What we learnt compiling the list of Australia's most published journalists
Eighteen years as a journalist and editor has taken me to some pretty disparate places, from rodeos to religious festivals and the corridors of Parliament House, writes Streem’s Conal Hanna.
One other place I have found myself, several times over the past decade, is in a room with consultants, hired to crack some version of The Digital Media Problem.
Consultants, I have learnt, love modelling, and one of the first things they always ask is how many stories a day a reporter should be able to write.
It’s about then that the alarm bells - which started ringing the moment the consultants entered the building - begin to ring much louder.
The question, of course, is very difficult - if not impossible - to answer. It depends so much on the ambition of the journalism.
New research we’ve done at Streem into the 25 most frequently appearing bylines in Australian metropolitan* online media confirms this.
Journalism can not be measured with one easy metric, says Conal Hanna.
What started as a lark request of our data scientist soon revealed a number of interesting things, such as the prevalence of anonymous catch-all bylines like Staff Writers.
It’s clear how common these are across all organisations. Sometimes there is good reason - such as to protect the identity of reporters covering organised crime. Another, more likely potential motivation: because the person who wrote the story is ashamed to put their name to it.
Another thing that stood out was the prevalence on the list of reporters from the sport and, to a lesser extent business, sections. One reason for their fast pace probably lies in the fact they have distinct print ‘sections’ that need filling on a daily basis. Both of these rounds also revolve around the scheduled release of key data points such as match scores or half-yearly results. Given the demands on reporting staff to keep up, it’s probably no coincidence that these are the two journalism jobs you see most often associated with ‘robot reporter’ trials.
I should point out that the byline data is not perfect. It fails to count joint bylines or, more accurately, joint bylines were treated as their own distinct entity, so unless you worked on a LOT of stories as a duo, you weren’t going to make the list.
We also learnt things along the way. We thought Peter Ryan was particularly prolific. It turned out there were two of him. The Age sports reporter publishes more online than the ABC business specialist, in case you were wondering, and still managed to make the list himself.
We also had to make some judgement calls. The top two reporters on the original list, for example, were removed.
Sarah Thompson from the AFR’s Street Talk column had 1558 pieces listed under her name, but it was felt this content didn’t generally constitute a full article, and including her would be unfair to other bloggers such as those at Parliament House, who publish thousands of words each day but it’s all captured under one article. Andrew Bolt (originally 17th) was another we removed because often his blog entries are short snippets, rather than full articles.
Number two on the original list was Heidi Parker, based overseas for the Daily Mail, who one can only assume is held up as an exemplar for colleagues globally as she churns through 6.4 stories a day. We decided the list should be restricted to Australian reporters only.
Certainly the prominence of Daily Mail Australia journalists - they took out all of the top five positions on the list - says something about the expectations placed there on staff, and their approach to the balance between quantity and quality.
Since its launch in Australia in 2014, the Mail has acquired a reputation for the rewriting of other outlets’ stories. All publishers do this on occasion. TV and radio pick up newspaper exclusives, online will grab interviews from broadcast. Sometimes when a rival has a great scoop, the only thing is to play defence and get a version of the story up. With suitable attribution, of course. But the Daily Mail practise this on an industrial scale, often “borrowing” far more than most people would consider reasonable.
Ultimately it’s hard not to feel sorry for their young staff who are seeking jobs in a shrinking industry but whose learning is focused overwhelmingly on one part of the job - writing under pressure.
Because what the consultants always needed to learn was that the writing is often the easy (well, easier) part. It’s the research that takes time, and that is most under threat when newsroom numbers are continually revised down.
That’s not to say all reporters on this list are taking shortcuts, by any means. Most of them are just damned hardworking, putting in lots of phone calls and generating myriad story angles.
Thankfully in Australia we still have a sizeable proportion of journos looking to create unique content, rather than just rehashing reports of someone else’s news reports.
For if reading an alphabetical list of the 1000-plus stories recorded by some journalists in a year taught me anything (other than the frequency with which the Daily Mail starts a headline, ‘SPOILER ALERT!’ or, shudder, ‘Busting Out!’) it’s that reporters should be grateful for the opportunity to pursue real, distinctive news.
Conal Hanna has been a journalist and editor for the past 18 years. He is currently Media and Partnerships Lead for Streem, which delivers comprehensive and realtime Print, Online, TV, Radio and Social media monitoring and insights to Australia’s leading corporate and government media teams.
* It would be interesting to know what regional, community or trade press journalists make of this list. Experience tells me they’re no stranger to the need to accrue a lot of bylines each week.