Is the cost of media independence really so high?

Facing a sigital future: the costs of getting your message out are no longer an insurmountable bottleneck. AAP

As I read it, there is much concern in Australia about Fairfax’s owners becoming more active editorially. But I wonder if this really exposes potentially the lack of value in owning media.

In the world where media paths — newspapers, TV channels, radio stations — were bottlenecks in gaining public attention, someone could buy a media outlet, direct it towards their own private interests, and the lack of options may distort the information people were receiving. But equally, there were considerable commercial pressures for different media outlets to occupy different spaces. Many worry about Fox News and MSNBC in the US but I must admit that I see them more as positioning in product market space than the expensive delight of their owners in influencing the political process. I don’t doubt that they have some influence but I doubt it is worth paying a large commercial cost for.

For newspapers in Australia, we have one that clearly positions itself on the right even if it is hard to extract that in the data. And now we have the other that potentially may want to do the same. That has upset Fairfax employees and may upset its consumers. But that level of distress belies the fact that these groups have options.

Because you do not need to buy printing presses and a distribution network, if you want to get the news out with a certain degree of independence, you can today. To be sure, getting attention still requires investment but it is hard to describe this as an insurmountable bottleneck any more. The case of Business Spectator illustrates that; although just after I first wrote this piece it fell back into dependence. The Conversation provides an even stronger case. The point is that you do not need nearly as much revenue to cover the costs of providing an independent voice any more; that will promote entry although whether it creates permanent independence is an open issue.

To editors and journalists worried that their lives are about to be controlled in a way they do not like, collectively you have bargaining power. It is not bargaining power in the “strike” sense; someone who doesn’t value you isn’t going to bow to that kind of pressure. No, it is bargaining power in the competitive entry sense. There are named, respected journalists in Australia that do not need the upper layer of management to have a voice and earn a living. It won’t be easy in the short-run but look at where the world is heading. It is time to move.

In this regard, the ABC is actually in a unique place to assist in the transition. The ABC could be a news outlet but it could also provide a path for our best journalists. They could work for the ABC part-time to obtain a less risky salary and then for the rest of their time build an independent venture. After all, who said that the ABC’s role in providing an independent voice required it to provide that voice. Instead, it could act more like an incubator to usher journalists from the old and into the new world. For those who want a media freer of commercial imperatives, this is the type of thing we need to be encouraging.

This first appeared on Core Economics. It has been republished with permission.