The death of newspapers: does it matter?

cartoon20090330With 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) .

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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Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
5 years ago

Thanks Ken,

Lots to talk about. I barely read newspapers, though I do when referred to them from other articles. When I want to read something I go to queues of stuff in my feed reader, or stuff I’ve decided to read later – on pocket. There’s so much great free stuff. So much that’s better, much better, than the journalism in the papers.

I’m afraid the whole modus operandi of the media is so low that I have very little respect even for the so called ‘quality press’.

I remember a very well respected political ‘commentator’ – main daily journo who asked me about someone I knew a lot better than she did. I told her that the guy was a turkey and gave fairly cogent reasons. She was completely uninterested as he was travelling well in the public eye. But when a few powerful people started a fairly transparent campaign against him a little later on, there she was on the phone – all ears. I didn’t say any more.

I have my favourite people and there are lots of great people working in media, but this visceral instinct for groupthink and the pride in orchestrating which occupies the commanding heights of the industry disgusts me I have to say. The way in which Tony Jones closes down conversations whenever they get going on Q&A. And on it goes.

And yes, we’ll probably get a little less investigative reporting.

You mention ‘long form journalism’. I’ve discovered I really dislike ‘long form journalism’. Of course there are exceptions, but so much long form journalism is self-consciously, but not very compellingly ‘arty’. It might be a profile of someone, or of some movement or event, and there’s a long string of anecdotes that often amount to not much and mood reflections. If I want that I’ll read something that someone has really laboured over. Or about something I really want to know about. Not some long piece that some journo has to put out each week, or even month. For instance, I’m a fan of Robert Manne’s essays, but most of them are far too long.

When I’m writing for newspapers, I really like to get what I’m saying down to around 700-800 words. Thesis, example(s), development, implications. Stop.

Paul Montgomery
Paul Montgomery
5 years ago

Ken, your optimism is fine in some areas, but financially it is sorely misplaced. Five bucks a week (News now charges seven) from 10% of the people who used to pay for the paper, and online advertising from 10% of the people who used to pay for print ads just doesn’t cut it, even after removing print costs.

Fairfax still has a long way to downsize to get to online size. The Guardian’s Sydney office is in a tiny three-story building tucked away in a side street of Surry Hills, whereas Fairfax have occupied entire city skyscrapers. We shall see how much their brand means when they have to compete on a level playing field with lean startups, not to mention public-funded ventures – one wonders if they will join the Murdoch chorus of complaining that The Conversation et al are attacking commercial interests.

Pensioners who love the tactile experience of newsprint can suffer in their jocks, really, just like many teenagers have had to “suffer” with the dismantlement of the music industry, or the middle-aged with the decline of letter-writing. People adapt to new technologies, even old fogies. They will complain about it, but that’s nothing new.

David Walker
David Walker
5 years ago

Ken, congratulations. The points you’re making should be made much more often.

paul frijters
paul frijters
5 years ago

I have a paper on this very issue from 2009 (which you can find at https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/23199/). In short, yes the ability to copy news without paying for it means the death of most paper-based newspapers whose ‘small add’ sections (the real money spinners) no longer get read. But no, this is not the end of good news. It moves online, into specialised outfits, and many of it is free, provided by philantropists, do-gooder experts, and fame-chasing experts.

Newspapers pandered to prejudices before the internet. That is normal. The main thing the internet does is to un-bundle types of news, which means less accidents of being confronted with other people’s prejudices (ie their tastes).

Hasbeen
Hasbeen
5 years ago

I only recently realised that my readership of news papers started to decline as the number of university trained journalists, compared to the old “copy boy” journalists started to increase. It stopped completely about 20 years ago, when those trained in our lefty universities took over completely.

It was about then I found that any time a paper, or more particularly the ABC had an article on things I knew about, our modern dinner party journalists would either not understand & get it totally wrong, or would try to put a spin on the facts to suite their ideology. This did not engender much confidence in their other product.

After 30 years of supporting the ABC I see it has now gone too far left to be useful. Rather than preserve the ABC it should be shut down completely, as it is nothing but an ideologically driven source of propaganda, doing Australia a disservice every minute it exists.

Lauriesienna
Lauriesienna
5 years ago
Reply to  Hasbeen

I have to agree with about the change in reporting in Newspapers.
Copy boys became reporters.
Uni trained journalists became opinion writers pushing their personal beliefs.
I read Newspapers to get “facts’

Newspapers nowadays rarely carry “facts” If the Author of this Article believes that the ABC is fearlessly independent.. I must respectively disagree with him.

It’s beyond saving and all ” currant Affairs , Q&A ABC 24 and anything else should be dropped.
The ABC needs to go back to its’ original charter.
Brainwashing wasn’t in that charter

melvyn bennett
5 years ago

I find that printed material permits me to read/receive information/digest and respond to it at my own pace and thus to allow me to reflect, consider, basically “cogitate” about the matter. I don’t find the online/digital medium as valuable in that way at all and I tend to relate to such information in a more SIMPLE stimulus-response fashion/ “hit and run”/unthinking way that does not benefit my processing of whatever the matter is. Do I then become a more passive receiver of the material and thereby more manipulable, let alone bored ? Thus, much as I don’t esteem the daily press as part of my armamentarium and much as the net has enrichened my life and allowed me to educate myself in all sorts of useful ways, I worry about the loss of printed matter as making my thought processes re political events etc. more superficial and inadequately critical. “OVER THE HILL”

paul walter
paul walter
5 years ago

Rofl at the anecdote about the journo. Please, a little hint as to who it may be?

For the rest, I think the discussion is framed in relation to the notion of the end of the parish pump; enclosuring of commons (including sport and infotainment) and another break in socio cultural continuity of the sort discussed by Hobsbawm.