Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Content Makers, by Margaret Simons

At close to 500 pages this is a comprehensive over view of the Australian media. No stone is left unturned as Simons covers everything from the big media owners right down to the new blogger pioneers, doing on the ground journalism for free.

On the face of it, you'd think this a pretty dull subject. I took the book out from the library more with a sense of duty to learn than a keen anticipation at an exciting and absorbing read. Its hefty weight made me sigh. However, I was hooked from page one and finished the book in a couple of days.

Margaret Simons is a novelist and journalist who has written books on a variety of subjects including Mark Latham, the history of compost, the Hindmarsh Island Affair and the Canberra press gallery. Simons writes in a clear and straightforward manner, and is excellent at distilling complexities into common language. She seems to have instinctively absorbed Samuel Johnson's rule of good writing: if you write a line that you are particularly fond of, then cut it out. Musing on Simons' transparent writing style made me think of Victorian novelist George Eliot, a contemporary Australian version at least. This may sound like hyperbole, and I may come to regret the description (hopefully not!), but that's how I feel at the moment.

The Content Makers is a mix of on the ground journalism, research and history. Simons enters busy newsrooms, sits in on meetings, interviews industry movers and shakers, and reports behind the scenes gossip and tidbits of information. Complex new technologies are explained (digital versus analogue), the history of media, right up to Senator Coonan's new media laws are delineated, and the new world of blogs and online technology is explored (Simons it should be noted writes for Crikey, colorfully described by Mark Latham as a 'shit sheet'.)

Somewhat heroically, Simons puts her own profession under the knife and faces some tough findings. We all know of the so called 'culture wars' of the last decade, with many of those warriors claiming ABC left wing bias. Simons shows research that journalists on the whole are more likely to lean to the left politically. (Sports writers, we learn, are less progressive and more conservative.) The subject of journalistic ethics is also raised, and we learn that journalists have a different idea of what is ethically acceptable to the rest of the population. For journalists, getting the story is all, and they will do things that your average Joe in the street would find morally compromising.

No wonder Simons laments in the book that she'll probably never get work at News Limited again, or be invited to the Walkleys. She does a pretty round job of cracking open her own industry and peering a bright torch within. (In the final chapter Simons describes her attending the 2006 Walkley awards, depicting it like something out of Hieronymus Bosch. It'll put you off ever wanting to win a Walkley.)

Simons is very fair though and never carping. In her discussion of the tabloids she complemented them on being witty and energetic.

I also loved the section describing the new media, blogs and the internet. Simons brilliantly describes the lightning fast way in which information is now zoomed around the world, and how ordinary citizens are now the news makers. Anyone with internet access can set up a blog and publish to the world within minutes. As she so rightly says, this is absolutely amazing. Who knows what sort of transforming effect this type of instant communication will have on the world?

Yet this new media can also have a fragmenting effect on societies. More and more we are breaking off into separate groups of media consumers. One group reads the tabloids, one listens to the radio, one consumes the blogs, one pores over the broadsheets. Less and less do we get our information from a common media. Any middle aged person, like this writer, who has tried to get their head around Facebook, so popular with the teens and early twenties set, will understand what this means.

Perhaps the most boring part of the book was the section that deals with all the big media owners: Kerry Packer (now deceased of course), Kerry Stokes and Rupert Murdoch. I found all of their wheeling and dealing for power a big yawn. I know this is shallow of me and that I should show more interest, but it's true. Very useful lists of all the media owned by various business groups are provided though, which readers will find very helpful.

The section on Telstra will have you shaking your head at the nuttiness of selling off what should have remained a government monopoly. Telstra sells access to its rivals so they can be 'players' in the market, this all part of the government facilitating 'choice' and competition. One of the problems of this set up is Telstra's reluctance to invest in world class broadband. If only it had stayed in government hands, then this would have been paid for out of Telstra profits. As it stands, Australia is saddled with the worst broadband access in the developed world. Unbelievable.

I simply cannot recommend this book enough. It will surely remain an important book for media students, practitioners and citizens alike for many years to come. We owe a debt to Margaret Simons for putting in the time and effort to write this book. If your library has it, borrow it. And if doesn't, then ask for them to buy it. If you've got the cash yourself, then buy a copy.

Margaret Simons has a website which you can access here.

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