Keeping pace in Australia’s rapidly changing rural media landscape

Sheep Central, March 17, 2016

Queensland’s Rural Press Club yesterday held a forum titled Rural news revolution down on the farm, discussing how new and legacy publishers and lobby groups alike are embracing the digital news revolution adopting new skills, new deadlines and new ways  to reach rural audiences. To mark the occasion, Sheep Central presents this address delivered last year by former ABC TV and Landline presenter Peter Lewis, on his views on the changing rural media landscape…

JUST as the beef business has changed quite dramatically since 1988 (the year of the first Beef Australia expo), so too has rural journalism.

We have had to adapt to new technology and some new commercial realities and obviously continuous news coverage.

The fact is we have never been connected to so many outlets, that is all of us, for news, information and entertainment, than we are now, and that I suggest is only going to increase.

I heard the other day a fairly daunting prospect that the average home will have 20 connections to digital technology within five years. That is anything from our watches, iphones, ipads, PCs and the next frontier is interactive TVs where you will do just about all those functions I just mentioned through the television.

Now that is obviously going to lead to some fundamental changes in the relationship between readers, listeners and viewers, or “content consumers” as they are now being described, which I think is an appalling term, but content is king, and those who generate the content, who must try to monetise it.

Now there is little doubt that digital technology has disrupted traditional business plans and practices, in some cases for better, in some cases for worse.

And it is the same wherever you look in the world. We’re not unique in that regard, whichever medium you care to choose.

Peter Lewis addressing Rocky Rotary Club bfast at Beef 2015

Peter Lewis addresses a Beef 2015 breakfast on the future of rural journalism.

Today I will talk about what these changes mean for mainstream rural journalism and consider where the news story tellers and story telling will come from.

Now, if somebody told you 30 years ago that you would able to shoot video, take photos and sound, write stories, edit them and then syndicate that content around the world from something as simple as this (holding up a smart phone)..

There is more computing horsepower on an iphone 5 or 6 than there was on Apollo 11, so it is a fairly staggering degree of mechanisation and sophistication. And the great thing about it is that it has put that technology in the hands of numbskulls like me. Just about anybody can use this stuff, it is practically foolproof.

And that side of the cultural shift is one of the most liberating. And we will talk about that a little more.

The iPhone of course is now the most popular camera in the word. In fact with simple apps like Facebook, twitter and instagram, everybody can publish online now at the press of a few buttons. In some cases it gets people into a bit of strife when they pull this out after they you have had a few drinks. We have seen some spectacular examples of people who have imploded their careers by doing that.

And in the good old days we needed a truck load of gear to get the same result, two or three staff members, and a day to pull it together to just get the most simple and basic story together. Now live to air equipment is scarcely as big as a back pack, or a brief case. Instead of one daily deadline, journalists now file around the clock.

To be frank, there is no need to distinguish any more between print, radio and television. Journalists for example from Queensland Country Life and local regional community papers, will be as adept at photography and shooting video as they are at writing stories. They won’t be waiting for weekly deadlines, they will be filing to websites, and through social media, to put a bit of wind under the wings of those stories in promoting and teasing them. Journalists today, there are fewer of them, but you would say that in general they are better educated, and better equipped, than their predecessors.

Unfortunately they won’t get to spend as much time on each yarn as we have in the past. They will tend to write stories that are arms’ length to the action.
I think one of the great privileges of most of the 30-35 years that I have had has was the ability to actually go places and see people, and I think that informs the work that you do in a way that you can’t do over the telephone or even on Skype.

As I said a lot of is removed in the digital era. Sadly revenue hasn’t kept pace with the cost of travel and accommodation. It is a real killer in a country this size. It is really expensive to keep people on the road.

Obviously from an editorial point of view, or from a company point of view, your worker needs to be a lot more productive if you are planted in front of a computer rather than out on the road.

Why is the traditional rural media struggling to keep all the balls in the air?

Fairfax Media, which publishes the Queensland Country Life and North Queensland Register and a host of other newspapers, has by necessity become a leaner, meaner organisation.

And they are not alone in that. Commercial radio and television, specialist publications and magazines, even the ABC have all had to cut their cloth to cover the bush.

And this of course makes it very difficult to cover a country the size of Australia. With the variety of agriculture that we have, and especially to cover the pressing issues that effect land and water management in this country.

There are an incredible range of complex issues, biosecurity, drought and natural disasters, policy matters, transport, health, education – all of these things are critically important to all Australians, but they are especially so to the people who live in regional and remote Australia. As the disconnect between the bush widens, there is an even greater need to be able to explain those issues in a way that all Australians can understand. I think the intent you all have if you have your heart in the bush is to be able to get the clarity and context so that politicians and policy makers are all better informed.

So why is the media struggling to keep all the balls in the air at the moment? Because as I said in the case of newspapers, they are having to adapt to the realities of digital platforms, they’re publishing around the clock now, instead of one or two print runs, the game is on all the time.

They have had to recruit and train a new generation of story tellers, editors, graphic artists, IT experts, and they are having to pay for this transformation without the huge revenue stream that once flowed form the classified advertisements and newspaper subscriptions.

Peter Lewis takes question on journalism from former Queensland member for Rockhampton Rob Schwarten at the Beef 2015 breakfast.

Peter Lewis takes question on journalism from former Queensland member for Rockhampton Rob Schwarten at the Beef 2015 breakfast.

Hands up here people who still get a printed newspaper delivered at home? (About half). I’d say if you ask that question to most forums around the country now, it is even less, probably down to a quarter. In the area I live in Brisbane the news agencies are struggling and a lot of them are closing. People are just not prepared to pay as they once did for news and information because so much of it is pouring in, through these things, your phones and your computers, free of charge. And it is available not just from Australia, you are able to access news and current affairs from right around the world, updated 24/7.

The major publishers are attempting to convince long time loyal subscribers to move with them to the digital platforms and pay for it, but I would have to argue that this is only partially successful.  Over the past five years the result is that thousands of full time jobs as journalists, photographers and editors have been lost across Australia, as I said it is a pattern that has been repeated around the world, and I would suggest that cutbacks, disproportionately affect the bush.

Daily coverage of really important local issues and events has diminished and it is often replaced. While the paper itself might not look a whole lot different, it is replaced by stories that are syndicated from other news papers from the group, from Australia, and increasingly from around the world.

So we are all reading an enormous amount of the same stuff but I wonder to what extent are we reading stories that affect us where we live.

And invariably one of the downsides for the bush from all this is that the people being made redundant at many of these places are the older, more experienced hands, which have the skillset and maturity to help inform local communities, and help readers understand the often complex back-story to issues and events.

There are so many things going on at any one time you really can’t keep up with it, so to be able to rely on someone who is able to provide some context and explain it is really, really important.

At the same time new technology doesn’t replace many of the craft functions which traditionally have been the foundations for quality journalism in a robust democracy. That is having dedicated photographers, cartoonists and graphic artists, these people are progressively being replaced with journalists armed with these (holding up an iPhone) and small video cameras, or just using the video function on their phone. They are accepting more and more copy illustrations that are freely supplied by contributors. And while I think this is a great way for younger people with an interest in getting into this business in being able to get a crack with internships, and work experience and so forth, more and more of what you read and see has been supplied for gratis.

Many of the sub-editing functions, the fact checkers who run an eye over stories and photographs, are being phased out.

Faster news cycles

The sheer speed of the news cycle is also placing heavy demands on those who are left behind, there simply isn’t the time to make the necessary calls to check and verify facts. News breaks regularly these days on Twitter, shoe-horned as it is within 140 characters, and as we have seen it is not always as accurate as it could be, and sometimes it is deliberately not correct. I’d argue the 24 hour news cycle is removing the most important quality in journalism and that is thinking time, time to reflect on what you have seen and heard, time to check the facts and recheck them, and then the time to fashion a coherent, fair, balanced and in the case of TV an interesting looking story.

The fact is the more sets of eyes you have to scan a story, the more gatekeepers you have been breaking news and publishing or broadcasting, the more likely you are to pick up not only mistakes but also the deliberate spin that people can put on particular events. If you are taking a very narrow view of an event or an issue and not casting as wide as possible an analysis of it, people get a very narrow and very focused view.

Now that can range from the relatively innocuous through to mispronunciations of people and place names to very fundamental errors of fact.

My old colleagues and friends at the ABC are battling with this as much as anyone. They are in the process of transforming what was and has been a radio and television broadcaster into a 24 hour digital publisher.

The overseeing news director has said the corporation intends to increase investment in online services by 40pc over the next four years, and as you probably gathered, the (former) Abbott Government in Canberra is not about to give the ABC 40pc more of anything. So they are trying to do this with their trimmed budgets and without alienating traditional audiences who have come to rely on programs like the Country Hour, and morning news the nightly 7 o’clock news.

As you have seen over the past year they have had to accept their own share of the Government cost cuts and efficiency dividends, which has led to the loss so far of around about 400 jobs, and the closure of some regional offices.

ABC news director Kate Torney (since replaced – editor) was fairly sanguine about the prospect that is in front of her.

She said and I quote: “Managing change is a challenge shared by every traditional media organisation in the world – the BBC, The NY Times, Fairfax, News Corporation, they are all shifting investment to digital and mobile. If there was an easy answer someone would have found it by now. But there is not so they are all working it out as they go along and are learning from one another and in some cases from newcomers as well.”

Now this is obviously going to effect where they can spread their finite dollars, that has led to the axing of local editions of programs like 7:30, it is has meant budget cuts to programs like Lateline and Four Corners and Radio National specialist programs, all these things are designed to fund new positions such as video journalists, multiple platform producers, digital producers and social media specialists.

The good news hopefully on the horizon is that the corporation has finally realised what an important source of support it has in rural and regional Australia and it has created a new vehicle specifically to cover regional Australia, by combining the resources that were once controlled by news and local radio and rural department, and the plan is it should be up and running by July 1 (2015), and hopefully given adequate funding it should work.

The bush has been very well serviced by a national broadcaster over time, never more so than this community during natural disasters, it remains one of the few organisations in this country committed to recruiting and training rural journalists, and offering them a useful, interesting and relatively secure career path.

The Country Hour is as important now I daresay as it was when it started back in 1945.

It is just one element of the rural department’s brief these days. Its 70 specialist reporters are supplying audio, video, photos and text to its website,  they’re backgrounding emerging issues and important trends for the rest of the ABC, and identifying agriculture’s movers and shakers.

A program like Landline which I was privileged to manage for five years or so after a lengthy period as a reporter on the program. It began in 1991 and continued that great tradition of programs like A Big Country, and so forth, since ‘91 it has obviously evolved, it used to be when it first started a half an hour grain program, Monday to Friday, it was like a markets update more than anything with my good friend Doug Murray in the chair, with the porkpie hat and the pencil thin moustache.

And then of course it reverted to its familiar one-hour weekly slot on a Sunday in the early 1990s.  There are a whole range of different versions now of Landline. If you are an ABC News 24 viewer you’ll know they have a 30 minute version of it and it runs on high rotation through the week.

New wave digital publisher’s “spectacular success”

So that is where we’re at. Where are we heading?

Once again if you had told me 30 years ago, 20 years ago, or maybe even 10 years ago, that an increasing proportion of rural and regional services and story telling would be generated by farmers themselves, I would be very skeptical.

The industry, farmers, and the people they work with have really had to come out of their shell and tell their stories.

The digital technology and the relative ease which I mentioned has given them the access to readers, listeners and viewers, it has opened up I would suggest a very exciting new opportunity for the bush to tell its own yarns. And they need to.

It has also allowed specialist writers and contributors to focus on particular sectors and deliver news and information in a way that was simply impossible under the old relatively scattergun technology of printed newspapers and traditional radio and television. It was just the cost of entry and the cost of access was just far, far too difficult.

And the most spectacularly successful of these people who have gone out and created a niche, a very successful business for themselves, is Beef Central and Sheep Central.

James Nason and Jon Condon have created a one stop shop for anyone interested in the beef and cattle game and the lamb business.

They have parlayed the extensive experience that they have and all the great contacts they have developed over the years to produce content that very encouragingly, advertisers and readers want to get behind and support.

And I would suggest that they are going to be the model that others will copy across other industry sectors, it is already happening and I think that will continue to evolve.

Farmers themselves seize the opportunity

But the most remarkable cultural change in my business has been the willingness of individual farmers and associated agribusiness professionals to seize the opportunity to tell their own stories, to challenge their critics, and to lobby for causes that are very close to their heart.

Twitter, Facebook, instagram, they are all giving even the most far flung correspondents to publish, and if you think I have had a quick draw figure on the tweets, Ann Britton who lives at Boulia, her husband Rick Britton is the mayor of Boulia, a big character in his his own right but he is a shrinking violet compared to his wife Ann – she is on the tweet seemingly 24 hours a day, she has lots to say about lots of things, she is a terrific photographer as well, and she is effectively building a little business. Once upon a time it really would have been hard to get your head around that kind of stuff but fortunately they have sufficient band width for her to do that.

Now these people, the Ann Brittons of the world, and there is a lot more of them and more and more of them, they no longer leave it to the elected bodies or lobby groups or run their arguments for them. They don’t assume that someone has necessarily got their back and will be proactive enough to get their messages out in a timely way. They are in their boots and all. And of course as I said, they need to be, the contest for farming social license to operate is no longer confined to news and current affairs, and or the letters to editors section of newspapers.

Groups like Animals Australia mobilise as much support and funding online as they do with their occasional secret camera exposes. They are working on very very clear strategies and an awful lot of it based around social media and the ability to cut directly through to people.

The Four Corners Indonesia cattle controversy was a game changer I suggest in every respect. The northern beef industry was caught flat footed by a social media campaign that pressured the Government into drastic action. As a result agribusiness had to muscle up and develop the social media smarts to respond to the next challenge.

And it has, there has been some pretty significant wins I would have to say, there are dozens of individuals and organisations tweeting and facebooking and posting their own videos and their own photos, they spring into action now when agriculture is under attack and they use the same platforms to promote the good stories from around Australia.

Every Tuesday night for instance “agvocates”, which is a new expression, they log onto a twitter based moderated session called AgChatOz and they are sharing and discussing issues relevant to farming and agribusiness, and they are having an increasing say all around the country when it comes to significant issues. It has been so successful AgChatOz it has been copied in Britain.

Now these people, once they activated and once they are interested they are also demanding that the traditional representation through groups like AgForce and MLA, the NFF that they rise to the challenge as well and develop new ways to connect to their members, and the people they want to influence.

This is going to effect the way that campaigns are conducted in future and how effective they are in terms of hearts and mind.

MLA offered these producers a few years back a taste of things to come when it brought Troy and Stacey Hadrick out for a series of workshops. Troy is a fifth-generation rancher from South Dakota and something of a pin up boy for social media outlets.

His situation was that he discovered that Australian wine company Yellowtail was actually funding the Humane Society in the US, and basically the Humane Society were campaigning against ranchers like Troy and Stacey. He availed himself of the technology and wanted to find out who this company was and as fellow primary producers why there were so keen to fund the people that wanted to put them out of business. Yellowtail wines became known across the US when Troy filmed himself out near his yards tipping a bottle of Yellowtail on the ground, the whole thing went viral, and troy now spends almost as much talking to other farmers about how they can use social media to tell their own story.

It is a very a simply story, it is an incredibly simple story that he tells people, and some people might be a little put off by coming forward and doing something. Troy ‘s message is that if you can tell somebody what you do and why you do it in the time you are in a lift going from one floor to another, that is as simple as it needs to be. His line was that he was a rancher and he raises cattle and he has their best interests and the best interests of consumers at heart.

Now it did take MLA a little while to get its own social media strategy up but they have caught up and they are doing pretty well. They have a program called Target 100, which is identifying some terrific programs that need to be done across the beef industry and it is helping to energise other people who want to become like Troy and Stacey. And likewise the NFF is turbo-charging its social media performance. It recently launched the listen to the land project and aims to mobilise 112,000 Australian farmers in much the same way as some of their most strident critics do. To give you an idea, Animals Australia has 800,000 people on its books, so it tends to get plenty of traction whenever it does something.

As I say you could be daunted by all this, I actually see all of these developments as a tremendously exciting development for farmers and the bush, I think the more farmers can connect with each other in the first instance, and then with consumers and of course with their elected representatives the better.

Professional journalism and journalists will adapt to change in much the same way as they always have. We have moved on type set printing, we have moved on from film, we have gone into digital formats now, we are constantly evolving just as you do in your industries.

But if we do our job right people will read it, they will watch it and they will listen to it, they are even prepared to pay for it either directly through subscriptions or over the counter sales or in the case of ABC through their taxes.

If they don’t do a job properly, they wont. There has never been any guarantee you can stay in business and the same applies to the media.



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