- Fairfax’s announcement of the sacking of 1900 staff, closure of print facilities, adopting some sort of paywall approach for accessing content, and moving the print versions of its “quality” broadsheets to a tabloid format;
- Murdoch’s sacking of a lesser but uncertain number of staff, launching a takeover bid for the balance of Fox Sports and taking its ownership of Foxtel to 50% (in uneasy partnership with Telstra);
- Murdoch’s takeover of Kohler et al’s Business Spectator group; and
- Gina Rinehart taking her shareholding in Fairfax very close to the 20% mark where she would be forced to launch a full takeover offer.
One commentator noted that the effect of all this is likely to be that Murdoch will control 70% of print media + all pay TV, while Rinehart will control the other 30% of print media + Channel 10. The strange aspect is that most of these changes seem not to be driven by a desire to achieve monopoly control of a vastly profitable industry, but rather by a mix of vanity or desire for political influence (on Rinehart’s part at least) and trying to find a viable business model to make money out of news and current affairs coverage, both print and online (on the part of Murdoch and the existing Fairfax management).
Since the advent of the Internet and social media, not only have mainstream newspapers lost their classified advertising “rivers of gold” but also much of the income from the cover price of their newspapers because more and more people access news for free on the web. The web publication phenomenon has also resulted in a need to find fresh content to attract reader eyeballs not just once but multiple times every 24 hours.
How the Schumpeterian destruction wrought by these changes will ultimately play out is impossible to know. Nevertheless, newly-enlisted Murdoch employee Alan Kohler1 has a clear vision of the logical distinction between online news websites and print newspapers in the Internet age:
However they will be “stripped down” newspapers without fat glossy feature sections and they won’t be very profitable.
What was needed, and is still needed, although it may be too late now, are totally different groups of people producing the newspapers and the websites, and for all of those products to be totally different from the newspapers of the past.
Newspapers must be reinvented to be sort of daily magazines, bought for reading rather than finding things out, and that should have happened years ago. Websites need to be fast-moving, constantly updated, accurate sources of information and analysis.
He may be right, although I don’t think there’s any reason why long form “magazine”-style journalism can’t continue to thrive on the web. Kohler is certainly correct that print format can’t compete with the Internet in terms of immediacy and continuous updating of content. There will remain some “legacy” demand for print newspapers until the demise of the boomer generation that didn’t grow up with the Internet, iPhones and iPads. However they will be “stripped down” newspapers without fat glossy feature sections and they won’t be very profitable. In many cases they’re likely to be just repackaged AAP or Reuters wire service content; slightly rewritten commercial or political press releases; and op-ed pieces provided free of charge by “think tanks” with ideological agendas to prosecute. The only content areas likely to be actually written by staff journalists are the highly profitable “eyeball-attracting” celebrity gossip and scandal sections, and a very occasional “gotcha” political story sourced from deliberate leaks by politicians. Come to think of it, that actually summarises the state of play with most print newspapers right now.
The newspapers that will continue to prosper or at least survive as mass market products, both online and in print, will almost certainly be down-market scandal/gossip rags like the Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun. They certainly won’t be quality “up-market” broadsheets, which appeal only to a small elite market, even though the latter still largely set the daily agenda for TV and radio news and current affairs (which is no doubt why Rinehart wants control/influence over Fairfax).
News analysis, serious op-ed journalism and most especially genuine investigative journalism pose other questions. To the extent that the news media can plausibly be seen as the “fourth estate” in a liberal democracy, those are its core functions. However they’re also functions unlikely to be capable of earning a large profit.
Serious op-ed journalism and analysis can be and already are done far better by serious bloggers and alternative media outlets like The Conversation (in effect a blog for academics sponsored by the G8 universities), Crikey, New Matilda, Online Opinion and the Global Mail, not to mention ABC Unleashed, than by the commercial mainstream media. As a fairly elite taste, serious op-ed journalism probably doesn’t need any more outlets than that. Time-poor potential readers (i.e. most people) wanting to identify the best material from these sources but averse to using a feed reader can always subscribe to the Twitter feeds of keen observers like Ken Parish, Nicholas Gruen and Don Arthur. There’s no point lamenting the deterioration of such content in the mainstream media, because the average punter never read it anyway
But certainly the current Internet-generated squeeze on media profits will mean that real investigative journalism by staff journos will become increasingly rare.
Genuine investigative journalism is more problematic, but arguably the most important. It probably never happened as frequently as asserted by some nostalgic advocates of a return to an imagined bygone golden age of quality journalism. But certainly the current Internet-generated squeeze on media profits will mean that real investigative journalism by staff journos will become increasingly rare.
Global Mail founder Internet entrepreneur Graeme Wood apparently intended it as a vehicle for significant investigative journalism along the lines of the US not-for-profit foundation ProPublica. However it isn’t yet apparent that the Global Mail is undertaking very much in the way of investigative journalism, say compared with Fairfax’s ongoing (if criticised by some) investigation of Craig Thomson.
Arguably the most impressive (if highly partisan) current example of Australian investigative journalism is being undertaken at Independent Australia by former Labor candidate Peter Wicks into the alleged misdeeds of (now former) Health Services Union supremo Kathy Jackson and her assorted cronies. Wicks claims to be a self-employed businessman and amateur blogger undertaking this investigation in his spare time, although the volume and detail of his articles suggest it’s currently close to a full-time occupation. I can’t help wondering whether Wicks is in receipt of some sort of funding from the ALP. Of course that’s the problem with ad hoc “amateur” investigative journalism. You can never be quite sure whose agenda is being pushed or why. That isn’t to deny that investigative efforts by Murdoch or Fairfax are agenda-driven, it’s just more obvious whose agenda it is!
Of course that’s the problem with ad hoc “amateur” investigative journalism. You can never be quite sure whose agenda is being pushed or why.
In many ways the sites discussed above (including Club Troppo) can usefully be conceptualised as cyber versions of what American media sociologist Michael Schudson labelled “monitorial citizenship”. The concept is discussed in this article by Markus Prior:
According to one understanding of the concept, political accountability involves electoral (or procedural) punishment of elected officials who abuse their power or reveal extraordinary political incompetence. To hold elected officials accountable by this definition requires that someone monitors their behaviour or at least threatens to “audit” them (Arnold 1990). For this kind of accountability to operate in the new media environment, two conditions have to hold. First, media, interest groups, and government agencies must continue to produce information about the behaviour of elected officials. Second, some citizens need to consider this information and be able to get wider attention if they detect abuse. Following McCubbins and Schwartz (1984), Schudson (1998) and Zaller (2003), I refer to this kind of accountability as Fire Alarm Accountability.
Fire Alarm Accountability captures the mechanism described by Arnold – except for one element. Arnold requires that “these watchdogs reflect the diversity of interests in a constituency”. For new media to strengthen accountability, it is thus not sufficient that one segment of the population, news junkies, become more knowledgeable as a result of new and easily accessible sources of information. The news junkies also need to be representative of the population as a whole. This added requirement may be of little importance for the punishment for abuse of power and major incompetence. But if political accountability includes electoral sanctions for failing to serve one’s constituents, the demographic background and political attitudes of those who do the monitoring are critical…
That may be true, but it reads as fairly naive in the current atmosphere of radically polarised political discourse in Australia, where large numbers of citizens seem perfectly happy to accept without any analysis the shrill and relentless assertions of Tony Abbott and his partisan monitorial acolytes as to the alleged incompetence of the Gillard government despite a substantive record, at least in economic governance, that puts Australia at or close to the best in the world.
Maybe the least bad outcome we can hope for is a highly tribalised version of the monitorial citizen concept, where the extremes of inter-tribal political warfare are mitigated by public institutional mechanisms and social media functioning to produce working compromise from tribal conflict by a process aiming at what Chantal Mouffe referred to as agonism (as opposed to antagonism). We moderate discussion at Club Troppo with a view to creating the sort of agonistic mutual understanding (though not agreement) between opposing forces that Mouffe envisages. By and large I think it works pretty well here, although sometimes discussion feels rather more agonising than “agonism”. However there’s precious little sign of even that level of civil political discourse on any other blog or alternative media site where I bother to wade through the comments (which is increasingly infrequent, I confess). It’s either members of the tribe in furious agreement and reinforcing each other’s prejudices, or ganging up on any interloper who dares to stumble in and express a divergent opinion.
If “monitorial citizen” sites are tribal in nature and only monitor or investigate the tribe’s perceived enemies (e.g. Peter Wicks doing the spadework on Kathy Jackson on behalf of the ALP); if only members and supporters of the tribe bother to read this monitorial journalism anyway; and if everyone exhibits the sorts of cognitive bias that experts like Daniel Kahneman tell us even highly educated and intelligent people do (and therefore exclude from our consciousness information that doesn’t fit our preconceptions); then it’s hard to place much faith in any concept of monitorial citizenship as a deliverer of meaningful political accountability.
But maybe that’s the best current human society can achieve. Maybe the pre-Internet traditional mainstream media merely gave us a comforting illusion of democratic oversight and accountability by a fourth estate possessing real integrity and gravitas. In fact recalling old tycoons like Frank Packer or the Fairfax forebears of Young Warwick just confirms that suggestion. The idea that imposing a charter of editorial independence on Gina Rinehart would have any greater effect than waving it in front of Sir Frank or Kerry Packer is fanciful.
- “News Corp is nothing but a badly performing business mostly run by untrustworthy people. Murdoch is a disgrace” A. Kohler 2005 ↩