There are always two sides to a story. Just by the way, it’s the first rule of journalism and accurate reporting! Whilst there are countless articles that have mourned the decline of the traditional media industry and quality news reporting, there’s another, more positive, side that receives less attention.
As a society we have more access to information about the world than ever before. That’s been made possible because of the evolution of how news is delivered. The changes are good because it offers more opportunity for people to engage with, debate and even shape news, all in ways that would not have been possible ten years ago.
You don’t have to dig too deep to find evidence of the influence that journalism continues to wield – more importantly, the influence of quality journalism and there is a difference. When you look at the stories being shared through social networks, certainly there are quality issues at play, however despite the changes in news delivery and consumption, thankfully people still recognise quality when they see it.
From the Panama Papers investigation into offshore tax havens, Four Corners’ exposure of the mistreatment of Australian children in juvenile detention or The Guardian’s publication of 2100 incident reports in the Nauru regional processing centre – media organisations play a vital role in holding those in power accountable and driving positive change.
At the recent Storyology 2016 panel discussion, The Modern Newsroom, a Sydney Morning Herald editor, Judith Whelan, emphasised the fact that people fear what will happen if the media’s role in breaking news stories is dumbed down or diminishes in power.
Whelan pointed out this is why Fairfax continues to invest in special reports such as the CommInsure and 7-Eleven investigations, and why events with senior investigative reporters such as Kate McClymont sell out in 30 minutes.
It is true, the media industry is in the midst of the most turbulent change it may ever experience. And no one can ignore the reality that commercial pressures have significantly reduced the number of journalists available to produce investigative reports.
But it would be just as naïve to argue that quality journalism has been consigned to the annals of history leaving us with clickbait and commentary on the Karsdashians’ latest adventures.
Whelan added that 20 years ago Fairfax would have been happy with 400,000 readers. Across the Fairfax group over six million people now visit their sites. Granted, this figure includes non-news offerings such as Domain, but the reality is more people are aware of local and global issues than ever before, and are more than happy to consume it online.
Joining Whelan on the Storyology panel were Mammamia editor Kate de Brito and Junkee Media publisher Tim Duggan – two brands with reputations for creating content that resonates with digital natives. Both de Brito and Duggan acknowledged that their role is not to break the news, but to cover important stories in a way that encourages readers to engage with and share their content.
And this is the magic formula for both the established players and the new guard – reader engagement. Yes, click rates are important. But what matters most is engagement with stories. For Mammamia, de Brito said this could be as simple (or as difficult) as selecting the right visual with four words to tell a story via Facebook or Twitter.
It’s clear the conversation needs to move on.
We shouldn’t debate whether quality journalism will continue to exist – people still need, and will seek, informed and insightful analysis of what is happening in the world they live in.
But greater choice – and disparity in quality – makes it more difficult for readers to filter through the vast quantity of information available to identify the stories that matter. It also means more challenges for news providers to reach audiences and keep them engaged.
Most importantly, it means media companies must not underestimate the intelligence of the public and their appetite for understanding the big issues facing society. As long as that happens, quality journalism will continue to play a vital role in a properly functioning democratic society. As it should.