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Bad news at Fairfax and The Independent, but quality journalism will roll on

It’s been a week for sad news about the traditional media messengers, the so-called Fourth Estate.

First news that the British paper, The Independent, will cease publishing as a print product. Second, we read about a 2013 Bain & Co report commissioned by Fairfax that meticulously sets out how to kill off its newspapers and quality journalism.

If you will indulge me for a moment, I know a little about both. I was offered a job on The Indy’s launch team in 1986. I turned it down (going to The Sunday Times instead), but there’s no doubt it was one of the most exciting times to be in Fleet Street.

The founders had assembled one of the most talented group of journalists who were drawn to an independent journalism project. At the time there was a yawning gap for such a paper. The Telegraph and The Times were way out on the right of the political landscape, while The Guardian occupied lefty-land. The Independent would be centrist and the paper for thinking folks. Its launch slogan was perfect: “The Independent. It is. Are you?”

Readers flocked to the paper and by 1989 it peaked at 400,000 sales a day. But within a year its rivals changed editors and redirected their papers into The Indy’s centre-land. The gap was now crowded, and The Indy’s sales slid from there on.

In 1995 I was approached to take over as Editor of The Indy. I told the new proprietor, David Montgomery, that I would not take the job partly because I did not see a long-term future for the paper. I went instead to edit The London Observer.

My timing was out, by 20 years. The Indy’s life expectancy was extended in 2010 when Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev bought it for £1. It became a vanity publishing project for the cash-rich Russian but last week he too accepted the sad business facts.

But, let’s not forget, even with The Indy’s demise as a paper (it will struggle on as an online service), there remains in the UK a huge choice of outlets. The reverse is true in Australia, and we are left with one dominant player, the NewsCorp group of papers which largely operate with one voice. Plurality of voice and choice is the problem in Australia.

While editing The Age from 2004 the primary message from the Management was: just slash costs faster than revenues fall. And the very journalists that used to define Fairfax were seen by that management as the problem. They weren’t seen as an asset by the company in the way, say, The Guardian or New York Times see their journalists. For Fairfax they were simply a cost to shed.

Fairfax has been badly let down by its management, who are largely bereft of an editorial vision. And since they had no clue, they outsourced that job to management consultants Bain & Co, who recommended replacing well-paid reporters with trainees to reduce costs.

When I left The Age I was determined to think about how to address where people will in future get access to quality journalism they could rely upon.

The Conversation was conceived to address that problem. And offer a solution. Not just for Australia, but globally. In place of dumbed-down journalism, we now have a “global newsroom” of 30,000 academic specialist authors who (we think) deliver the quality of information that you deserve. Each author really knows what they are writing about. Rather than making it up after a quick Google search as is the case in most stretched newspaper newsrooms.

So yes, a sad week for journalism. But as my colleagues UK Editor Stephen Khan and QUT Prof Brian McNair write, there is a future for quality information and journalism in the UK and Australia. And we are part of it.

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