What is quality journalism?

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

Photo: Andrew Cornell, Managing Editor BlueNotes and Billy Baxter. Photographer Keith Trengove.

As a journalist for more than three decades, two of them at the Australian Financial Review and the last five months here at ANZ, I’ve spent my career in the game and am heavily invested in its future.

The future of journalism is fraught, despite the fact we are consuming more journalism than ever. It’s a subject critical to not just where I have come from but the project I am managing editor of here, BlueNotes, a corporate newsroom.

The launch of BlueNotes, just one month ago, has indeed gone better than we could rightfully have expected for a venture with no precedents in Australia and relatively few globally.

There were technical glitches, some delays, teething issues, frustrations but we are being read by more of our target audience – a corporate audience – than we hoped, our weekly email is being opened and read widely, the engagement with our stories has been rewarding and we have demonstrated – nebulous idea though this is – “thought leadership”.

All of the material we have published I would have happily submitted to a news conference at my old shop. Our most read stories, such as the first interview with ANZ’s new chairman David Gonski, a column I wrote on artisan bread and productivity, an acerbic take on corporate jargon by contributor Felicity Costigan or my colleague Amanda Gome’s controversial slap at the performance of senior women in the media, were quality journalism.

Despite what some may have said.

This in itself has been a fascinating side effect of the launch of BlueNotes, a wider debate into just what is quality journalism. Or indeed “real” journalism.

Our first month has coincided with what by any measure cannot be considered positive for the cause of quality journalism, more redundancies at Fairfax Media, the publisher of the AFR.

The shock announcements about the cuts, hitting mainly photojournalists and lifestyle sections, and coming on top of previous waves which decimated the ranks of production staff and senior writers, sparked horror and unauthorised strike action. For an insight into the pressure follow @FairGoFairfax and #fairgofairfax for the journalist side of what a wrenching dismantling of an industry, without taxpayer support, looks like.

It is not simply nostalgia and concern for friends and colleagues which is concerning here. It is what these latest moves, driven by the ongoing destruction of traditional media business models, mean for quality, real journalism.

Because quality journalism is produced by quality journalists.

It can’t yet be produced by factories or artificial intelligence. Yet. It is an artisan effort which requires talented human capital who have the time and the resources to devote to creating the most compelling content they can, whether it is written, photographed, drawn, spoken or videoed.

My argument, when confronted with the idea a newsroom owned by a bank can’t produce quality journalism is: look at the product. It is a mistake to assume quality journalism is dependent upon the place of production. If only not for profit organisations can produce quality journalism then it can’t be done in the traditional media either which are for-profit organisations, by and large.

Corporate journalism has in fact been around a long time. Kurt Vonnegut, a decent writer by any measure, was a corporate journalist for the General Electric company, telling stories from across the vast industrial landscape GE covered.

When I started at the AFR as a banking and resources correspondent, there were five or six dedicated financial services pages a day. Today there are none. On most days there’s a page in the companies section on the sector. The journalists producing the work are excellent but they don’t have the resources, time or experience they once did.

The reality is where once traditional mastheads had near monopolies on audiences – and by extension on what content that audience consumed – today audiences are fragmented and no one media brand has anything like the dominance it might have had in the past.

The consumers of journalism today are not prepared to be broadcast to, they want to participate. They are not selecting a couple of newspapers, radio channels and TV stations, they are roaming widely across hundreds, thousands of sources of journalism using multiple, instantaneous, mobile, interactive platforms.

Corporate journalism – which, technically, would include News, Fairfax, The Economist etc – cannot replace traditional journalism. When it is good, it can replace some of the journalism no longer produced. But it is part of the offering the audience today can consume and if it is good – that is, insightful, transparent, compelling – it will have value.

This venture is complementary to other media, one voice among many. BlueNotes is transparent about its ownership, it is not beholden to revenue streams opaque to the audience. We are owned by ANZ.

The wonderful on-the-ground reportage of Mark Skulley for BlueNotes on China’s industrial heartland is simply good journalism – as is what Mark produces for his own blog “to be continued”. It’s just not traditional journalism.

Nor is BlueNotes. We are grateful the overall response to BlueNotes has been positive but we are even more grateful it has been of interest. That our content has been shared, that our audience has found it of value.

It is not a coincident a bank has been behind this venture. Just like the media industry, banking has undergone a revolution. It has been upended, by competition, by globalisation, by crisis and, not least, by technology. Mobile banking, specialist lenders, bespoke investment funds, cyber currencies, peer-to-peer lending – modern financial services are a world away from high street banking.

There was a time when savers made deposits at bricks and mortar bank branches; the architecture of those branches styled to enhance the “edifice effect” of a robust bank. That was a time when business news often took weeks to emerge, when the only source of it was really the daily business pages of newspapers, a time when economic research and key business insights were the private province of academic journals or insiders.

Both those worlds are now just sepia-tinted images from the past. The social media revolution has meant there are no longer producers of information and consumers of information, there is now a conversation – whether that’s welcome or not.

For a large international bank like ANZ, indeed for many corporations, these industrial and media revolutions have created massive disruption in how they inform their stakeholders, whether that be the public, investors, policy makers, regulators or clients.

In this emerging new media world, there is now an opportunity to tell these stories in different ways, complementary to traditional intermediaries. We can now go directly to particular audiences with the very information in which they are interested – and that’s the key to quality, it must be interesting.

That same technological revolution which has radically altered financial services and traditional media has in fact made it possible for companies to assume some of the responsibility for informing their stakeholders themselves. Not just through marketing and media release, the traditional channels, but through social media and specialist ventures like BlueNotes.

This first month of BlueNotes has been exciting but that excitement is hardly likely to stop given what is happening in the media and financial services. Whether we like it or not. As on old school journalist who started with copy paper and typewriters, I don’t know whether I like it or not but this is the new world of media.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

editor's picks