There’s life in them yet: why it’s too early to call the death of print

The problems facing the Australian news media are global; our companies must start providing solutions that their readers are prepared to pay for. AAP

It took a while, but the Australian news industry has finally caught up with the crisis of journalism which has been affecting the rest of the world for quite some time.

I say “crisis”, but let’s be clear: news organisations are still making profits. Maybe not as much as they used to in the pre-internet days of “rivers of gold” and “licenses to print money” (as one UK boss once referred to commercial TV many years ago); and maybe not in every sub-sector and division (though cross-subsidy has always been part of the news business).

But money they continue to make, even in print, most of them. News Ltd sells 11 million papers a week in Australia; Fairfax nearly five million. These are significant numbers, and the resilience of the paid-for subscription model should not be underestimated, even as print struggles and pessimistic rhetorics of journalistic decline proliferate.

Those suffering in the short term are the foot soldiers in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, sacrificed in an effort to maintain the relatively high profit margins which news organisations have traditionally enjoyed, and shareholders have come to expect.

At Fairfax, 1900 jobs are going; up to 1500 reported to be on the line at News Ltd. Those men and women of what used to be called “the press” deserve our support and sympathy, and no one underestimates the scale of the disruption to careers and lives represented in those announcements.

But they are casualties not of the death of news, nor even of paid-for journalism, but of adaptive management strategies designed to protect enterprises which have a lot of life in them yet, if only the right decisions are made now.

They parallel structural shifts of similar and often larger scale in many other sectors of industry and culture, in Australia and across the world.

Cold comfort to those losing jobs in the Australian media in 2012 right now, but some perspective on what is happening, and why, is needed before we all descend into outright despair.

Australia’s newspaper circulations have been in decline for some time, it’s true, but falling less rapidly than in the United States and the UK. There have been fewer newspaper closures, and fewer job losses in Australian journalism than in many other comparable markets.

That we have now reached a tipping point of what looks like structural collapse in the traditional models of news production in this country is a consequence of long standing dysfunction in Fairfax, on the one hand and the collapse of News Corp’s global reputation and ethical standing on the other.

In the case of Fairfax, commentators and longstanding industry players frequently assert the company has not been well-managed in this era of digital transformation and transition; that there has been an internet-resistant conservatism amongst the old school hacks reared on print and ink, while key decisions have been made over many years by executives who are not journalists, and who have lacked the deep understanding of how newspapers work of, say, Rupert Murdoch.

As for News Ltd, Mr Murdoch of course denies that the restructuring of the Australian journalism business, followed now by the split of News Corp at the global level into news and publishing divisions, has anything to do with the phone-hacking scandal.

But we all know that the News Corp decision at least has everything to do with that unfolding train wreck of a story in which, for the first time in their history, the Murdoch family’s managerial competence and personal as well as business ethics are exposed to forensic scrutiny day after day, week after week, month after month. The restructuring of News Corp announced on Thursday is an attempt to preserve the Murdoch family’s role and influence within a corporation which is now about much more than just journalism, and whose shareholders are no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to the unethical and often criminal goings on at Wapping, England.

Separate the two, it has been decided, and let Rupert and his kids run the one that causes all the bad publicity while generating the least profits. This may actually suit Rupert very well as he looks to retirement and maybe a permanent return to the lucky country, ending his career where it began, and with the same focus on his journalism business.

We’ll see in due course how that plays out.

Meantime, the fact that Rupert Murdoch knows journalism so well, and genuinely loves the news business, has made the News Ltd restructuring seem both more reasonable, and attracted less rancour from staff and commentators, than Fairfax’s announcement a few days before, complicated as the latter was by the various demands and threats of its largest shareholder Gina Rinehart.

So where does Australian journalism stand after these eventful two weeks? First, the digital transformation is now on for real, as the two big commercial news brands move to complete the shift from print to online which has been gathering momentum, but held back by the aforementioned conservatism and dysfunctionality of the sector.

Some compare Fairfax and The Age to the Guardian in the UK, and rightly wonder how it could be that one left-liberal title could be so pioneering in its engagement with the internet; the other so half-hearted and half-baked.

It may already be too late to change that narrative at Fairfax, but let’s hope not. Australia needs it. Whether Fairfax survives as a liberal alternative to News Ltd, or becomes a megaphone for one or other member of the Australian super rich, one thing is certain.

The future has arrived; not the long foretold death of news, but the end of the beginning of the digital age for Australian journalism.

Merged newsrooms, multiplatform-capable journalists (who of course will have to do more with less), fewer titles, the disappearance of boundaries not just between platforms, but between reportage, commentary and all the other fact-based content forms which make up the online package.

All of this brings with it an emerging agenda of how to preserve Australia’s already limited media pluralism, how to monetise online content and ensure the survival of what we still call “quality” journalism; how even to define what journalism is anymore.

These are global problems, and now the Australian news media must start to provide solutions that their readers are prepared to pay for.

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