Media's new breed
Written by Emily Jones (BA(Media&Comm) ’12)
Photography by Courtney Tight BA(Hons) ’12 and Wolter Peeters/Fairfaxmedia
Last July, a photo tweeted from the Royal Commission into Trade Union Corruption by one of Australia’s most respected journalists went viral. Having been allocated a seat behind Buzzfeed staff, the host of the ABC’s 7.30 current affairs program, Leigh Sales, responded to a tweet by a Buzzfeed reporter who joked about blocking her view. She posted a picture of her retort sticky-taped to the reporter’s back: “I’m from Buzzfeed. Here are 10 ways I suck.”
Though flippant, the tweets nicked a nerve at the heart of the Australian media between older, “legacy” outlets and the new kids on the online news block.
Buzzfeed’s staple brand of amusing “listicles”, personality quizzes and pop news coverage has recently shifted gears. This year the company was given a seat in the White House pressroom, and a Buzzfeed reporter now travels on Air Force One with the President of the United States of America.
JUDITH WHELAN, FAIRFAX MEDIA
If you’d tried to explain this series of events to the News Director of the Sydney Morning Herald, Judith Whelan (BA(Hons) ’83 DipEd ’84), just a decade ago, you would have been met with incredulity: “Things are just changing so rapidly that even start-ups that started two years ago have to change the ways in which they tell stories.”
Whelan is poised and alert when we meet at Fairfax’s head office in Pyrmont, eyes shining brightly behind horn-rimmed glasses, despite the staggering 15-hour days she works – a prerequisite of today’s unforgiving 24/7 news cycle.
Whelan recalls her years at Sydney with great affection, reminiscing on the Evangelical Union, running election campaigns and chalking footpaths until 3am in her successful bid to become the first female president of the University of Sydney Union.
“I was a debater,” she declares proudly. “I really got into life at university: I loved it and I was very involved. It has certainly been a basis of my working life, my five years at the University of Sydney.”
After more than seven years editing Good Weekend magazine, Whelan became News Director of the Sydney Morning Herald in 2013. When she took the helm, it was at a time of unprecedented flux for the news industry. The print media’s “rivers of gold” – classified advertising revenue – had turned into parched dustbowls. Readers fled online, hungry for glib content (often in the form of cute-animal GIFs) and the once proud broadsheets, with their lofty fourth-estate notions, had either shut up shop or downsized considerably.
So say the news doomsayers, quick to decry the death of print journalism. But Whelan isn’t so convinced. She points to the Herald’s coverage of the Sydney siege as just one instance in which established news outlets maintained the upper hand, with readers seeking credible coverage. “We had people around the world coming to the SMH to find out what was going on,” she says. “Some of our competitors were going out with stuff that was up faster than we were, but some of them were wrong. We were making decisions based on that. Our integrity and credibility is something that we will not jeopardise.”
“The old tenet has never changed - you've got to be curious.”
As readers change their news consumption habits, media organisations have been forced to take note. A recent Pew Research Center study shows that 63 per cent of Americans now use Twitter and Facebook as their main news source, up from 50 per cent in 2012.
The initial disparagement of online storytelling has given way to imitation, according to Whelan: “No idea is sacred anymore, no-one has ownership over these things anymore. We’re telling stories with these too – quizzes, listicles, charticles, all these sorts of things that everybody now is going after – because that’s how the audience wants to read things.”
As for concerns over a decline in quality as news shifts online, Whelan rejects a binary divide between speed and hard-hitting reporting. “Journalism needs to be trustworthy, it needs to be telling you something new,” she maintains. “All of these things are just as important now as they were in the old days of the newspaper landing with a thud on your lawn on a Saturday morning. What has changed is the different ways in which we tell stories.”
For young reporters looking to blaze a similar trail, Whelan counsels: “The old tenet has never changed – you’ve got to be curious. Be interested in other people, be open to new things. But also be open to opportunities.”
DAVID MACK, BUZZFEED
One recent University of Sydney graduate who has heeded such advice is David Mack. The 27-year-old completed a combined Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications) ’11/Law ’13 degree with a major in American Studies. After graduation he took up a series of reporting and producing roles at the ABC, including as newsreader at Triple J.
Fast-forward three years and he is a reporter and editor for Buzzfeed News in New York City. “I often have to call us ‘Buzzfeed News’ because I want to make it clear I don’t work in the ‘cat lists’ side of the company,” jokes Mack on a Skype call from a train in Long Island.
Mack represents the new breed of online journalist: skilled at working across platforms, often remotely, and with a keen sense of what readers want to share. He believes his liberal arts education has provided a firm footing for traversing the precarious 21st century media landscape.
“I loved [the course] because not only were you doing media, but you were combining that with an Arts degree,” he says. “It helps make you a more fully rounded person. There was a real sense of academic freedom in the course to learn new things.”
Though its news division operates much like established media outlets, Mack describes his entrance to Buzzfeed from the ABC as “like arriving on another planet”.
“There’s a sense of vibrancy and excitement about the work that everyone’s doing – a feeling of possibility,” he says. “We’re really in uncharted territory and it feels like they’ve cracked the code for how to ‘do’ journalism in the digital age.”
So is Buzzfeed just guilty-pleasure territory where the Kardashians reign supreme? Detractors slam online news outlets such as Buzzfeed for peddling “clickbait” – easily digestible yet insubstantial content that lures readers in with the promise of instant gratification but little edification.
Mack believes such critiques only serve to denigrate young readers’ priorities. “There’s a very pessimistic view about young people today that they’re only going to share stupid things,” he says. “But we know that’s not true and we’ve got the data to prove it.”
Mack’s recent work has included covering race relations after the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting in June in which nine people died, and reports on the US Supreme Court’s decision to legalise same sex marriage, also in June. The popularity of such articles shows Buzzfeed readers want to engage with big issues, just in innovative ways, Mack says.
“I like to think of Buzzfeed as reflecting the spectrum of the internet. A lot of people use the internet for educational reasons, to find recipes or ways to get in shape. But a lot of people use it to get informed as well. I think there’s a misconception that people of my generation aren’t interested in things. We know that’s not true – it’s just that the platforms are changing.”
Whelan agrees the challenge for media outlets young and old is to capture stories that resonate with people. “The old days of journalists saying ‘We know what’s right for you to read’ are kind of gone,” she says. “The audience is discerning, it’s demanding, and it’s great to interact with them.”
And while readers may appear at odds with hard news principles, Whelan supports the online reporting styles of Buzzfeed, Quartz, Medium and Mic.com.
“Some of their news just cuts completely through because they are so clever at telling it in an accessible way,” she says. “That isn’t dumbing it down, it’s just telling it in the most interesting way you can. If it actually reaches more people, and gives you a new perspective as well, I’m a big fan of it.”