Perhaps the media storm surrounding the Fairfax announcement of job cuts and other changes (the company’s statement to the ASX can be downloaded here) will generate wider community debate about the future of journalism in the digital age and how its public interest role can be sustained.
These are also issues in need of some serious policy attention, writes Jason Wilson, Assistant Professor in Journalism at the University of Canberra, in the article below, which is cross-posted from his blog.
Beneath his article, you can find links to some of the coverage and analysis of the Fairfax developments.
Fairfax and Finkelstein
Jason Wilson writes:
The Finkelstein Report earlier this year:
In considering the current state of the press in Australia, the Inquiry has given considerations to not only the submissions received but also to an extensive range of other local and international evidence. From this information the Inquiry has concluded that, despite the intense pressures facing it, the Australian press is in no immediate danger of collapsing. The main media companies appear to be reasonably capable of dealing with the pressures facing them at least over the medium term. Nonetheless, some potential pressure points are becoming evident.
Fairfax has announced plans to cut nearly 2,000 jobs and switch its landmark The Age and Sydney Morning Herald broadsheets to ‘compact’ formats as part of cost-cutting measures.
The media company says it will cut 1,900 jobs over the next three years and ditch the broadsheet formats for The Age and the SMH on March 4 next year.
And it will fall in line with its main competitor, News Limited, introducing paywall subscription services for its flagship online services in 2013.
It will also close printing facilities at Chullora in Sydney and Tullamarine in Melbourne by June 2014.
If this is not a “collapse”, what would one look like? What criteria should be use to identify one?
Fairfax is effectively pulling out of printing. It is going to run a combined national newsroom. It is pulling its successful websites behind a paywall. It is retrenching 380 journalists. There is no end in sight, save the self-interested sponsorship of a mining magnate.
Too many of our public conversations about the media in Australia have been looking at the wrong things. Call it punishers and straighteners versus enlargers.
The Independent Media Inquiry bent over backwards to demonstrate the peristence of media power in order to build a case for regulating it further. But the real story is that traditional media are in a death spiral. These have been major social institutions. Despite what many see as their poor performance in recent years, it’s not clear what exists to replace them in that role.
When Fairfax is a plaything of oligarchs (which is likely to mean its mastheads will have even fewer readers) and Rupert Murdoch passes on to whatever his eternal reward may turn out to be, what will happen to public affairs reporting in this country?
What about the topics that might have led to ideas for expanding our choices when it comes to public interest journalism? What will the future look like? How can we support or encourage media diversity? What will journalism be like when the mass audience has fragmented to the extent that mass circulation newspapers are no longer viable for anyone?
These are the topics that almost all official conversations around media policy in the last year have avoided. Now, there may not be a further opportunity to have them.
• Jason Wilson is an Assistant Professor in Journalism at the University of Canberra
Andrew Jaspan diagnoses “a perfect storm”
The Fairfax announcement is expected to be followed by a radical restructuring of the News Ltd workforce with a reduction of up to 1,500 staff, writes Andrew Jaspan, editor of The Conversation and the former editor-in-chief of The Age.
This perfect storm has been brewing for some time. The decline and implosion of the media was seen as a European or American disease that Australia would avoid, much like the GFC. The seeds of Fairfax’s destruction were born in the mid 1990s when it failed to fully engage, understand and act on the disruptive threats of the internet.
Jaspan says that the future for media diversity is looking bleak:
Readers who, like Rinehart, prefer the editorial tone and message of The Australian, with its line on mining tax little different to that run by BHP, will be spoilt for choice. And scepticism towards climate change will now be shared by all three quality mastheads. Those with different views will have limited options.
Is this the modern, open, progressive, democratic, tolerant, knowledge-based, clever country we aspire to be? Or are we seeing the same rise of the oligarch as in Russia where the resource-rich billionaires also dominate the media? Or Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi owned the majority of the TV stations and newspapers and imposed his right-wing agenda, and ultimately won control of the country as Prime Minister?
This is an important moment for all those who cherish democratic and pluralistic debate and a freedom to information that is factual and reliable to inform decision-making.
• Other related articles at The Conversation
Don’t just blame the web for Fairfax’s failure: ABC’s Jonathan Green
Jonathan Green, a former Fairfax staffer, says the company lost its way when it made advertisers its focus, rather than readers. He writes:
The truth is probably that Fairfax was just too big, too clumsy, too hydra-headed, too Sydney-centric, too Melbourne-focussed, too slow … too everything wrong to respond to the challenges. It held the market in small ads after all, it was quick to go online. But it fumbled and fluffed and squandered its early chances.
They’ll ponder all this and its implications for serious journalism and the health of the fourth estate, and they’ll say now that the Fairfax business model was broken, but there was never a business model for quality broadsheet journalism in this country, only a media company that simultaneously sold a lot of little ads and by coincidence produced thoughtful well-reported newspapers.
There never was a relationship between the two things, and in the end, as it turned out, precious little readership for the journalism once the little ads walked out to the door to a brighter, more sympathetic and compelling environment online.
• ABC liveblogs Fairfax developments, including links to an interview with Malcolm Turnbull.
But what about the journalism?
Crikey has reaction from Fairfax editors Michael Gawenda, Andrew Jaspan and Eric Beecher (chairman of Crikey’s parent company Private Media).
Beecher says Fairfax has failed to explain how the changes will improve the quality of its reporting.
I must have missed it in the Fairfax statement, but I didn’t see the bit about how the company would be reinventing its journalism and its publications to make them both viable and editorially excellent over the next decade. Cutting toes, fingers and limbs from an antiquated journalism model doesn’t quite achieve that objective.