The curious case of poll-driven political reporting.

The Guardian published a report yesterday about Bill Shorten. The author set out to repent for calling  Bill Shorten a “tired accountant”. The impetus for the story was the turn around in the polls.

“Shorten is still leading the Labor party in the wake of this latest credibility disaster for the Coalition, after last week’s credibility disaster (blocking a free vote on marriage equality) and the preceding week’s credibility disaster (chopper-friendly Bronwyn Bishop). He’s now sitting atop polls from both Ipsos and Morgan that have the Coalition facing a loss of between 36 and 44 seats.

Is it time for a rethink?”

I’ve seen this kind of thing before, and I don’t like it.

Interpreting what a political leader does through the polls is intellectually vacuous. It’s easy to write. There is no need to have a view on tough questions about policy effectiveness or priorities, the merits of intriguing questions about whether the head of the AWU should be matey with big business, or the management and composition of their front bench.

The author of yesterday’s piece is not especially guilty. She has written about policy more than polls. But overall, allowing poll numbers to drive judgment of politicians’ merits is now commonplace. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9].

The rise of this sort of reporting means a swing in the polls does double business.

Not only does a poll bump get the leader kudos in their party, but it changes the tone of reporting about them. The new, glowing stories therefore amplify swings in popularity. That may be responsible for the increasingly binary popularity positions we see among our political leaders (They’re often wildly popular like Baird or old Abbott, or wildly unpopular, like Gillard and new Abbott).

This kind of reporting validates the paradigm that political hacks of the most cynical kind push inside their parties: We can do good once we’re in power. For now let’s focus on winning. It sidelines those inside a political party who think they should focus on making the country better, not just making the polls better.

Here’s a choice example of the kind of reporting I’m talking about.

The Sydney Morning Herald's Peter Hartcher thinks parties should use poll numbers not policy ideas to choose their leader. Is he right?
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher thinks parties should use poll numbers to choose their leader. Is he right?

I can only imagine the cognitive dissonance some reporters must experience when they write articles demanding more policy substance and less poll-driven rubbish.

Of course, we do need some political reporting. It’s helpful to peek behind the curtain from time to time and see the way the magician performs his tricks. You feel like an insider.

But it can’t be all we have, most of what we have, or even a substantial minority of it. It’s a sometimes food.

Our meat and veg must be stories about policy.

The ABC should be slashed. But not like that.

The Industry Minister stands up to make his announcement:

The federal government is going to set up a car making company, and give cars away for free!

This would be a highly controversial policy. Consumers would be pretty excited, car-makers would be furious, and economists would probably mutter darkly. It doesn’t seem like a good idea.

But there is another struggling industry where the government supports a competitor that gives away product for free.

Media.

As Fairfax and Crikey and all the rest struggle mightily against falling revenues, the ABC and SBS continue to send reporters to news conferences, run documentaries, and blast pop music across the radio spectrum.

This is also controversial, but mainly among News Limited journalists. They’ve cried wolf on government policy so many times they have lost all credibility. But that obscures the few times they ‘re right, including now.

There are important economic differences between cars and news. Unlike cars, News has positive externalities and economies of scale. Both of these mean that news may be under-delivered by the market.

But notice I say news. I do not argue media in general has positive externalities.

There are heaps of things the ABC does that should stop, immediately. If it continues, it wastes its own money, (i.e. our money) and also hurts the profitability to other media outlets.

When the ABC broadcasts the Socceroos match versus Japan, as it did on Tuesday night, that’s not so different to Channel 7 broadcasting the AFL. There is no market failure here to correct. The ABC ought not touch it.

If we look at this evening’s prime time, we can see that the ABC is pumping out a range of programs, including some for which there is no justification and others for which there is a burning burning need.

ABC schedule

 

If I had to rank the top five programs on the list, that the ABC should be investing more and more in, I’d nominate

  1. 7.30. Because democracy demands our society be examined and our politicians be held to account, and the market is more interested in entertainment.
  2. ABC news. Because we need to know what’s going on in the world in order to understand it, and the free-market stations are more about pleasing us than informing us.
  3. Fireman Sam. Developmentally appropriate kids programming without huge commercial tie-ins is always going to be a market shortfall.
  4. Catalyst. Science programming on the free-to-airs consists primarily of cheetahs running down niboks and tearing at their flesh. Nice to have, but not all the time.
  5. Lateline. You need all the opportunities you can get to grill politicians in front of an audience.

If I had to rank the bottom five:

  1. The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. This show is so excellent. Just yesterday I watched Fallon impersonate Bono. It was incredible. Dude has TALENT.  Not a market failure.
  2. Peep show. How funny is David Mitchell? I laugh til my head falls off when I watch this. Not a market failure.
  3. The Drum. Is there  a shortage of opinion on TV and radio and the internet? Holy Mother of God, No! Not a market failure.
  4. QI. Is Stephen Fry the most popular man in the world? Probably. Not a market failure.
  5. Upper Middle Bogan. The commercial stations have very little comedy except Hamish and Andy, but the ABC tries to more than make up for it, with The Moodys, Chris Lilley, The Chaser, Micallef, Please Like Me, It’s a Date, and Soulmates. Whew. Probably, they are more than meeting demand.

Is some of this just cheaply bought-filler? Maybe. But ABC 3 shows us there is something cheaper than filler. And that’s closing down for the night. The ABC should consider doing this.

Now, if it is done strategically, buying a popular program to run into something worthy could boost the ratings of the worthy show. For example, Spicks and Specks is hilarious and fun and very popular. But what follows it is not four corners, it’s the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

The ABC should probably trim down the wildly expansive website and chuck out a bunch of radio stations too. Do we need Double J? It is my favourite station, incidentally, but I don’t ask the government to provide me with the hit songs of my youth. I could get a Pandora or a Spotify account instead. Ditto for Classic FM.

What the ABC should do is slice away all it sports coverage, a lot of its light entertainment, a bunch of music stations and do as much more hard news as it can. It is not important to fill three TV stations, dozens of radio stations and a really enormous website, if you’re filling it with fluff. I

It’s important to turn over the stones that the free market will leave untouched. The NSW ICAC shows there are huge numbers of extremely illegal and controversial things happening every single day. Good reporters could hunt these issues down before it’s too late.

The money that the ABC would save should be spent like this

  • Give Leigh Sales an hour to fill every night.
  • Give Lateline another four reporters.
  • Put Four Corners on two nights a week.
  • Resource Media Watch properly.

So I’m all for slashing the ABC where it treads on commercial toes unnecessarily, but only in order to build it up where those commercial toes fear to tread.

Labor’s own Crikey and ANZ’s own AFR – will branded newsrooms ever work?

Yesterday the Australian Labor Party made a stir by sending out a request for donations. It wants $95,000 to pay an editor to run its own newsroom.

It will be no nonsense and it won’t be filtered through the mainstream media,” the soliciting email said.

The ALP move to having its own newsroom makes some sense. The number of “news outlets” that simply regurgitate press releases these days means the writer of a decent press release has considerable power already. Might as well cut out the middle man.

And the ALP is not blazing a trail.

Corporate newsrooms are the new big thing. ANZ BlueNotes is especially visible to me, because on the day I left the Australian Financial Review, two colleagues of mine left to work there – Walkley award winner Andrew Cornell and BRW publisher Amanda Gome. Both people I respect a lot.

“Business communication now has to be increasingly a conversation based on great ideas, new insights and the best content rather than a broadcast by media release, advertisement or brochure.  While this won’t replace these traditional forms of communication, BlueNotes will extend and complement them.”

– Paul Edwards ANZ group general manager corporate communications.

Mr Edwards talks about a conversation. Broadcasting is easy. The most challenging part of this, I suspect, is finding people who will listen.

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I find the content mix at Blue Notes to be a bit ANZ-heavy to want to visit it. The top stories are mainly by staff and/or about the company. I don’t doubt that that raises the click rate at this early stage of the game – who else will be an early adopter other than staff, shareholders, interested parties? But trust issues loom largest when you are writing about yourself.

So establishing a newsroom can have two goals. Making highly shareable content, or attempting to create, over the long run, a trusted destination for news.

The AFL is probably Australia’s leader in having a corporate newsroom, and it does the latter. But it can do that by writing about itself.

I go to afl.com.au to find out the basic AFL news, like who won the games on the weekend. The reporting is good and timely and includes great video. The issues at stake are clear cut – who won and who lost. (But if you want to find out who got caught drink-driving and who is on performance-enhancing drugs, it’s a less compelling news source.)

But is the AFL a good model for a bank?

The AFL is in the business of making nine simple but newsworthy events every weekend. ANZ is in the business of quietly making profit.

Successfully making loans and having them repaid – while as predictable as nine teams running out winner by Sunday night – offers a far less compelling narrative. A bank can expect to be in the news mainly when things go wrong. It will be interesting to see how BlueNotes responds if there is another big trading scandal, loss or personnel issue.

The Betfair Poker twitter account demonstrates how self-promotion can be perceived as a turn-off, by never ever doing it. It tweets funny content utterly unrelated to the product it ostensibly promotes.

A perception that your branded newsroom is too much like an ad might put me off visiting. But perhaps “visiting” the newsroom is not the point.

These days, stories tend to rise and fall on their own. The statistics for this blog show me that deliberate visitors seeking out the blog provide a low background hum, but the big roars come when a story takes off on social media.

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For only the most established online media brands will this pattern be reversed. (e.g. In 2013, even the AFR’s most-read story was driven by a barney on Reddit.)

ANZ’s only way to get major traffic at this stage will be writing shareable articles.

BlueNotes could offer compelling stories to the general public by focussing on disasters inside the bank to which it has exclusive access (unlikely!). It will instead try to pick out meta-trends that affect readers as much as the bank itself. It is doing that to some extent, with stories on shadow banking, for example. But that story is written by a lawyer, and to be honest I didn’t read it to the end.

ANZ can never be Buzzfeed, and it probably won’t publish scandals. That means all the heavy lifting has to be done by imaginative ideas and great writing, all on serious topics. It needs a lot of quality writing. That is a major challenge.

(While I’m writing about the ANZ, does anyone else think their logo evokes The Scream by Edvard Munch?)

And as for the ALP?

Its trust issues will be greater than ANZ’s, far greater than the AFL’s. Every piece it publishes will be assumed to be propaganda suited more to the pages of Pravda.

But that does not mean it can’t be shareable. Unlike ANZ, partisanship and cheerleading can work to its advantage. Core ALP supporters may be very keen to push its message so long as it is lively.

Like ANZ, it is at risk of principally preaching to the choir unless the quality of the content is head and shoulders above the pack. Quality is key.

And the incentives of a branded newsroom to create content that shines bright is never going to be that sharp. BlueNotes, unlike Crikey, never has to pay its own way. It does not live or die on the love that people have for it. Every story is produced with half an eye on the effect on the brand and half an eye on the appeal to the audience.

So Branded newsrooms must live or die on quality, but their incentives are not as sharply arrayed to produce quality – where quality is defined as things the reader wants to read.

How Fairfax helped kill car-making.

Toyota is going. And yet the government is barely sweating. They stand at the dockside, waving their hanky, thinking of something else. Not even a crocodile tear in their eye.

This, in an environment of rising unemployment, is politically shocking. How has it happened the populace apparently no longer wants this key industry saved? The answer is not that the Australian people have suddenly swallowed an Economics 101 textbook. It is just in the “national mood.”

And that mood is still shaped by the media…

One could trace the beginning of the end of support for Australian car manufacturing to 2011. The economics editor of the Australian newspaper was a man called Michael Stutchbury. A man with ambition. Fiery and with salt and pepper sideburns, “Stutch” put his hand up for a new job that was going across town.

He wanted to be handed the editorship of the Australian Financial Review – Australia’s only business daily. A paper loved and feared in decision-making circles. 

The top echelons of Fairfax considered the CV of the man. He was a man of strong views, sure, but the Fin Review had floundered under middle-of-the-road helmsmanship, so perhaps that was not just desirable, but necessary.

 

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Source: The Australian

Stutch arrived at the Fin amid a surge of excitement, armed with a two-word slogan: Agenda-Setting.

“I think we can turn it into a growth story by reinvigorating the journalism, concentrating on news breaking, going back to setting the agenda,” he told ABC business reporter Ticky Fullerton at the time of his appointment. The move to agenda-setting came with an advertising campaign too, that made the odd choice of appropriating some classic communist propaganda tropes.

The newspaper proceeded to take a far sterner line in deciding what was and wasn’t news. But it went a step further than that. The paper made some things into big news. 

Stutch’s sharp news-sense, formed at the Fin Review but forged in the right-wing foundries of The Australian, combined with his purist views of the government’s role in the economy, meant the car industry was a prime topic. I personally spent hours camped out front of Toyota’s Altona factory getting soundbites from workers, hours trawling through the car statistics to find an Australian manufacturing angle, hours looking into the history of government assistance to the industry.

I even interviewed motor-racing legend Dick Johnson about the possible end of the Falcon, a story idea I was told came from the very top. (Johnson said: “Australians have an affinity with a front-engine, rear-drive car [and] a medium to large body size . . . But it may only be my generation that sees that.” The paper printed the story and a picture.)

Anything with a car industry assistance angle was easy to get past the mid-level editors and into the paper, because they knew Stutch would love it. So he didn’t have to personally demand every single story that the Fin published. The car industry was hot, and everyone knew it.

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The Melbourne Bureau, 2013.

Not long after Stutch got the job, Tony Abbott announced cuts to car subsidies. 

Would the government keep this risky promise? The issue remained firmly on the agenda. I wrote at least ten stories on the topic, (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10) and I was perhaps only the fourth reporter in line to write car stories, behind Mark SkulleyPeter Roberts, and Lucille Keen

(Three of the four reporters listed above no longer work at the Fin.)

But once set, the agenda doesn’t stay inside just one newspaper. If the Fin is in a lather about the car industry, then the Age gets a bit of froth on it too, as do the Sydney Morning Herald, the Herald Sun and the Advertiser. The tone of coverage nationwide took a subtle turn.

Now, newspapers can push barrows without getting anywhere. What gave the AFR barrowload so much momentum was the political gradient. Labor was clearly sliding out by 2013, and the Coalition was ascendent.

Stutch’s steadfast campaign was given legs because it coincided with a Productivity Commission report and a bright new political day (not to mention political capital in the shape of dozens of one-term backbenchers).

Newspaper editors are powerful people. The Abbott Government is emboldened to make the decisions it is making – decisions its predecessors were unwilling or unable to make – because the prevailing climate is one in which they can expect some media support for the decision. Neither national paper is going to crush the government for cutting the funding which kept car manufacturing here.

I can’t help wondering how Stutch feels today, with the end of Australian automotive manufacturing a reality.

Perhaps I am naive but I can’t quite imagine champagne corks popping. I prefer to imagine him slightly frightened. As in, “Jeez, I can’t believe I just did that!” Like the start of a superhero movie. In that context, here’s a quote I think worth remembering for newspapers editors everywhere: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” 

Media and IT are the future, they said.

The total number of people employed in Information, Media and Telecommunications is the lowest since 1999, according to new official data from the ABS. In the last three months, under 200,000 people were employed in the sector, down 23 per cent from the peak over over 250,000 in 2006.

That got me interested. I recently left a job with a major media organisation, at the same time as some heavy hitters (1, 2). How bad was it getting?

The answer: REAL BAD. In the publishing game (books, newspapers) employment fell during 2013 to the lowest since records began in 1984.

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[All data from the Detailed Quarterly Labour Force series, Nov 2013].

Publishing is not the whole story.

Employment in traditional broadcasting has also seen very little growth. There were more people employed in the sector in one ebullient quarter of 1994 than during the most recent three months. (In 1994, SBS was finally available in all capital cities, but it broadcast the test patten for hours every day.)

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That all makes sense.

Online, the classic economic distinction between work and leisure is shaky. People work on the internet for free.

The proponent of the idea is a man called Clay Shirky, and I have written about him here. He claims people would happily give up TV watching for something a bit more active and participatory, and so free content is booming. Content is not just blog posts like the one you are reading, but Youtube videos, Wikipedia, Reddit, Open source software and more and more #doge memes.

Also it’s hard to charge for things online.

So far so good.

But thanks to the mysterious ways in which ANZSIC standards move, folk who work in communications are included in the information and media statistics. This shocked me more. The way this little sub-sector has collapsed puts the newspaper game to shame.

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This next graph may look less dramatic but the numbers of people involved are far greater. The communications sector is now employing fewer people than it has for ten years.

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See that steep ramp-up in 1999? That was the year I started university.

I had long hair, I was 17 and I weighed about 60 kilos. I was getting paid $8.50 an hour in my part time job bussing tables at a very busy Cafe in the local shopping centre. I was studying economics and politics – which I loved – but I had a nagging feelings of doubt.

All the headlines were pointing to IT being the great gold rush.  In 1999 the Nasdaq index rose from 2200 to 3700. Another undergrad friend of mine became an executive in an online company that was apparently booming. I felt like I had missed the plane.

Boy, am I glad I studied economics and politics.

One way to save the news.

I worked for the last three and a half years for a newspaper called the Financial Review. Cover price is $3.30 and a full price online subscription costs $A680. That’s high. Continue reading One way to save the news.