Do not disturb


Something quite alarming is happening to serious journalism in Australia. A convergence of economic, technological and societal trends is conspiring to threaten mainstream quality media in an unprecedented way. If these trends continue, as I fear they will, there could be very little journalism of excellence left after another decade or two. And that would not only be a disaster for journalists, it would be a tragedy for Australian democracy. What are these dangerous trends?

Credibility A deeply ingrained mistrust of the media, its motives and its modus operandi has developed. There are now very few people of any social, economic or political class in Australia today who, when asked whether they trust and respect the media, would truthfully answer yes.

Relevance There is now growing evidence that people in advanced Western societies are losing interest in current affairs and serious issues. Relatively few people, especially those under the age of forty, care about the subjects that matter to serious journalists. As a result, they regard traditional high-end media as increasingly irrelevant to their lives and interests.

Trivialisation The media is dumbing down as owners, editors, producers and journalists respond to what they perceive – perhaps correctly – to be the desires of their audiences. The result is a media obsession with celebrity, fame, trivia and lifestyles, to the point where many in the so-called ‘quality media’ now believe they cannot attract a broad constituency without large dollops of celebrity gossip and soft lifestyle coverage. The problem is that while the dumbing-down approach maintains the macro audiences that attract advertisers, it simultaneously drives away the micro audience that craves quality journalism.

Funding Newspaper classified advertising, which has funded quality print journalism in Australia for the past century, is in the process of migrating to the internet. The massive profits from classified advertising that have provided the ‘subsidy’ for serious journalism in newspapers like the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age are about to evaporate, and without that subsidy there will be no funding source available to finance the large resources required to produce quality journalism. This is a ticking time bomb for Australia’s best newspapers.

Ownership There is a sense of inevitability that the regulations controlling media ownership in Australia will be liberalised or even removed, a move that would result in even fewer and bigger media owners. Most Australians don’t seem to care about concentration of media ownership and seem to regard the power of media moguls as something well beyond anyone’s control.

Commercialisation In the old days, owners like Warwick Fairfax and Frank Packer tacitly acknowledged that being a media proprietor was different to running other businesses because it included a public interest responsibility, conferred power and influence on the owner, and therefore wasn’t just about making profits. Today, most media owners and their shareholders regard their business as no different to any other one; they see their role as concerned solely with maximising profits and satisfying shareholders. Media proprietors no longer act as if they were custodians of a ‘public trust’.

Technology The internet is rapidly replacing the printing press as the world’s dominant medium of information, analysis and commentary. In theory this should increase the opportunities for good journalism, but in reality no one has yet found an internet business model that can attract anywhere near enough revenue to finance the high costs of quality editorial content.

Although none of these trends on its own is likely to destroy quality journalism in Australia, their cumulative effect will eventually transform the media landscape. There are just too many negative pressures coming from too many directions for serious journalism to survive in its current form. As the commercial vice tightens on well-funded, high-grade journalism, media owners are responding with measures designed to maintain their profitability. The result will be fewer editorial resources, lower budgets, more reporters and editors pensioned off, news space carved back, fewer foreign bureaus, more shared and syndicated content, more ‘product placements’ and ‘advertorial’ material, and constant pressure on editorial departments to create ‘efficiencies’ and do ‘more with less’. Anyone who has been involved in journalism for the past decade will attest that this is already an unstoppable reality.

The underlying problem is that serious journalism in Australia has never been profitable in its own right. Until the 1980s it was supported by rich and powerful newspaper barons who inherited not only the journalism that directly influenced Australia’s national agenda, but also the vast reservoirs of advertising, especially classified advertising, that funded it. The readers of quality journalism have never made a large enough economic contribution to pay for such reporting, instead relying on the revenue brought in by the classifieds. And in broadcasting it is the same story with a different formula: the bill for journalism on the ABC is picked up by the federal government, not directly by the consumers of that journalism. The continued existence of Australian quality journalism has always depended on subsidies, which has in turn always made that continued existence a shaky proposition.

By the end of the twentieth century the notion of the semi-altruistic media baron was beginning to unravel. While Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer still run fairly archetypal media dynasties, no one believes their children will be moguls like their fathers. The classic model of the privately run media empire – the Hearst/Beaverbrook/Northcliffe/Murdoch model – is rapidly being replaced by the media conglomerate model, an edifice which is not based on the political power of an individual and his newspapers, but on the economic power of a technologically and geographically diverse public corporation. In their quest for even greater financial success, the old-style media barons have traded personal power for corporate power. While they still send shivers of fear down the spines of politicians, the chieftains of today’s media empires are much more interested in securing their place at the top of the pecking order of the international communications industry than they are in changing governments or wielding their personal power over politicians. The new media baron is far more likely to be an admirer of Henry Ford than of Katherine Graham.

This metamorphosis is reshaping journalism for the simple reason that journalism no longer retains its place at the centre of media power. Throughout most of the last century it was the control of journalism that gave the media barons their greatest influence (and a lot of money, besides). Beaverbrook’s power over Churchill was because of journalism. Murdoch assisted in destroying the Whitlam government because of journalism. In those days, journalism was not just the media baron’s most potent currency, it was close to being his only one. Today a media corporation trades in many different currencies, and journalism is no longer the biggest of these – entertainment is. ‘Rupert Murdoch is not a newspaper proprietor any more,’ says business commentator Alan Kohler. ‘He is a global entertainment retailer, and so are his children. They are not monsters who will one day return to the swamp,’ he argues. ‘They are role models for anyone who wants to get rich in the media.’

Not only is entertainment more profitable than journalism, it is also far more universal. Entertainment appeals to all age groups, all demographics, across all cultural boundaries. It may lack the political or intellectual potency of journalism, but it’s not in decline, it doesn’t have a credibility crisis, it doesn’t demand great mental effort from its audience, and it can run on movie screens, television screens, computer screens and telephone screens. The future of serious journalism is under threat in large part because it has been replaced by entertainment at the heart of the media power edifice.

This is an edited extract from Do Not Disturb: Is the Media Failing Australia, edited by Robert Manne and published on 10 August, 2005 (Black Inc. Agenda, $29.95).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.