The future of newspapers

I suppose it isn’t surprising that sentiment among media professionals about the future of newspapers is so negative.  Fairfax’s recent culling of several hundred journos in the face of a collapsing revenue bottom line has brought the whole issue into sharp focus, as have similar events at overseas newspapers generated partly through competition from a proliferation of online and multi-media news and opinion sources including blogs.

However, the public nature of this pessimism and the lack of any clear sense of direction as to what can be done about it is puzzling.  ABC Managing Director Mark Scott had an opinion piece published in yesterday’s SMH which exemplifies the mindset:

Through all the turmoil within the Australian media industry, there is only one print mogul who has diversified his portfolio enough to offset the costs of quality journalism against profits made elsewhere in the business.

And yes, that last, best hope for newspapers is Rupert Murdoch. The world will be listening as he presents the 2008 Boyer Lectures on the ABC later this year. As Michael Wolff recently put it, Murdoch “may be the last person to love newspapers”. But is this one exception to the rule enough?

Now Rupert Murdoch might live forever – but in case that doesn’t happen, will whoever inherits the business still wear the cost of quality journalism in his unique, old-fashioned way?

Scott implicitly answers his own rhetorical question in the negative, and then predictably uses the opportunity to tout for more money for the ABC as an answer, so it can develop a public affairs channel.  It isn’t immediately obvious how this would address or compensate for the demise of newspapers, but you can’t blame Scott for trying.

Former Media Watch host Richard Ackland and Crikey proprietor Eric Beecher had a crack at the same topic recently on Lateline, and exhibited a similar mix of pessimism and cluelessness:

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Richard, the Wall Street theory that’s defined the funding of modern journalism since the decline of the great publishers is that profits can be maximised if you minimise the product. Now, if that’s the philosophy here in Australia – and it seems to be – what’s the future of newspapers under that regime?

RICHARD ACKLAND: Well, it seems to be pretty bleak. If the corporate imperative, as you suggest, is to keep making profits in a market that is declining, the market for this particular product declining, then the imagination of the people that run these enterprises seems to be to say that the only solution is to keep cutting costs and they haven’t come up with another idea yet, which always strikes me as a bit odd. I mean, these are the executives that are paid a lot of money and handsome bonuses and all of that sort of thing. You’d thing they’d actually come up with some ideas about how to weather this transition and move journalism into the next phase.

Veteran journalist Mark Day at least advanced a limited if equally pessimistic vision for the future of newspapers in an article published in yesterday’s Daily Rupert:

It is probably inevitable that one day we will switch to a full electronic delivery of news, but before the last presses stop rolling, newspapers are likely to get slimmer and become more expensive.

Circulations will be lower, but they will be aimed atand edited forthe top end of the market, the people who demand deep and credible information about their world. This narrowing of market focus will promote more specialist advertising aimed at the well-heeled group that reads the publication, and that advertising will be sold at premium rates.

Strangely, the main focus of Day’s article was to slag bloggers and deny blogs any role in the future of newspapers or media in general.  However, like many MSM journalists, Day seems to have little understanding of what a blog actually is or who bloggers are.  He seems to think that “bloggers” are the mostly thick-headed commenters at News Ltd “blogs”.  Presumably this flows in part from the practice of most Murdoch hacks-turned-“bloggers” of referring to their readers as “bloggers”.  Fellas, “bloggers” are the people who write blog posts, not the readers who occasionally add comments at the end of them.  Judging the quality of a blog by the standards of its commenters’ contributions inevitably results in a negative evaluation, just as judging the quality of a newspaper like the Oz by the quality of its “letters to the editor” in-tray would.((Not that I’m meaning to denigrate blog commenters.  Troppo especially attracts some great comments.  Sometimes comment threads are considerably more erudite and entertaining than the post that provoked them; some commenters go on to start their own blogs while others really should.  Nevertheless, labelling commenters as “bloggers” is either ignorant or dishonest or both. ~ KP))

It’s difficult not to conclude that wilful ignorance about the blogosphere on the part of journos like Day flows in part from an irrational and rather short-sighted feeling that blogs and Web 2.0 pose an existential threat to the media world as they know it, a threat they fail to understand because they haven’t taken the time to explore the blogosphere and acquire some understanding of what it involves.

However, anyone who really sets about trying to envision a viable future for newspapers, especially “quality” ones that engage in news and political analysis and critique and sometimes even investigative journalism, would surely see Web 2.0 and blogs in particular as an opportunity rather than a threat.  It’s a measure of the lack of creativity or imagination of most journos and media proprietors that hardly any of them seem capable of embracing that thought.

How could anyone of goodwill fail to perceive the extraordinary richness and potential of the Australian political blogosphere if they had taken the time to subscribe to and read Troppo’s Missing Link roundup on a regular basis? ((incidentally, I hope ML will be back in action next week ~ KP))  Indeed that was Missing Link’s purpose; to expose the richness and diversity of blogosphere writing for people who don’t have the time to spend in sifting through the huge mountains of opinionated garbage that admittedly exist in the blogosphere in order to uncover the quality writing.

I wonder why some media organisation hasn’t taken the opportunity to use Missing Link to locate and republish excellent blog writing? The major functions quality newspapers provide are editing, filtering, (sometimes rudimentary) quality control and content certification for the material appearing in them.   Readers are hopefully given some measure of minimal assurance that the material they read in a reputable newspaper has been edited and fact-checked and isn’t complete garbage.

That assurance doesn’t exist in the independent blogosphere (despite its somewhat self-correcting nature through the operation of comment box discussion).  However, the blogosphere’s very lack of certified quality assurance provides the MSM with an opportunity. There’s no reason whatever why the MSM couldn’t source significant parts of its critical, analytical and opinion content from the blogosphere, providing editing services to polish off any rough edges.  Of course, that would potentially reduce the number of full-time paid journalists they’d have on staff, which is probably why journos like Mark Day feel threatened.  However, those staff reductions are happening anyway. What we’re talking about here is a way newspapers could survive financially and continue delivering quality analysis and investigative journalism.

One cogent criticism made by people like Day is that bloggers seldom if ever engage in large-scale investigative journalism (as opposed to nitpicking “gotcha” fact-checking, which is important but not the same thing).  However, it’s possible to exaggerate the extent to which newspapers engage in investigative journalism in any event.  Commentators like Lowell Bergman and John Pilger argue that investigative journalism only really became a significant feature of newspapers in the mid 1960s with the Profumo Affair in Britain and Seymour Hersh’s investigation of the My Lai massacre, peaking in the 1970s with Woodward and Bernstein’s celebrated investigation of the Watergate Affair and then gradually subsiding as old-style media tycoons sold out to corporate beancounters.

Investigative journalism and indeed in-depth political analysis have never attracted large paying audiences to newspapers.  They’ve been effectively cross-subsidised by more populist content like sports coverage, cartoons, crosswords and gossip and “advice to the lovelorn” columns.  That may not have been so apparent before the advent of the Internet which now allows beancounters to measure precisely which articles and features attract the most “page reads”.  Moreover, in pre-Internet days it didn’t matter much anyway because readers didn’t have a wide range of media choices.  Now, however, advertising revenue, at least for online versions of newspapers, is dispensed scientifically in accordance with the readership each page attracts.

In this Brave New World, detailed analysis and investigative journalism are luxuries the beancounters increasingly conclude can’t be afforded. Nevertheless, and as Day argues, there is still a premium audience demographic that demands “deep and credible information about their world”.  Day argues that it can only be serviced by charging premium prices for such content, now that it can no longer be cross-subsidised by more populist content.  He’s probably right to an extent, but there’s also no reason why an innovative newspaper proprietor couldn’t harness Web 2.0 and the blogosphere to assist in delivering quality analysis and investigative reporting both more cheaply and effectively than at present.

One possible (if somewhat old-fashioned) model is currently being tried in the US, where a new philanthropic foundation is aiming at delivering investigative journalism to newspapers as a public service:

Paul E. Steiger, who was the top editor of The Wall Street Journal for 16 years, and a pair of wealthy Californians are assembling a group of investigative journalists who will give away their work to media outlets.

The nonprofit group, called Pro Publica, will pitch each project to a newspaper or magazine (and occasionally to other media) where the group hopes the work will make the strongest impression. The plan is to do long-term projects, uncovering misdeeds in government, business and organizations.

Whether the likes of Dick Smith could be persuaded to fund a similar operation in Australia, where a culture of philanthropy by the wealthy has never really developed, remains to be seen.

Specifically Web 2.0 initiatives that newspapers could and should be using and developing much more effectively include Wikileaks, which provides an anonymous online conduit for “whistleblowers”,  and SourceWatch, which adopts a collaborative citizen journalism approach to scrutinising the activities of thinktanks especially  corporate “astroturfing” operations.

Finally, and a suggestion I haven’t seen advanced anywhere else, why doesn’t the MSM or an Australian version of Pro Publica (or for that matter the ABC) enlist the services of academics for specific investigative journalism projects?  Many academics, especially academic bloggers, have highly developed research and writing skills that would be incredibly valuable for in-depth investigative journalism projects.  If projects could be structured as “research consultancies” then it might be possible to obtain the services of highly qualified academics at minimal cost to the newspaper.  DEST research points, and therefore Commonwealth funding for the academics’ universities, can be earned by such endeavours as long as the consultancy results in one or more published and refereed papers.  It might sound a tad cynical and exploitative at first blush, but in fact investigative journalism is and always has been much more a vital public service in a liberal democratic society than a profit-making activity for corporate media, although that fact was disguised by the cross-subsidisation that occurred before the advent of the Internet.  It’s appropriate that such activity be funded (albeit independently and at arm’s length) by the state, in the same way as democratic checks and balances like the Ombudsman, FOI legislation and independent administrative law merits review tribunals.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Ken Lovell
15 years ago

Great post Ken and I hope it gets an extended thoughtful response.

For some time I’ve been advocating – without much support I have to say – the sale of ABC TV to the private sector coupled with a revision of the ABC Charter to make it much more of an independent news-gathering organisation. The role that you sketch in your final paragraph is very much the kind of thing I believe the ABC should be spending money on.

Ken Lovell
15 years ago

BTW is Mark Day really asserting that ‘the people who demand deep and credible information about their world’ get it from newspapers?

Who are they? What are their names?

15 years ago

Beauty in motion.

Investigative journalism is the lynch pin, the keystone, to blogosphere and MSM relations – which end up in the reader’s hands, to embrace or throw away.

Otherwise, the personal, the opinionated, knowledge or spin, the community or the rage exist for each at equal space.

Real investigative journalism – ‘journalism’ implying a sequence (not the gotcha thing as mentioned in the post) – obviously requires real money and real commitment; one would think often on a whim or gutsfeeling at its toughest, let alone a folder of compelling content placed on the desk, and one has to ask in this.. where has investigative journalism gone or where might it go to?

The assumption there is the people want it. I think people do.

So where and how? Money and its usurpation is certainly at the core, but I wonder if a pre-balancing thing is about to occur. That is, in the MSM voided quality, the blogosphere has risen with individuals taking the lead… driven by personal, community and maybe even heroic needs to provide what they can, gratis, but it’s early days, so early days. Rightly, the MSM should sit back and watch what the ‘sphere does. That part, I think is getting the tick of completion.

Next step..well that depends on where the people are, what time they come, how disposed they are when they get there, and how they’re made to feel upon arrival.

MSM can turn quickly when it wants, the ‘sphere always does. My guts is that to wish for validation from MSM will only bind the ‘sphere to it.

In short, it’s about getting professional in delivery/publication, knowing your readership, stick to what you do well, and branding. Messing with that, that is, toying with the pleasures of the ‘sphere beyond what is done well, is a killer.

Commercially, those things translate to income. Whether it throws up the money for investigative journalism, or journalist – beyond ideas and gripe and whinge for the lack elsewhere – well, I’d back both home at this stage, MSM and blogging, frankly.

But I do think the ball is fairly in the blogosphere’s court.

15 years ago

Good luck, Troppo, by the way.

15 years ago

That future Mark Day is talking about is the Fin Review. They still get a fair bit wrong (they still pay Tony Walker, astoundingly, and despite Obama not yet being anointed by a legion of angels as he seemed to think was imminent) but they do provide good coverage on their bread-and-butter (business and politics).

But I don’t know what Robert means by saying the ball is in the blogs’ court – ?? Blogs are thriving, the ball is surely in the media’s court??

One step is allowing comments on all articles – this seems a no-brainer! And showing inbound links also seems a no-brainer.

And the biggest no-brainer is actually realising and using the massive fact-checking capacity and distributed knowledge of all those bloggers out there to improve reporting!

It would be cool if you could insert comments (like MS Word review comments) at any point in the text – although these could become unwieldly on eg articles in the Age.

Still, if I have understood KP his point is that if newspapers have a future it surely involves blogs, and I agree entirely.

15 years ago

LOL. Tony Walker is a voice of sanity in a depressing landscape of hack journalists. Or do you prefer the wise musings of Sheridan, Duffy, Sheehan, Henderson, Devine and Akerman Patrick?

philip travers
philip travers
15 years ago

Anyone from the ABC anticipating the likes of Murdoch gasping on as as a non-Australian at the over-rated and tedious Boyer Lectures must be divorcing his wife for a far flung relative of the Murdochs.There are many things printed,in say, the SMH. I am sure could be further investigated,but simply are not done for the day to day complexities of paper newsworthy themes,rather than any costs involved,simply because email and the Internet,and Virgin Airlines exist.There are no lean and hungry ferrets at either the ABC or Murdoch,tax dodging war-mongering family extraordinaire.So until we get rid of people like that there is no journalism.Academics claiming their skills could do the job,probably means,both a cowardice in the populace and a lack of anything important to do like churning out people from Universities who can think.Blogging as a contributor is still a fairly young sport,over-populated in my opinion,at the moment by those who grasped the oppurtunity,but, are not necessarily building anything of deep relevance.Unless you are read,you then are relying on some who have read you,as quality,and in a time pressed world so many words are overworked.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
15 years ago

One step is allowing comments on all articles – this seems a no-brainer!

Yeah, allowing a free-for-all of rampant speculation on say, a crime or courts story is a fantastic idea.

No potential legal problems at all.

15 years ago

I dunno Lloyd, I don’t read any of them, but I do know a little about the US, and I am judging Walker on his US coverage (does he do anything else these days?).

That said, his real problem is his complete excitability, see eg his last 20 articles on the second coming of [Obama], and then yesterday’s article about Sarah Palin. And what on earth does he mean by his last sentence in yesterday’s article? What scrutiny that McCain is so desparate to avoid???


I doubt there is, in fact – hopefully Ken can clarify that.

But you seem to have assumed a few steps between ‘allowing comments on all articles’ and ‘a free-for-all’. I would have thought that post-facto review , for example, ought to be enough to cover any legal responsibilities, but again, happy to be corrected.

15 years ago

Patrick, that’s my poor rendition. Blogs are thriving as you say; my quick comment there is to remark upon the point of difference, which is to say that blogs are in the box seat to claim an investigative journalist scoop/role, understanding in that the dollar difficulty, so as to to say blogs can move more quickly and are sitting pretty to snap that difference into place.

That said, the money is five years away on current guts trend (for IG), or so, but any way it’s very early days. Still, a whistleblow or similar is so ever close, whenever, including to the ‘sphere that on that moment the balance would be swayed its way. I don’t think the MSM carries the clear cut cred (depending on the blog) such an opportunity holds – that is, short or long term, the ball is in the blogsphere court.

..On Missing Link, I think the problem with it is that for all the gratis effort (which i think it needs – it’s not a commercial viability) it is a natural magnet for the disaffected, bearing in mind it is their minds which deem it so. Late at night, disaffected doesn’t cover it fully. So you have volounteers putting out the hard yards – that itself is a magnet for criticism I”m sorry to say – on content published on this site which is sure to attract the negative, dispiriting this place and making it unattractive, and a shitfight is only ever an inch away.

As a promotional concept it is a good one, but it does need a space in which it can breathe. I don’t think Troppo or anywhere in the MSM can do that, nor is it good for Troppo or MSM, for that ‘magnetic’ problem.

At this stage, such a thing is really better served in public involvement by a passionate individual. In the hands of a “Club” (seriously?) or corporate MSM, the disaffected, amongst the thankful folk, will only ever feel free coupon to go you.

15 years ago

The Future of newspapers?

Possibly ask Murdoch according to martin wolff as reported in the oz from Vanity Fair piece:

Michael Wolff in Vanity Fair:

WE found the 77-year-old News Corp chairman and CEO hunched over the phone reporting out a story. He’d been out the night before and gotten a tip. Now he was trying to nail it down. His side of the conversation was straight reporter stuff: Who could he call? How could he get in touch? Will they confirm? Here was the old man doing one of the same basic jobs he’d been doing since he was 22, having inherited the Adelaide News in Australia from his father. And he was good at it. He was parsing each answer. Re-asking the question. Clarifying every point. His notepad going. He knew the trade.

Of how many media company CEOs could that be said? This wasn’t a destroyer of journalism, this was a practitioner. Because he loves newspapers; he may be the last person to love newspapers.

He thinks The (New York) Times, with its soft stories and news-less front page and all its talk of being a news brand instead of a newspaper, has forsaken what a newspaper is. He’s really not interested in all this talk about newspapers as the basis of new information franchises, blah blah. Rupert Murdoch wants the physical thing. He pokes the paper, slashes at it: move this, reduce that, enlarge this. It may be the ultimate fantasy, his continuing, contrary belief in newspapers.

Not all newspapers will survive. However those that offer interesting stories with reporters doing the beat will.

Here’s the difference I see.

I never read The Age anymore because of its tedious predictability. When i go out for a coffee in the morning I pick up the AFR (buy it) and sometimes borrow the cafe’s Herald -Sun for the local stories to leaf though. I nearly always find the local story having the added color of a reporter who seems to have done the beat… ie getting off his butt and speaking to someone about the car crash, the violence in King street etc….. The reporter has usually spoken to a few people giving the piece the added color. I would bet there are hardly any reporters left at The Age who know what it’s like to interview a person face to face. That’s why The Age’s circulation is tumbling down a cliff. The Age is easily replaced by blogs these days.

However blogs aren’t able to run the beat which is why good newspapers that are interesting, giving readers that little bit more color will always do well.

Newspapers.. good newspapers will never go out of business although their business strategy may change. Whose call would the Treasurer pick up if it was the choice of one: Crikey or the AFR?

News these days is a commodity business. It’s how you differentiate yourself that makes the difference. You want to make people read your paper because it is interesting. If you’re going to segment like The Age has done you had better make sure the market can support that. And you most certainly need to be able to deliver interesting stories and a product people want as the competition from the new medium is pretty fierce.


[…] The future of newspapers| Club Troppo – "Many academics, especially academic bloggers, have highly developed research and writing skills that would be incredibly valuable for in-depth investigative journalism projects.  If projects could be structured as “research consultancies” then it might be possible to obtain the services of highly qualified academics at minimal cost to the newspaper." Really…? […]

15 years ago

Circulations will be lower, but they will be aimed atand edited forthe top end of the market, the people who demand deep and credible information about their world. This narrowing of market focus will promote more specialist advertising aimed at the well-heeled group that reads the publication, and that advertising will be sold at premium rates.

Quite the opposite is actually happening. The most intelligent segment of the audience are moving to the Internet (this is both TV audience and traditional news readers). With that strata gone, the media producers compete over what’s left and aim a bit lower (at roughly the middle of their remaining market). This low-brow content starts to annoy and alienate the most intelligent segment of the residual and they in turn look around for what else they can find, then finally decide to move to the Internet. Wash, rinse and repeat.

Mark Day probably knows this, but he sure does not want his last few readers to figure it out. If he bags the blogs enough, he might fool a few more people for a little bit longer. Every day is another day’s pay.

The reason Murdoch has done so well, is not because of his great love of newspapers (he was one of the first to put all the content online, without supid “sign in” screens or subscriptions, he is also moving toward giveaway rags like MX that are nothing more than mildly creative advertising leaflets), Murdoch has done well because he knows how to target his audience. Everyone used to say what a disgrace it was to have a page 3 girl, but it sold papers. For every deep philosopher looking for understanding in a complex world there are a thousand shallow people, hanging tightly to a few simple dearly held beliefs and looking for a comforting illusion to provide temporary relief. Murdoch understands this, gives them what they want, takes their money and doesn’t look back.

The media magnates have become the unofficial ministers for information manipulation and Murdoch has shown himself to be an expert at pulling the right emotional strings at the right time to make a bunch of people jump without knowing why they are jumping. There’s really no difference between the articles and the plugs, other than the products they are selling. You can learn a lot about what is important in the world by searching for the articles that Pravda will publish but Murdoch will not. The fact is, Murdoch is good at his job. People take the opinions they are given and they go home happy. When they read John Pilger, they wake up challenged and upset — nasty and confusing, don’t like that one.

15 years ago

Complex understanding requires many viewpoints. Most media organisations simply blackout any information about atrocities committed by the US and/or their agents. Pilger helps to fill the gaps, and he documents his sources and always provides a great number of sources if you want further background.

In order to understand (for example) the situation in South America, it doesn’t even start to make sense until you can understand the causes of unrest that have resulted in widespread distrust of the US amongst citizens of countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, etc. Do you think that all those South American people sit there reading Pilger to get their opinions?

On a slightly different topic, consider the cocaine smuggling narco-flights moving drugs into the US. There is overwhelming evidence of CIA involvement, and apparently a legal mandate for such activity. People find it disturbing to think that their government would support organisations that ship drugs while also declaring a hypocritical “War on Drugs” and rounding up the smalltime dealers and addicts. So they simply sanitise their worldview by not accepting any evidence that doesn’t suit them. You can do a lot of google searching on this topic and maybe it’s investigative journalism, maybe it’s conspiracy theory… maybe there’s not much difference. We know that drug distribution is run by highly successful organised crime, so that is (by definition) a conspiracy. The only theoretical part is asking who might be involved and what evidence we have against them, which is where the investigation comes into the picture. We could leave this job up to the law enforcement, but since they have had 50 years and buckets of money to stamp out opiates, and have spectacularly failed, it is a safe presumption that the job will never get done that way.

These “shallow lefties” that you speak of, I don’t know them personally. Most everyone is willing to give the US credit for doing a lot of good for the world, particularly in encouraging economic freedom and saving England’s backside (twice) during the wars in Europe. The US has been a technological leader and this knowledge has disseminated to all countries. There are plenty of human rights campaigners willing to speak out about China and Russia, but they also speak out about the US. China is very good at productivity and teamwork, they do it at the expense of individual freedom. I don’t see it as a simplistic worldview to understand that one nation can do good and bad at the same time. If there’s one common thread to it all that makes a simple rule, it would be that power that can be abused, will be abused. Even with that rule, some powerful people seem more willing and able to take their responsibilities seriously. I’m pretty impressed at how Putin handled the Georgia situation, calling the White House’s bluff and using strong military force without excessive casualties and without long occupation of hostile territory. Of course Putin has done a lot to make himself more powerful (even at the expense of Democracy) but now he has that power he is obviously willing to make some effort to maintaining regional stability (not allowing the creation of another Iraq War on his doorstep). And to be fair, even though Putin has the power to act unilaterally, in the case of Georgia he had very deep support from his own people and pretty much all areas of Russian government. Much stronger support than Bush had going into Iraq. Without the Internet, you had no hope of getting a detailed view of what was happening in Georgia, the US and Oz news were just feeding us the party line.


[…] Parish has a great post at Club Troppo discussing the future of newspapers and the possibility of new institutions emerging […]