Traditional media may have to change its tune as ANZ decides to try its hand at journalism with BlueNotes venture

ANZ Bank’s new “comment, analysis and opinion” website, BlueNotes, has caused a spirited debate in the media community around this one question: is it journalism? The bank insists BlueNotes represents “a new type of media” and is a bona fide member of the Fourth Estate. Sceptics believe the site is nothing more than a hugely resourced arm of the bank’s already formidable PR and marketing machine.

BlueNotes deserves the benefit of the doubt, if only because of the effort that has gone into the creation of the fully staffed “newsroom” which has been producing the site since its launch on April 15.

The integrity of the publishing initiative, which promises to provide “a forum for insights, opinion, research and news about the economy, financial services, investment and society”, would have been immediately undermined had a PR operative been placed in charge. But ANZ recruited Walkley Award-winning journalist and long-time associate editor of the Australian Financial Review, Andrew Cornell, as the site’s founding managing editor.

That ANZ appointed such a prominent journalist, and more to the point, that he accepted the position, gets BlueNotes off to a promising start. In addition to Cornell, the highly regarded journalist and media executive Amanda Gome, until the end of 2013 the publisher of BRW magazine and previously the CEO of online publisher Private Media, has joined ANZ as its head of strategic content and digital media.

ANZ offers this explanation for its entry into publishing: “Digital media is changing the way people consume information, opening new channels for communication and engagement with our clients, staff and stakeholders. BlueNotes is part of our response to this transformation from old to new media. BlueNotes is new media.”

The BlueNotes concept does not sit comfortably with many journalists. Their concern is understandable: if the future of journalism is tied to corporate interests, no matter how arm’s-length, how assured is the traditional role of journalism as the frank and fearless pursuit of truth, an essential component of any democratic society?

BlueNotes represents an immediate challenge to mainstream media – yet another one – and marks an important advent in the evolution of journalism, both in terms of people’s understanding of it and the value they place on it. It will also challenge the way current and future journalists think about their profession (or trade, as some old hands insist). One imagines that young journalism graduates will not be as concerned about the emergence of “corporate journalism” as their more experienced peers.

Journalism or glorified PR?

The corporate publishing model is not so alien in the United States, with major corporations such as Coca-Cola, Cisco and GE boasting well resourced newsrooms operating as separate organisational units. In Australia, the AFL has been an early example of organisations bypassing traditional media to reach stakeholders through their own media outlet.

But can corporate journalism claim to be more than glorified PR without the credibility that comes with objectivity? Yes, Cornell told The Australian:

“These [corporate media] models only work if there is genuine independence. They don’t work if they are not separate from general marketing. And the value to the organisation is commensurate as a result.”

And for good measure: “It’s naive to think commercial publishing ventures don’t have vested interests.”

It’s obvious that corporates are not becoming publishers for altruistic reasons. Clearly the exercise is about branding, reputation and positioning. But that need not diminish the commitment to editorial quality and excellence, nor the potential to provide a valuable news and information service.

The move to corporate newsrooms is a vote of no-confidence in the under-resourced traditional media sector. Much of the media giants’ response to structural change and shifting consumer behaviour is less than sophisticated: cuts, cuts and more cuts. And it’s in already sparse newsrooms that the bean-counters’ machetes slash most often and most deeply. 

As media companies strip their newsrooms of staff and increasingly dumb down or chase scandal and conflict in the race for scarce circulation, many blue-chip corporates feel it is getting too difficult to reach stakeholders through traditional media. Better to go direct themselves, they reason. It’s also true that corporate newsrooms can exploit the weaknesses of depleted newsrooms by cutting out the middle man and presenting their best selves to the marketplace.  

The media sector is changing rapidly and profoundly. As traditional media companies scramble to adapt to the threat of cheaper, faster, more nimble online competitors, and the advertising market continues to fragment, the question of who is going to fund journalism in future, especially expensive investigative journalism, is occupying those who care about the role of journalism in society.

Journalism: an expensive business

In the US, and to a limited extent in Australia, universities, philanthropists and foundations are funding investigative journalism projects. It’s an expensive business: in January, Brisbane philanthropist Graeme Wood withdrew his support of around $15 million for the struggling online start-up, The Global Mail.

Journalism academic and author Margaret Simons wrote in Crikey on 3 February 2014: “In this fast changing sphere…here as well as internationally the indications are that philanthropy is not likely to be a long-term, broad answer to the failures of the news media business models.”

Until recently, competition in the media has meant competition from other providers of mainstream media products; today and increasingly in future competition will come from diverse sources, with divergent interests, objectives and measures of success.

Citizen journalism, in which members of the public use blogs, websites and social media to report, analyse and disseminate news and information is both an expression of dissatisfaction with the mainstream media as well as a personal outlet made possible by technology. In the citizen-journalism scenario – what might be termed amateur journalism – everyone is potentially a journalist and publisher.

And now the billion-dollar corporates have decided that they couldn’t agree more. BlueNotes is the big end of town’s version of the citizen blog. But that question again: is it journalism?

BlueNotes may not be journalism per se, but that is not to say it does not contain journalism in its more traditional context of objectivity and independence. For example, former Australian Financial Review journalist, Mark Skulley, by any measure a journalist’s journalist, is a contributor to BlueNotes.

That’s of no comfort to AFR columnist Christopher Joye:

“You will only find truly balanced and fearless analysis on any subject of interest at destinations like Fairfax Media’s The Australian Financial Review and other independent media, which base their entire business models on providing uncontaminated information and advice,” he wrote recently.

Joye is one of the AFR’s most popular columnists, but this spirited champion of “truly balanced and feared analysis” is not himself a journalist as we would generally understand it. To quote from the AFR website: “Christopher Joye is a leading economist, fund manager and policy adviser. He previously worked for Goldman Sachs and the RBA, and was a director of the Menzies Research Centre. He is currently a director of YBR Funds Management Pty Ltd.”

That’s not a reflection on Joye, it’s a reflection of what’s happening in the media. As mainstream media outlets outsource more and more of their content the norm will be to rely on alternative external sources, whether it’s commentators such as Joye or specialist “new media” sites such as BlueNotes.

BlueNotes is premised on the ideals of objectivity and independence. For Andrew Cornell, his challenge will be to create and maintain a publication that is true to those ideals, and his own as one of Australia’s most respected journalists. For all ANZ’s best intentions, its unaccustomed role of publisher will be tested by its own corporate instincts, inclinations and caution.

With the BlueNotes publishing venture there are two distinct and potentially incompatible cultures at play: Cornell’s challenge is to create something entirely new, credible and sustainable from these cultures. BlueNotes will either blaze a new trail through the media landscape, or it will end up as media road kill. Whatever the outcome, it will make for interesting reading.

Disclosure: I was invited to write a column for BlueNotes but my first effort remains at the bottom of the editor’s in-tray, which quite possibly confirms BlueNotes’ commitment to quality journalism.

 

 

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