A Year Of Crumbling Columns

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Usually, a look back over the last 12 months in media means remembering a few big stories and how they were covered, mergers and acquisitions, perhaps a few court cases, and the odd spasm of government regulation.

But this year that sort of thing seems like just so much detail as a number of concerns over the very viability of news media have come to a head. Together, these concerns raise significant questions about the future not only of journalism but of functional democracy.

For big media proprietors like the Murdochs, 2009 was the year when the penny finally dropped. News Corp’s unlucky or unwise investment in social networking service MySpace, and its drag on the balance sheet, soured their previously upbeat view of their prospects in a digital future. The decline of MySpace tended to emphasise somewhat that the conventional newspaper business model which made them a fortune over decades — charging readers for bundled content which included advertising — was itself unravelling.

News Corp’s response to this in the last 12 months has included mutterings about a paywall, attacks on public broadcasters who are able to provide news without an up-front, pay-per-view charge, the sledging of bloggers and veiled threats to companies like Google who aggregate content away from proprietors’ sites. Sometimes this looks like little more than frantic displacement activity.

The most telling damage, and the most intractable problem, is in the evaporation of advertising revenue. eBay, Craigslist and the like, unbundle classified advertising from other forms of content, allowing ads to be placed for free, or at minimal cost. On top of this, in 2009, the GFC led to an overall downturn in the advertising market increasing the pressure on the bottom line. Of course, there’s not much to be done about the flight of advertising money which left News Corp with only the online "freeloaders" to take issue with.

The approach of News Corp’s "solution", and whether it will work for them (or the industry more broadly) has turned into one of the focal questions in the industry this year. As I wrote when the idea of the paywall was first mooted, charging people for news content may work in the short term but probably only for unique or niche content that’s not available somewhere else in an age of information abundance. It probably won’t be able to sustain the scale of newsgathering and production companies like News have been accustomed to controlling and offering across their empires. Even if paywalled online content makes an earner out of more highly targeted advertising, it may not be able to make up for the decline in other revenues.

More recent talk of a proprietary e-reader is interesting, but there’s not enough detail yet to make a proper assessment of this as a proposal for maintaining the scale of their current operations. The first question for all of us, perhaps, is: can commercial journalism be sustained on the basis of niche markets?

Of course, the Murdochs make useful stage villains and evangelists for a certain view of the "future of journalism" (including the ABC’s Mark Scott) have had some sport at the Murdochs’ expense. But the same trends are confronting other commercial news organisations like Fairfax. The fact is that we don’t know what a society without professional journalism conducted on the scale that mass media organisations have provided will look like. Whatever our misgivings about the news as it has been, it’s not clear that any alternative mechanism for accountability is emerging that can match the size and complexity of the modern state or the modern economy. And it’s certainly not clear that any moves to a higher degree of government transparency, using the online tools of "government 2.0", will make up for that.

We can argue that current media giants have squandered their "rivers of gold". We can point to their failures in using their resources to provide us with the kind of news and current affairs content that we want, and that a democracy requires. But saying that doesn’t get us any closer to replacing lost capacity.

Experiments to date with citizen journalism or alternative funding models have been worthwhile in themselves, but so far haven’t produced anything both large-scale and sustainable. It’s not a criticism of the extraordinary and continuing mobilisation of citizens in public affairs blogging (and in politically active social media use, or e-democracy initiatives) to say that none of them, separately or together, can muster the resources — in terms of personnel, investigative capability, or authority — that mass media news organisations have had at their disposal. And the money that’s left in the newspaper industry won’t be finding its way to these citizen-based initiatives.

Further, advertising actually subsidised news production for the consumer as well as the producer, allowing a wide range of people to get access to basic news and information fairly cheaply. High-quality commercial news product, generated in the absence of advertising or the economies of scale that large organisations embody, will likely be relatively expensive. In those circumstances, how will we deal with widening information inequality between different groups of citizens?

Some — not least Scott — argue that public broadcasting will be able to take up the slack. The public broadcasting tragics among us may like to imagine a future where news is made which is uncontaminated by commercial concerns. Unfortunately a range of things militate against this. As Marni Cordell pointed out in an earlier piece on newmatilda.com, the kind of investigative journalism that goes to public accountability has been in decline at the ABC for some time, and there’s nothing in Mark Scott’s recent pronouncements that suggests that there will be any reinvestment soon in this area. Noting Cordell’s piece, Margaret Simons wondered when was the last time anyone could remember any (terminally under-resourced) ABC journalists breaking a big story? And as Graeme Turner asked in 2005, when was the last time that investigative journalism informed a tricky question on the 7.30 Report?

We also need to recognise that when it comes to political coverage, personalities and contests require less effort and resources than in-depth issue reporting. Of late, the ABC has been as prone as anyone to prioritising coverage of the "horse race" of political positioning over the real nub of an issue.

There’s also a structural issue at play here. To imagine an Australia in which the ABC is the only credible provider of in-depth news and current affairs coverage is to imagine a future where the public accountability function of Australian journalism persists only at the whim of government funding decisions. A future that only has the ABC supplemented by NGOs or nonprofits in news-making looks equally fragile. This issue goes beyond conservative commentators’ laughable red herrings about ABC bias. The key question emerging from 2009 is about whether Australia can do without current levels of media diversity, as unsatisfactory as they may be. Just because it’s James Murdoch saying that a healthy democracy requires financially independent news organisations doesn’t mean it’s not true.

There are obvious reasons that journalists themselves prefer such conversations to be centred on the future of the news-making industry and, throughout 2009, there’s been plenty of that. For the rest of us, it’s important that we continually try to reframe this debate that has run throughout this year by focusing on larger issues.

And this year, those larger issues can be summed up in a few givens, and a question. If we accept that journalism is necessary to the ongoing functioning of democratic societies, that the model which has sustained journalism is being undermined quite quickly, and that the breach it leaves will not be easily filled, what can we do in order to maintain a public sphere that guarantees democratic scrutiny?

New Matilda

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