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Newspapers are dying, but long live the news

There may not be good news for the future of newspapers, but the future of journalism can be bright. AAP/Alan Porritt

Former editorial director of News Corp in Queensland David Fagan expressed both optimism and realism about the future of journalism in Australia when he addressed an audience of academics at Queensland University of Technology last Thursday.

Like Kim Williams a few weeks before - who gave his first public talk since resigning as News Corp CEO at QUT - Fagan was discreet regarding the circumstances of his departure from the company. He displayed notable stoicism about the brutal nature of the business in which he had worked for 30 years as a journalist, editor, editor-in-chief and editorial director.

At their best, the news media should be “disturbers of the peace”, Fagan said. But it was those very media which in recent times had seen their peace disturbed by the digital transformation of the journalism industry. He noted that around 2,000 journalists had lost their jobs in Australia in the last two years - many of them at News in Queensland - as the old business model of print journalism imploded.

Fagan showed us a copy of the Courier Mail’s classified weekend supplement of a few short years ago. It comprised some 150 pages, slapping with a satisfying thud on the floor as he let it fall. Now, he said, showing us a recent edition of the same supplement, there were 16 pages. The rest had gone to the internet. How could any business, he asked, sustain such a hit to its core revenue stream?

And as advertising migrated online, so had the readers, damaging the press’ other key income stream – circulation revenue. A vicious spiral downwards had set in.

The Australian press, Fagan conceded, had experienced this economic double whammy later and to a lesser extent than their counterparts in many countries, but were now catching up, as those 2000 job losses starkly indicated. Once secure media organisations, luxuriating in super profits from decades of secure advertising and circulation revenue, now had to adapt to the online world or die. Digital was not the future but the now, and denial of that reality was not an option.

None of this was new to the media analysts in the room, but Fagan’s impressions and insider anecdotes – we heard about the News Corp strategy conference in California, where hungover execs were addressed by Bill Clinton, Bono and other global thought leaders – conveyed in a more personal manner the pressures and challenges faced by change managers such as him.

When Fagan observed that he had spent most of his recent time at News Corp dealing with personnel and human resource matters, one sensed that here was a man who genuinely loved print journalism, and who found managing its decline hard to bear.

But Fagan was optimistic too. If print was dying - and it is by now hard to dispute that trend – news and journalism were in an expansionary mode. If the internet was closing down one model of news provision, it was opening up many more. The future for journalism - and journalists - is bright, if the right strategies and decisions are taken now.

Fagan suggested that for organisations and individual journalists alike, the key to survival in the emerging digital landscape was enhancement of the brand. And indeed, this is what we see happening. All over the world - and in Australia no less - those print mastheads which have transferred most successfully to the internet are those which signify quality and distinction of one kind or another.

The Daily Mail and The Guardian, right and left-of-centre pillars of UK print media for decades, are among the world’s most successful online presences. They have become global signifiers of journalistic excellence. News Corp’s own Wall Street Journal has exploited a similar brand profile, joining the Financial Times as a global online leader in financial journalism.

Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal has built a large (and successful) online presence. EPA/Justin Lane

Journalists in the digital era must also play to their uniqueness and individuality as creators of content which will attract multitudes of choice-rich users. More than ever, the journalist becomes a brand, competing not just with a hundred others in the local print sector, but thousands and millions of others online, all of whom now have access to a global internet audience.

When asked by one member of the audience what the implications of digital transformation were for journalism education at universities such as QUT, Fagan stressed the growing importance of entrepreneurial and business management skills. He also reiterated the value of core generic journalism skills such as the ability to write well. Good writing, he observed, was transferable across all media platforms, including the internet.

As a journalism professor I find myself in agreement with that analysis. Journalism is not heading for extinction, but is evolving its modes of production and consumption. The capacity to adapt to the digital environment will be crucial to the survival of both individual journalists and news media organisations, but the rewards for those who succeed in that process will be considerable.

Newspapers may be dying out, but journalism becomes ever more central to the everyday lives of billions, striving as they do to make sense of a world constantly growing in complexity. Our job as journalism educators is to give young people the tools and motivations to rise to that challenge.

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