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A Colonial Childhood, Hong Kong Deadline, Journalism, Observations, Opinion, Social Media

Does journalism die, not with a Thunderclap but a Tweet?

Twitter can be regarded as an update of the old ticker feed but it’s also a potent symbol of what’s shaking the foundations of traditional journalism.

When I was a kid I spent many evenings with my parents at the home of BK Tiwari, a fine journalist who, last I heard of many decades ago, was the London correspondent for the Indian Express.

But before that, he was based in Hong Kong and lived in a little flat in the mid-levels, halfway up The Peak above Central, where journalists would gather to tell their tall tales and their best stories, the ones that never made it into print.

I had no interest in the animated discussions going on in BK’s cramped living room but I was fascinated by the Telex ticker feed in his bedroom.

I would sit there for hours waiting for it to burst into life and start clattering out the news.

First it would sputter, then the ticker would start to rat-tat-tat, tantalisingly not moving, seemingly forever, as if jogging on the spot in readiness for a news marathon.

Every time I would hang on, breathlessly, for the moment when I would be first with the big story, in the whole world for all I knew, because all the journos in town seemed to be next door drinking BK’s Three-Finger Scotch  (whatever that meant).

Then a mysterious code of letters and numbers would be tapped out, followed by an exotic place name – Saigon, perhaps, or Jakarta.



“… Test.”

That’s the only news I got most evenings. But the possibility of so much more was ever present and it never failed to thrill me.

Was that the instinct of a natural born journalist or the natural born instinct of being human?

I think the latter and that’s bad news for traditional journalism.

Because now everyone carries a newsfeed around with them in their pocket or bag, 24/7 and, what’s more, instead of waiting passively for the next big story, every single one of us has the potential to break it – to the world.

The death of Osama bin Laden was broken with a humble Tweet.

BK, who I always imagined never quite sleeping, but leaping out of bed all night at the command of the ticker feed – now what would he have made of that?

I like to think he would have found it exciting, as exciting as I do, as exciting as we both found the drawn-out, noisy, frustrating old days of the ticker feed.

The question is not whether the instinct for news survives, but in what form and at what cost.

Rupert Murdoch, in his evidence to Leveson, was clearly rattled by what he calls the “disruptive technology” which is destroying the familiar business model he knows better than anyone.

Well, I wouldn’t want him in the starship anyway so he won’t be missed by me, but are we in danger of losing the best of traditional journalism while we jettison some of the worst?

My appetite for news is stronger than ever. Unfortunately, as the industry knows too well, what I pay is in startlingly diminishing contrast to what I consume.

But I’m not the enemy. I didn’t change. What changed was the delivery mechanism, this disruptive technology that baffles old men like Rupert Murdoch. As fast as they think they understand it, it changes again.

Eric Jackson, technology contributor at no less a respected source than Forbes is predicting the death of Facebook and Google within the next five years.

The reasons he gives are eerily similar to the challenges facing traditional publishers

“Even when it seems painfully obvious to everyone, there just doesn’t seem to be the capacity of these older companies to shift to a new paradigm,” he writes.

“Even as they pour billions at the problem, their primary business model which made them successful in the first place seems to override their expansion into some new way of thinking.”

I see precisely the same Death March in almost every step traditional publishers have taken on the road to oblivion simply because they are chasing the tail of a dragon they do not understand.

Chillingly for Mr Murdoch and his legacy, Jackson says your long-term viability as a company is becoming increasingly dependent on when you were born (his italics, not mine).

“Each generation is perceived to see the world in a very unique way that translates into their buying decisions and countless other habits.”

So what is next?

What will the social media generation pay for its news?

What would I pay for, because I’m an avid consumer of news and I’m standing ready, believe me, to fund a model which delivers what I want.

Let’s start with what I pay for now. I have subscriptions to Foxtel, Private Eye (print), Crikey (electronic) and 3G connection on my iPad. In addition I occasionally buy The Monthly and New Yorker via their iPad apps.

And what I consume every day:

  • Courier-Mail website (free)
  • Brisbane Times website (free)
  • ABC website (free)
  • Channel Nine or Seven evening news (free)
  • SBS evening news (free)
  • ABC evening news (free)
  • ABC 7.30 (free)
  • Crikey emailed newsletter (paid subscription)
  • Plus links via Twitter feed to the Guardian, Telegraph, New York Times, Washington Post, the New Yorker, the Times of India, Reuters, AP, Time, Newsweek, to name just a few (free).
  • And links via Twitter to individual journalists and a range of commentators, not to mention goofy celebrities, fake identities and kittens tweeting out road safey tips in haiku to leaven the loaf of my daily fare. All of them free. Every single day.

Add to that over the course of a week BBC World News, Sky, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert (on Foxtel, paid) and, via the Intenet, Have I Got News For You from Britain and Bill Maher from the US (free).

And of course a fortnightly dip into the delights of Private Eye (paid).

Read that list and weep if you’re a news provider looking for a monetised model for the future, and revel in this brave new world along with me if you’re the lucky consumer.

If I haven’t mentioned The Australian or the other paywalled News Ltd sites, it’s not because I never visit them (for free, because the paywall is ridiculously easy to penetrate) but because it’s so rare that I do.

In the case of The Australian, which I did once buy in print form on the weekends, I avoid its website for the same reason I no longer buy the paper. I got bored by one too many vendettas against people Chris Mitchell disagrees with which, in the end, overshadowed the good things about the Oz.

The Courier-Mail, which serves my hometown of Brisbane, is not yet behind a paywall. But it’s coming and I’m weighing up my purchasing decision.

I’m not averse to paying for my news and I’m certainly interested in what’s going on at home.

While News Ltd’s paywall may currently have a leak in it you could ram an iceberg through, I presume those highly paid executives of Rupert’s are earning their enormous salaries and trying to plug the hole.

So I presume that at some point I’ll have to make a financial decision about the Courier-Mail. It’s one I’m already weighing up carefully.

Spotted on the Courier-Mail website 4 May 2012

Finding under Breaking News that Miley Cyrus did something kind for a puppy is certainly a factor in my deliberations about whether the Courier-Mail website is something I want to pay for, or even whether I can be bothered to look at it for free.

Paywalls seem no more than the work of a dinosaur in its death throes.

Likewise the iPad app. I’ve subscribed to many (none of them continued) and, strangely in the circumstances, the best I’ve seen belongs to Rupert’s The Sun.

Unfortunately, the content of The Sun doesn’t interest me half as much as what’s being written about it elsewhere, which I’m devouring for that aforementioned $0.00, so I don’t actually bother with it.

The success of The Sun’s iPad app lies in its simplicity. It’s the newspaper, every page of it, presented just as if you were holding the ‘real’ thing in your hands.

Some other news iPad apps have come close to a model that delivers what you’d call your newspaper to your device but they can be clunky to load and navigate and, frankly, not worth my bother.

I enjoy magazines on my iPad when it feels like I’m holding the familiar print edition in a new, more convenient format. If Private Eye went the same route, I’d be delighted to transfer my subscription to a digital edition.

Newspapers missed a trick with apps that tried to mask a lack of content with flashy features.

All I ever wanted, it turns out, was an updated version of the thing that got me hooked on news in the first place – a rolling ticker feed.

Twitter provides me with a service which perfectly matches what I’m looking for as a consumer, so it would make sense to try and grab my dollar there and I’m sure somebody’s busy working out how to do it.

If I can assist, I’d be happy to subscribe to a Twitter feed in the same way I’m happy to pay for an emailed newsletter or an electronic or printed magazine.

The price would have to be low because I want to be able to afford a good range of sources and I’d want to make one regular payment to cover them all, preferably in a clearly priced package.

I’d be prepared to pay a premium rate for subscribing to established providers like Reuters or the Washington Post and I’d pay a lower rate for local news services and some entertainment news.

So why would I pay a premium on a Twitter feed, when I wouldn’t dream of paying a bean to some guy in Abbottabad just in case something happened next door to him one night?

The answer might help solve a bigger question of just what constitutes journalism, because the modern experience demonstrates more clearly than ever that it’s not about being first.

The desire to be first to know the news and be the one to get it out there is a human instinct that has to do with the fact we’re a social species and knowledge gives us status and power.

It sets us off on our journalistic hunt but it’s not what makes journalists valued, if indeed they are valued at all.

Walter Cronkite understood that, with his determination to get it right rather than get it fast.

We news consumers understand it too, and we value the people who take the time to get it right.

When a story breaks on Twitter from what I’ll call an alternative source, my first instinct is to check the majors, to verify it.

I’m checking out as many of you as I can, because I want as full a picture as you can give me. And I’m not going away, I’m interested.

I value the different perspectives and opinions which I can access instantly and in real time as a story develops. I value journalism.

But like dinosaurs crushing their own eggs upon which survival depends, publishers have been slashing at the editorial budget in favour of digital whizz-bangery for decades.

They scrambled for an Internet presence without ever really understanding the Internet and now they’ve misunderstood tablet and mobile technology.

Jackson again, back at the Forbes site (free):

“Those who own the future are going to be the ones who create it. It’s all up for grabs. Web monopolies are not as sticky as the monopolies of old.”

You want my dollar, Murdoch and Co?

Why not start paying journalists properly and giving them time to work on their stories instead of regurgitating media releases?

Why not bring back sub-editors who can craft an attention-grabbing headline in 120 characters, leaving space for a retweet, who will drive people like me to those stories and, if they’ve done their jobs, will keep me coming back?

Keep me interested by following up the breaking news stories with some well crafted, well researched and informed analysis and opinion on the longer term impacts you foresee.

If you’re any good, I’ll follow you and when there’s a button that asks me to pay for accessing your site just the way I do now, I will. I’m a news junkie.

And that’s the key. Find out what people like me want, and give it to us just that way. If you can’t get cash out of me, you’re not really trying.

The news genie is out of the bottle and dispersed, to every corner of the Twitterverse. And nothing will put it back.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there, people like me, who will happily pay for some help in making sense of it all.

It’s all in the delivery, and we need it now more than ever.

Further reading:

Digital journalism is broken by Andy Rutledge via @garonsen – A very good analysis of a number of current news websites and what they’re doing wrong.

Why publishers don’t like apps by Jason Pontin via @peterjblack

Is Twitter ruining journalism or are journalists ruining Twitter? by Jeff Sonderman

Does Twitter have a secret patent strategy? by Erik Sherman via @StKonrath

And a mention of Uncle BK’s flat in Chapter 3 of Dharamsala and Beijing: The Negotiations That Never Were by Claude Arpi

© Sally Baxter 2012

About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter, blogging as Sally Baxter. Now I'm writing under my name at www.mariaspackman.com covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.


5 thoughts on “Does journalism die, not with a Thunderclap but a Tweet?

  1. Terrific piece. Girl Reporter, you rock!


    Posted by Judith S. McCue | May 21, 2012, 5:24 am
  2. Nicely done Sally. I agree with you entirely. And thanks for the further references, which I will follow.

    By the way — you’re a junkie! 🙂


    Posted by Barry Tucker | January 26, 2013, 12:05 pm


  1. Pingback: In search of the new model journalism | Sally Baxter - February 24, 2013

  2. Pingback: Pity the poor journalist… | Australians For Honest Politics - February 24, 2013

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Your Girl Reporter is now filing as Maria Spackman at www.mariaspackman.com Same great content, whole new website. I’m leaving Sally Baxter up, as I can’t quite bring myself to let her go completely, but it’s time to honour my family name – and use it. Hope you’ll join me for the Further Adventures of a Girl Reporter. It’ll be fun.

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