With Fairfax culling 120 journalists (in the wake of previous mass redundancies), Murdoch/News apparently contemplating more cuts, and newspapers in general losing money hand over fist, some pundits are suggesting that Fairfax at least is likely to stop publishing the Monday to Friday print versions of both The Age and Sydney Morning Herald by the end of this year.
The print versions of Murdoch’s tabloids will probably last a while longer, because they are more tightly focused on the populist, consumer end of the market, while The Age and SMH have attempted vainly to be all things to all readers, thereby alienating grumpy older readers like me with rivers of celebrity gossip and clickbait.
But when the last general print newspaper stops publication, will we care? Will it make any real difference?
For me the answer is: a little bit. One of my favourite daily rituals is to read the daily paper over a leisurely mugaccino at a local cafe. When in Melbourne it’s The Age and it takes me half an hour or so. In Darwin it’s the Northern Territory News and it takes nowhere near as long to read. Funny front page, the first three or four news pages, Wicking cartoon and letters to the editor and that’s about it. If there are no print newspapers I’ll have to take a tablet computer with me to the coffee shop, a device that is (for my tastes) less tactile but probably more convenient and will give me ready access to more reading sources.
But for quite a few older readers, especially retired people with dubious digital literacy skills and not enough money to afford an iPad and an appropriate Internet data plan (or know about finding a cafe with a free wifi hotspot), the death of newspapers is likely to pose a bigger problem. There are social justice issues there that will need to be addressed.
In many other respects, however, it might even be a positive thing when Fairfax and Murdoch eventually give up the struggle to produce broad-based print offerings. Clearly the costs of a media organisation publishing solely online are considerably lower, although The Guardian‘s reported struggle for financial viability for its Australian arm suggests that online-only publication isn’t a sure recipe for success. However it kicked off its Australian operation from a standing start only fairly recently. You would suspect that the Fairfax organs would be instantly profitable if they moved to an online-only model.
Moreover, paying a subscription of just over five dollars a week for unlimited online access to The Age and SMH (or The Australian if that’s more to your taste) isn’t a big financial imposition, nor I suspect would it be so for most retired people wanting to keep well informed.
But would the quality and breadth of journalism available to us be as good in a post-newspaper world? I’m not worried about “raw” news content because it will continue to be delivered from any number of sources, indeed more now than probably at any time in the past. Nor am I worried about opinion and analysis. Again, there are more sources of op-ed commentary and analysis now than at any time in human history. Finding the gold among the dross is a problem, but RSS feed-readers and Twitter help with that, and publications like the Australian universities blog The Conversation make available large volumes of reliable quality opinion and analysis every day to an extent unparalleled before the Internet era.
I’m a bit more worried about long form investigative journalism. It’s expensive and not of enormous interest to a mass audience. There will certainly be a need for a continuation of jointly resourced investigations between former print media publishers and longtime electronic media, such as the series of ABC/Fairfax investigations over the last couple of years (Comminsure, 7-Eleven etc). But there’s no reason why such investigations shouldn’t continue to happen as long as the ABC’s funding isn’t further gutted and it isn’t completely intimidated from fulfilling its critical democratic role by a vengeful federal government.
Even some of the “new media” online publications can play their part in investigative journalism. Independent Australia’s long-running focus on crooked trade union “whistleblower” Kathy Jackson and her erstwhile Fair Work Commission henchman/partner Michael Lawler was a truly impressive effort, even if it made no attempt at faux-objectivity.
That’s one of the most obvious differences between the newspaper and post-print age. Most publications, at least those pitching for a mainstream audience, are likely to adopt a less detached and more partisan/tribal approach, both in tone and content. Pundits like Tim Dunlop have been arguing for years that “objective” journalism is outdated and in many respects mythical. Cognitive phenomena like confirmation bias and what psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls social intuitionism indicate that most people gravitate towards content and approaches that reflect their own political, cultural and social biases.
Media organisations which can no longer afford the luxury of subsidising loss making “quality press” analysis with classified advertising “rivers of gold” will more and more be forced into chasing large tribal audiences by pandering to their partisan prejudices. Right wing propaganda organs like those of the Murdoch media and their left-leaning equivalents like Independent Australia, The Saturday Paper and New Matilda are likely to become progressively more rabid and tribal rather than less. But that doesn’t really matter as long as we educate ourselves and our children to be more discriminating readers, alert for biases and manipulation in what we read. In many ways overtly partisan journals are less dangerous because their biases are easier to pick and discount. They can still provide democratically valuable investigative journalism (as with IA’s Jacksonville series), even if the media partisan warriors target only their preferred ideological opponents. The habitual magisterial tones of the “quality press” have certainly been no guarantor of genuine rigor or impartiality, the faux-objectivity just makes it harder for naive or less informed readers to spot lies, omissions and distortions.
The bottom line is that I’m a digital media era optimist. I’d certainly like to see some government initiatives to underpin the ongoing role of the Fourth Estate as a meaningful part of our system of democratic checks and balances. For instance, amendment of “whistleblower” laws at both state and federal level so that information about public sector corruption and misdeeds provided by public servants to media organisations can qualify as a “protected disclosure”. At the moment most such legislation confines protection from legal retribution to those who confine themselves to telling a public official commonly called a “public interest disclosure commissioner“.
I would even like to see a constitutional referendum to entrench the role of the ABC as a fearlessly independent provider of scrutiny of the other arms of government, creating a four way constitutional separation of powers. We’re not likely to see any such referendum under a Coalition government, and even Labor tends to be much less enamoured of ABC fearless criticism when in government. Nevertheless I think it’s an idea worth discussing (and it will be highly entertaining to read the apoplectic Murdoch media reaction if any government ever floats it as a serious proposal) .