High stakes: can publicly funded journalism fill the gap?

As private newspaper companies decline, it will be up to publicly funded media to provide large-scale journalism. Flickr/ finishrunfault

Newspaper revenue is sliding. The economics of supporting large teams of journalists no longer work. The collapse of the print business model will diminish the remaining large private news-gathering organisations in the country. Few websites, radio and television stations, community presses or journalism schools can support the sustained investigative journalism long associated with leading metropolitan newspapers.

Commuters in central Melbourne see the decline every day. Only a few years ago The Age commissioned an impressive new city building, with large glass windows to display the buzz and sophistication of a large newsroom. The windows remain, but many desks are empty. Passers-by gaze into the Mary Celeste, a vision of journalism already in peril as the building opened. The Age city newsroom joins a bespoke printing plant at Tullamarine, architectural monuments to a lost world.

As newspapers diminish so does their role in public debate. The Fairfax media has been much praised for its 1992 charter of editorial independence, a welcome statement that journalism should aspire to standards of fairness and objectivity separate from the commercial aims of the owners.

Yet even if Fairfax editors retain their charter amid a change of ownership, there will be fewer journalists left on the payroll. A depleted newsroom means areas of the Australian polity, once subject to media scrutiny, vanish from public view.

Publicly funded for the public good

What remains is public broadcasting. Only the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) retain the resources and mandate to pursue independent quality journalism on a national scale. It is essential they do so.

In an earlier era, Australian newspaper proprietors lobbied the federal government to prevent the ABC developing an independent news capacity. More recently, in Britain and Australia, the present generation of owners attack public broadcasting. In August 2009, for example, James Murdoch from News Corporation in the United Kingdom criticised a “dominant” BBC as a threat to independent journalism.

As Murdoch told the Edinburgh Television Festival, “the expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision.”

Yet the decline of the newspaper business model has proved a more potent threat. Unless new commercial models can sustain large private newsrooms, “state-sponsored journalism” may prove essential to support independent journalism at scale.

This places the ABC, among the largest news gatherers in the nation, and the SBS as a specialised source of international news, in an unprecedented place in Australian political life. Few other media organisations will command similar depth, coverage, or national resources.

Monopolies, criticism and filling the gap

Now centre stage, the ABC and SBS face three new challenges.

First, there is the trial of criticism. As large authoritative sources of news information, public broadcasting faces endless complaint from commercial rivals and unhappy politicians. While the ABC and SBS have always lived with critics, attacks will sharpen in the absence of peer media organisations.

With few other places else to turn, attention will focus as never before on the accuracy and perceived objectivity of public broadcasting.

As Mike Seccombe noted in The Global Mail, commercial media organisations, selling their products behind a paywall, have an incentive to lobby government about free content offered by the ABC. Given both the ABC and SBS rely on public funding, it will need continued editorial courage to speak truth to power.

Second, our public broadcasters are not set up to fill gaps left by newspapers. The ABC and SBS lack the speciality reporters, bureau structure and online material supported by existing publications. The ABC news website, for example, carries only a small percentage of the stories found in newspaper equivalents, and lacks the granularity of local reporting expected from metropolitan newspapers. The SBS news effort is even more modest, reflecting organisational size and mission.

Print newsrooms have a distinct culture around competition for stories and an emphasis on breaking news. While the ABC and SBS may not choose to import all commercial news values, they must decide how far to modify existing newsroom practices.

Governments, in turn, must determine whether to increase public subsidy. The contractions at Fairfax and News mean an aggregate reduction in journalism available to Australians. The ABC and SBS cannot fill the void within their current budgets.

The final challenge, the most conceptually difficult, is the danger of monopoly identified by James Murdoch. It is not the fault of public broadcasting if competition withers away, but democracy is never well served by a dominant media, private or public.

Monopolies become defensive and self-obsessed. They trend toward mediocrity and uniformity.

A broader church

It is not easy to reconcile competition and pluralism with the traditional organisational form of public broadcasting. Efficiency argues for sharing journalism across platforms, with the same information available on the web, in television broadcasts, in local and national radio.

A commendable concern for editorial integrity reinforces the idea of a house style, with demonstrated objectivity essential for the reputation of public broadcasting.

Yet as the ABC and SBS become major sites for public debate, they must become ever more like the nation – diverse, pluralist, argumentative. As with the best newspapers, public broadcasting needs both news and analysis, accurate information and lively, even aggressive, debate.

Speaking just to the converted is not enough. The ABC and SBS work hard to broaden their audience, but broadcasting is a medium with limitations – still often a lecture with an expert out front holding the microphone.

As ABC Managing Director Mark Scott noted in a recent speech at the Centre for Advanced Journalism, the ABC is “not a single masthead…[but] more like a large chain of newspapers or separate editorial products.”

It takes skill and energy to sustain multiplicity within a single organisation. The challenge for the ABC and SBS is to reconcile diversity with limited channels, national reporting with still small newsrooms, depth and specialisation with an aspiration to large audiences.

The decline of traditional newspapers propels public broadcasting into an unfamiliar central role. It will not be alone entirely.

New cable stations will challenge ABC24 and international broadcasts channelled through SBS television. Independent web sites, including The Conversation, attract wider audiences, and Australians turn to the international tradition of newspaper journalism through online editions of papers such as The Guardian and the New York Times.

We must hope for a viable online future for existing local newspapers, so their distinctive voices remain part of the mix available to Australian voters.

Yet few will match the ABC in particular for its national reach across so many platforms. Public broadcasting is already an important tradition in this nation. Now a more central role will be thrust upon organisations until now just one player among many. The boards, editors and journalists of the ABC and SBS no doubt are debating furiously the consequences. For in the words of beat poet Diane Di Prima:

I have just realized that the stakes are myself

I have no other.