RETRO GAMING GETS A NEW LIFE
By John Nelder
October 21 2016
It’s September 1983, and the New Mexican desert is the site of a grim scene. An empty grave sits in the dust. Two unblinking eyes stare into its depths. There’s room enough for a hundred bodies in there, maybe two.
But this is no ordinary burial. Rather, it’s to be the dumping ground for thousands of unsold Atari video games. Or so the legend goes. The once untouchable Atari empire has fallen prey to a flooded games market. So, too, has the entire US industry.
Against this foreboding backdrop, Japanese company Nintendo makes the brave call to launch a new gaming console in the States – the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Looking back, RMIT games design associate lecturer James Manning sees the NES release as an historic moment.
“It was the saviour of the US games industry,” he says.
“Nintendo created a whole new ecosystem with the NES.”
It was an ecosystem built on blocky pixels, 8-bit colour palettes, chip music and classic gameplay. And it soon had kids cross-legged and hypnotised around the world.
“It was an assemblage of technology that lent itself to game design,” Manning explains.
“Hero designers like Shigeru Miyamoto were able to infuse games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda with hidden treasures and imaginative moments.”
Cut to 2016 and these adventures are set to return to our screens. November 10 marks the release of Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition – a miniature modern replica of the original console.
But in a market now crowded with mobile games, tablet games and modern consoles, just how successful a re-boot will it be?
A look at Nintendo’s market share since 2001 shows the company is no longer the dominant force it once was in the halcyon days of the 1980s.
Nintendo, like other console manufacturers, has clearly taken a hit at the hands of a perpetual innovation economy. But what the official numbers fail to capture is the huge underground market for retro games that has continued to thrive.
“Whether it’s through eBay or online emulators, all of those classic games have always been underground in multiple ecologies,” Manning says.
“So the idea of a NES comeback is perhaps a misnomer – it’s always existed in less official markets.”
Bartronica Arcade Bar owner Josh Egan agrees, saying classic games have never lost their allure.
“One of Nintendo’s all-time great games, Donkey Kong – we’ve got the original arcade here at Bartronica from America. People are still chasing the high score on that game,” he says.
And it might well be a nostalgia for childhood that’s fuelling that. Data shows that the average age of gamers is fast increasing.
For Nintendo, this trend could translate to a big market for the NES Classic Edition – namely older NES fans whose portal back to childhood is a mere Pac-Man maze away.
RMIT games design associate lecturer Mr Manning describes this sense as a kind of reawakening.
“It’s about recapturing the beauty of youth – regaining what’s lost as we become adults in our global, capitalist ways,” he explains.
“It’s the opposite of work. It’s framed as play, it’s consensual and we buy into it.”
Also buying into it is the younger generation of gamers, according to Bartronica owner Mr Egan.
“Nintendo still has a very large following. And people who are not familiar with the NES are going to want to see where Nintendo started, really. So they’re going to want to explore this,” he predicts.
Younger gamers are much more accustomed to newer generations of consoles. But Mr Manning of RMIT believes the lo-fi magic of the NES cannot be underestimated.
“We can enjoy the puppet show as much as we can enjoy the latest sci-fi blockbuster,” he says.
And like puppetry, the NES console is steeped in a fascinating tradition. The below scatter chart shows just where it sits in the pantheon of consoles.
Its prolonged success compares favourably to other consoles from its era and marks a key milestone in the industry’s history.
Now more than twenty years after it was yanked from the shelves, it seems fitting the NES should get a new life.
“It marks the coming of age of the gaming industry,” Manning says.
“It’s a maturation of the art form.”
If the NES Classic Edition does succeed, it’ll be good news not just for the industry but also for the conservation of New Mexico’s deserts.
THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS: BUSINESS JOURNALISM’S UNLIKELY SAVIOUR
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America’s most powerful banker stands aghast in Times Square, his trademark leather suitcase nowhere to be seen. In its place is a cardboard box containing what little he could salvage from his office upstairs. The light goes green and Richard Fuld crosses the street.
Back on the other side is the dire mess he leaves behind. It’s the rubble of the Lehman Brothers collapse – the very bank he chairs. Now that Lehman’s is going down, it’s about to bring the rest of America, and indeed the world, with it.
It might seem like the stuff of fiction, but fast-forward eight years and it’s clear the story of the global financial crisis (GFC) is one that still resonates today. It unshackled the business pages from their Wall Street moorings and helped them find a whole new audience on screen and even in Hollywood movies.
One person who saw it all unfold is SBS and ex-ABC TV business reporter Whitney Fitzsimmons.
“Before the GFC hit, only finance boffins were into business journalism,” Fitzsimmons says. “The GFC normalised business journalism and made it relevant to everyone.”
Fitzsimmons is not wrong. Crikey estimates that Australian investors lost some $40 billion at the hands of the GFC, be it from suspect mortgage funds or overzealous margin lenders.
Why, then, did business journalism fail to foresee such a crisis brewing? Why did it fail to hold companies to account in the public interest?
The answer, according to economist Joseph Stiglitz, is that business journalists had become way too cosy with the business sources and press releases they relied on. The boom years leading up to the GFC had produced a complacency that was hard to shake.
Just ask US author Dean Starkman. His analysis of more than 200,000 business stories from the boom years uncovered only 730 that were sceptical in tone. Journalists had evidently become beholden to the vested interests of the companies they were covering.
That’s when the GFC struck like a brick through Ben Bernanke’s window. It was precisely the wake up call that business journalism needed. No longer would reporters be content with pandering to big business. Instead it was now time for the profession to start holding companies to account in the public interest.
And indeed that’s precisely what’s happened both here and abroad. Since the GFC, business journalists haven’t been afraid to tackle investigative stories that strike at the heart of corporate greed. Think Panama Papers, the Unaoil bribes scandal, bungled insurance claims at CommInsure and the Volkswagen emissions scandal.
So popular have these finance yarns become since the GFC that they now tend to find their way onto multiple platforms. The Unaoil story, for instance, was broken jointly by Fairfax and Huffington Post. And the CommInsure story broke across TV, radio, print and online thanks to a joint investigation between Fairfax and the ABC.
Fitzsimmons, in her role as business journalist, has seen this evolution first hand.
“When I first started at the ABC in the early 2000s, I would only have to file my stories for a specific designated audience of either TV or radio,” she says.
“But these days at the ABC, you arrive early in the morning and your chief of staff will tell you to file a story for radio and online, make a TV package and even do a live cross for ABC News 24 all on the same day.”
With this change of workflows comes a whole new set of required skills on the part of the business reporter. A business journalist like Fitzsimmons must now be able to cut stories on the fly using desktop editing software.
“Some journalists are better at it than others,” she concedes.
“Personally, though, I think it’s a good thing. Doing it all yourself is a lot quicker.”
Fitzsimmons, though, is quick to point out the difference between working in the public broadcasting and commercial broadcasting spheres.
“The system is flawed. At a commercial broadcaster like Channel 7, every journalist has their own story producer even though they’re working in just the one medium of TV.”
Fitzsimmons, on the other hand, didn’t have this same support at the ABC where she churned out business stories across TV, radio and online. All of her business reporting came off her own bat, as did that of her colleagues. Unfortunately it’s a gulf that exists purely by virtue of the underlying economics. One need only look at the comparative advertising figures to see it.
Public broadcaster SBS, for instance, recorded TV revenue of $73.4 million in 2013/14 – its highest ever. Compare that to the total advertising revenue earned by commercial broadcasters in that year of $3.9 billion. SBS’ share is a mere two per cent. It’s little wonder, then, that business reporters at public broadcasters need a wider skillset to be able to survive on fewer resources.
But resources aside, never has there been a better time to be a business reporter in the public broadcast sphere than in this post-GFC world. A public burned by the GFC is a public that needs the truth on corporations more than ever before. And that’s precisely what public broadcasters offer. It’s the ABC and SBS that are in the best position to serve the public good, free of the vested interests of shareholders and advertisers.
Business journalists at these outlets are providing a non-partisan information base. And that’s why the audience trusts them. An Ipsos MORI survey in 2015 in Britain proves it, showing that BBC News was by far the most popular choice among Brits seeking impartial news coverage.
Now that business journalism has become so popular in the wake of the GFC, so too has it become an increasingly competitive field. How, then, can a business journalist separate oneself from the pack?
“By defining your own brand and style,” says Fitzsimmons.
“Don’t simply be a broadcaster. Distinguish yourself by writing op-ed pieces on the side and pitching them to The Australian or Alan Kohler.”
So ubiquitous has business journalism become now that it boasts 24-hour cable channels and a host of specialised websites. Sky News Business Channel, Motley Fool and The Street are just a few.
“You can really carve a niche,” Fitzsimmons says.
For Fitzsimmons, that niche is small business. In her new role of executive TV producer for SBS Small Business Secrets, she is leading it from the front.
And again it’s the events of the GFC that have paved the way.
“People watched the collapse of banks – these large companies that used to be symbols of safety,” she says.
“In a climate like that, people want to take control of their own destiny.”
Add to that the advances in technology that are lowering barriers to entry and it’s easy to see why there is a growing small business movement to report on. Small business now employs 44 per cent of all Australian workers.
If there’s one criticism that can be levelled at the profession, it’s the knowledge gap that exists in some quarters. The GFC shone a spotlight on this very issue. Financial markets had become a victim of their own complexity such that not even our most seasoned reporters could see the crisis awaiting us.
A study by Gillian Doyle found that training was indeed inadequate for journalists working in the business space. It took the shock of the GFC to lift the veil on a complex web of leverage and regulatory failures that the press had largely failed to anticipate.
Mums, dads, workers and retirees all lost money hand over fist. That is why they now insist on knowing more about the inner working of companies. It’s their own money that’s at stake.
But the reality is that the business reporter is still not getting the specialised education he or she needs to dig up the best dirt on companies. Only colleges in the States tend to offer specialist courses in business journalism.
But even so, educational bona fides aren’t a must. One business reporter who’s a testament to that is ABC finance presenter Del Irani. She studied business, but has not needed to study journalism to succeed in her career.
“It’s the on the job experience that teaches you the most valuable lessons,” she says.
“Initially I found it hard to get journalism work here in Australia, so I went overseas and worked as an intern and producer at Thomson Reuters. That’s where I really learned a lot.”
Irani’s career is proof that a journalism education is not the path into this field.
“What’s really important is to learn practical on-the-job skills like pitching stories and getting a good news sense”, she says.
“It’s all about having a good nose for news.”
Whatever one’s education, there’s no underestimating the value of good journalistic instincts. Bethany McLean is a prize case in point. In 2001, her employer Fortune magazine named Enron Corporation the “Most Innovative Company in America.”
But McLean herself wasn’t convinced. Her sources were telling her something was awry at Enron. But when she then looked into their accounts, she couldn’t even determine the most elementary fact – how the company made its money. So at the next press conference, she just came right out and asked it. To this day it remains an historic moment in business journalism – one that marked the beginning of the end for the Enron empire.
In today’s post-GFC world, journalists are now more equipped than ever to seek out these kinds of corporate truths. It’s all thanks to the advent of data journalism. The sheer scale and range of digital information now available lets us analyse anything with numbers. This is changing the way business journalism is delivered.
It’s why Alan Kohler presents the ABC’s finance news each night with impressive infographics behind him. It’s why Greg Jericho at The Guardian has built a big readership on the strength of his data-driven stories. Just last week, Jericho was able to poke holes through treasurer Scott Morrison’s so-called economic vision. And it was his charts that really did the talking.
Numbers, like mirrors, don’t tend to lie. Data journalism has opened up the floodgates to a whole new level of company analysis. In other words, it’s enlightening readers like never before. And that’s welcome news for everyone who lost their shirts in the GFC.
If, as they say in finance, the past is the best predictor of the future, then it’s fair to say business journalism is on the up. Its size, scope and variety have all flourished since the GFC such that any future GFC might well be foretold in time. And if there’s one thing the crisis has taught us, it’s just how important a watchdog role the business media must play in holding companies and governments to account.
“The fallout is still playing out,” Irani says.
“That’s why we’re still seeing big stories like the Greece debt crisis and Brexit coming off the back of it.”
Business stories are now squarely in the public gaze. So, too, are the sorts of Wall Street moguls who might try to pull another Lehman Brothers scam. It’s a good thing, then, that Richard Fuld has remained in hiding ever since he crossed that street.
DVDs spun out of the race
3 June 2016
By John Nelder
Online movie streaming has been slowly killing off the DVD hire industry, a new report has found.
The IBISWorld report by Anthony Kelly found that the size of the industry more than halved over the past five years, with 1,381 stores closed and 6,354 jobs cut.
But Ross Walden of the Australian Video Rental Retailers Association was skeptical of the report’s claims.
“I don’t like IBISWorld reports. Their research is flawed and I don’t know where they get their information from,” he said.
Kelly, though, was adamant about the veracity of all statistics used.
“Revenue figures were compiled from company annual reports, Australian Bureau of Statistics data and growth trends from the Australian Home Entertainment Distributors Association,” he said.
And according to the report, those revenues were now due to dip by 32% this year with online streaming services now reaching 53% of the Australian population.
One such user, Katherine Hernandez, 30, of Carlton, said that she preferred online streaming over hiring DVDs for reasons of convenience.
“It’s much easier to lift a remote than to walk a store,” she said.
But the DVD hire industry has tried to address this by introducing DVD kiosks in shopping centres as a more convenient alternative to traditional stores.
“Streaming, though, still offers me a much wider range of TV series and sports,” Hernandez said.
“And streaming has also entered live content, so I can watch sports live whenever I like,” she said.
Demand for streaming services has been further buoyed the National Broadband Network rollout across regional Australia – one of the last remaining strongholds for the DVD hire industry.
Those few DVD hire outlets still thriving were the ones renting foreign language or specialty genre films.
The long-term industry outlook was bleak, with revenue expected to continue sliding by 15.7% per annum over the next five years.
Comedy festival no laughing matter for performers
3 June 2016
By John Nelder
When the curtain closed on Melbourne International Comedy Festival last month, performer Dave Maney felt strangely melancholic.
Maney – like so many of his fellow comedians – was suffering from an ailment known as ‘post-show blues.’
UTS psychology research fellow Dr Clementine Thurgood likened it to the sort of comedowns felt by post-wedding brides or post-premiership sporting teams.
“A performer can be totally obsessed with preparing a show for months. And then when they don’t have that to work on anymore, their whole sense of purpose is lost,” she said.
Butterfly Club publicity manager Tom Dickins said such self-doubts were fuelled even further by performers’ own sensitive artistic temperaments.
“They say things like ‘does anyone care about my art and does it have a lasting impact on the universe? What am I doing with my life? I’m a fraud!’,” he joked.
Maney, who performed ‘Love Onion’ at Adelaide Fringe Festival in March, described his post-show blues experience as a bubble-like effect.
“When you’re performing, you’re out of your normal surroundings, surrounded by people doing the same. It validates your choice to make art, being in that bubble. Then once you’re done, you’re no longer in that bubble,” he said
He also stressed how hard it was to return to the mundane realities of life after the emotional highs of performing.
“On stage, you indulge traits of your personality that are outside of the norm and you play out things you wish you could do in real life.”
The cure for post-show blues, according to Dr Thurgood, was to manage one’s expectations.
“Try and carry on with your life. See a counsellor if you need. Try not to obsess over it,” she said.
Dickins agreed, suggesting that helping others was a good way to move forward.
“If you haven’t got your next project lined up, think of the people who’ve supported you in your work and turn around and support them with theirs,” he said.
As for Maney himself, he was quite content with the idea of a meditation retreat or going off the grid.
Guess who’s coming to dinner…again
3 June 2016
By John Nelder
It’s long past sundown and a suspicious man is seen loitering outside the Veneto Club in Bulleen. But this is no ordinary loiterer. With him is a Channel 9 news crew, cameras at the ready. Inside, meanwhile, Menzies MP Kevin Andrews is launching his 2016 election campaign with all the fanfare of a film premiere. The black-tied Young Liberals are there. So, too, is former prime minster Tony Abbott. Together they chatter about conservative ideals amid the din of silver cutlery.
But what of the lone figure that lays in wait outside? Stephen Mayne is his name and he’s hell bent on spoiling Andrews’ party. Lights, camera, action. In he charges, camera crew in tow, to hand out flyers for his own independent campaign to unseat the MP. “I’d like to think it was very respectfully done, though,” Mayne tells me over coffee. “When security asked me to stop, I did. And I was well dressed. I’m not an aggressive rabble-rouser.”
Gatecrashing Andrews’ fundraiser is just the latest in a long line of incidents that have defined Mayne’s career. Mayne – a journalist, councillor and shareholder activist – has built his reputation on making a right nuisance of himself. He’s publically blasted Rupert Murdoch at News Corp’s annual general meetings. He’s blown the whistle on former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett. He’s been sued for defamation by radio host Steve Price. And he’s been pushed off stage at the Walkleys by veteran journalist Glenn Milne.
These are just some of the names that have fallen prey to Mayne’s crusade for ethics in public life. Now Menzies MP Kevin Andrews – who is accused of branch stacking – finds himself the latest target in Mayne’s sights. “My journalistic training taught me about holding the rich and powerful to account,” he says. “And my mother was a good, ethical churchgoer who taught me to always tell the truth, always treat people with respect – don’t be corrupt.”
Mayne’s fight for ethics began while working as a press secretary under former premier Jeff Kennett. “That was where I first saw power being abused by the Liberal Party and so I took Jeff Kennett on after that,” he says. He went on to launch the infamous jeffed.com to voice his anti-Kennett sentiments. This would inspire him to launch Crikey – an independent news site that would eventually net him $1 million.
No doubt this was a blessing for the family man who these days spends just as much time taxiing his kids to basketball games as he does in public life. But is he ever haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past? “Well, I chat to Jeff Kennett occasionally when I see him at the opening of the Flower and Garden Show as he can’t avoid me,” he jokes. “I think Jeff was a bit of a bully in government, but without too much power he’s a lot better and he’s good fun and his policies I’ve got much greater respect for as time passes.”
Mayne’s relationship with the Liberal Party has indeed been a love-hate one. As a schoolboy he snagged a memorable handshake with John Howard. But his impressions of him would soon change. “I was one of those ‘triple R Liberals’ – republic, refugees and reconciliation. I found Howard unacceptable on those social issues,” he says. And it’s precisely that old guard of Liberal that he’s now set to take on in his gung-ho bid to unseat Kevin Andrews.
Corporates, too, can’t escape Mayne’s wrath. Some of his biggest barneys have ricocheted off the marble walls of some of Australia’s biggest annual general meetings. As a shareholder activist, he often holds the floor at meetings, going to toe-to-toe with the presiding directors. “Often things will get heated with Westfield chairman Frank Lowy,” he says. “He was yelling at me last week, telling me to do something useful with my life.” Mayne has also drawn the ire of Harvey Norman chairman Gerry Harvey. “Gerry once said – quote – ‘no one’s ever interrupted my meeting before. I’m gonna get you later.’”
One man who’s seen it all first-hand is former Australian Shareholders’ Association chairman Ian Curry. “Stephen’s much more aggressive as an activist than I am,” he says. “He is forthright in his dealings with people. He’ll argue his case but if he loses it, he says ‘okay that’s done.’ So I’ve got a great regard for him.”
How, then, will this bold style translate to his tilt at Kevin Andrews’ seat of Menzies? “Well, he’s already made big changes at Melbourne City Council,” says Curry. Mayne has chaired the council’s Finance and Governance Committee since 2012. “The downside sometimes is that if he’s got a good cause, he can put people off with the way he goes about it.”
Indeed, political success is something Mayne has had to learn through trial and error. “The start-up political party called People Power in 2006 was an abject failure,” Mayne concedes. “I spent $40,000, we barely got 1% of the vote, we were dysfunctional and we collapsed on all of our own internal contradictions.”
His tilts at company boards have met with a similar fate. “The tilts I do for office are not about winning – they’re more about influencing and changing,” he explains. “Yes I am Australia’s biggest electoral loser, but I don’t view that as a serious problem because I wasn’t trying to win in the first place. It’s all been part of changing culture in corporate Australia.”
Taking up that ethical fight now brings Mayne face-to-face with Kevin Andrews in his bid for Menzies. And with the Channel 9 news crew still behind him, he hands out the last of his flyers to Andrews’ black-tied guests. Security, it seems, are closing in. But will the voters want him in come election day? “I’m in this to win it – I’m so serious that I’m resigning from council,” he says. “I just raised it an hour ago with the head of governance.”
The impact of private enterprise media on the quality of journalism
May 22 2016
By John Nelder
Private enterprise has long been seen as an engine of economic growth (Berger & Udell 1998). And the media industry has proven no exception. From the advent of the steam press for printing newspapers to the advent of the light bulb for reading them, change has always been driven by commercial innovation (Clay 2015). Yet these same commercial forces are now exerting undue influence on the quality of journalism. Fair reporting is being undermined by the business considerations of sales, advertising and private media ownership.
Advertisers – important as they are for media revenues – do tend to cloud journalistic independence. Research by the American Journalism Historians Association cites a Soley and Craig study of 147 newspaper editors in which more than a third said that advertisers were successful in influencing the editorial content of their newspapers (DeLorme & Fedler 2005). Locally, too, there have been many such examples. As recently as April 7, News Corp drew the ire of critics for its handling of a story on banking. The story centred on a speech made by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Westpac’s 199th birthday event. Turnbull, rather than pandering to the brand, spoke openly of banks’ failures to look after their customers. It was an attack that made front page news across the country (Dyer & Robin 2016). The Herald Sun, however, buried the story in its business section. Instead, its front page was a prominent Westpac advertisement (Dyer & Robin 2016). Such is the power of the advertising dollar in driving editorial change.
Fairfax, too, has been guilty of bowing to the might of advertisers. In March 2016, Crikey reported that Fairfax’s regional newspapers were carrying advertisements disguised as news articles on their front pages (Robin 2016). What may have first appeared to be genuine news stories were in fact paid ads for fantasy sports betting company TopBetta. In a journalistic sense, this is clear example of allowing advertising to undermine accuracy, fairness or independence – something that’s frowned upon by the MEAA Code of Ethics (MEAA 2016). The same can be said of News Corp’s Westpac example above.
Proving just as damaging to journalistic integrity is the impact of sales pressure. The commercial reality is that media outlets live and die by their circulation or ratings figures. And according to communications law scholars Scott Beattie and Elizabeth Beal, this is likely to result in a less critical media more geared to entertainment (Hart 2008). History is littered with tabloid excursions in gossip, scandal and sensationalism. A shining example is that of Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of The London Sun in 1969 (Hart 2008). By introducing sex, sport and sensationalism to the reader, Murdoch was able to transform the then-struggling masthead into a highly profitable venture. All of these profits, however, have come at the expense of accuracy and fairness in reporting. The MEAA Code of Ethics holds these to be important standards of journalism (MEAA 2016).
Like the UK, Australia’s own media has also fallen prey to commercial tabloid excess. So entrenched has it become in our culture that chequebook journalism is now commonplace. The 2006 Beaconsfield Mine collapse, for example, saw survivors Todd Russell and Brant Webb paid $2.6 million by Channel 9 for exclusive access to their story (Dean 2015). The story made for a ratings bonanza, but it came at the expense of fair reporting. The MEAA Code of Ethics condemns any payments that undermine accuracy, independence or fairness (MEAA 2016). Once again this tension between fair reporting and ratings would play out in the fallout from last year’s Martin Place café siege (Dean 2015).
The UK tabloids’ thirst for circulations would eventually reach boiling point, with News Corp employees being charged over a phone-hacking scandal. The end result would be the Leveson inquiry in the UK and the Finkelstein report here in Australia. A raft of recommendations for media reform would ensue – all with the aim of improving fairness in reporting (McNair 2015).
One issue not so easily addressed, however, is the impact that private ownership agendas have on fair reporting. A 2006 Roy Morgan Research survey found that media workers were influenced by the commercial agenda of their employers. (Hart 2008). More than 37 per cent had been instructed to toe the commercial line and 16 per cent has been instructed to take into account their employer’s political position (Hart 2008). This is an issue for journalism in that the MEAA Code of Ethics cautions against personal interests or beliefs encroaching on accuracy, fairness or independence.
Murdoch’s agenda is perhaps the most powerful of all. His company News Corp accounts for 70 per cent of Australia’s metropolitan newspaper circulation (Hart 2008). His own mood, therefore, can make or break a government in terms of what coverage gets granted. Murdoch tends to support those candidates whose policies are most aligned with his own commercial interests (McKnight 2013). And his journalists – in toeing that agenda – can compromise their own fairness in reporting. One of the most overt cases in recent times was the front page of The Sunday Telegraph on September 1 2013 (McMahon 2013). The headline ‘Australia needs Tony’ was a blatant show of support for Tony Abbott’s coalition in the looming election – an election the party would ultimately win.
Murdoch has also exerted his influence on general elections in the UK. The 1992 campaign, for example, saw Labour leader Neil Kinnock targeted by The Sun. The front page headline ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’ proved a death knell for his campaign. Murdoch, by knocking him out of the race, had backed the Conservatives to victory as the party most sympathetic to his business interests (British Library 2016).
The upshot of Murdoch’s power is that it has encouraged the sprouting of new independent media voices. One such voice is Crikey – the news website originally founded by Stephen Mayne. Mayne has never shied away from criticising the Murdoch establishment, culminating in an infamous incident at the 2006 Walkley Awards (SBS TV 2006). Mayne was presenting an award before the crowd, only to be pushed off stage by News Corp journalist Glenn Milne in an apparent drunken rage. It is outlets like Crikey that are breaking down commercial barriers to restore fairness in reporting.
Accuracy, though, is another journalistic standard under threat from the private enterprise model. This is particularly true of investigative reporting. The media is so inextricably linked to the interests of owners and advertisers alike that it can be hard to tread on certain toes. When Ian Verrender was a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2010, he wrote a column about the sexual harassment claims made against disgraced former David Jones chief Mark McInnes. Upon running it, though, his editor received “the usual call” from David Jones requesting that no further stories be run on the issue (Manning 2015). Clearly, David Jones was able to leverage its power as one of the paper’s major advertisers.
Commercial forces evidently play a major role in the media. As the economy continues to grow, so too will the commercial forces that undermine journalism. But the rise of new voices such as Crikey shows that some outlets are finding new ways to play the commercial arena. In the words of Winston Churchill, some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Not enough people see it as a healthy horse, pulling a sturdy wagon (Forbes quotes 2015).
Turn the radio up: The art of the radio interview
May 4 2016
By John Nelder
The CommInsure scandal: a case study in cross-platform journalism
March 30 2016
By John Nelder
When Fairfax and the ABC joined forces this month to expose bungled claims at CommInsure, they broke the story across multiple platforms. Scores tuned in to watch it on Four Corners. Scores more viewed it on The Age website. And many more heard it on ABC Radio, read it in the Fairfax papers or consumed any combination thereof. Such is the converging nature of modern media. Cross-platform journalism, as it’s dubbed, is defined by SVN eMagazine as “a form of cross-media cooperation, usually involving broadcast, print, photography and internet sites”. According to Stephen Quinn in Pacific Journalism Review, the driving force behind it is cheaper digital technology “making possible new forms of storytelling”. What the CommInsure story did was to showcase cross-platform journalism in full flight. It also shed light on what distinguishes one media outlet’s approach from another – be it issues of ownership, audience or style.
A key strength of cross-platform journalism – according to the book ‘Online Journalism Ethics’ published in 2007 – is that it partners news outlets together to reach a broader audience. Inherent in such a model is the ability to “more comprehensively expose a public ill”. And that is precisely what Fairfax and the ABC achieved by jointly breaking the CommInsure story across all of their pooled platforms. The story was a particularly scandalous one in that CommInsure was shown to have denied claim payouts to sick and terminally ill policyholders. By exposing the insurer’s unethical behaviour across Four Corners, Radio National, ABC Online, Fairfax Digital and The Age & Australian Financial Review newspapers, the ABC and Fairfax were able to maximise the story’s impact. The end result has been an ASIC investigation into the insurer that could culminate in a Royal Commission. According to the Herald Sun on March 17, this has forced the Financial Services Council to “beef up its draft code of conduct for life insurers”.
The cross-platform approach taken by Fairfax and the ABC was befitting of the investigative angle they were pushing. In an article published in the 2012 Pacific Journalism Review, director of the Centre for Investigative Reporting Robert Rosenthal spoke highly of this tactic. The key, he said, to modern investigative journalism is to “tell the story in a lucid, coherent way and to think about how we can use the evolving technology and push things out on every platform”. He also argued that a not-for-profit model is the best means of ensuring investigative integrity. Enter the ABC – our public broadcaster. ABC managing director Mark Scott has spoken publicly of his “belief in investigative journalism as a necessary condition of the authentic democratic life”. It’s little wonder, then, that the ABC spearheaded the CommInsure investigation. Fairfax proved to be an ideal media partner, willing to collaborate and help push the story out on every platform.
In breaking the CommInsure story, Fairfax and the ABC used the full gamut of platforms at their disposal. A comparison of the TV, radio, online and print coverage helps build an overall picture of just how effective a story it was. It all began with Adele Ferguson’s one-hour report on ABC TV’s Four Corners program on March 7 2016. Right from the outset, the show pulls no punches in its condemnation of CommInsure. In the opening seconds host Sarah Ferguson stares down the barrel of the camera, asking “which bank cheats some of its most vulnerable customers in their hour of need? Which Bank? The Commonwealth Bank”. According to 2011 book ‘Reporting in a multimedia world’, opening with such a question can be an effective means of sparking curiosity in a feature story. The show then weaves a slowly evolving narrative built around several intimately framed interviews. Key people interviewed were terminally ill CommInsure policyholders, former CommInsure chief medical officer turned whistleblower Dr Koh, medical experts and lawyers, all of whom painted the insurer in a damning light. Importantly, though, the show also granted Commonwealth Bank CEO Ian Narev his right of reply. This is because the ABC has “a statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism”. These are the very words that appear in the ABC Code of Practice 2016, along with provisions for ‘fair and honest dealings’.
Rather than stand alone, however, the material used in the Four Corners report became the centrepiece for the ABC and Fairfax’s much wider cross-platform story. The morning after the show was aired, a major three-part interactive online story appeared in The Age’s online edition. Plain text, though, was hardly the focal point. Instead, readers were greeted with audiovisual displays of the very same interviewees featured on Four Corners – namely the terminally ill policyholders who had been denied claims. The interviews were again intimately framed to carry maximum emotional impact. Meanwhile, the style of writing used was that of a feature article, deviating from the pyramid news formula. What Fairfax achieved here was to differentiate its online audience from its print audience. Research published in 2015 in the Journal of Communication argues that the online space garners a “much younger” audience than the older “traditionalist” print readership. Fairfax, by embracing technology, was able to feed this younger audience the interactivity it desired.
Carrying the story’s momentum even further was the attendant coverage from ABC Radio, ABC Online and Fairfax Print. Common to all three platforms was the ability to generate fresh new angles on the story in the ensuing weeks. Follow-up stories included everything from editorials on insurers’ claims teams (“Doorknock insurers must be stopped” – The Age, March 12) to financial advice columns (“How to rate your life insurance” – The Age, March 13). The overall picture painted, though, was one of condemnation toward CommInsure and the life insurance industry at large. In the interests of fairness, though, balanced coverage generally did prevail. Even in the most scathing of articles, the bank’s right of reply was always upheld by acknowledging CEO Ian Narev’s conciliatory remarks. On Radio National, Narev was even granted an interview on RN Breakfast in which he was able to apologise to customers affected and offer to meet them in person. This typifies the ABC and Fairfax’s commitment to fairness under the MEAA Journalists’ Code of Ethics. The MEAA estimates that 85 per cent of ABC journalists and 90 per cent of Fairfax journalists are MEAA members and therefore bound by the code.
One final addition to Fairfax and the ABC’s cross-platform arsenal was the Australian Financial Review (AFR). The AFR is a prime example of special interest media – a term coined by the book ‘Reporting in a multimedia world’. Being a business publication, the AFR is bound to report the finance angle of any story. Such are the demands of its niche financially literate audience. One article published on the AFR’s website on March 22 proves the point. Written by Joanne Gray, it is titled “CBA board needs to get to the root of the cultural problems, directors say”. The article frames the whole claims mishandling issue in the context of corporate crisis management, thereby appealing to a whole new audience segment. The article is also infused with the same audiovisual elements that made The Age’s online coverage such a success. From a cross-platform perspective, this is the perfect complement to the plain print coverage in the AFR’s hard copy edition.
Clearly, the depth and breadth of cross-platform coverage achieved by Fairfax and the ABC left an indelible mark on the news cycle. Other news organisations had no choice but to run the story. Yet the most powerful of these – News Corp – devoted decidedly fewer resources to their cross-platform coverage of the story. The Dow Jones FACTIVA database reveals that in Melbourne’s print market alone, the coverage of the CommInsure story was skewed in favour of Fairfax’s 64 articles to News Corp’s 47. Such numbers may be comparable on the surface, but a closer inspection reveals that the Herald Sun tabloid paper accounted for only eight of News Corp’s 47 stories.
The few CommInsure articles that did get a run in the Herald Sun – be it print or digital – were largely sourced from wire service AAP. On March 9, a mere 138 words were devoted to the story in the piece “Clock ticks on scandal”. The coverage was similarly scarce on News Corp’s news.com.au. It appears little cross-platform effort was made. What this may suggest is that the Herald Sun believes its tabloid audience to be uninterested in business scandals such as CommInsure’s. What it may also suggest, however, is a vested interest in having the story suppressed. News Corp in Australia “sells around 70 per cent of papers purchased”, according to thenewspaperworks.com. A company with such wide circulation tends to generate large revenues from advertisers. And few advertisers come much bigger than the Commonwealth Bank. According to a 2012 paper from The Australia Institute, “the big four banks spend huge amounts on advertising”. In 2012 alone, the Commonwealth Bank had an advertising spend of $459 million. Could there have been editorial pressure applied from these quarters to have the CommInsure story quashed? Research by the American Journalism Historians Association cites a Soley and Craig study of 147 newspaper editors in which “more than a third said that advertisers were successful in influencing the editorial content of their newspapers”.
News Corp’s other flagship paper, The Australian, featured much more cross-platform coverage by comparison. Yet many of their stories were buried in the paper’s business section. Could this also have been an editorial decision swayed by the Commonwealth Bank’s advertising might? Regardless, the stories were informed by a fair and balanced approach. Ben Butler’s March 19 article, “CommInsure distorted expert’s degree to reject claim,” was a prime example. In it he put due emphasis on the lax treatment of policyholders, particularly in his choice of such quotes as “treated appallingly by their insurers”. Yet he was also objective enough to acknowledge the bank’s pledge that denied claims “will be reviewed by senior executives”. What was missing in The Australian’s coverage, however, was a clear cross-platform strategy. By publishing the exact same story across its print and digital platforms, The Australian failed to capitalise on what the Journal of Media Research refers to as “content supplementation”. Ideally the online story could have featured interactive audiovisual elements to augment the original print edition. A new younger audience might well have been found in the process.
Indeed, The Australian is not the only publication skimping on its cross-platform efforts. The reason, according to a Pacific Journalism Review study, is that “setting up systems for multi-channel publishing is a complex and costly task”. And therein lies the one key weakness of cross-platform journalism. Implementing it requires a great deal of organisational change. One of the biggest changes is to the demands placed on journalists themselves. Journalists are now expected to possess skills across all platforms – be it writing copy, taking photographs or recording video and audio. The result, according to Department of Justice media advisor Michael Gleeson, is as an increased workload. Gleeson spoke with me exclusively to discuss his time as an editor and journalist at the Melbourne Leader.
“The cross-platform work became a big burden on time and workflow”, he said. “But the journalists coming through were more multi-skilled.” He also described the shift to cross-platform journalism as being necessitated by “shrinking print readership and ad revenue.” The organisational change, he said, made “production staff more expendable than the content producers because they weren’t the ones out there in the community getting the stories; it was more practical to ‘upskill’ journalists with multimedia skills than to teach production staff how to be journalists.”
Cross-platform journalism is still only in its infancy. What the CommInsure scandal shows us is that some media outlets are catching on faster than others. Yet even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull acknowledges its inevitable rise. “We’re now in a world where there is literally an infinite range of platforms and we are moving, I think, to a large extent, into a post-channel environment,” he said on ABC Radio. As technology continues to evolve and consumers become more sophisticated, so too will media outlets yield more power and reach from cross-platform journalism. And the CommInsures of this world might well think twice before transgressing.
Links to media content referred to in the text
- Four Corners report (ABC TV) – March 7 2016 (“Money for nothing” by Adele Ferguson, Klaus Toft & Mario Christodoulou)
- The Age online edition – three-part interactive story – March 8 2016 (by Adele Ferguson, Klaus Toft & Mario Christodoulou)
- “Doorknock insurers must be stopped” by Adele Ferguson – The Age, March 12 2016
- “How to rate your life insurance” by John Collett – The Age, March 13 2016
- RN Breakfast interview (by host Fran Kelly) – “CommBank accused of avoiding payouts to sick and dying people: CEO Ian Narev”, March 8 2016
- “CBA board needs to get to the root of the cultural problems, directors say” by Joanne Gray – The Australian Financial Review, March 22 2016
- “Clock ticks on scandal” – Herald Sun (sourced from AAP) – March 9 2016
- “CommInsure distorted doctor’s degree to reject claim” by Ben Butler – The Australian, March 19 2016