Australian media and creative destruction

This week’s dramatic events in the Australian media have underscored the Schumpeterian “creative destruction” being wrought before our eyes by the Internet and associated technologies and cultures:

  • 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 Kohler[1. “News Corp is nothing but a badly performing business mostly run by untrustworthy people. Murdoch is a disgrace” A. Kohler 2005] 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.

 

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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Polybius
Polybius
9 years ago

Thank you for a thought-provoking article.

I am of the boomer generation myself. Since the age of 18 I had bought a newspaper everyday and often two (the Age and Australian). Some days I bought the Herald-Sun as well – it’s actually quite convenient, you can read the whole thing from front page to back in the time it takes to drink a latte.

However, I stopped buying newspapers regularly about 2-3 years ago. I just sort of…lost interest.

I do worry about the demise of investigative journalism.

However, I’ve noticed these days that if I want to get my head around a particular issue I have to go onto the net and dig and follow links and generally go on a rather complicated journey involving news sites, magazine sites, blogs and tumbledown internet shacks of all descriptions. It’s time consuming, puzzling and often frustrating – but on the plus side it often turns up fascinating nuggets of information.

Even if most of them don’t apply to the matter you went looking for.

The trouble with newspapers now is that you know exactly what you’re going to get.

I don’t particularly mind that The Australian pushes a right wing agenda, but their predictability is a turn-off, and the internet outclassed their feature section years ago.

Sancho
Sancho
9 years ago

When you put it like that, the Rhinehart takeover fits a vivid analogy of a necromancer artificially animating a corpse army of the creatively destroyed, to use as vast weapon against the forces of truth and goodness.

Because drama is what the media’s all about.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

I think you might be finally catching on to why Capitalism works so well.

Sancho
Sancho
9 years ago
Reply to  Tel

Armies of mindless minions powered by unspeakable evil attacking the foundations of reason and civilisation?

Tel
Tel
9 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

As usual, you are thinking of Socialism (i.e. central planning, everyone behaves the same, does as they are told).

The skill of Capitalism is being able to take something that didn’t work, and refashion it into something that may not be perfect, but at least does something useful. As for reason, that’s a property of individuals, you have as much or as little reason as your own choices and abilities might determine, so don’t go blaming other people on that score. As for civilization, do you have a workable metric? What units is it measured in (I prefer the SI system where possible, but I’ll accept departure if you can put forward a good case)?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_System_of_Units

Tel
Tel
9 years ago

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.

Gosh! If that sort of thing got loose, they might turn professional. Then where would we be? Right back where we started I guess.

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.

I think it serves to pretty quickly shoot down the ideas that are complete non-starters, and then draw a red circle around “broadswords, naked in a pit” territory. That’s a useful function to start with, and if there’s a bit of awareness raising in the process I’d mark that well ahead of anything a newspaper has done this century.

Sancho
Sancho
9 years ago
Reply to  Tel

Which non-starter ideas do you reckon get too much of a run?

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

I admit that I’m post boomer but I have about nil affection for newspapers.

In finance, there is and always will be room for specialist daily presses. But I can’t understand why anyone else wants a daily paper.

Even in rugby, I haven’t read a ‘paper’ in years. Why would I, the actual news and reporting is all on twitter and blogs!! Law is the same, newspaper reporting of law is generally worse-than-useless.

In a comment on this site a while ago about that stupid new Australian lefty fanzine, I came up with a list that should be all the serious reading anyone in their right mind would ever want to do.

To my mind, newspapers died a while ago, and good riddance to their funeral. Besides I can’t see how Fairfax could suck more.

Russell
Russell
9 years ago
Reply to  Patrick

“But I can’t understand why anyone else wants a daily paper.
Even in rugby, I haven’t read a ‘paper’ in years. Why would I, the actual news and reporting is all on twitter and blogs!!”

Hard to believe, but there are many people who don’t like computers, but enjoy reading a newspaper or magazine.

Pedro
Pedro
9 years ago

I would be confident that any newspaper feature for which there is a demand would be replicated in new media and probably more conveniently. To the extent newspapers were a novel packaging exercise I’m sure that will be replicated. I don’t really fear for investigative journalism as it will be getting cheaper to produce not dearer.

News is a product that will sell in multiple media and tablet forms suit newsprint replacement really well.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
9 years ago

I don’t really fear for investigative journalism as it will be getting cheaper to produce not dearer.

How do you come to that conclusion?

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
9 years ago
Reply to  Bill Posters

well the quality may vary but check out the number of choices available….
If digital content commands a satisfactory fee then the costs of investigative journalism may be met rather than relying on classifieds.
Content is the thing which sells not the format.Good content will be able to ask for remuneration.

paul walter
paul walter
9 years ago

Plenty of “destruction” in it, but no evidence of anything “creative”, unless you are contemplating the child like glee with which am Attilla or Genghis Khan finds and lights a torch to fire a captured city.
Schumpeterites are much infatuated with “creative destruction”, until they are subject to it themselves.

jennifer
jennifer
9 years ago

The Kahneman article presents another of those delicious ideas about how we think. The part I’m interested in is why we defend our ideological patches. I accept we cannot help but be influenced by our experience – immediate or otherwise.

But why do we defend our own ideological positions when presented with another, even when there is no particular material or moral advantage in swapping ideological positions? Like for example on this blog or at a bar? – Where the conversation goes down with the wine and the beer.

That goes beyond learning or play and into something about our identity.

If ideological positions are linked to our identity and sense of self, then the fourth estate is not a thought provoker for most but an issue fixer – there to fix an ideological position that is already there. That’s why Abbott’s strategy works.
He takes a broad brush and strokes the population with it and the fourth estate deliver the message.

Ian Milliss
9 years ago

I’m fascinated by the ongoing denigration of Peter Wicks. It doesn’t really matter what his motives are, if you read his work it is about analysing actual documents and the documents indicate that Kathy Jackson is the real story, not Craig Thomson. That is the real nitty gritty of investigative journalism that the mainstream media couldn’t be bothered doing and because it didn’t fit their agenda of helping Abbott’s campaign to now win the last election. So many people gormlessly joined the Thomson lynch mob that now, standing there with egg on their faces all they can do is either deny Wicks existence or launch ad hominem attcks on his motives as if there was something wrong about demonstrating the facts.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago
Reply to  Ian Milliss

I’ve read quite a few of Peter Wicks’ articles. He seems to be able to simultaneously hold the belief that Kathy Jackson is a ratbag for breaking the wall of silence that protects union boss corruption, and also the belief that blowing the whistle on corruption is the right and proper thing to do.

To some extent it’s just blatant tribalism, she must be one of them because she hurt us, so we hurt her because she is one of them. Principles be damned.

I’m fascinated by the ongoing denigration of Peter Wicks. It doesn’t really matter what his motives are…

Quite so. If he puts a nasty dose of salts through the union leadership and vacates space for a fresh start, then good luck to him. However, a lot of Peter Wicks’ effort has gone into the ongoing denigration of Kathy Jackson as if by proving her guilty it somehow clears Craig Thomson of any wrongdoing (and clears the rest of the ALP for protecting him). The same rule holds for Kathy Jackson’s whistle blowing of course. It doesn’t really matter what her motives were either.

Ian Milliss
9 years ago
Reply to  Tel

That doesn’t sound as if you have actually read him at all.

You try to give the appearance that Wicks is simply asserting opinions whereas in fact he what he does is a type of forensic accountancy where he analyses documents like bank statements line by line. In the process he unearths facts that undermine most of what Jackson has claimed. He also has found that much of what Thomson has claimed is backed up by the documents.

If Wicks is wrong, prove him wrong. Misrepresenting him in this way as if he was similar to a fact free mainstream media blowhard only further reinforces the fact that he has performed well on an issue that the mainstream media has at best botched.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago
Reply to  Ian Milliss

You are questioning my statement that Wicks is doing his best to damage Kathy Jackson’s reputation?

http://www.independentaustralia.net/2012/politics/craig-thomson-under-the-rain/

In my view, for the reasons described – and others – Kathy Jackson did not seem to me to be at all a convincing witness, especially given her statement contained significant unexplained discrepancies with the public record. Her response on 7.30, in all, would appear to lend added credibility to Craig Thomson’s claims. Of especial note is that Jackson did not deny that Michael Lawler was involved in strategy meetings with the HSU.

Of course, all this may be entirely coincidental and the Jackson-Lawler-Liberal connection may be entirely innocent. Thomson may, indeed, be guilty. However, he deserves the presumption of innocence — especially given the waters are so murky.

The whole article I linked to is devoted to finding very minor discrepancies in Kathy Jackson’s interviews (none of which were under oath). However the discrepancies require a leap of faith, such as presuming that Kathy and Jeff Jackson maintained a close working relation after their divorce (which could be true, but doesn’t happen often).

Or are you questioning my statement that Wicks is trying to give Thomson’s story more plausibility by casting Jackson’s story as implausible? Well Wicks quite clearly says as much with his statement about murky water. Indeed, Wicks has set upon the task of making the water as murky as possible — which seems pointless when the evidence against Thomson is all in the form of receipts, phone records and credit card statements.

Exactly how have I misrepresented Wicks here? What possible other interpretation is there for the article that I have linked to?

Tel
Tel
9 years ago
Reply to  Ian Milliss

Here’s another example where Wicks has a go at Michael Lawler:

Now, this shows the colossal conflict of interest. The police operation set up to investigate the HSU, Strikeforce Carnarvon was set up after Michael Lawler made the original police complaints about union corruption.

So according to Wicks, it’s a conflict of interest for someone to report wrongdoing if they might be related to someone who stands to gain should that wrongdoing be prevented? Hmmm, so if I happen to be driving past my brother’s house and I see someone is robbing the place, then according to Wicks it would be a conflict of interest for me to call the cops. The fact that they are breaking the law and that any good citizen is supposed to report it, gets ignored. Wicks seems to think that the investigation is invalid because the complaints were put in by the wrong person, once again the statement: it doesn’t really matter what his motives are.

Now if Wicks can demonstrate that Michael Lawler was directly involved in the process of the investigation itself, then that would be a bit of a different story. Mind you there were three completely separate investigations into the Thomson affair, it’s mighty implausible that Lawler could have jiggered all three. Ian Ross was asked about this exact issue and gave an interview on the ABC:

IAIN ROSS: I don’t think he’s actually made any allegations. In his parliamentary statement he said there were questions to be answered. He doesn’t advance any direct evidence, he rather raises the association between vice-president Lawler and Kathy Jackson and then said there were questions to be answered flowing from that. I have no evidence of any influence by vice-president Lawler in the investigation. I’ve asked – I’ve made enquiries of the general manager as to whether she was aware of any evidence. She says she’s not.

This morning in Senate Estimates, one of the principal officers involved in the investigation, Ailsa Carruthers, also said that she was unaware of any influence or involvement by the vice-president in the investigation.

So there’s no evidence that I’m aware of. And secondly, the vice-president has given me an assurance that the imputation from Mr Thomson’s statements are false. And on that basis I don’t propose to investigate the matter.

So Peter Wicks has not been able to dig up any actual evidence of interference with the investigation, only the imputation that Michael Lawler made the original complaints.

Want to point out any specific misrepresentations here?

Ian Milliss
9 years ago

Isn’t that holding Wicks to a much higher degree of accountability than the MSM is being held to?

Ian Milliss
9 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

SMH journalists are never bribed because they will do the dirty unbribed? I cite Hartcher, Sheehan, Coorey? The same reason that there is less overt corruption in the Liberal Party? Seriously, trust in the integrity of the SMH is an artifact of an earlier time that should have been discarded by anyone who has been observing their activities for the last few years. One of the reasons they are failing is the informal boycott by people like myself who won’t pay for propaganda. And I have never seen a whistleblower in the last forty years (or is Wicks an apostate, even worse) who has not been accused of being the tool of some mysterious background employer. I am surprised that you are pushing that line.

paul walter
paul walter
9 years ago

Ian, he is a species of whistle blower. You know what our system does to whistleblowers

Ian Milliss
9 years ago
Reply to  paul walter

Indeed, and if what he has uncovered is factually correct in what way does it become incorrect if his time was paid for by the ALP or a union? And if Wicks is incorrect, in what way is he any worse than McLymont who has already been demonstrated to be incorrect in a number of ways? Right back to classical times the fate of the whistleblower has been recognised, whether Cassandra or Laocoön.

Pedro
Pedro
9 years ago
Reply to  paul walter

Paul, I’m sure that the real whistleblowers around the place would resent being lumped with a partisan warrior. I’m not saying Wicks is wrong about Jackson, but he seems a fraud or a dill on Thomson.

paul walter
paul walter
9 years ago

Ha, ha, Ian Milliss.. on the dog and bone last night and you should have heard what a friend of mine had to say of McLymont!
The others you mention are jellyfish who sold their souls ages ago.
Also, Ken is naive to think the only form of persuasion/coercion would be bribes from an outside party.
Consider the current state of Fairfax; (fear of) redundancies+ Rinehart= large invisible thumb.

paul walter
paul walter
9 years ago

Ha, ha, Ian Milliss.. on the dog and bone last night and you should have heard what a friend of mine had to say of McLymont!
The others you mention are jellyfish who sold their souls ages ago.
Also, Ken is naive to think the only form of persuasion/coercion would be bribes from an outside party.
Consider the current state of Fairfax; (fear of) redundancies+ Rinehart= large invisible thumb.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
9 years ago

Thanks Ken, just came across your post. I agree with Pedro in spirit, though might quibble that they’re in their death throes rather than dead.

Another small quibble is that I’d put the Herald-Sun in a different category from the Sydney – or the London scandal sheets (though I may be a bit out of date on this as I’ve not read it much lately). There’s quite a bit of useful news in the Herald-Sun and even Andrew Bolt is easily the most interesting of the shock jocks. He’s got interesting things to say if you ignore the bile (which is sometimes difficult.)