News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson has called on journalists to fight pomposity and content theft to ensure the future of their craft. Here is the prepared text of his address to the Melbourne Press Club’s 2014 Hall of Fame dinner on Friday, 10 October:
It is certainly an honour to speak to an audience, journalistically speaking, of household names. But I’ve always wondered whether being a household name is a worthy aspiration when you think of other household names. Kleenex, Jif, Mike Sheahan, Brasso, Windex, Terry McCrann, Wheaties, Corn Flakes, Michelle Grattan, Palmolive…softens your hands while you read the newspaper, Mr Sheahan.
And, more existentially, are we newspaper people, we journalists – and I still consider myself a journalist even though I have crossed the Rubicon and am now in the witness protection programme for reforming journalists – are we journalists already relics? Fond reminders of a fading age? Curiosity pieces for the digerati to marvel at, while helping themselves liberally to our work in the meantime.
Collectively, we have been too passive in the face of what is profound change, but change that by definition is also opportunity. There has not been enough vigorous assertion of the social worth of journalism or the sanctity of content rights. There are many reasons for these failings, which, of themselves, contributed to the failing of some newspapers around the world.
Let me be clear about one point. We at News Corp stand on the shoulders of a giant. Without Rupert Murdoch’s investment in and commitment to newspapers and journalists, many in this room would never had a chance to ply their trade. That fact is sometimes forgotten in this country and elsewhere in the world. I’ve edited a famous paper that was also a legendary loss-maker, The Times of London – a paper which had broken lesser proprietors, but now growing in circulation at a time of mayhem in the media. That would have been utterly impossible without Rupert’s continuing support for the paper and its people.
Now when traditional titles seem an e-endangered species, it’s always tempting to be trendy, to fall victim to fashion, to believe that the Silicon Valley sensibility is the dominant gene, and while there is much to admire in the energy and creativity of Silicon Valley, there is not much to admire in their collective contempt for property rights. And buzzing around some of these large companies are bloggers and whatnot who are merely content concubines, kept men and kept women, whose narrative is one of digital doom for “old media” and who are compromised by their own proximity to power and prestige.
If you Google Robert Thomson these days, and Googling yourself is a form of self- abuse, you will find all sorts of interesting observations about Google and Robert Thomson. There is no doubt that the extraordinarily successful Google has become a platform for piracy and has undermined the value of content creation. Imagine just for a moment that we were the Googlies sitting in the Googleplex and wondering how to best display other peoples content on the Google News home page. If you truly respected the provenance of that content, rather than commodifying and rebranding it, you would have used the Masthead font of the publication as the link. Instead the link has been Googlefied and the character of the sources that little bit compromised, search after search, day after day. The typography is but a small but telling indication of intent.
And this omniscient organisation which can tell precisely where you are, what you have read, what you will read, knowing the most minute demographic detail, suddenly can’t distinguish between a well-known pirate site and a legitimate site. Or maybe they can determine when it is an issue of Hollywood celebrities and illegally published risque´ photos. There’s another curious content contradiction – Google can identify a site with a photo of a celebrity, but Google isn’t willing to crackdown on the pirating of entire films in which that celebrity appears.
We are still at an early stage of the e-evolution of content, so there are many fights to fight, and battles to win, but that does mean having a clear view of the commercial and social efficacy of great journalists. And it does mean journalists being grounded and not succumbing to sanctimony – one of my more striking impressions of journalism in the US when I first arrived in New York for the Financial Times was the overwhelming pomposity of some senior journalists. That’s not only unAustralian but also undermining of the journalist’s own ability. True understanding of a subject is based on empathy and, by definition, if you have an elevated sense of yourself you simply cannot have empathy.
And that sense of necessary self-effacement was made clear to me in my early days as a copy boy in the Business section of the The Herald. For a naive, impressionable, even callow youth it was a remarkable stroke of good fortune to be in the company of people who took their work very seriously but not themselves, whether that be Norm or Barrie or Garth or Maureen or Brandon or Peter. At a moment when a somewhat sheltered lad was at the height of vulnerability, I had a collection of impressive role models in the way they worked and in the way they carried
themselves. There were a couple of areas that were clearly out of bounds (don’t muck around with the pneumatic tubes and don’t annoy the blokes on the stone) but there was also a sense of devotion and curiosity and professionalism that, I hope, has stayed with me.
I didn’t have the sense of certainty that was within those students who edited the school newspaper and saw themselves as destined to be journalists. Frankly, I was then better at numbers than words – being a CEO, I now have to reacquaint myself with the numbers – I’ve quickly discovered that spending money, the special talent of an Editor, is easier than making money. But for the young and aspiring, it is surely not right to have a sense of insecurity if you lack a sense of career certainty at 16 – early expectations can be a later burden. The only practical advice I dare offer the young is “do overwork, and don’t over indulge”.
It reminds me of the motto of the British school to which Ping and I sent our beloved boys, Luke and Jack. It’s a school with a great history. Tolkien wrote portions of The Lord of the Rings there, so when the exceedingly erudite headmaster said to me, Mr Thomson, we have a motto for our boys, I expected an esoteric utterance in High Latin, something well above the intellectual pay grade of a bush lad. He said, “Mr Thomson, our motto is – a busy boy is a happy boy.” We then had no hesitation in signing up.
Anyway, a busy journalist is a happy journalist, and a redundant journalist is an unhappy journalist so to ensure that journalists are busy and happy we all must continue to understand how the platform permutations of our age have changed the need to report and to present and to distribute news. The lessons I learnt as a copy boy after typing in the sugar and copper prices remain relevant – be accurate, make more calls to find and cultivate sources, prioritize, and make the narrative engaging. And those characteristics will endure, across platforms and across the ages.
Tonight many a story will be told, for journalists are natural story tellers – the danger for our craft is that our audience will move on, the story becomes a soliloquy rather than a conversation and the voice echoes in the void. We have a responsibility to avoid the void, to make certain that the journalistic voice resonates, and that the audience appreciates. Journalism does capture the first frame of history, so we collectively must ensure that journalism itself is not history.