A note on Journasplaining

We’ve all been asking difficult questions this week: If Julia Gillard is in the New Yorker does that make us cool? Does having daughters, like Josef Fritzl for instance, mean you’re not a misogynist? With all this going on you might have missed a thrilling new development in Australian media: journasplaining.

Gillard’s searing speech about misogyny received a virtual standing ovation on social media and even in the overseas press, but fell on deaf ears in the Canberra press gallery. Jason Wilson gives the best account of this I’ve read here, but the Gallery felt the speech was cynical, a distraction, unhelpful for Gillard, and just plain bad. Since then, members of the Press Gallery have been heavily criticised for being out of touch.

Since then there’s been a steady stream of articles, radio appearances, and posts from Gallery journalists and their colleagues journasplaining, in a patronising manner, how they’ve been thinking about it real hard, going over everything they said, and no, they definitely got it right. Again! Lenore Taylor let us all know we’d “forgot the context” and also stupidly “over-scrutinised the substance” of Gillard’s speech. Peter Hartcher went on ABC Radio to defend his and his cohort’s reputations, echoing Taylor’s comments about the “context” so closely you could be forgiven for thinking Gallery journalists endlessly confer. Jonathan Holmes of Media Watch blogged his view that Twitter doesn’t represent ‘ordinary Australians’. And Christian Kerr positioned himself at the rear of this human centipede with a pocket-pissing video (‘Gallery 1, Twitter 0′) that has to be seen to be believed. None of the above seemed aware that, given that their job is literally to explain things, if they then had to explain why they explained the way they did, they had already failed.

Like Jonathan Holmes, I have no doubt that Twitter is not a reliable proxy for the Australian public. As with any self-selecting sample it has significant biases. It skews towards those who have constant internet access (knowledge workers, students), smartphones and broadband internet (the affluent), the young, and the relatively well educated. There is no reason to think that just because Twitter users are agitated about something, that the rest of Australia is too.

It was this point Kerr was probably trying to make when he defended the Press Gallery against Twitter in the following terms: “It’s the people who are ferociously interested in politics that drive so much of this talk online.”

Hang on a minute: who exactly do you imagine consumes your product, Christian? Isn’t it those who are “ferociously interested in politics”? While I have no doubt Twitter doesn’t represent ordinary Australians, I do think it’s probably a decent proxy for the most loyal, high-value segment of politics journalism consumers. And this week Christian and many his colleagues have lined up to parade the fact that they don’t actually service these people. If you re-frame it not as the Gallery vs. Twitter but as political journalism providers vs. political journalism consumers, then the Gallery becomes one of the few industries to proudly reject the ‘customer is always right’ maxim. In the Australian context only Gerry Harvey as brazenly blames his problems on the stupid customers.

So who does Kerr imagine his audience is? Who are these people who find such value in horse-race ‘who-won-the-day’ Gallery “analysis”? Let’s be honest, when was the last time you heard someone say “Wow, did you read Grattan/Shanahan/Hartcher today? Nailed it!”?

I can’t remember ever hearing this, but since I probably live in the Twitter bubble and never interact with ‘Real Australians’ I thought I’d look at some objective figures. By using social media analytics I analysed mentions (both in social media and in comment fields on news websites) over the past month of senior Gallery journalists Grattan, Hartcher, Shanahan, Phillip Coorey and Hugh Riminton. In the many thousand comments about the senior journos, there were only 15 positive comments – one-tenth the number of negative comments. On closer inspection, most of those were sarcastic, and the handful of sincere ones largely came from other journalists. It’s obviously only directional and flawed data, but it at least raises the scenario that – good heavens! – maybe the Press Gallery isn’t doing a good job of servicing its customers. Maybe there aren’t any loyal consumers for the type of product they deliver. Maybe no one in Australia really cares much for insider-y gossip, puddle-shallow analysis, and baseless guesswork of the voting public’s mood.

Whether this is true or not, it’s pretty obvious there’s a gaping void between how these journalists view themselves, and how they are actually viewed by their consumers. It’s been cushioned for decades by a virtual distribution monopoly over the media, the high cost of running a printing press, and the ‘rivers of gold’ ad revenues, but now those barriers have come down. Thanks to social media we can now see what consumers think of the product they consume, and there’s very little evidence that consumers are satisfied. When the crunch comes and Fairfax and a spun-off News Ltd start demanding journalists become profit centres, how will the Gallery pay its way?


Image by NS Newsflash via Creative Commons Licence

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