Transcript

The rise of digital journalism

John Bergin

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and this would be an interview with John Bergin, the Director of Digital News for Sky News Australia, responsible for all online, mobile and interactive content, John is at the forefront of modern news. But he came to his career through an unconventional path.

John Bergin:

I definitely had a life before journalism. I actually stumbled upon it, both of mind and just in opportunity. I had done a lot of jobs beforehand that all hinged on visual and verbal communication. There was a little bit of advertising, there was a little bit of web design, there was a little bit of sales as well. And I had always enjoyed reading and writing and my studies was English Literature and Political Science, because that's one of my two main passions. I had wanted to be an academic at one particular point in time and then someone said to me – why don't you consider journalism a few years down the track? And I said to myself – well, I really enjoy telling stories, I really enjoy consuming media, learning about the day's events and it seemed like a logical choice, but surprisingly one that had not occurred to me.

So then I got about researching and just finding out about the industry and finding out about people within the industry, and through six degrees of separation, found out about a position at Sky. I blithely sent away my resume, not really expecting to hear back from anyone, because the media is funny in the way it advertises its role. There's a tip of the iceberg, but the vast bulk of them are just sort of shared between friends and work colleagues and stuff like that. And I think it was with some surprise that my then boss received my CV and said, well, how do you know about this? How do you know about the position? So I went in I gave probably what I thought was the worst interview, ever. I must have done something right because they offered me a job as a digital producer, which involves turning up to work at 4 o'clock in the morning with a caffeine intravenously inserted into my blood stream. You sit down and collate all the different wires of the day and write up all the stories and produce all the video content for the website. So I found that I was writing this broad spectrum of content, and really enjoyed being a very skilled generalist when it came to the news and eventually worked my way up within the organisation that way.

Matt Smith:

When you traditionally think of journalism, you've got print, you've got radio, you've got television, and now you've got essentially a new field of journalism which is online digital. That wasn't the sort of journalist you wanted to be when you thought about being a journalist, did you, and you were in a new field. Has that complicated things, the way that you essentially create what sort of job you're doing?

John Bergin:

Yes, it's a really exciting time to be doing journalism I think, because we are in a period of marked transition and you're absolutely right – when I first conjured up the idea of being a journalist, I had these really romantic notions of working for a stolid broadsheet and going out on a beat and all of these sorts of pop cultural conceptions of what it meant to be a journalist. The reality is very different and the reality of my role is especially different in the sense that it didn't exist at the time when I started, and it doesn't come with easy to apprehend boundaries, and it's not clearly defined. Writing is part and parcel and is still the core of the journalism that I do. I find that you can really condense into really lean and muscular prose, what's happening and why it is of significance, but then layered around that is other methods of story-telling. There's the social media dynamic that allows you to share that information with other people, that are actually part and parcel of the journalism that you're doing. And they are highly involved in the journalism that you're doing and they're writing back to you and you're sort of collaborating and there's a real sense of shared ownership of journalism through social media, I find, which is very interesting. Figuring out how to harness that and how to move forward with that is challenging because it's a behavioural conditioning that you've learnt, so that's the exciting prospect I suppose.

Matt Smith:

That's one hell of a job description to start with, but one thing that I find is that a lot of people struggle with how to define that sort of thing or how to access news like that. With me, I call it the parent threshold – what does my mum tell her friends I do for a living? If my mum can understand it, then the rest of her age group can understand it. Is that something that you're struggling with? How are the general audience accepting with online news?

John Bergin:

That's a really good example there – the parent threshold. I'm yet to really be able to do that myself. I tell my mother that I work with computers and that I work in the media, and she's satisfied with that. The way in which our audience responds – we've still got people sitting at home and they're quite happy to passively consume Sky News, just by turning on the channel and watching it. We find that people who are really savvy with social media, they confer with my presence in social media quite regularly, and they'll say, who's coming up as guests on this particular story? Another example would be, why is this issue not getting any attention? Why are you concentrating on one at the expense of another? So we find that it's a tiered response. There are some really savvy and engaged individuals that will liaise quite regularly, to me personally, on Twitter for example, but also the Sky News account and then there are others out there who are still plodding along, I think it's fair to say, just sitting at home and consuming media in a passive sense. So the way that traditional outlets like Sky, indeed any other broadcast has to go about, is a challenging, double-pronged conundrum. How to cultivate a new audience with new technologies, but still retain their existing audience, and serve that audience well. I think all media outlets are still figuring that out.

Matt Smith:

Is social media important to telling the news story? Because it's becoming more and more like a conversation rather than just a one-way thing.

John Bergin:

I absolutely think it's part and parcel to the future of journalist. The name Twitter, or the name Facebook, as hard as it is to believe, once upon a time they didn't exist, one day those web services will be defunct. But the underlying ethos that makes sense to use those sorts of technologies won't. I think we're gearing towards a situation where we won't even probably use the term, social media, one day. It will be just what we expect the web to be. It really is changing the way we think what is appropriate to do with journalism. We've got a situation now where it's acceptable for us to keep on doing traditional journalism and every once in a while, we're only really starting to get to a small degree to what the potential social media has to offer. You still see a lot of outlets out there dipping into it, utilising it like a resource for a little bit of stylish polish and exoticism. I think that is a first faltering step into actually substantially changing the whole sum total of journalism. Newsroom staff will use social media to comb through it and find an individual and then get in contact with them and maybe do a phone interview. Or you will read out tweets on air. I think that's a very basic level of interaction. I think what we ultimately need to do is build a high degree of personal sort of relevance and resonance with people. As audiences continue to fragment with – I forget the figures now, but it's something like 156 million blogs – that's about 200 million Twitter users, it's about 600 million Facebook users, and it's something absurd like 5 billion Flickr images. As all those technologies continue to, not undermine, but act as an alternative of media consumption to traditional media, it's not enough to resist it and say, we will use it every once in a while and continue doing what we're doing. They really need to stop and think and say – we're not challenged by it, we actually should embrace it in a day and age where everyone has the means of telling stories to one another – and we really need to actually think about a way in which people now can actually contribute to the sum total of journalism and write those stories all together in a really sort of collaborative sense.

Matt Smith:

Can you tell me a bit about Sky News and where it sits within Australia's media landscape? And how producing a twenty-four hour news cycle makes that news different from news at a commercial station, where they've got a set bulletin.

John Bergin:

Well, Sky has been on air in Australia since 1996. We launched the Business Channel in 2008, and more recently we launched APAC, which is Australia's Public Affairs channel in October, I believe it was, 2009. That's an independent, not for profit, public affairs channel. So Sky has a number of different avenues of delivering content, the idea being that we can be at once a local, a national and an international broadcaster. We actually have sixteen streams of continuous television coverage. And the reason behind that is at an early stage we realised that it's important to not just be a broadcaster but to also be a narrow caster in the sense of the word, and to serve specialised audiences because we are a paid service. We don't have the luxury of being publicly funded or commercially available for free to air, so we need to think about the way in which our unique point of differentiation is. So that is complete coverage, when the situation warrants it. We have an underlying ethos which is, if there's a big story happening, people should expect to turn on the TV and see us covering it, and covering it in depth. What we also do is provide a lot of content to third parties, so we distribute content to pretty much every single telco in Australia. Our principal client is Bigpond. So all of the video content that's available on their mobile phones we provide as well. We're not just a broadcaster, we're not just limited to our TV set, we're actually there on mobile phones. We're actually out there on tablets, we're out there on websites and so on and so forth.

Matt Smith:

What happens in the twenty-four hour news cycle when there is no news?

John Bergin:

When it's not rolling continuous coverage, at any given point throughout the day there's going to be four political programs and they're called agendas, and we also have a selection of flagship political shows as well in the form of The Nation, Saturday Agenda, Australian Agenda – you can see where I'm going here with this theme – and another show called The Contrarians, so lots of political happenings to chew the fat over, if you will. And I think what we do well is… politics can be quite dry to the average consumer, but we have a means of giving more politics and actually having those people in the studio together discussing the daily ins and outs of political happenings in Canberra or on a state-based level, so there's always going to be that sort of show, and always giving that sort of information, the attention it deserves. Politics is a really important facet of life in any liberal democracy I feel, and all too often commercial networks might give you a pithy grab or a sound bite of it, and then they'll move on to other news. I think that in order to be politically engaged, you really need to immerse yourself in as much political knowledge and as much political commentary and analysis as you can, so Sky does that. And on a slow day, as you said, what we would do is report what's there, but we could always rest assured that there's a lot happening in Canberra behind closed doors and in the corridors of power. We don't find ourselves struggling to find enough political information on any given day. In terms of hard news, I suppose a slow news day really springs from a poverty of imagination. And that's not to say sensationalise the news, but to actually sort of explore its underlying significance. So a twenty-four hour broadcaster does have the ability to yield instant gratification with its breaking news, but then similarly when it is slow, it's just ravenous, more that needs to be filled with information. So, you can talk about policy analysis at length, you can talk about what the various peak bodies think about a piece of legislation, you can get experts in to talk about the geo-politics and the ramifications of something that might be happening. Unemployment figures, there will be CPI – there'll be all sorts of things that normally make it on the menu for the six o'clock newscast. Twenty-four hour news actually has a lot more breadth and depth and has the ability to be a bit more creative with that information. We have a lot of information that otherwise would normally fall by the wayside.

Matt Smith:

Have you seen the Onion newsclips? Some bullshit happens, somewhere…

John Bergin:

With the bear, and then they have info-graphics and stuff like that? Yeah, that is something that can happen, if you treat it haphazardly. The challenge is always to think about how best you're serving your audience, and is this information worthy of sharing with others. You can get a situation in the day where you just have what's sometimes criticised as this gormless journalism of assertion, where you have just point A versus point B, particularly through politics. Sometimes commercial TV networks will just give you that point of view and that's all they can do because of the time constraints. Twenty-four hour news can actually link that information into a more coherent body politic, with facts and opinions and commentary and analysis and that can be brought to bear on other things. So just as long as the staff at Sky News or at any twenty-four hour channel are diligent and think about the consequences of the information they're sharing and really intelligently think about ways to frame issues and share that information with others, then a twenty-four hour news cycle can be filled with intelligent, incisive commentary and analysis.

Matt Smith:

To your job in particular now. How much writing and editing do you actually do, for the online presence, and how much do you tend to favour other aspects of multi-media such as info-graphics and video and maybe occasionally audio?

John Bergin:

Yeah. Well Sky News does a lot of video. What we video – we purpose a lot of the information that we put to air, a lot of the video content there, in terms of long form interviews. When we're not doing that we'll actually be creating the content ourselves, the digital department. So information that would not normally be able to fit into the constraints of the twenty-four hour news cycle because they're following other stories, so a lot of international news, a lot of technology news, a lot of environmental news will be specially created by the digital team and put on line. We podcast all of our shows. We have a Facebook page as well. So we are actually using various technologies to share that information and re-purpose that information as much as possible.

Matt Smith:

And occasionally writing…

John Bergin:

And occasionally writing as well, yeah, that's right. I absolutely write a lot of content. A lot of places around Australia are highly reliant on AAP wire copy and we don't want to be that. Yes, we use AAP wire copy but we also use all the information that we manage to glean from all of our interviews. We're doing a hell of a lot of political interviews, in the morning, and it seems counter intuitive to just ignore that information. No one should sit around passively waiting to be spoon fed information from one dominant source. We do a lot of political interviews and we can get that information and write it up and we can collate that information with other interviews that are being held by other sources, by wire copy, and bring that together into a more pastiche of information if you want to call it that.

Matt Smith:

How do you describe your journalistic style?

John Bergin:

Yeah, that's a good one. Bombastic.

Matt Smith:

Bombastic!

John Bergin:

Bombastic. I tend to…

Matt Smith:

You've got the journalistic style of a seventies reggae band?

John Bergin:

Yeah, that's right. The very first day at Sky I wrote an article and my then manager very gently edited my work and I had used the word "whilst" and I had used the word "exacerbated" if memory serves, and I had used the word "diffident" and she said "Just use while, no one uses whilst any more. Use a little bit more of a common touch, John." It's not fair to say it's writing for the lowest common denominator but you're trying to make the information as accessible as possible. Or if the information is worthy of being shared, and needs to be in a very straightforward way, that the broadest cross section of society can read it and be informed and enjoy – don't use the word "exacerbate" just say "worsen" and use the word "shy" perhaps. So I went about that – I think my style of journalism is characterised by having learnt how to not rabbit on ferociously and brevity, those aside I think a willingness to learn, a willingness to seek and understand differing points of view, and a robust spirit of enquiry. So when talking to people, it's not enough to ask the really sort of glib facile questions, you need to really listen to the answers they're providing and then basically get them to articulate the building blocks or the mechanism of thought that makes sense for them to hold that position. That's the kind of journalism that I think people should try and pursue. That's the type of journalism that I try to uphold and try to do, and as I said, it's a complex task, you can fall back into old habits if you're not too careful but you should always seek to preserve that sort of mentality, if you will.

Matt Smith:

John Bergin, thank you for your time today.

John Bergin:

It was a pleasure, thank you.

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