Is the old-style newsroom beat?

New York Times newsroom, 1942. Photo Marjory Collins, from Wikimedia Commons.
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The journalists' traditional workplace is changing in an online world. Travis Medhurst reports.

Video may not have killed the Radio-Star, but the digital disruption of traditional media models may be killing the concept of the newsroom and with an increasing reliance on freelancers it may be taking full-time gigs with it.

“The newsroom is in a way a legacy term,” says Dr Ben Elfham, freelance journalist and Media and Communications Lecturer at Monash University.

He believes the concept of the newsroom refers to “that old sort of newspaper model where journalists would go out on a beat and do their reporting and rush back to the newsroom to file their copy.”

Dr Elfham has had a great deal of experience contributing to online news publications, having covered federal politics for a decade as the National Affairs Correspondent at New Matilda, and being a regular contributor to Crikey and the Guardian Australia.

“New Matilda doesn’t have a newsroom. It’s too small to really have an actual office. Our contributors send us copy but there is no single location,” says Dr Elfham, “It’s almost a pro-am site where the editor takes subscriptions from the public but he’s barley making a living. Most writers are not getting paid at all and the thing mostly survives off the smell of an oily rag.”

Dr Elfham says that just like New Matilda, many online sites do not have newsrooms.

“The challenges are ones of scale. For most small or micro sites, we don’t have groups of editors working together with large groups of contributors for a daily copy. It’s not set up in that traditional sense.

You have one editor and a cloud of freelancers contributing copy as of when they can and the editor throws it together and publishes it. Publishing is really something that happens continuously and on the fly. An editor will get an article and they’ll post it and it will be posted generally in an hour of receiving it.”

Dr Elfham believes that most online publications are reliant on freelancers and in the future not many full-time jobs may exist in journalism.

“The average freelance journalist in Australia is being paid $200 per article or less. You have to write a couple of those a day to get a minimum wage.”

“Journalism is becoming closer to an art form. It will be pursued by a lucky few in a paid capacity but the majority will not be getting paid for it.”

Lawrie Zion, professor of journalism at Latrobe University, leads the research study Newsbeats, which investigates the aftermath of recent mass redundancies of journalists.

“You do see full-time work in publications springing up online. Look at the last few years of Buzz Feed and Junkie in Australia, these are nationally focused but specialist sites. Also, the Huffington Post Australia, they hired a lot of journalists but it’s already shut down” says Zion.

Despite attracting 1.89 million unique monthly users, the Huffington Post Australia shut down in 2017.

“The real question is how long term are these jobs likely to be. The question about how new start-up publications manage is of great interest to me. Some seem to be doing ok and others seem to take time to breakeven and some shut down quite quickly.”

While the online scene in Australia face their own challenges in adapting financially sustainable models, the big Australian newspapers have made themselves lean in a world where circulation is reduced and online advertising is highly desirable.

According to the MEAA (Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance), more than 2,000 jobs have been lost in Australian media since 2011, or around a quarter of Australian journalists.

Denise Ryan-Costello is an award-winning journalist with over 25 years of experience. She has worked as a senior editor and writer at The Age and The Sunday Age, as well as for a number of News Corporation publications. She left the Age in 2012 after accepting a redundancy package.

“I stayed when redundancies were offered over a period of about 8 years because I loved the job. But ultimately, as 100s of my colleagues left I ended up in editing roles more than writing because I could do editing,” says Ms Ryan-Costello.

“I could see that if I didn’t take the redundancy being offered to me -which was more than a year’s pay-I was going to end up a computer hack working long hours. That’s really what’s been happening to the journalists that have been left.”

“Fortunately, they are now training young people and bringing in interns but it was just dire in terms of where the industry was at. That’s why I decided to leave.”

When asked about negative effects of digitalisation on the newsroom, Ms Ryan-Costello cited a lack of check-ups in newsrooms.

“The expression now is that it’s not wrong for long. Which means people put things that are not correct out in the public space and are fixed as soon as it’s recognised. This can lead to defamation issues.”

“Digital operates 24 hours and so it’s leaner and faster but you don’t get the same in-depth journalism that you did. However, there’s always core investigative journalists producing quality work.”

Dr Elfham is not critical of online journalism. He believes the listicle popularised by Buzz Feed is an innovative spin on the traditional inverted pyramid and believes that respectable publishers have largely moved away from clickbait methods.

Some online publishers such as the Guardian, Buzz Feed Australia and news.com.au have made digital news viable through a variety of different models.  Buzzfeed Australia for example is currently operating at a profit of $700,000. However, it remains to be seen how these models will survive into the future and how journalism will adapt.

“Journalism will survive because people want to find out information and people want to find out news,” says Dr Elfham, “There is a demand for news that is sourced from things that are not just publicity. Where publishers can offer information that can’t be found anywhere else, they’ll be a demand for that.”