There’s one graph that tells most of this story. It plots newspaper advertising revenue, print and online, against revenue to Google and latterly Facebook. The numbers are from the US, but this one set of data fits pretty much all.
I’m assuming you can guess the pattern of the crossing curves, though you might underestimate the precipitous brevity of print’s decline. From a high point just before the turn of the century it has plunged to a low that puts the revenue figure beneath the dollar amount newspapers squared away in 1950, even when combined with digital revenue. Google by contrast is soaring, a priapic upward streak that is now out-earning newspapers at their late twentieth-century peak.
The Australian numbers are in lockstep. Metropolitan newspaper advertising revenue fell 14 per cent year on year to the end of 2016. That slide has been long and continues.
No number of Fair Go Fairfax hashtag mentions, petitions or t-shirts will shift this fundamental reality: the money is not with journalism; or to refine that a tad, the money is not with the businesses that up to now have employed the journalists.
The journalistic model that through several living memories has been our culture’s informational staple is dying. It can’t be trimmed or economised into sustainable health. It won’t be restored through the repatriation of outrageous Fairfax executive salaries and bonuses. It is done. It is over.
It wasn’t the drift of high-end content to the internet that killed it, not the sudden multiplicity of sources, voices and views that make up the deep, fascinating hurly burley of the informational online. No, it was the simple walking away of the advertising dollar.
Because it’s always been about the advertising dollar.
Fairfax will quite probably continue, perhaps even in print for a while: some sort of hybrid paper shopping channel with exclusive mass-produced pop-art print offers, Mother’s Day catalogues and a front-end façade of news. It may well be split into profitable and marginal enterprises, toyed with by private capital, rearranged and optimised – but for profit, not content.
The hard truth is that money and journalism have never been the best of bedfellows.
There’s a lot of talk about the need to define a new business model for serious journalism, the sort of journalism apparently intrinsic to the healthy functioning of liberal democracy.
That thinking needs to factor in the distance that has always existed between serious journalism and money-making enterprise.
Chair of Private Media Eric Beecher has a telling memory of the day he got his first front page byline as a young Age reporter:
In those days, every Friday around midnight, the streets outside the Age building overflowed with people who came to buy an early copy of the paper with its thousands of classified ads for jobs, cars and properties. To see them pick up their newspapers that night, keeping the classified ads and dumping the rest into rubbish bins placed along the street by Age staff, was a dose of reality for an idealistic journalist.
And this is the tough truth of the storied Fairfax empire: it was never a business dependent on journalism for its good fortune. At its rivers-of-gold height, Fairfax was a small-ad business. For influence, to expand its audience, it teamed those tumbling pages of houses, cars and jobs for sale and hire to the earnest columns of the fourth estate. But this was public-interest journalism based on a paradox, a paradox now playing out to an end game that sees Fairfax shedding journalism in pursuit, at last, of some sort of fundamental business truth.
And that matters, of course, because, happy commercial accident or not, the journalism that filled the Fairfax pages for decades meant something. It informed, it provoked, it investigated, it entertained and it provided another voice in what was once the contrapuntal chorus of serious Australian journalism, a chorus now increasingly reduced to whatever tune the Murdoch empire would have its various shills and shit-stirrers sing.
And for the moment we’re going to have to deal with that, because Fairfax is doing, and will do, what makes some sort of solid sense for its business. It’s an uncomfortable truth for many journalists now doing hard yards on strike and their supporters rattling the can, but journalism won’t save Fairfax in its cups, just as journalism never propelled Fairfax in its heyday.
That moment – that half century of slowly professionalising and self-inflating journalism feather bedded by a million used-car transactions – is over.
We need to find a way forward, and central to that will be establishing a sense in the public mind of the worth of that public-interest journalism, and, further, convincing a highly dubious public that this journalism is central to the health of their democracy.
This is a tough time for that task. Look to America again, and see the ‘fake news’ dismissal of the fourth estate by the currently victorious and assiduously populist forces in US politics. Facts are suddenly fluid and the very sense of truth is a political plaything. The very fundamentals of serious journalism – the pursuit of an objective reality – has rarely been more challenged.
Things are not quite at that point here – yet – but the circumstances exist for the transition to a post-fact world here, too. Journalism is deeply unpopular in this country: it’s a trade seen as partisan, self-serving and fundamentally untrustworthy.
And yet, serious journalism’s immediate and urgent task is to build that trust, and further to build a public sense of the necessity of an intelligently interrogative fourth estate. Why? Well first because our democratic health hinges on it, and second because it seems very likely that the only way of funding that sort of journalism in the future will be to do what serious journalism has never done before: make its business profitable purely on the value of its content.
It’s possible that this may never be done on the broadcast scale of a mass-circulation press, but perhaps high quality content will find its niche and its revenue stream. It may be that the future fourth estate is an island, narrower, exclusive: a reduced reality that accepts that broad readership will always be inclined toward sensation and confirmation bias. Our best hope is that this informed niche will continue to see that necessity and decide, in addition, to pay for it.
Image: ‘The late general elections – posting the returns at the Age office’ (Samuel Calvert 1828–1913, engraver) / State Library of Victoria