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Publishers need to re-assess purpose: Hegarty winner

With the 2017 Hegarty Award to be presented at the PANPA Newspaper of the Year Awards next Wednesday, September 6, MACKENZIE SCOTT spoke to last year’s winner Erik Jensen about how he utilised the scholarship prize in New York.

Earlier this year, 2016 Hegarty Award winner Erik Jensen travelled to New York to discuss current journalism models with some of the United States’ largest publishers.

The 14-day tour, funded by the $10 000 scholarship which accompanied the award, took The Saturday Paper editor to the newsrooms of the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian US and New Museum. His aim was to conceptualise news businesses in a non-traditional form, not just as news companies, but ideas companies.

“I have for quite a while been trying to understand how it is a newsroom or news organisation can conceive of itself in a non-traditional form. And so, what I was interested in doing was talking to news organisations where this is happening.

“At the New Yorker for instance, I was more interested in the way the magazine has reconciled the festival format than I was in the New Yorker as a publication. Similarly, the conversations at The Guardian were less about the journalism The Guardian is doing, and more about the way in which The Guardian organises its revenue,” Mr Jensen said.

He believes media organisations in the US and Australia are distinctly different in terms of structure. In order to adapt, Australian news publishers must reassess the core purpose that drives their operations.

“There is a deep comfort in American journalism with articulating what it is we do, I think we are less comfortable with that in Australia, in some respect.

“We should put down in real words what we do, interrogate what we do and try to reanimate the purpose of our mastheads, by first trying to imagine for ourselves what they currently do and what they could be.

“I think that happens constantly in newsrooms overseas because there are strategy documents and there is this focus on strategic growth. I think here we have got away with more of the view that journalism is something you feel in your gut.”

While the Australian method is not a detriment, Mr Jensen believes that taking a more strategic approach to newsrooms may improve the way they function.

The New York Times recently identified a flaw in its strategic managment: every department of the publisher had a strategy document except the editorial team. Through rectifying this and articulating the purpose and target of its journalism, the NYT was able to identify opportunities to create more engaging, multimodal journalism to better serve readers.

Earlier this year, the masthead mused about allowing readers to call food editor Sam Sifton to ask for local restaurant recommendations. While not sustainable, the key idea was opening up communication between readers and writers.

The masthead found that by allowing readers greater access to its journalists, trust improved and so did subscriptions. For that reason, every newsroom was reconfigured to serve subscribers.

Similar action is taking place at New Museum. The 40-year-old institution’s mission is to provide visitors with “new art, new ideas”. The museum is now reassessing its purpose as a public institution and considering how it encourages visitors to engage.

“That’s what those non-journalism outlets like the New Museum are doing as well –interrogating and restating their values as organisations to try and understand how it is they serve the people who come through their doors, what they do for those people, how they are important to those people,” said Mr Jensen.

As the reconfiguration of newsrooms continues, each organisation has approached the issue differently.

 The Guardian US has placed the onus of its funding back on the reader. After President Donald Trump cut funding to national parks, The Guardian US announced that a new series on public lands would be crowdfunded. The campaign was a quick sucess, as readers’ funding doubled the intial goal, with the publisher raising $114 302.

While Australia does not have a philanthropic attitude toward journalism, Mr Jensen sees this as an interesting proposition.

“[Crowdfunding] is saying you might not be interested in what we do broadly, so you are not willing to become a subscriber, but you might be interested in public lands and you’re willing to say that the money you give may contribute to two journalists who will for the next year focus only on public lands. That is not a totally sustainable model, I believe, but it is a new way of breaking down that compact between readers and the journalism they read.

“[If subscribers] have a particular investment in that specific journalism, they might be more willing to read and share public lands journalism from The Guardian because they feel like they, themselves, are investors in it, whereas if they have just given money broadly to The Guardian, they don’t feel that direct relationship to the journalism they are reading.”

The Hegarty Award and scholarship was established in 1987 to honour the memory of Patrick Hegarty, executive director of PANPA (1983- 1986). The award celebrates news media executives under 35, who have shown exceptional leadership and skill within the industry. The scholarship takes the winner on an overseas tour to study an aspect of the industry, in an area and destination of their choosing. Previous winners include Jared Savage, Mark Baker and Sally White.

This year’s finalist are:

  • Arylene Westlake, Community Newspaper Group
  • Bevan Shields, The Sydney Morning Herald & The Age, Fairfax Media
  • Courtney Greisbach, The Examiner, Fairfax Media
  • Emily Sweet, Australia Community Media, Fairfax Media
  • Jarrah Petzold, The Australian, News Corp Australia

The winner of the 2017 will be announced at the 2017 Newspaper of the Year awards at the International Convention Centre, Sydney, on Wednesday, September 6.

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