Tough times for professional journalism

No amount of spin about Nine’s takeover of Fairfax Media can disguise the fact that Australian journalism is in trouble.

IMAGE: ABC

IMAGE: ABC


So Kerry Packer’s burning ambition to bring the Sydney Morning Herald into his Nine Network stable has finally come to pass. Except that the man himself is no longer around to enjoy it.

Nine’s takeover of the ailing Fairfax empire was a swift, slick deal, done and dusted before any reporters – including Fairfax staff – got wind of it. Not so slick is the outcome for professional journalism and the media landscape in Australia.

Fairfax Media, which also publishes the Melbourne Age, the Australian Financial Review and the Canberra Times, has been one of two key players in Australian print media since the 1980s, the other being News Corp Australia, which publishes this newspaper.

Digital technology brought Fairfax down, but it wasn’t from lack of understanding. In fact, Nine coveted Fairfax because of its successful real estate site Domain and its Stan streaming service.

But these could not replace Fairfax’s once-lucrative print classifieds, the “rivers of gold” that made it so enticing to Packer. Digital competitors Google, Facebook, Carsales, REA and Seek sucked up all the gold, leaving Fairfax with a dry river bed.

We’re assured that the major newspapers will live on, but Nine wants to focus on “strategic objectives and its digital future”, which throws into question the fate of a host of regional Fairfax papers in Australia and New Zealand – including Tasmania’s Examiner and Advocate.

So after two decades of disruption driven by the Internet and its digital technologies, newspapers and the journalists employed by them now face a whole lot more uncertainty. As if they needed it.

These are big issues for companies facing commercial extinction due to outmoded technologies, and for their staff facing the axe. No-one should doubt that the demise of Fairfax is a blow to Australian media diversity – the lynchpin of an informed public.

While informing their public, newspapers have also been community hubs. This is true of the big city mastheads, but it is even more true of smaller papers, from dailies like the Mercury down to small-town weeklies or monthlies.

For many communities, the loss of their local paper is like being struck dumb. A good printed newspaper encapsulates the happenings of the day (or week/month), both for today’s purposes and for posterity, in a manner than no digital source can hope to emulate. No community should lightly give them up.

In the likely event of a Fairfax regional newspaper sell-off, it is to be hoped that towns affected will rise to the challenge to help their local rag survive. But the chances of that happening are diminished by an uninformed population.

The annual Australian Digital News survey has repeatedly found that Australians, feeling powerless to affect things that are happening around them, are making a deliberate decision to avoid news altogether, either in printed or, more likely, digital form.

This is especially true of younger consumers, who are turning more and more to “news” about entertainment, celebrities, arts, weird happenings, or new commercial products to make them rich/powerful/beautiful. They’re wanting to escape from reality, and who can blame them?

Exacerbating that trend are powerful figures who choose to manipulate or misrepresent news media for their own purposes. We are in dangerous territory when a US president and acolytes in this country name reputable journalists as purveyors of “fake news” and “enemies of the people”.

Making that accusation sound plausible wasn’t so easy when text on paper predominated, but anything’s possible in today’s online world. The Internet empowers everyone, including unscrupulous political and commercial interests.

Democracy depends fundamentally on diverse, vigorous, professional news services with high standards of ethical behaviour and editorial independence. Good news media will often irritate politicians and business interests, but this is democracy at work.

A functioning democracy depends especially on an ability to study matters too complex for one person working in a daily news cycle. Such collaborative efforts over extended periods depend on stable, secure media organisations run by people who know the business.

So how do we protect quality professional journalism from the vicissitudes of business? The Turnbull government’s $20 million a year package for regional newspapers is a start, as are various investigative and regional collaborations by the ABC. But they fall far short of what’s needed.

Melbourne journalist-academic Bill Birnbauer suggests non-profit journalism centres, funded by tax-deductable donations, feeding investigative and public-interest stories to news media. It would be a relief if such a model can be made to work here as it has in parts of the United States.

Ultimately, professional journalism from multiple sources will survive in this country only so long as people like you tune in regularly to broadcast news and, importantly, take out digital subscriptions or buy newspapers. For the record, I do all three.

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