Journalism after newspapers

20 June 2012

Newspaper journalism has been a vital component of Australia's democratic infrastructure for over two hundred years. So, what comes next? As we watch the fate of Fairfax Media, broke, gutted, and preparing for takeover by an aggressive new owner whose stated aim is to turn its mastheads into a personal megaphone, it is worth considering what the end of printed newspapers means for journalism and, more importantly, democracy in Australia.

Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood yesterday announced fundamental changes to the company's newspaper business in response to audience and advertising trends. There are strong indications that rival News Limited will announce a similar restructure in the coming days.

Print delivery of the Fairfax mastheads is to be phased out; newsrooms will adopt a 'digital-first editorial model", and two major printing plants at Chullora and Tullamarine will be closed by June 2014. From early 2013, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age will be published in "compact" rather than broadsheet format, and readers will have to pay for access to the masthead websites.

The announcement shocked shareholders and journalists alike.

It was a far cry from Hywood's confident testimony to the 2011 Independent Media Inquiry, when he told Ray Finkelstein that his company's business model was healthy, sustainable and could afford to pay for its 3000 editorial staff. "There is no crisis of journalism", he said, because journalism is "the absolute core" of Fairfax's business.

Now there are to be 1900 job cuts by 2015, including the loss of up to 400 "absolute core" editorial staff in the new two to three months. Assets are to be sold off to fund the redundancies, which will reduce the company's annual wage bill by $235 million dollars over the next three years. And the preferred strategy to fill the news hole left by the departing journalists is more "sharing" of news copy across mastheads and platforms.

This is the pointy end of the restructure: we are witnessing a new phase of the commercialisation of the news. Australia's two largest cities will no longer have their own distinctive voices. The same stories will be published in the digital, print and mobile editions of the company's leading newspapers but this content will be monetized in different ways.

The most significant change - and the biggest gamble - is the decision to ask readers to pay for premium quality online news (the proposed "freemium" or metered model follows the New York Times in allowing free access to general news). The plan is for journalism to be funded directly by subscribers, and not just indirectly by advertisers.

The obvious question is how do you disinvest in journalism and produce quality content at the same time? Duplication and re-versioning of stories across co-owned mastheads is hardly the recipe for high-quality journalism or news diversity.

News Limited erected paywalls around The Australian in October 2011, so the move is not unexpected, especially given that over 75 per cent of the Fairfax audience is now reading news on digital platforms. Yet, the international experience with paywalls tells us there is no guarantee of success, and even the most optimistic forecasts suggest digital subscriptions are only ever going be modest revenue-earners.

Some will say, so what? The Internet gives us more diversity, choice, and citizen participation in news, and democracy is all the better for these developments. That is true. It is also true that commentary is the most prolific form of citizen journalism, while the vast majority of quality news content available online is still created by paid journalists working for newspapers.

Moreover, the Internet fragments audiences and reduces the commonality of experience that sustains a democratic society, a process that will be accelerated by paywalls. The journalists and editors now facing redundancy are some of Australia's most experienced news producers; men and women who know more than most what it takes to create original content that is oriented to a public agenda and shared by a general audience.

Their loss is our loss. Press commitment to "the public good" is predicated on the separation of editorial and commercial activities. While Fairfax claims this as the hallmark of its journalism, it is hard to see how that commitment can be maintained as editorial becomes a primary commercial activity and shareholders assert the right to influence editorial policy.

Dr Penny O'Donnell is a senior lecturer in journalism and international media in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney. Her current research on the future of newspapers and quality journalism is supported by an ARC Linkage Grant (LP0990734) and project partners, Jonathan Este and Jacqui Park from the Walkley Foundation, and Dr David McKnight from UNSW Journalism and Media Research Centre.

Follow the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences on Facebook here

Phone: 02 935