The impact of digital disruption on traditional media is well acknowledged, but the devastating knock-on for journalism at a grassroots level is only finally registering on the political and social radar.
In barely a decade, more than 100 local and regional newspapers have closed in Australia and hundreds of journalists have been retrenched. The consequence is that we have become a country of untold stories, and the crisis threatens to tip into catastrophe.
One hope is that the Federal Government can stem the haemorraghing by adopting the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s recommendations from its Digital Platforms Inquiry. Most of the attention has been on the big media companies’ calls for greater regulation of the tech titans, Facebook and Google, who have raided revenue streams.
But one of the most dramatic consequences of media disruption has occurred right around us with little apparent community concern.
Local government is the poster child for a sector hiding its light under a bushel – and it’s time for it to shine.
Many residents and ratepayers rate their councils lowly. We know that because even the councils say it.
I have checked in on some of the community engagement statistics for various councils, and there is nothing to write home about.
Authentic communication is a noble and righteous endeavour.
But being authentic has to be more than a company catch phrase. There needs to be a real connection between how an organisation speaks about its endeavours and what it does in practice.
How do you feel, for instance, when you see a stunningly shot commercial with a moving story, only to find the ad is flogging insurance? It jars.
Be it corporate social responsibility or social purpose, connecting brands with deeper meaning has become a busy marketplace.
As such, there is a widening gulf between those companies that are making a heartfelt connection with audiences and those that are essentially engaged in a cynical marketing exercise.
With another round of editorial job losses imminent at Fairfax Media in Australia, the continuing contraction in the industry supports the argument that if you want to get your message out you might need to go DIY.
An increasing number of corporate and community organisations are setting up newsrooms to fill the void left by retreating traditional media - or to compete with what is left.
Fairfax has announced $30 million in cost cutting for FY18. Most of that is likely to come from axing staff in the newsrooms of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. This is my journo maths, but at the upper limit that represents about 200 staff, although expect it to be between 100 and 150 after some argy-bargy.
Some media competitors report this almost gleefully. However, staff across News Corporation in Australia can expect to see new rounds of redundancies too, according to my mail.
Meantime, given the fragmentation of the media and audiences, companies are investing large chunks of their marketing and communications budgets to better leverage digital and social media channels.
One of the reasons newsrooms are such a great model for maximising communications performance is that they are the perfect example of what I call the Goldilocks principle – not too much process, not too little, just the right amount.
I have seen project management offices and consultants foist all manner of systems, processes and checks onto newsroom operations. And to be candid, I have probably been guilty of that too.
Such things are an anathema to editors and journalists who have a finely tuned “B.S” radar and want to get on with their busy jobs, not be weighed down by spreadsheets, meetings and ticketing systems.
I have an amazing doctor. He is terrific at his job, knows my history, communicates simply and, to top it off, is a good bloke.
Most important is I have confidence in the way he practises medicine. Which is kind of what you want when it comes to your health. Everything else runs second.
Similarly, when feeling the pulse of your business you want a no-nonsense, fact-based method that gives you an honest appraisal. Nothing beats a clinical, intricate look-see.
After decades of overseeing newsrooms and seeking to optimise their performance, I have found there are about 20 essential aspects for any health check of your communications to prove meaningful.
The object is to forensically understand your current state, from which you can then review and step-out a you-beaut communications/content strategy.
Stuart Howie is a communications and media consultant. He runs Flame Tree Media and is the author of The DIY Newsroom. Stuart has worked in media and publishing for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.