What’s at stake for Australian culture when journalism, critique, even art, are treated as mere content, designed to fit into institutional structures?
The recent Fairfax cuts exposed more than just a flailing company’s unimaginative approach to securing talented journalists or innovating on their business model. The cuts exposed the extent to which journalism is deprioritised in favour of developing content templates as sellable products. Content, not news or investigation, has emerged as the company’s focus, with templates like Domain driving the business. And while it seems anathema to treat the public interest in this way, this language is not out of place even in the arts. The “shopping trolley” approach to programming international festivals has long since ceased to be a joke; the nation’s major performing arts centres and galleries accommodate content that fits their stages, floors or walls; the institution’s structures determine the work that is seen.
So what can the future hold for art and journalism? What role and what ethical responsibility does the cultural institution bear, even when it is failing to recognise itself as a cultural institution? And what is at stake for culture if institutions don’t rethink these motives and models?
Filling the content hole
The word content has long become normalised as a catch-all for any creative or intellectual work that fulfils the format requirements for regular publication or presentation. It first entered common use in those heady pre-dot-com-bust days when the flurry to create websites for the internet’s first big era required new material: words and images that were different to the advertising copy which had previously been the only creative work commissioned by such companies. Now they could bypass the media and reach audiences directly by engaging them with their own content. Winning the brand positioning race became a contest for intelligent, authoritative writing that would encourage website visitors to stay, and buy. This led to a dramatic reduction in demand for advertising space, and a catastrophic decline in newspaper revenues from advertising and classifieds, their proverbial ‘rivers of gold.’
By the late 1990s, it was already time to rethink the newspaper business model, and yet, curiously, nobody did. Instead, the quality journalism that had previously been the driver of the business became the content of the publication template. ‘In the news days, the story led the work,’ a high-profile journalist recently lamented to me. ‘Now it’s the content divisions.’ Newspapers continue to seek more sensationalist ways to attract readers, cutting back on in-depth investigation in favour of salacious headlines, and prioritising content over quality. The Age’s choice to separate its editorial approach between print and online has devalued both mastheads, as the online click-bait-driven experience continues to decline. The Australian’s choice to devote more and more content to personal and ideological attack has done nothing to stop the decline of its readership.
Political reporting increasingly apes the genre of sports reporting, with stories being generated by poll results instead of match scores, or personality pieces instead of player profiles. When celebrity players are traded, it makes news, as do their salaries. However, today’s AFL makes its money as a content provider, earning hundreds of millions in broadcast rights, such that in 2015, ‘AFL Media remained the No. 1 digital sports property in Australia, across desktop, smartphone and tablet.’ The content that’s easiest to trade is content that exists in known formats and slots into known templates.
And what if the story happened to be more complicated than that? The race to fill the content hole has consequences. Stories that detail the complexities of devastating climate change trends are displaced in favour of loutish deniers using headline-grabbing language. Stories that detail the sensitive approach taken by Islamic leaders following reports of violence are displaced in favour of screeching attackers. Stories that analyse policy or hold governments to account are displaced in favour of media stunts and leadership speculation. That this era has witnessed Australia’s period of greatest instability in political leadership is no coincidence.
The future of public interest journalism in Australia is now so widely recognised as being endangered that the Senate has launched a formal inquiry, due to report at the end of the year. Using the language of commercial outcomes to justify its recent cuts, Fairfax no longer pretends a public interest motive for the company’s work. Paying its CEO a salary in excess of seven per cent of the entire operating budgets of its three capital city mastheads, while sacking over a hundred journalists, Fairfax has ceded its cultural responsibility to report with integrity in serving as the fourth pillar of democracy. With journalism increasingly treated as material to fill the space between ads, the quality and the nature of this content has become secondary to its earning potential for the institution. Journalists’ careers, and indeed journalism as an industry, are now endangered, with job numbers significantly reduced and payment per article instead of per word discouraging rigour and risk.
When seven million dollar salaries are prioritised over cultural responsibility, arts journalism is the biggest casualty. Arts journalism is more than reviews of current shows – reviews that nonetheless offer valuable insights into contemporary artistic practice and build loyal audiences for all kinds of journalism. Arts criticism builds a sophisticated culture by connecting the contemporary with its artistic, cultural and political context. Critical journalism on architecture and design encourages us to question the public spaces and everyday objects we take for granted, taking the time to consider their subtle influence on the individual moments and key decisions that make up our lives. Expert responses to visual art and performance displace vacuous celebrity culture with an understanding of the rigour and dedication behind the work, and firmly establish artists as cultural leaders.
At the same time, the arts are struggling in an environment of reduced funding, static operating grants and straitened private giving. Institutions work within increasingly fixed parameters: the dimensions of a gallery or a stage; the production requirements of a tour; the marketing schedule of a festival; the presentation slots of a symposium; the artform categories of a funding body. ‘We loved your content!’ enthused a colleague after my talk at their event. ‘That’s not “content”,’ I replied, ‘that’s expertise.’ When their income sources are threatened, institutions retreat to known operating positions. The groundbreaking potential of a new work becomes secondary to the institution’s need to secure content for its program, without which its funding relationships are jeopardised. This is doubly precarious for regional touring where, despite Australia’s enormous size, public investment is woefully low, making most touring presenter-driven – where the venue buys in content to fit existing programming models.
While the arts sector’s increased sophistication has created an array of specialised expert roles, roles for artists are very few, and fair payment far too rare. ‘It’s a workhouse culture,’ an internationally-renowned creative producer told me recently, ‘where working conditions and payments for artists are the first to be forgotten.’ Festivals in particular can create this kind of exploitation when they are presented as a marketing vehicle rather than an artistic platform. Following the unwelcome and unnecessary collapse of Melbourne’s long-running Big West festival, the City of Maribyrnong decided to present a festival this year anyway, tendering out the project at very short notice to a company who, in turn, ran a very quick-turnaround EOI process for participating artists. Despite also receiving $85,000 in Victorian Government support, the same amount committed by the City of Maribyrnong, the event offers artists a maximum of just $3000 for work that has ‘an immersive component; in that it engages its audience via interaction, participation, feedback and/or takes them on a journey which immerses them in the west.’ However, the festival will provide nothing to support this work: ‘All works must be self sufficient. Festival organisers will not be providing any equipment, power, technical requirements etc.’ Participating venues, on the other hand, are offered ‘marketing and branding support.’
When public institutions make choices that treat art like content, they reject their cultural responsibility, manipulating audiences with an experience of local talent that’s premised on the exploitation of artists. So normalised has this exploitation become that the idea of developing and presenting an entirely new arts festival within a three-month period was not vehemently rejected by anyone along its decision-making path.
Writers too are in particularly precarious positions. A craft perceived as requiring no special materials or tools, writing is all-too-readily undervalued. Australian writers are attracting global attention at the moment because of the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Intellectual Property Arrangements, that has concluded that ‘Australia’s copyright arrangements are skewed too far in favour of copyright owners to the detriment of consumers and intermediate users’, because they ‘do not reflect the way people today consume and use content.’ When our own federal government denies the right of creators to have their work respected, writers’ capacity to have their work seen as other than content is limited.
Each of these examples highlight just how far the imbalance between content and creator has swung. And while we now also have a Senate Inquiry into the Future of Public Interest Journalism, it’s impossible to be confident of its impact on policy. After all, the recent inquiry into arts funding attracted an Australian record-breaking 2719 submissions – which was still not enough to register on the Prime Minister’s radar, who told a Q&A audience that ‘The issue hasn’t arisen’ when questioned by Katie Noonan. What will it take to overcome this impasse?
Perhaps somebody needed to say to Fairfax, to the City of Maribyrnong, to the Victorian Government, to the Productivity Commission, to the arts minister: ‘This cannot be done with good conscience.’ Perhaps somebody did. Perhaps nobody did. What this speculation reveals is the futility of that expectation. It is unrealistic to imagine that the individual journalist or artist can affect the kind of fundamental change that needs to be led by the institution itself. To pretend that there is a level playing field between the creator and the publisher, presenter or funder, is fanciful; it’s up to our institutions to think differently about the choices they make.
As a starting point, cultural institutions need to question the ethics of their operations: What values, what living conditions and what working practices are we normalising? What’s in our blind spot? Have we got the most appropriate business model for what we’re doing? Are we employing people on a fair basis? Do we benchmark our artists’ fees as rigorously as every other budget line? Is the way we generate income in conflict with the work we publish or present? Do we treat creators’ rights as meaningfully as we do our own? Do we exist to sell advertising space, or to foster the public space? Are we still championing the public good? Has our thinking become institutionalised? Do we want to live in a world where compelling art and indispensible journalism is undervalued as content?
Top of the list in this line of questioning: Do we want to be a cultural institution? Or would we rather reject our public responsibilities in favour of increasing our profits by any means? The Age used to be a cultural leader, taking an active role in key artistic relationships that positioned it as an innovator. Seeking cultural leadership means accepting cultural responsibility: being accountable for the practices on which work is premised, including working conditions, fair pay, and a respect for creators that does not dismiss their intellectual property as content.
The big difference, of course, is that arts organisations are changing while too much of the media sits still. Regional touring increasingly features strong local engagement through site-specific pieces and enriching workshops, recognising that the cultural institution is not just the rooms contained within its walls, but also its community connections, its public spaces, its cultural leadership. Successful festivals constantly reframe their presentation models around new thinking and new technologies, ensuring that artists are showcased and paid well. Independent literary journals like Overland wouldn’t dream of not paying their writers, because the alternative is an unthinkable compromise of their cultural responsibility.
Australia’s cultural future depends on institutions who are able to radically rethink their roles.
The alternative is an Australian culture dominated by commercial interests, and the further normalisation of the language of content over creator, with devastating consequences.