Myriam Robin

Media reporter at Crikey. Formerly wrote about business with SmartCompany. Egyptian-born, lover of economics and of the well-written feature.
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I started a new beat this month - covering media for Crikey. The biggest change I can see compared to covering business is this: the media doesn’t switch off.

Since I got home today, I’ve been keeping my eye on a brewing story. That never happened in business. At 5pm, the market closes - people go home.

So, ever since I came into my house, I’ve been wired. I’m checking twitter, I’m calculating how I can bring something new to my story even though I know others are also chasing it, I’m itching to start but holding myself back - it’s certainly not worth calling people who are managing to enjoy their downtime.

Frankly, I wish I was one of them. I never wanted to be one of those journalists who don’t have a life outside of work. People like that become microscopic - they think every tiny thing about their beat is important and fail to grasp what the story actually means (or doesn’t mean) to ordinary people. I’ll be a better journalist for switching off. But that’s easier said than done.

Huge edition of Crikey today. And a rather emotionally diverse one. Some of the stories are angry, some are regretful, some are outrageous and quite a few are tongue-in-cheek.

I’m not quite sure what to make of the edition - of its eclectic mix of very good content. One story - on the Qantas lounge - is very, very good, but on a day like today with no shortage of upsetting news about asylum seekers, I wonder who’ll have the emotional stamina to digest it after reading our first few stories. Similarly, a piece of background about an at best incompetent businessman seems non-urgent and even trivial today.

When I consumer news, I read around a theme. I’m on a bit of a Manus Island binge at the moment - not surprising given my interests and the current news cycle - and feel like I can’t quite grapple with anything else. I’ve read most reports on the issue in the Australian media, and plenty else besides, but more out of a sense of duty than interest.

I wonder if everyone’s like this, and if so, what mastheads are doing packaging divergent content together. Instead, maybe they could getting all their journalists to cover myriad aspects of the same story, with different outlets focusing on different stories, depending on what matters to their readership. Imagine the journalism that could be done then.

Or maybe mastheads are simply an outdated way to organise news now.

Anyway, just a thought.

Writing on Mumbrella, Lauren Quaintance argues that brands can do better journalism than publishers.

It’s a typically argument from a content marketer, but it’s one I’ve heard several times before. It goes that content markets can truly connect with their customers by using their expert knowledge to make themselves useful. Sure, they won’t, for the most part, be winning Walkley’s, but they can write entertaining, useful content valued by people more than name recognition is valued by the brand paying for it all.

This ad by Chipotle is often held up as an example of what can be achieved (and in fact is cited in defence of content marketing in the comments of the Mumbrella article). If you haven’t already, watch it. To the end.

Sure, it seems like it’s making a point. It’s beautifully created, the vocals are heart-wrenching, the conclusion is trite but satisfying. Until you get to the very end. Then, the music changes, you see an iPad, and suddenly, you realise you’ve just been sold an extended 3-minute introduction to one of those addictive but empty mobile games created to build brand engagement. The ending isn’t poignant - it feels tacked on, incongruous. It’s the sell, and it doesn’t fit.

If even the best content marketing feels like an ad, I’ve little hope for the rest of it.

Wedding photography by the delightful Sia Duff.

Joel Spolsky, an American software developer, has come up with a nice list of things he thinks are important in software teams.

The Conversation is advertising for a PHP developer, and they said they met 12 out of 12 of Joel’s criteria.

I like the thought of companies using such a criteria to point out how attractive a workplace they are. After all, job-seeking is a two-way process (it’s about the cultural fit as much as anything), so it’s important that companies give information about themselves as well as what they want in an employee.

That got me thinking about what things I’d like a company I worked for to have. I came up with my own list, tailored to online publishing companies. 

So, in the style of Joel’s test, here’s what I like to see:

Do you hire first-adopters? That means people who’ll sign up for the latest social network just to check it out, people who cultivate an engaged and interesting presence on Twitter, who’ve used Dropbox and Gmail for years, who have their own website, who read blogs as well as newspapers. Do you hire people who are enthusiastic about how the media is changing rather than nostalgic for a lost age?

Do your editors see themselves as competing globally? Do they keep up with what their overseas competitors are doing, and jump at the opportunity to localise or adopt what’s working well overseas into their own operations? Are they ambitious about the impact their publication can have? Or is it just about beating the website two blocks down?

Do you link out? Or do you think you’re fooling anyone by pretending you’re the sole source of all knowledge?

Are you and your team generous? Do they share contacts? Do they give credit or shout-outs where due, even to the competition? Do you pay for the little things – the coffee machine, the fruit - that make an office welcoming?

Are you agile? Are your development team empowered and free enough to fix a tiny bug as soon as it crops up? Do they work closely with editorial, and are they able to suggest improvements and new forms of reporting that can’t be done without the technical support?

Does your team have a solid understanding of SEO and a manifesto on how much it’ll influence your organisation? Do you know whether you want page views or quality, and are you willing to make sacrifices for one or the other? Is your DNA clear – does everyone in your organisation know what’s important for your business strategy? Are your colours nailed to the mast?

Does the whole team know your strategy? Can they influence it? Are your journalists commercially savvy, at least enough to take an interest and appreciate the job done by sales? Do your strategy and sales team love and understand the content? Do you know everyone’s name? Or are your teams working in silos?

Do you take risks? Do your writers take an argument to its absolute logical end-point, and see if they can defend it? Do they take unpopular opinions? Do you allow them to take risks, with the understanding that a stark argument often better illustrates an issue than a middle-of-the-road one?

Do you respect your readers? Do you believe you’re writing for clever, engaged people, some of whom will know more than you do on a topic?

Are your teams equal? Do you think that your developers, your commercial team, and your editorial team all have a crucial role to play in your organisation’s success, or do you favour one over the others? Do you have similar turnover rates in all three departments? Do all the departments feel valued?

Does your management put their money where their mouth is? Do your directors own shares? Do they believe in the company?

Do you have a community manager? Do you cultivate and reward the reader community you want, or do your websites have commenting ability and leave it at that? Do your people step in, with their own names, when they think the discussion is taking a nasty turn? Do they respond to criticisms, and do you or your community rule out what’s unacceptable? Do you protect your writers and community from personal attacks? Do you take feedback on board, without getting defensive? Do you have a plan to deal with all these things before they arise?

Do you hire enough people to do the above? Or is your business model so lean as to make the above impossible? Can your people take holidays or fall ill without everything falling to pieces? Making money online is hard, but do you make a point of doing it sustainably? Do you see a well-functioning, high-performing organisation as an asset, or a cost?

IN BRIEF:

  • Replacement wages are better because they treat childbirth as a natural thing that happens in the workplace
  • It makes replacement pay something available to all working women, and not just the high flyers.
  • The arguments against it do not make sense, or underestimate its positive impact and importance.

It’s impossible for me to tell ahead of time what issues do and don’t matter to voters, to confidently predict what issues will decide the election.

But the similarity of policies proposed by Labor and the Liberals have left the media and politicians clinging to the differences between the two parties on their approach over paid parental leave.

That both sides are taking some sort of parental leave policy to the electorate is a good thing. The fact that there is a substantive difference between the two policies is better. But one policy is far superior to the other. And it’s the one supported by the Coalition and the Greens.

Only that policy treats having children for what it is – a natural thing that workers do from time to time. Only it recognises that women (who take the vast majority of parental leave and are the ones who are forced out when families have to choose) deserve support and superannuation during that time. Only it is in keeping with international sentiment on the issue. Only one makes it affordable and prudent for women to be the primary breadwinner (more and more women earn more than their husbands/partner, meaning putting women on minimum wage for a few months period isn’t going to cover the bills). And only it makes good, replacement-wage parental leave something offered universally, and not just by the largest and richest corporations.

Rudd’s policy does do one thing Abbott’s does not, and that is support mothers who are not working before they have kids. But they are a minority. A far greater number of men and women are helped by Tony Abbott’s scheme.

Most importantly, as Eva Cox correctly argues, Abbott’s policy cements parental leave as a normal workplace entitlement, as natural and welcome as sick leave and long service leave. It normalises the idea of primary carers also having a job, and makes our workplaces more tolerant, welcoming places for men and women.

There are four arguments I’ve heard against the policy.

One is that it’s too expensive. This argument only holds up if you think the policy outcomes are not worth the cost. I think they are. We’re spending far more on dozens of policy areas. And this is a very, very important one.

The second argument made is that the money is better spent on childcare. I think more money should be spent on childcare. But I don’t see the need to prioritise something important over something else that is equally important. Spending money on both things boosts our economy by making it easier for women to work, and creates a fairer society where women are more able to achieve their potential. We should spend money on paid parental leave AND childcare.

The third argument, posed by Labor, is that the policy is unfair in rewarding some women more than others. The Coalition’s limit on the amount that can be paid out by the policy, $75,000, is sensible. But is the policy unfair? I don’t think so. No more unfair than all our other workplace entitlements, which are tied to pay. We don’t see the union movement mounting an argument against those. The same arguments used to defend sick leave and leave loading apply here. Namely, your costs of living don’t change when you get sick or when you go on holiday (or have a kid). 

The fourth argument is that it hurts shareholders, who won’t be able to claim the 1.5% levy on company profits off their taxable income. It’s true – someone has to ultimately pay for this policy. Given it’s a workplace issue, I don’t see a problem with it coming out of shareholders’ pockets. But it won’t even necessarily do that. In many large corporations, the fact that they won’t have to fund their current schemes anymore means their profits will go up with Abbott’s policy anyway, offsetting the cost of the levy further (Abbott is also pitching a corporate profits tax that’ll benefit companies). And 1.5% less in dividends to Australia’s shareholders (which we all are) is worth a fairer society where women are supported in trying to have children and a career.

Abbott’s policy is better. And the arguments I keep hearing against it, being put by an unlikely coalition of groups as disparate as Family First, big business, the Labor Party and some women’s groups, do not convince.

I don’t buy many Nike products. But if I played a lot of sports, I don’t know how I could buy anything else ever again after watching this. Or more accurately, after hearing this. It’s some of the best writing I’ve ever seen. 

I was reminded of it this morning after watching Nike’s latest viral ad. Which is very, very good. But not this good. 

In cynical Egypt, Mubarak still rules

In 1981, hours before he was assassinated, Egyptian President Anwar Saddat famously refused a bullet-proof vest.

“I am among my sons,” he said, according to his nephew. He was shot dead by an Islamist marching in a military parade, who was angry about Saddat’s peace treaty with Israel. Sadat’s deputy, Hosni Mubarak, sat by his side.

Quickly sworn in following Sadat’s death, Mubarak was no leader of men. He lacked the easy charm of Abdul Nasser, who threw off and defied the British. He lacked the forceful personality and military prowess of Saddat, who triumphed over the Israeli’s and ushered in a more moderate, Western-looking Egypt.

Dictators cannot survive without the acceptance of the public. And what Mubarak offered the Egyptian people was simple. He would protect them, from the forces that killed his predecessor, and from the machinations of global terrorism.

For a long time, Egypt’s Islamic terrorists kept up enough of a show to make this a desirable promise. The years following Sadat’s assassination saw thousands of Egyptian Islamists thrown in jail, where many were tortured and eventually released broken men. Egypt’s largest and oldest Islamic political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, was rounded up with the rest.

Egypt continued to suffer a series of periodic terrorist attacks, mainly on tourists and Copts. But over time, Mubarak’s warning – it’s me or the terrorists – grew less credible.

The Muslim Brotherhood formally renounced violence in the 1970s, and were tolerated to increasing degrees during Mubarak’s later years. And while the party remained illegal, they began to field candidates in local elections, who did well in parts of rural Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood began to operate as a quasi-government in these states, offering social services and the like that the Egyptian state was woefully unwilling or incapable of offering.

In Cairo, the middle classes grew weary of Mubarak’s increasing ineptitude and cronyism, and the corruption that meant their children could never aspire to lives as modestly prosperous as those of their parents.

In January 2011, Egypt threw off Mubarak. Many have focussed on the anger that drove this. And it’s true: the revolution was driven by economic concerns, by real and imaged slights, by a feeling of being owed more.

But it was also driven by hope.

Hope that despite its differences and divides, Egypt would pull together. Hope that Egyptians were a reasonable people, not prone to the excesses of their neighbours. Hope that the Muslim Brotherhood had matured, and that the ruling class wanted the best for their country. Hope that the Egyptian military were the friend and arm of the people, distinct from and different to the president.

That hope made Mubarak’s promise no longer of value. And thus, he was toppled.

What has happened in the past two years in Egypt is well known, and led to the quashing of that hope.

This past week has seen over a thousand Islamists gunned down by Egyptian security forces. Seventy churches have been burnt, and the Copts, as they have so often been in recent decades, are afraid. Too many of Egypt’s liberals have averted their gaze, willing to abide what is happening to the Brotherhood as a necessary evil. After all, they argue, the Brotherhood did worse during its months in power.

Rumours I cannot begin to unravel roam the streets. The Muslim Brotherhood are, once again, the terrorists, in need of imprisonment if they are unwilling to renounce their ties.

This may or not be true. From my vantage point in inner-city Melbourne, I cannot tell. But what concerns me is the loss of hope. The hope of Egypt was what made the revolution possible. Egypt’s fear is what let the military rule for four decades.

The military says it will transfer power to a civilian government. I hope it will.

But the millions who spilled onto Egypt’s streets seeking something better were driven by hope. And there is little hope left in Egypt today. 

image

There’s an ugly thought I’ve been having about what happened in Egypt last night.

Basically, the military has been the real power structure in Egypt for decades. From time to time, charismatic leaders have wielded a lot of power, but behind it all lies the military – a relatively meritocratic, tolerant, ridiculously wealthy and well-connected institution.

Egyptians don’t seem to mind this. The country has compulsory military service, and so all men have some familiarity with the army. And after all, it was an army coup that offered deliverance from the British, and the start of modern Egypt.

What happened in January 2011 would have really shaken the military. If thousands upon thousands could call for Mubarak’s ouster, despite the well-known costs of doing so. Eventually, the military decided it would side with the masses and thus keep their trust, joining the calls for Mubarak to go.

In the transition to democracy, the military naturally held power. And Egypt waited to see what they would do.

I wonder if the generals, in some hushed meeting, figured democracy had to be discredited, and their largest organised opposition cracked.

So they called elections, which were so flawed that whoever won would lack legitimacy. They let Morsi lead, and even stayed silent when he moved to neuter their power and cement his own.

And then, when he grew more and more Mubarak-like, they ousted him with the public’s support.

Not everyone’s support though. The remaining Ikwan had to be destroyed, but the best way to do this wouldn’t be to crack down too early.

First, wear them out. Let them protest for weeks. And then strike.

In the chaos, cut off the trains, stranding Morsi supporters in their homes, where they, in their rage at the murder of their compatriots, turn on the local Christian population and arm themselves.

Mubarak was right, the army can then say. Egypt isn’t ready for democracy. And the Muslim Brotherhood would drown the nation in blood if given the chance.

Crack down and arrest those who remain. And hope the liberals are cowed and fearful enough, and hate the Muslim Brotherhood enough, to stay silent.

In the uproar, declare a national emergency, the same law Mubarak used to run for 40 years. No one will bat an eyelid. 

Everything is back to where it started. 

I’m uncomfortable seeing vast conspiracies where mere incompetence would explain just as much. But the army’s gotten everything it could hope to get out of the past few years. Maybe they planned this all along. 

One theory as to why newspapers missed the internet revolution: Newsrooms are, by their nature, anti-innovative

I came across an interesting piece on PBS’ website the other day.

It was written by American journalism professor Larry Dailey, who wanted to look at why it was that news organisations weren’t innovating fast enough. He quotes studies that found journalists embrace ‘sameness’, meaning the culture across most organisations is the same. This can lead to newsgathering organisations not breaking the mould, and finding it difficult to try new things.

Daily writes:

On careful reflection, this should not seem surprising. The news business is one of deeply embedded routines and carefully followed habits. Newspaper editors and television newsrooms refer to their products as daily miracles because, essentially, they’re publishing a book or creating publications every day of the week. Without deeply embedded routines and strong habits, these tasks would, indeed seem miraculous.

So embracing habits and routines has served the industry well in the relatively non-competitive past.

But this miracle came at a cost. The news business has, historically, sacrificed opportunities that could spark cultures of meaningful innovation for habits that produce cultures of efficiency.

So, the very things that make a good newsroom – attachment to routine, a collegiate community bound together by a common ideology, balanced by a competitive spirit that sees everyone competing on more or less the same metrics – can make for a bad innovative culture.

I’ve never thought of it that way before. But it could help explain why, almost without exception, news organisations world-wide failed to see the challenge and opportunities posed by the internet.