Gamut’s Gambit: Blogging the failures of journalism

An extraordinary thing happened in the reporting of this year’s Australian Federal election. A blogger’s shot across the bows of journalists hit its mark. The anonymous Canberran blog Grog’s Gamut drew blood with his post on Friday 30 July about media waste and mismanagement. Many others have written about the shallowness of media election coverage, but Grog struck the biggest chord when he said 95 percent of the journalists following Gillard and Abbott around the country were not doing their job properly and should come home. He backed up his comments with a personal story that rung deeply true.

Grog’s post was important reading. But in the past such criticism would have been buried in the wastelands of cyberspace. What made this different was the power of Twitter, where so many journalists keep their alter egos. Instead of killing blogging as many predicted, social media has instead “deepened it, [and] given it more clarity and heft”. Grog’s post has been re-tweeted 266 times with many influential people including ABC boss Mark Scott, Lateline host Leigh Sales, The Chaser’s Chas Liacciardello and The Australian’s media writer Amanda Meade chiming in. Grog caused journalists the most severe bout of introspection seen in this country since blogging took off in the early 2000s.As James Massola wrote in the Australian on the weekend, not all journalists (including his own dismissive headline writer) liked the criticism. Herald Sun political reporter Ben Packham took issue with some assertions in the piece, as did the Sun-Herald’s Jessica Wright. “Across Twitter a conversation bubbled and crackled as journalists and readers debated the merits of reportage from the campaign trail,” Massola wrote. “Such a public conversation about journalism was unimaginable five years ago.”

Three years ago in the last federal election campaign Massola’s bosses at The Australian penned the most infamous denunciation of bloggers this country has seen. The editorial of 12 July 2007 righteously thundered about the “the self appointed experts online…from the extreme Left, populated as many sites are by sheltered academics and failed journalists who would not get a job on a real newspaper.” The Australian was defending its interpretation of opinion polls under increasing attack by knowledgeable bloggers Possum’s Pollytics, The Poll Bludger, and Mumble.

All three have been co-opted into the mainstream (the first two at Crikey, the third at The Australian). The mainstream has bigger issues to worry about than bloggers, plagued by falling circulations, declining ad revenues and the trivialisation of online news. Those journalists who follow politicians around the country are overworked and underpaid. In responses to Grog’s post (though neither acknowledged him) the ABC’s Annabel Crabb and News Ltd’s Sally Jackson defended the press pack. They said the problem was caused by secretive politicians, fast-moving campaigns, 16 hour days and the lack of time to absorb important decisions. Neither acknowledged any failings by the journalists.

Scott Rosenberg, writer of the best book yet on blogging (“Say Everything”), says journalists cannot handle criticism. He quotes recent US examples of reporters snapping and sneering when attacked. He points to a common complaint that journalists don’t like being held to the standards of accountability they expect from others. Rosenberg puts it down to the profession’s “pathological heritage of self-abnegation”. When something goes wrong with the system, they count on the system to protect them.

Bloggers have never been beholden to a bigger system and find it easier to accept complaint. They rely on crowdsourcing to make up for the lack of an editor. Rosenberg says this accepting attitude is now more common in younger journalists who have a different relationship to their own work and the public. Most journalists are also getting used to reading blogs or running blogs themselves, changing attitudes towards the medium and those who write in it. The “running, linked blog” was one of Guardian editor’s Alan Rusberger’s ideas for how journalism might reinvent itself as it faces up to uncertainties.

There are few Rusbergers in Australia. Most editors here are still wedded to old ways and remain a stumbling block to reform of media reporting. Grog’s post was not addressed at journalists. His first sentence read: “Here’s a note to all the news directors around the country: Do you want to save some money?” Among many incisive comments (which is another wonderful thing about blogs) was one from an anonymous member of the travelling press gallery. “There is no time to eat, to find a bottle of water, to go to the toilet,” the commenter wrote. “Just a relentless demand for more and more copy, faster and faster.”

Writing in Crikey Margaret Simons said we had to have sympathy for the journalists on the campaign trail who rarely have time to think. What is lacking, she said, was editorial judgement. Simons said editors are not exercising independent judgement about what is worth reading and the stories (such as the weekend’s Latham debacle) descend into solipsistic nonsense. “For goodness sake, get the reporters off the bus!” Simons wrote. “Refuse to let your staff be treated with such contempt. Tell them they should not let it happen.” Simons suggested the people formerly known as the audience solve the problem. Taking her cue from Wikileaks, she asked “Could there be an election wiki, perhaps, giving the policy information the media is largely failing to provide?” Over to us.

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