Cut the 'mean spirited' sniping, Ryan urges publishers

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Director of Australia's new Judith Nielson Institute Mark Ryan has called on journalists to quit "mean spirited" sniping at colleagues on rival publications.

He used his address to NewsMediaWorks' Inform19 conference this week to comment on how "fractious", "combative and mean-spirited" Australian journalism had become.

"Some might say even self-obsessed," he said, adding that he was "generalising to make a point".

Addressing an issue dear to our heart and raised by GXpress in 2014, he said the collegiality - "even among the fiercest competitors" - which had existed when he started out, "seems to have leached away".

Ryan said journalism had formed tribes, each with spear carriers "too quick to point out a competitor's unforced error, or too slow to judge that mistake against a career's worth of diligent and accurate reporting".

Relentless sniping - which went "both ways" - between media organisations had become tiresome, and he questioned whether readers or viewers really cared. The more important issue may be the impression those readers and viewers gain of an industry about which we all care intensely.

Ryan recalled journalist and "minor novelist" Charles Dickens' line about the best and worst of times" and suggested he might have been referring to the state of journalism today. Best for consumers of journalism; worst for reporters in shrinking newsroom and legacy media proprietors.

In a four-month global tour of "newsrooms, journalism schools and centres, start-ups, philanthropic media initiatives and Silicon Valley" prior to helping set up the institute, he says that "while we are certainly in the midst of massive disruption there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of journalism.

"People still want news, and there are increasing signs they are willing to pay for quality. They want great stories, told well in new and interesting ways in all kinds of formats we couldn't conceive of just a few years ago.

"And despite the roiling churn and chatter of social media, we still rely on traditional sources for information we can trust."

He recalled his as a "work experience kid" at the Adelaide News - an afternoon paper that published four editions daily - The Advertiser (as a copyboy) and at the Sun News-Pictorial in Melbourne, a "newspaper fortress" that turned out 1.1 million papers a day when he was there.

"Those days are, however, gone, and they ain't coming back, but, new and exciting days for journalism are ahead of us," he said.

While we are told that the old business model of journalism is dead, "new and interesting models" were emerging. He expected "a whole range of hybrid models - various combinations of commercial, not-for-profit, community-backed initiatives, philanthropy.

"All of these will probably make up the journalism landscape of the future."

This was where the Judith Neilson Institute hoped to play a role: "We have a simple mission - to encourage and celebrate quality journalism," he said.

Ryan envisaged a role which would "evolve and change in the years ahead", with the ultimate goal to get people to for pay for quality content. "But on the way towards that goal we believe the best way to support journalism is help get more of it done - do more of it, and do it better."

Collaborative projects so far had included a series with The Australian about China, helping The Guardian publish more on the Pacific, the Australian Financial Review to reopen its Jakarta bureau, and Nine to hire two indigenous journalists to work on a series on indigenous issues.

He said journalism "needs to be a broad church" and identified News Corp "somewhat unfashionably" as good for journalism". Without "agreeing with everything News does or says", he drew attention to "the body of work - the great journalism, great editors and reporters whose careers have been born and sustained under News mastheads over the past 60 years or so".

Though not a regular viewer of Sky After Dark, he urged "Andrew, Paul, and Chris and the others" to "knock yourselves out", and described Lenore Taylor of The Guardian as "one of the most talented and committed editors anywhere.

"She and her team generate great journalism that people are paying for."

Ryan "occasionally questioned" editorial decisions made by the ABC, but said "even (its) most vocal critics must concede that it consistently produces indispensable, first-class journalism".

He quoted (but not attributed) a journalist who said quality journalism was "grounded in facts while abounding in disagreements".

"Let's make it as robust as possible within the bounds of civil debate, but let's not continue with the infantile notion that one organisation or another is 'all good' or 'all bad'.

"We all know it's more complicated and more subtle than that."

Ryan says the JNI will work with all media players "where we think it can do some good"; with commercial players trying to make journalism pay; and will "try to lend a hand in places where it will always be hard to turn a profit. But above all we will help journalists spend more time chasing the story, because ultimately that is what really matters."

-Peter Coleman

Picture: NewsMediaWorks

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