With in the space of a few years, two of the bastions of Australian media – Publishing and Broadcasting Limited and Fairfax Media – have been humbled by the vicissitudes of corporate fate. Both companies once dominated their industries. Both have now been gutted by swingeing cuts from desperate managers.
The fate of Fairfax and PBL is symptomatic of broader trends in the cultural industries. Changing technology is profoundly transforming the economic landscape of the media. In a nutshell, advertising is increasingly migrating online, and so the revenue streams of newspapers and television networks are slowly declining. Further, the mass markets these companies once claimed have splintered. New leisure pursuits have arrived to interest consumers. Websites have delivered a better product for classifieds. Media convergence has circumvented old ways of selling content.
The problem is not so much the balance sheet – both companies still make a profit – as the inexorable direction of the consumption trend. The slow death of old media is a worldwide trend that cuts across languages and economies. It’s a slow-moving train wreck that has transfixed its own industry, with everyone from Slate‘s Jack Shafer to Margaret Simons to the Columbia Journalism Review lamenting the coming apocalypse of newspapers, news and Serious Journalism.
It’s instructive to remember how far media technology has come in just a few short years. Most people didn’t get their first email address until the late 1990s. Shawn Fanning essentially invented online music with Napster only in 1999, and mobile phone uptake in Australia grew from 1 per cent in 1990 to 72 per cent in 2002. YouTube seems like a part of the online furniture these days, yet it’s easy to forget the site is only three years old.
This "long emergency" of creative destruction has transformed the cultural industries. The recorded music industry ate itself in an increasingly frenzied round of mergers as consumers swapped their $30 CDs for free MP3 downloads. Householders selling second hand goods swapped newspaper classifieds for eBay and Craigs List. Many younger people never took up the habit of reading newspapers in the first place.
The newspaper industry has done itself no favours with its typical response to declining circulations and migrating ad revenues. Cutting costs ultimately damages the product. Worse, it erodes the strongest point of difference newspapers still enjoy in comparison to their online cousins: quality, in-depth journalism.
Of course, many will say The Age and Sydney Morning Herald of recent times have had precious little of that, and has instead been drowning in a sea of Lindsey Lohan stories. Even so, it’s notable that the much maligned Andrew Jaspan (The Age‘s recently sacked chief editor) still managed to hold or even slightly increase circulations in the past three years, on the back of some clever sponsorships and enhanced engagement with the Melbourne community. The Age has been one of the very few newspapers anywhere in the western world to achieve that.
Where does that leave us? As Eric Beecher noted in an interview with The Australian, sacking hundreds of journalists will leave a gap the online media can’t fill. This will have a material effect on the standards of journalism across the country (which were already in a fairly parlous state).
On the blogging side, online self-publishers will no doubt feel at least an element of schadenfreude at the fate of the pilloried Mainstream Media, or "MSM". They shouldn’t, because a declining fourth estate is a recipe for a sickening democracy. Journalists who get paid to cover a beat full-time have a luxury to research and network in a subject area that many bloggers rightly envy.
Journalism will continue. But there will be fewer jobs for full-time, salaried journalists. This will undoubtedly affect the quality of the national debate. But new opportunities for independent media in new platforms will also emerge. The article you’re reading is one of these.
The positive side of media transformations is greater than it’s often portrayed. Bloggers and online journals like the one you’re reading now have garnered new audiences and even new advertising markets. More importantly, the blogosphere is collectively a vastly more diverse source of information, comment and analysis than was available to the serious newspaper reader a decade ago.
Blogs have created a new intellectual freedom and openness in the way news is consumed and communicated. They have burst into the comfortable club that saw senior journalists and senior bureaucrats and politicians enmeshed in a cosy power relationship, to the detriment of ordinary citizens.
They just haven’t – yet – achieved too many high profile successes in investigative journalism. But even that is not impossible to conceive of in the long term.
Sydney Morning Herald staff are holding a barbecue at the picket line at 5:00pm today. Latest casualty, columnist Mike Carlton, will be there to address the crowd. The public is encouraged to come along to the One Darling Island offices in Pyrmont and support the call: "Fair go, Fairfax – Don’t discount quality journalism".
More information on the Fairfax strike can be found here.
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