I have just spent the past three months teaching first-year university students to be journalists.
In the same three months, journalists employed at Fairfax and News Ltd have been fighting for their livelihoods, with the help of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.
How do we explain this to these students, many of whom have made great sacrifices to do this course?
Firstly, we aim to arm them with the skills they’ll need to find employment, and secondly with some strategies – including a final semester lecture by journalist and media expert Margaret Simons titled “hope and despair”, outlining the fall and potential rise of the Australian media.
The fall, Simons argues, is due to the business model, not journalism itself. The advertising columns, known in the industry as “rivers of gold” may be dead, but the hunger for news is greater than ever, she argues.
And there are encouraging signs in the United States in particular that news is metamorphosing into something different and possibly viable.
She cites the birth of news sites that embrace the public, not just as readers but as participants. One such site has turned from bankruptcy to profit in just six months, using this model.
Here, the daily news conference is open to the public, as are the company’s resources and the staff coffee shop. In fact, news organisations with coffee shops are all the go in the US. In Australia, she cites Crikey, which now employs 12 journalists, instead of the six that it did two years ago.
We three tutors who are attending this lecture, along with half a lecture theatre of students, feel a small flutter of hope. Two of us are sessionals, paid by the hour for our face-to-face teaching, and a miserable amount for the mountains of marking. We are grateful for this 12 weeks’ of work, which, in a world where anyone can be a citizen journalist, is manna from heaven compared to the 65 cents a word we get paid for the occasional commissioned piece.
Perhaps we, too, can be part of new journalism, where Simons encourages us all to become experts, creating niche markets that subscribers and advertisers will happily pay for? You may be an expert on the Lilydale train line, she says, as an example.
We nod in agreement, and then remember that one such expert, who started his own news site in a country town, is also taking piecemeal work as a marker for this course.
Still, people like Margaret Simons have established themselves as experts in the field and are in demand, so there may be some truth in this. Some forms of paid journalism will survive, I am sure.
I am encouraged, but still skeptical.
At the same time, I try to practice what I preach by doing some research for a story of my own, only to find that the person I interview is also a writer. “If you don’t manage to get it in The Age,” he advises, try the Drum or The Conversation.”
I know about The Drum – the ABC opinion site – but I have not heard of The Conversation.
“It’s a site that publishes opinion from academics around Australia,” my contact says, adding that he writes for it regularly. I take a look and find that so does one of the other lecturers for the course I am teaching.
Protected by their academic wages, they can afford to write for nothing, which is good because that’s exactly what these particular news sites offer their writers – along with a long list of terms and conditions about copyright.
I wonder how lawyers would feel about the future of their profession if they found that their client was also practicing law, as a hobby – for nothing.
I feel depressed.
First published in 2011. Since then, the added economic blow of Covid-19 has hastened the death of community newspapers in Australia, resulting in the loss of jobs and community connection. Other media organisations are hanging on – but just. International Education Specialists, which offers services to international students wishing to study in Australia, says there are currently 134 journalism courses offered here.