating that the future of Rudd’s prime ministership hangs on its next Newspoll. Being so influential with such little investment is a sweet result for a margin-squeezed news organisation looking for a new reason to exist.
For an old journalist, it seems a logical extension of the holiday national road toll…..but with our own democracy as the road kill.