Putting a price on words

Austin, TX

Since 2007, twelve once-proud American metropolitan newspapers have shut their doors permanently, leaving citizens in cities like Cincinnati, Albuquerque and Honolulu with fewer choices (and champions). Countless others, like the San Francisco Chronicle and New Orleans’ Times-Picayune have gone digital only or have been scaled back to such an extent that they are unrecognisable from their formerly Pulitzer-winning selves.

In the UK – undoubtedly the birthplace of the news business as we know it – Fleet Street mainstays like the News of the World and the Tube-friendly mX have been axed and next week The Independent will publish its last paper version.

Meanwhile, back home in Australia, reporters at the Sydney Morning Herald, Financial Review and Melbourne’s The Age (many of whom I know personally) have gone on strike, protesting an impending round of 120 job cuts in what the journo’s union reckons will reduce the Fairfax editorial workforce by a quarter.

Eulogies for objective, metropolitan journalism have been thick and fast over the decade since the internet screwed the newspaper business.

Undoubtedly, there is much sadness when any great news institution goes under. Not only are professionals put out of a job and readers out of their routine, but you could argue a legitimate threat to the public is also posed should closure or belt-tightening result in a vacuum of accountability and information exchange.

For example, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia would likely still be ripping off retirees and peddling conflicted bonuses to unscrupulous in-house salesmen had it not been for Adele Ferguson’s brave expose of the “boiler room” tactics at the core of its financial planning operation.

Without the fearless reportage of the SMH – and Kate McClymont in particular (who has endured bricks through her window and goons stationed outside her children’s school) – disgraced former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid would still be profiting off the taxpayer and slaying Premiers in his backbench Macquarie Street office.

These are but two examples of the many public services Fairfax and its staff have offered its readership and the nation.

But at the same time, the company’s board, senior management and indeed its journalists, have also played a role in ensuring its demise.

For years after it had become apparent that the “opinion is news” mantra of Fairfax’s antagonist-in-chief Rupert Murdoch had become mainstream, Fairfax resisted the trend and stuck to its conviction that it must remain “independent always” as the SMH tagline somewhat smugly decries.

While close readers have been able to clearly sniff out the left-of-centre ideological position of Fairfax and its editors for decades, even in the age of opinion, the company continued to defend its objectivity all the while mounting political crusades on issues like climate change and WorkChoices. It refused to concede its obvious biases, pointing to its continued hosting of conservative pundits like Gerard Henderson and Paul Sheehan.

All this did was create a window for The Guardian to enter the Australian market and siphon off a portion of its already-too-small subscription audience.

If you’re not convinced that opinion won the day, take a cursory look at cable news ratings and the success story of Fox News.

The trend is not endemic to the Right either. Longstanding Left-leaning print publications like London’s New Statesman have also remained resilient, not to mention the rise of powerhouse online outlets like the Huffington Post and Mother Jones.

For the true believers, for whom news and opinion must always remain as distinct as church and state, Fairfax’s adamant verbal commitment to impartiality was honourable. But it is also one of the factors that signed the death knell.

The other was resistance to the collapsing of the silos between advertising, public relations and journalism.

Perhaps more so than any other profession, journalists have been sheltered from the elements that make their craft profitable (or, in more cases than not, unprofitable).

As access to information was democratised through the web, advertising revenue had to become more strategic, hence why niche online publications such as those targeted to certain business or social groups (accountants, rugby fanatics, mothers etc.) have thrived and the models of metropolitan newspapers (where audiences are broad and determined primarily by geography) have come under immense pressure.

From a management perspective, many of these new niche titles have benefited from business units that blend editorial, content, technical, design, sales, marketing, PR and events.

On the one hand, this has muddied the traditional parameters between the communicative disciplines, potentially exposing audiences to conflicts of interest.

On the other, it has created more symbiotic work environments where advertising salespeople can contribute to the product itself and journalists have at least some responsibility for engagement and readership, if not revenue and profit.

Fairfax’s reporters have a right to a fair go, but so do its shareholders. Taking industrial action does nothing to help the company achieve profitability. In fact, by contributing to a momentarily sub-par product that fewer will buy, it actually does the opposite.

If they really wanted to save the company they could be inside helping their employers innovate and dominate the new media world, using their skills to advance the more revenue-friendly content marketing and commercial content units.

If they did, there might even be leftover resources to conduct public interest investigations and break the sort of news they want to, rather than brainstorming quizzes and lists of “places to see before you die”.

Of course, your view on the pros and cons of the direction media is heading will largely depend on your definition of journalism.

For me, it has never been about objectivity. Accuracy matters but ultimately the Fourth Estate is a function of free speech and exchange of ideas. Journalism is about holding the powerful to account and not pulling any punches. This can be achieved with an opinion or a profit motivation underlying.

For others the word necessarily connotes impartiality, not only from opinion but from the business model upon which their salary relies. It means providing readers only with the information they need (CBA’s dodgy financial advice), rather than the information they want (cat memes). It means informing and educating but not proselytising.

I have great respect for these professionals, but they will likely have a rough road ahead, finding themselves less often in commercial newsrooms and more often teaching in journalism schools, indoctrinating the next generation into a model that no longer exists.

They could keep striking or they could jump ship to the public broadcaster (which also loudly defends its ‘independence’ despite its very existence being ideological) as many already have done. But the ABC – as with the BBC and PBS – will remain immune from this debate only so long as taxpayers are willing to subsidise it.

Or they could join the innovative and exciting world of niche digital and opinion media.

Their readers, shareholders and wallets would thank them.

But then again, so would Eddie Obeid.

fairfax image

Image source: PerthNow.com.au

Published on 21 March 2016

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