The curious case of poll-driven political reporting.

The Guardian published a report yesterday about Bill Shorten. The author set out to repent for calling  Bill Shorten a “tired accountant”. The impetus for the story was the turn around in the polls.

“Shorten is still leading the Labor party in the wake of this latest credibility disaster for the Coalition, after last week’s credibility disaster (blocking a free vote on marriage equality) and the preceding week’s credibility disaster (chopper-friendly Bronwyn Bishop). He’s now sitting atop polls from both Ipsos and Morgan that have the Coalition facing a loss of between 36 and 44 seats.

Is it time for a rethink?”

I’ve seen this kind of thing before, and I don’t like it.

Interpreting what a political leader does through the polls is intellectually vacuous. It’s easy to write. There is no need to have a view on tough questions about policy effectiveness or priorities, the merits of intriguing questions about whether the head of the AWU should be matey with big business, or the management and composition of their front bench.

The author of yesterday’s piece is not especially guilty. She has written about policy more than polls. But overall, allowing poll numbers to drive judgment of politicians’ merits is now commonplace. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9].

The rise of this sort of reporting means a swing in the polls does double business.

Not only does a poll bump get the leader kudos in their party, but it changes the tone of reporting about them. The new, glowing stories therefore amplify swings in popularity. That may be responsible for the increasingly binary popularity positions we see among our political leaders (They’re often wildly popular like Baird or old Abbott, or wildly unpopular, like Gillard and new Abbott).

This kind of reporting validates the paradigm that political hacks of the most cynical kind push inside their parties: We can do good once we’re in power. For now let’s focus on winning. It sidelines those inside a political party who think they should focus on making the country better, not just making the polls better.

Here’s a choice example of the kind of reporting I’m talking about.

The Sydney Morning Herald's Peter Hartcher thinks parties should use poll numbers not policy ideas to choose their leader. Is he right?
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher thinks parties should use poll numbers to choose their leader. Is he right?

I can only imagine the cognitive dissonance some reporters must experience when they write articles demanding more policy substance and less poll-driven rubbish.

Of course, we do need some political reporting. It’s helpful to peek behind the curtain from time to time and see the way the magician performs his tricks. You feel like an insider.

But it can’t be all we have, most of what we have, or even a substantial minority of it. It’s a sometimes food.

Our meat and veg must be stories about policy.

Labor’s own Crikey and ANZ’s own AFR – will branded newsrooms ever work?

Yesterday the Australian Labor Party made a stir by sending out a request for donations. It wants $95,000 to pay an editor to run its own newsroom.

It will be no nonsense and it won’t be filtered through the mainstream media,” the soliciting email said.

The ALP move to having its own newsroom makes some sense. The number of “news outlets” that simply regurgitate press releases these days means the writer of a decent press release has considerable power already. Might as well cut out the middle man.

And the ALP is not blazing a trail.

Corporate newsrooms are the new big thing. ANZ BlueNotes is especially visible to me, because on the day I left the Australian Financial Review, two colleagues of mine left to work there – Walkley award winner Andrew Cornell and BRW publisher Amanda Gome. Both people I respect a lot.

“Business communication now has to be increasingly a conversation based on great ideas, new insights and the best content rather than a broadcast by media release, advertisement or brochure.  While this won’t replace these traditional forms of communication, BlueNotes will extend and complement them.”

– Paul Edwards ANZ group general manager corporate communications.

Mr Edwards talks about a conversation. Broadcasting is easy. The most challenging part of this, I suspect, is finding people who will listen.

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I find the content mix at Blue Notes to be a bit ANZ-heavy to want to visit it. The top stories are mainly by staff and/or about the company. I don’t doubt that that raises the click rate at this early stage of the game – who else will be an early adopter other than staff, shareholders, interested parties? But trust issues loom largest when you are writing about yourself.

So establishing a newsroom can have two goals. Making highly shareable content, or attempting to create, over the long run, a trusted destination for news.

The AFL is probably Australia’s leader in having a corporate newsroom, and it does the latter. But it can do that by writing about itself.

I go to afl.com.au to find out the basic AFL news, like who won the games on the weekend. The reporting is good and timely and includes great video. The issues at stake are clear cut – who won and who lost. (But if you want to find out who got caught drink-driving and who is on performance-enhancing drugs, it’s a less compelling news source.)

But is the AFL a good model for a bank?

The AFL is in the business of making nine simple but newsworthy events every weekend. ANZ is in the business of quietly making profit.

Successfully making loans and having them repaid – while as predictable as nine teams running out winner by Sunday night – offers a far less compelling narrative. A bank can expect to be in the news mainly when things go wrong. It will be interesting to see how BlueNotes responds if there is another big trading scandal, loss or personnel issue.

The Betfair Poker twitter account demonstrates how self-promotion can be perceived as a turn-off, by never ever doing it. It tweets funny content utterly unrelated to the product it ostensibly promotes.

A perception that your branded newsroom is too much like an ad might put me off visiting. But perhaps “visiting” the newsroom is not the point.

These days, stories tend to rise and fall on their own. The statistics for this blog show me that deliberate visitors seeking out the blog provide a low background hum, but the big roars come when a story takes off on social media.

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For only the most established online media brands will this pattern be reversed. (e.g. In 2013, even the AFR’s most-read story was driven by a barney on Reddit.)

ANZ’s only way to get major traffic at this stage will be writing shareable articles.

BlueNotes could offer compelling stories to the general public by focussing on disasters inside the bank to which it has exclusive access (unlikely!). It will instead try to pick out meta-trends that affect readers as much as the bank itself. It is doing that to some extent, with stories on shadow banking, for example. But that story is written by a lawyer, and to be honest I didn’t read it to the end.

ANZ can never be Buzzfeed, and it probably won’t publish scandals. That means all the heavy lifting has to be done by imaginative ideas and great writing, all on serious topics. It needs a lot of quality writing. That is a major challenge.

(While I’m writing about the ANZ, does anyone else think their logo evokes The Scream by Edvard Munch?)

And as for the ALP?

Its trust issues will be greater than ANZ’s, far greater than the AFL’s. Every piece it publishes will be assumed to be propaganda suited more to the pages of Pravda.

But that does not mean it can’t be shareable. Unlike ANZ, partisanship and cheerleading can work to its advantage. Core ALP supporters may be very keen to push its message so long as it is lively.

Like ANZ, it is at risk of principally preaching to the choir unless the quality of the content is head and shoulders above the pack. Quality is key.

And the incentives of a branded newsroom to create content that shines bright is never going to be that sharp. BlueNotes, unlike Crikey, never has to pay its own way. It does not live or die on the love that people have for it. Every story is produced with half an eye on the effect on the brand and half an eye on the appeal to the audience.

So Branded newsrooms must live or die on quality, but their incentives are not as sharply arrayed to produce quality – where quality is defined as things the reader wants to read.