Political leaders start to lose it a bit after a decade. The hunger, energy, capacity to build rapport with the electorate starts to fail. Think Hawke, Howard, Blair, the last years of most two-term US Presidencies.
Leading journalists have similar issues. They get metaphorically (in some cases, literally) fat and complacent. They slip into the mistaken view that their opinion is actually worth more than that of a suburban BBQ host. They stop reading policy papers and spend more time collecting gossip at the bar. They write for their peers and believe the intra-industry accolades actually mean something.
Institutional status and comfort removes the discipline of the market from big name journos. When you are published because of your name, not what you write, competitive pressure disappears. You can write any old pap and because you are a “doyen/ne” of the industry, you get away with it. Alan Reid did it for years. Oakes and Grattan are now.
Breaking a story means passing on a leak that fell in your lap, not struggling through corporate records, interviewing and meticulously building corroboration, crunching numbers or finding sources.
Free time isn’t spent book writing or in extra research; it’s spent hosting events for fellow travellers, being a traffic cop with a microphone, and using your celebrity to get more conference attendees to pay full cost.
Example: Compare the Quentin Dempster of the early eighties with the Quentin Dempster of today.
Of course, there are exceptions. Chris Masters stayed sharp for decades. But he is an exception.
Over at the Cat Rafe gives Michelle Grattan a well-deserved serve. His focus seems to be more on the ideological bias of reporters or correspondents who should be more self-disciplined. Otherwise they’re just glorified bloggers (who get paid for it…).
Whether it’s ideology or plain complacency, leading journos seem to expire after a while, then linger on their name alone. Taking up space some hungry, cynical, bullshit-busting newbie could use to make a real difference. A newbie who, for a short few years, would be uninfected by conventional wisdom and groupthink, whose ambition would drive change because, when young, that type of ambition is unbounded.
The institutions of the media allow this sclerosis to happen. There needs to be more competition between media outlets, and within media outlets. It’s a hard scrabble to get a by-line. It should be a hard scrabble to keep it.