story, science, technology and creativity

Laurie Oakes on political journalism in the digital age

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WIll they still need us? Will they still feed us?

Will they still need us? Will they still feed us?

Laurie Oakes spoke tonight at Curtin University on political journalism in the digital age. It was terrific.

I’ve never identified as a journalist (I’m a writer), so I don’t suffer from the same issues that besiege modern journalists, but I can look around and see the world is changing, and the job of a professional writer with it.

DIY political journalism

Politicians with a story to tell need no longer rely on town criers, carrier pigeons or traditional media.

Oakes pointed to the White House and its 20-something-strong team of PR people, all cranking out material freely available on social networks and picked up by mainstream media to fill the gaps between ads.

The middle-man, otherwise known as the journalist, no longer needs to worry about getting quotes right or finding a suitable photo: politicians are providing the world with their own quotes, photos, videos, tweets, and (new to me as well) 5-second Vine videos.

The stories they don’t want told

To survive, says Oakes, journalists need to find the stories politician’s don’t want told. This relies on cultivating sources, but who wants to be a source when your phones can be tapped, your emails hacked, your credit card records seized, your phone’s GPS tracked… Anyone? Anyone?

The fight with Big Brother, says Oakes, can partially be won by combining studies in journalism with computer science, so our journos are tech-savvy and practice good IT hygiene. “Computers and journalism are fused now,” he says. “You’ll never prise them apart.”

Oakes’ 6-point “listicle”: Reasons for optimism

Despite the challenges, Oakes was optimistic: “Journalism is coming back, or will come back…Every time there’s a change, it increases your ability to tell stories.”

So why the optimism? Well, here’s his 6-point “listicle”:

1) Newspapers are still with us. As far as reasons for optimism go, this is right up there alongside Today I didn’t get hit by a truck. And yet, it is true. Newspapers have proven to be more resilient than expected, Oakes says, and are adapting to the “uber platform” and finding new ways to finance journalists at the same time.

2) Quality journalism is still being produced. Despite reduced ad revenue, reduced circulation and reduced employment opportunities, Oakes believes great stories are still being told and great truths unearthed.

3) Paywalls are working. The reader-pays system of providing online content has been slow to take off, says Oakes, but has seen “encouraging results.” And paywalls encourage quality: “If you want to see something, it has to be worth buying.”

4) Quality is winning the quantity war. Outlets are financing quality journalism thanks to “rubbish that makes money on the net.” The old she’ll-be-right slap-something-together attitude to online publishing is no longer cutting it.

5) Stories need to be told, by someone. You can leak all the documents you like, but unless somebody takes that information and sifts through it to give it meaning, your story won’t really be heard. Journalists, says Oakes, are still relevant.

6) We have new storytelling tools galore. Real-time videos, live translation apps, phones that edit and record and tapdance (okay, not that last one), and the ability to broadcast from anywhere, anytime. “It’s almost enough to make an old hack wish he was just starting out,” says Oakes. “I’m in awe of what can be done now in storytelling.”

And as well as provoking thought on journalism, democracy, and privacy, Oakes provoked some thoughts I rather wish I hadn’t had: apparently Kevin Rudd paid his way through uni cleaning houses, including Oakes’ place, and “he was pretty good on the s-bend,” he jokes.

But jokes aside, I agree with Oakes: it’s a wild and crazy time to be a journalist. And sometimes, the most amazing things rise out of wild-and-crazy times.

The climate is right for bold, IT-savvy journos to really make a different to the way we see the world. So go forth, meet sources in lake-edge car parks at midnight, and don’t forget to leave your phones behind. I say, good luck to you!

Image credit: Bryan Ledgard

Author: cristyburne


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