It's true that the internet poses new challenges to the media, but they are not entirely without precedent. When radio came to Australia, that technology seemed as magical as the web does now, a wondrous and instantaneous format capable of transforming life in a big country with a small population. Yet it quickly became apparent that there was no obvious business model under which private operators would use radio to its full potential. Who would broadcast to the bush, for instance? Who would establish a serious newsroom, rather than simply producing light entertainment? From very early on, it was apparent that the provision of high-quality broadcasts reaching country and city alike required public funding.
Today, that's scarcely controversial. Nine out of 10 Australians think the ABC provides a valuable service. It's as close as you will ever get to a consensus: the airwaves would be impoverished without public broadcasts.
Television is the same. Yes, there are private TV stations. But ABC TV enjoys broad support because everyone knows a wide range of socially necessary content — news, current affairs, educational programming, etc — would simply never be broadcast by the commercial channels. It's more than a matter of broadening the available viewing options. The political system depends upon the ABC fulfilling its charter. How effectively could our system function if we had to rely on Today Tonight and A Current Affair to hold politicians to account?
We're now at a juncture with print journalism. Newspapers traditionally perform an important social function, and one for which there remains no obvious alternative. Even the most serious TV and radio broadcasts cannot cover complex stories with the same depth as the written word. And while the blogging revolution has immensely enriched the analysis of the news, the great majority of online sites specialise in commentary, implicitly relying on reports produced elsewhere. For the most part, that elsewhere is a newspaper, an institution that not only publishes information but that has the resources to uncover it. To take the most obvious example, investigative journalism — time consuming, expensive and sometimes dangerous — happens either in newspapers or not at all.
Increasingly, it's not at all.
The media empires have responded to plummeting circulation and the migration of classified advertising online by slashing expenses. But since the cuts threaten the things newspapers do best, that strategy amounts to curing a disease by killing the patient. The war in Afghanistan remains scandalously underreported, but, maintaining a correspondent in a conflict zone is tremendously expensive and the kind of grim news that comes from a war will scarcely boost sales anyway. Much easier to pull a report about Afghanistan from the newswire and fill your pages with celebrity gossip.
You can see the process at work on the websites of all the Australian papers. The internet, we're told, represents the future of the press. If that's true, we're in for a grim time, since even the broadsheets are desperately trawling for clicks by foregrounding sex scandals and paparazzi photos.
Fairfax and News Ltd argue that charging for online content will allow them to sustain quality journalism. Will their plans to "monetise" news online succeed? Well, perhaps, but — as the music industry discovered a decade ago — firewalling information is not as easy as it sounds.
But the more important question is what success would actually mean. The web, as its name suggests, is a network. Linkages are not an optional extra — the connections on which the system relies make each site more than an illuminated version of a printed page. That's why blogging has become so important. Major news stories are now analysed and debated more thoroughly than at any time in human history, at least in part because information can move so freely from site to site. If each newspaper successfully walls off its content, we'll be left with a system in which the unique capabilities of the internet have been deliberately sidelined — almost as if, back in the 30s, we'd embraced a radio network that you could only access by wire, simply because that was the only way someone could turn a profit.
Our grandparents saw the need for a public intervention to realise the potential of new technology. Why can't we do the same? It's not as if a publicly funded newspaper would need a huge investment. The infrastructure already exists. The ABC websites are among the most popular in the country. They already provide news and analysis. By boosting their staff (hiring some of the many journalists currently being made redundant) and extending their charter, they could be restructured as the arms of a fully fledged online newspaper.
An ABC newspaper would be primarily responsible for the provision of high-quality print journalism. It would employ sufficient reporters to cover the news in a way that no-one else can. But it would also be responsible for picking up other socially useful functions of newspapers as the old media companies gradually discard them. For instance, all across the United States, papers have been cutting back on their book reviews. Today, only the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle maintain a stand-alone review section, and you can see the same shrinkage beginning to happen here.
The absence of an authoritative source of popular reviews will have a devastating effect on literary culture. Perhaps we don't think that matters, but if we can agree that it does, then supplying it is an obvious function that a publicly funded paper could perform.
Without the commercial pressures that weigh on Fairfax and News Ltd, an ABC paper could experiment with web technology, seeking ways not to restrict information but to disseminate it more effectively. The digital revolution encourages integration of content, and so a publicly funded online newspaper could combine print journalism with audio and visual feeds in new and innovative ways.
But wouldn't a government-funded publication turn into Pravda or something equally sinister? Well, there's no reason to think that an ABC paper would be any different from TV and radio — and most Australians have far more confidence in the editorial independence of the ABC broadcasts than they do in its commercial rivals. According to Newspoll, between 85 and 93 per cent of the audience see the main ABC news and current affairs programs as fair and balanced. Those kinds of figures suggest that, rather than fearing a publicly funded paper, Australians, particularly in rural areas, would embrace it wholeheartedly.
We face today a strange situation in which a technology that can spread like never before threatens to impoverish, rather than enrich, our media landscape. Yet we've encountered this paradox before, and we know that public ownership works.
An ABC newspaper is neither a new proposal, nor a particularly radical one. But it's an idea whose time has come.
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