Audiences are fragmenting. Attention spans are shortening. Media outlets are proliferating. Journalists are being made redundant en masse. Public debate -- once limited to talkback radio or the letters to the editor pages -- bubbles along 24 hours a day on social media and in the blogosphere. Trust in the media -- thanks in no small part to the News of the World hacking scandal -- is lower than ever.
Yet, despite its bruised and battered business model, the mainstream media remains one of the most powerful institutions in society. Every day, journalists unearth new information, expose wrongdoing and hold the powerful to account by asking them questions they'd rather avoid. Their commentary and analysis frames debates and provokes discussion. Newspaper and magazine editors -- as well as the executive producers of TV and radio programs -- tend to have lower profiles, but play a pivotal role in determining which stories get pursued, which storied are given prominence and which get spiked. They hire, fire and set the tone for the media outlets they lead.
This Power Index list isn't about Australia's most recognisable journalists and editors. Or those with the most Walkleys. Or the biggest audiences. Don't get us wrong: when it comes to wielding media influence, size matters. As any political press secretary will tell you, the tabloid newspapers and the nightly TV news remain the best way to get your message across to middle Australia. But having a big audience doesn't, in and of itself, equate to power. It's about who your audience is and how you use it.
Surveys regularly show ninemsn, for example, to be the most-read news website in the country, with almost three million visitors a month. Yet it has a threadbare journalistic staff, rarely breaks big news stories and doesn't set out to influence political debate. It's a totally different -- and far less muscular -- outlet than a newspaper such as The Australian or The Daily Telegraph.
This power list seeks to answer a set of questions. Who's setting the news agenda? Who's influencing political debate and the national conversation? Whose stories are having a real impact on society? As former British PM Tony Blair explained in a 2007 speech about the modern media: "Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamour, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact."
The editor's plight
Newspapers still have the biggest newsrooms and still tend to break the biggest stories: where they go the rest of the media follows. But the editor's role is being eroded.
The internet has allowed news consumers to become, in effect, their own editors -- able to select the stories that interest them and ignore those they don't. Newspaper websites -- as anyone who's read The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age online knows -- are often dramatically different to the printed product. At Fairfax in particular, an increased reliance on copy sharing across publications and the emergence of figures such as Metro Media CEO Jack Matthews and editorial director Garry Linnell have made the masthead editors less powerful .
"It's very unclear who has the power to shape the publications," says one recently departed Fairfax broadsheet scribe. "The editor is like someone walking along a smorgasbord with an empty plate." According to The Australian's editor Chris Mitchell, contrasting News Limited to Fairfax's journalist-led culture: "The Oz -- and to some extent The Telegraph and the Herald Sun -- are editors' papers."
David Marr, who recently departed Fairfax, puts it another way: "Editors at News Limited operate differently. Fairfax is not a political player in the same way. News is a political player … Campaigning journalism means more direct intervention from editors."
When it comes to broadcast media, much power continues to reside at the executive producer level -- especially at the ABC, where Four Corners EP Sue Spencer, 7.30 boss Sally Neighbour and ABC Radio National Breakfast head Tim Latham are significant figures. In commercial TV land, it's hard to argue the EPs of shows such as A Current Affair or 60 Minutes, which have gone noticeably downmarket in recent years, wield as much clout as the halcyon days of the Packer era.
Facts are sacred
In a speech last year, former Kevin Rudd press secretary Lachlan Harris said: "One of the most significant structural changes in the media landscape in the last five years has been the rise of the opinion cycle. The most underestimated change in the last five years is that the opinion cycle is now more important than the news cycle … Opinion now reigns supreme."
In a sense, he’s right. As The Power Index explored last year in our Megaphones series, opinion columnists and shock jocks play an important role in firing people up and fanning the flames of debate. But we're not convinced old-fashioned reporting doesn't remain powerful. Just look at Sarah Ferguson's live cattle trade scoop on Four Corners -- or the bribery charges that have flowed from The Age's reporting on the Securency scandal. Further afield, Guardian reporter Nick Davies' revelations about phone hacking at the News of the World precipitated the closure of the paper and creation of the Leveson inquiry into press standards.
It's still reporters -- not opinionistas -- who dig up facts, verify them and tell the stories that wouldn't be otherwise told.
A note of caution, however: a scoop can take on a life of its own as politicians, activists and other vested interests get their hands on it. And regardless of how much an editor loves a story, its impact will be limited if the public doesn't give a damn. Yes dear reader, at the end of the day: the power remains with you.