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MediaWorks' Hal Crawford on the death of quality journalism, making money from news and standing out on social media

A news chief claiming that the phrase 'quality journalism' should be left to die was always going to spark a bit controversy—even more so when he's brought in to replace a much-loved stalwart of New Zealand's news scene, Mark Jennings. We chat to new MediaWorks news chief Hal Crawford about his eyebrow-raising opinion that arrived in New Zealand before he did, the challenges and opportunities of the modern media environment and his aspirations for the organisation.

By Damien Venuto | October 11, 2016 | features

When Hal Crawford arrived at MediaWorks three months ago, he was given a hefty dose of the modern news treatment. Before he even set foot in the country, former MediaWorks journalist David Farrier tweeted out an opinion piece Crawford had written called ‘Why quality journalism should be left to die.’


As is often the case these days, the Tweet became news and publications across the nation quickly identified the new head of news at MediaWorks as someone who would be comfortable watching clickbait run rampant. Oh, the horror, that this was the man to replace New Zealand’s longest-running news chief, Mark Jennings. 

Throughout this initial coverage, neither Crawford nor MediaWorks made an official statement addressing the perception that Crawford was ready to drop the guillotine on journalism’s neck. In fact, Crawford hadn’t addressed the media at all until recently, when MediaWorks invited several journalists across the industry to talk to him.

“Let's face it, I had never worked in New Zealand media before, so it would’ve been pretty arrogant to come in and start making big, bold statements on the first day,” says Crawford, who previously worked as editor-in-chief and publisher at NineMSN across the ditch.   

“I've been here three months and I think it's appropriate after that amount of time to start having an opinion.”

But Crawford’s opinions arrived in New Zealand before him, and none was more interesting than his belief that quality journalism should be left to die.  

“Look, I'm not stupid,” he says when asked about article he penned for Mumbrella. “When I wrote it, I wrote it for impact. The thing is the arguments that I advanced in that article I absolutely believe in, but they are not what you might read into from the headline.”

Strong investigative journalism, exclusive stories and good news people are all essential to successful news organisations, says Crawford. And while all these elements together might amount to something of high quality, he argues that the phrase ‘quality journalism’ is often an excuse for the complacency that comes from those with a resistance for change (the inability to charge different rates for different types of journalism is something Frederic Filloux explored recently in a column on Monday Note).

He argues that the most complacent among us call on society to support ‘quality journalism’ out of some higher moral obligation.

“What I react against is the idea that somehow you should be subsidising journalism,” he says.

"Why should I support it? If the answer is, ‘This is the way of telling truths to society about itself and it's very important,’ then that's a good answer, and let's do that. But there's got to be a way to make that interesting.

“If you can't find an audience, then you're not getting your message out there anyway.”

The point he makes here is that journalism has always been a business and that its future lies in solving business problems presented by the digital age.

“News consumption across the board is up, so the challenge that you've got is around your costs and your revenues,” he says.  

It’s also worth noting that subsidies don’t offer any guarantees. The Guardian Media work, which relies heavily on philanthropic investment, is set to cut 250 jobs in the next three years just to break even. What this shows is that a militant commitment to ‘quality journalism,’ as understood by the purists, is difficult to maintain commercially.    

For journalism to function as a sustainable business, news organisations have to find a way to maintain audience numbers that are attractive to advertisers—and this will invariably necessitate at least some clickbait. Because, as much as we might deny loving them, the softer, quirkier stories are damn effective at pulling in us in on a consistent basis (who doesn’t like a good optical illusion?). And, as Crawford mentioned in his interview with Colin Peacock, just because we click on the shark attack story, doesn't make us thickos. There are some stories that are almost universally interesting. 

It’s a delicate game that mainstream publications have to play, oscillating between the serious and the entertaining without alienating readers or irreparably damaging the news brand.  

So far, all the mainstream news producers have enjoyed some success, growing their audiences substantially over the last three years and becoming some of the most well-visited websites in the nation.

Crawford has also timed his arrival at MediaWorks relatively well, with the organisation seeming to get its groove back after a period of enormous upheaval. The dust of the continuous executive shuffles has subsided, and the company is consistently celebrating ratings victories against its major competitors across digital, television and radio.   

But strong audience numbers—whether in entertainment or news—are only part of the battle.

Numbers not dollars

Popularity is not the same thing as profitability and, as the founders of Bebo will tell you, it’s definitely not a guarantee of longevity.

As indicated by the NZME and Fairfax submission to the commerce commission, the revenue earned from digital is still some way off the losses in traditional channels—meaning that there are still serious questions about how to run a profitable news business when the likes of Google and Facebook offer such compelling propositions to advertisers (and when non-news publishers like Metservice rake in a significant amount of ad revenue with nowhere near the costs). 

MediaWorks says the figures supplied to the Commerce Commission are wrong, but, as a general trend, it's not pretty reading. Crawford doesn’t pretend to have the answer to all the problems facing journalism. He knows what won't work, however, and is adamant that the answer doesn’t lie in getting journalists involved in commercial activities. This might work in the magazine industry, where ads have always been part of the experience, but Crawford thinks it would be to the detriment of a reputable news publisher.

“You've got to understand the primary role of the newsroom is not commercial,” he says. 

“In any publishing enterprise, you've got two customers: the audience and the advertiser.  But it's very important for the newsroom to care about the audience, that's the key customer we should be concerned about. If I spend all of my time thinking about advertisers, then I would make a lousy chief news officer.”

Crawford says that panicked media executives shouldn’t give in to short-term thinking by making knee-jerk reactions that remove focus from the main purpose of the news: to inform the audience.

“You can get very confused in this business, but if you hold on to the guiding light of stay close to the audience, stick close to them, make sure you know what they're doing and provide them with news and information that they can use just that they're engaged with,” he says.   

“You've got to be smart about this stuff and play the long-term game. If we have great audience engagement sustained over years our business will be fine. I'm convinced of that.”

Melding of the brands

The need to keep the audience engaged every day, all day long has in turn led to rapid-fire repurposing of stories. Once news story breaks, it is quickly replicated across other publications. The sweet day-long joy of a front-page scoop has been squeezed into a matter of minutes.

MediaWorks saw the full force of this trend on Monday, when Newshub political editor Paddy Gower republished a 1993 interview in which Donald Trump essentially rules out his suitability to run for office.

By the end of the day, the story was not only on the Herald, but also on a host of other international publications, including The Washington PostThe New York TimesBuzzfeed and the Daily Mail.

Social media users who have liked a combination of those news sources would’ve seen the same story appear in their newsfeeds from a number of different publications over the course of the day.

What happens in this environment is that brands become indiscernible, and Facebook becomes the news source. And this clearly evident in the fact that 62 percent of US adults today cite Facebook as their main source of news—even though Facebook doesn’t create any of its own content.

But this isn’t enough to dissuade Crawford—or most news heads for that matter—from tapping into what social media offers.

“I think we have to embrace platforms that we don't own,” he says. “There are business risks associated with that, but don't be scared of that. Don't be scared of a platform you don't own.” 

Crawford, who co-wrote a book about social media's impact on news called All your Friends Like This, identifies effective branding as playing an important role in visually differentiating news brands from one another (hence the Newshub branding plastered across the Trump video).

Local news publishers, including Newshub, have invested heavily in their online brands over the last few years and we are starting to see some differentiation with the Herald’s Focus brand and Newshub’s explainer videos.

  

However, the gold standard in differentiation on Facebook really lies with Aljazeera, which through its sub-brand AJ+ attracts billions of views every year and is easily identifiable through its yellow livery.

But employing 70-plus people to produce these videos is expensive and, like its counterparts across the media industry, Aljazeera still hasn’t found a clear path to profitability for AJ+.

And if an organisation that generates over 2 billion video views still hasn’t found its way through the digital shrubbery, then this certainly puts the complexity of Crawford’s task into perspective.     

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