The digital revolution has had a dramatic impact on news reporting. Yet the form of reporting has remained much the same over the past 80 years. By contrast, the first century of news reporting in Australia was quite different in form, reflecting norms in English-language journalism of the time.
Reporters and most of their sources were anonymous during and beyond the 19th century, with information presented as a potpourri of observations and comments of uncertain origin, not distinguishing between eyewitness reports and informants’ accounts. The notion of the interview, which came from the United States, was slow to take root, as was the form of a news story with quotes and verifiable sources, but interviews and the later innovation of press conferences were to become more common from the 1920s. In contrast to subsequent developments, journalists involved in interviews and press conferences were often quite deferential and not very probing, with press conferences in particular likely to be under the control of the interviewee.
Most 19th-century journalists appear to have been generalists, but there is evidence of specialisation in reporting roles from the latter part of the century, especially in coverage of parliaments and courts. Sydney and Melbourne newspapers had specialists in other areas by 1888. There were small press galleries in the colonial parliaments, and some parliamentary reporters doubled as court reporters. Reporters were at first banned from the early colonial legislatures, echoing the restrictions in access to Britain’s parliament until the late 18th century. Parliamentary reports were more akin to Hansard than the form of political observation and multiple sourcing that was to develop in the next century. In Melbourne, the Argus was renowned for providing a quasi-official record of local parliamentary proceedings, a reputation shared with other colonies’ newspapers. On the launch of the NSW parliament in 1856, the Sydney Morning Herald carried an article headed ‘Parliamentary Reporting’ emphasising the importance of full and accurate parliamentary reporting ‘for the preservation of constitutional freedom’, and mentioning that during many speeches ‘the eyes, ears and fingers of the reporters are incessantly occupied’. By late in the century, and with the development of colonial Hansards, summaries of proceedings became more common in daily newspapers.
By the early 20th century, a rounds system was in place, with deployment of reporters to cover specific areas. Key rounds in metropolitan newspapers included state (the state parliament), civic (the city, suburban and regional councils), trades hall (industrial relations), police (crime, accidents and fires) and shipping. Journalists appointed to these rounds would typically operate from a small office or press room attached to the institution being covered, and might be seen in the newspaper office only rarely. Police rounds reporters were generally on the road with a photographer and driver, covering events in response to news tips or monitoring of police radio scanners, or attending police news conferences.
A Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery was established in Melbourne in 1901 in parallel with the Victorian parliament; it moved to Canberra at the opening of the national Parliament House in 1927. Such areas as sport, business and social (women’s) rounds had their own sections, and did not usually contribute to the core news pages. Additional areas of specialisation emerged as the century progressed, reflecting changing concerns and emphases in society—aviation, defence, education, science, the environment, health, technology, lifestyle and even media. In most areas, reporters mastered their brief through on-the-job experience and contacts, rather than through prior specialist education, and have often become authorities in their fields.
With the exception of war coverage, most foreign news was sourced from overseas newspapers—chiefly London dailies—until well into the 20th century (although after World War II, journalists responsible for the reports were often Australian, given the large contingent of Australians working in Fleet Street). Permanent full-time overseas bureaux were eventually established by major newspaper groups and the ABC, and later the television networks, with an emphasis on Britain, the United States, and East and South-East Asia.
In the area of domestic news-gathering, reporters have been organised under the control of a chief-of-staff, described by American observer W. Sprague Holden in 1961 as the ‘boss of the reporters’ and, according to him, far more powerful than US equivalent roles—especially in having authority to deploy staff beyond city boundaries.
The growth in staff numbers resulted in the establishment within all large news organisations of news conferences (known also as editorial conferences), attended by section editors and other news heads, and held several times during the day. These were conceived as a means of coordinating news-gathering and production activities, as well as keeping everyone informed of breaking developments (and also, at the first meeting, evaluating the previous day’s coverage). The chief of staff’s tabling of a news list and summary of assigned reporters’ progress in news-gathering (based on regular phone contact with general reporters and roundspeople) formed the basis of evolving decisions about placement of stories in the newspaper—especially the prized front-page lead.
For many decades until computerisation made it unnecessary, reporters would type their stories on thick wads of half-sheet copy paper stapled into multiple carbon copies, permitting distribution of stories to the chief of staff, editor, and interstate bureaux and radio stations. The original sheet was distributed by copy boys or girls to the sub-editors, for allocation by the chief sub-editor to a down-table sub for processing (including cutting to the designated size, rewriting if required, error and style correction and heading writing). Reporters in the field would phone in stories to a pool of copy-takers, either from a public phone, a car radio-phone or their bureau office—for example, at Parliament House or the courts. As deadline pressures mounted, stories could be in the process of being subbed while further paragraphs (or ‘pars’) were being typed. Cable subs would process a stream of copy from overseas, both from the organisation’s own correspondents and from news agencies.
Until after World War II, recruits to newsrooms often began at age 17 after completing senior secondary studies (or earlier in the century, at age 15) and, as established in the first journalists’ industrial agreement of 1911, served a four-year cadetship, consisting of on-the-job training under the supervision of senior reporters, with rotation between differing rounds and departments plus lectures and shorthand training as well as one-to-one mentoring from a cadet counsellor (traditionally a middle-aged former reporter or sub). Cadet lectures were a mixture of senior reporters’ war stories and advice on pitfalls facing reporters (especially defamation and contempt of court), or advice on writing and grammar. Little attention was given to ethical issues, except where law and ethics clashed—particularly in relation to protection of confidential sources. Most reporters were members of the Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA, now the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance) (for much of the 20th century until the 1970s, newspapers were effectively ‘closed shops’ in relation to union membership), and were pledged to abide by the AJA Code of Ethics (adopted in 1944). In some newsrooms, such as Sydney’s Daily Telegraph under the editorship of Brian Penton, cadets were encouraged to compensate for their limited formal education by reading works of literature.
Although not embraced by the industry with any particular enthusiasm, tertiary journalism education developed from the 1970s and gradually provided an increasing supply of graduate recruits to newsrooms, together with graduates of specialist disciplines such as economics. By the early 21st century, recruitment of school leavers to newsrooms had become rare. However, a more recent development adopted by Fairfax Media and News Limited, as well as the ABC, has been one-year graduate traineeships to replace the cadetship system, providing advanced and site-specific practical training to supplement the learning disseminated in tertiary courses.
Cadet reporters were taught news values in terms of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘six honest serving-men’—who, what, when, where, why and how—with later university theorising about news values discerning proximity, conflict, impact, novelty and celebrity as key elements.
Such mid-20th century presentational attributes as the running of introductory paragraphs (‘intros’) over two or more columns or setting them in bold type were discarded by the 1980s when modular design became dominant. Similarly, the ‘summary lead’, whereby all the essential facts were encompassed in the intro, quietly evolved into more economical intros. However, the ‘inverted pyramid’ format (with the most important facts at the top of a story) remains the standard in hard news reports, enabling stories to be cut more easily from the bottom by sub-editors to meet space constraints.
A more significant change was the rebellion against the straitjacket of objectivity, with reporters becoming emboldened to express their opinions. This change was linked to the more liberal allocation of by-lines from the 1970s. Previously bestowed only to senior correspondents, or as a signal of great honour, by-lines became more generally used in the Australian—perhaps as a trade-off for lower levels of pay.
More recently, with the advent of online news, the decreasing space dictated by screen size has reduced many news stories to two or three sentences, increasing the pressure to maximise news angles and attract ‘clicks’. While the basic ‘inverted pyramid’ style is still commonly used, often readers only glance at the first paragraph, without clicking through to the rest of the story.
While digital platforms require additions such as interactive elements and moving images, the emphasis in all news reporting is still on the writing. Journalists are always conscious of the need to maximise their audience, so readability is critical, with the language level designed to be as accessible as possible. A neutral and balanced tone is also desirable, with all sides of the story presented objectively.
However, news has become more interactive, and the role of opinion/comment within news reporting has been transformed through user-generated comment. While authoritative sources remain important, news organisations today are conscious of the need for interactivity, uploading consumer comments and encouraging active community participation in the way news is presented. Consumers not only need to identify with the news, but are encouraged to connect with it. So journalists now need to consider how each platform will determine the content of a story, and take into account the audio and visual components of their report.
Reporting the news is now a fluid and ongoing process. A story is no longer simply written or produced once and filed. The same report will have many variations over different platforms during a 24-hour cycle. In addition to the traditional skills required by a news reporter, such as researching, interviewing and writing skills, today’s news reporter knows how to record good-quality audio, present well on camera, upload and edit the video, and use desktop software to present a full multimedia package of the report.
Newsrooms have also been significantly restructured. Reduced revenue with the flight of advertising to social media has forced considerable economies in editorial costs, including reductions in staff numbers and more syndication of content between sister newspapers. Moreover, costs of news production have been cut, with both News Limited and Fairfax Media moving to centralised news processing, involving sub-editors handling stories from designated ‘sub hubs’—often far removed from the reporters.
Most recently, the ‘hub and spokes’ layout of newsrooms has been transformed again with the dominance of the ‘digital first’ imperative in modern news reporting. An example of this change can be seen in the Methode software now used throughout all News Limited newsrooms in Australia, where journalists open digital templates on their computer screens to find they have been assigned news topics. They then fill in the template to produce web-ready copy, which can then be uploaded with minimal or no subbing at all for digital platforms.
REFs: W.S. Holden, Australia Goes to Press (1961); R. Kirkpatrick, Country Conscience (2000); C.J. Lloyd, Parliament and the Press (1985); L. Revill and C. Roderick (eds), The Journalist’s Craft (1965).
JOHN HENNINGHAM and MANDY OAKHAM