The newspaper: journalism’s fairweather friend

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

Jonathan Green

Jonathan Green has been a working journalist since the late 1970s. He left the Age in 2006 to edit Crikey. After three years there, he became foundation editor of ABC online’s Drum. He now presents on Radio National and edits Meanjin literary journal.

More by Jonathan Green ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. A good analysis of the situation in which we find ourselves. Given I am currently paying over $40 per month to have the Age delivered and access to the web site it will be a rational (hopefully) decision at some point in the future to move to an alternate source of reliable news and investigative journalism.
    I must admit, being of the older generation I do fancy my daily hard copy read and certainly don’t look forward to having to access a smart phone screen for such information.

  2. Excellent analysis that will resonate with many of those who have worked in newspapers and journalism outside the metro bubble during the past 20-30 years. Journalists today – unlike the “rivers of gold” era – cannot divorce themselves from the commercial reality facing their employers. They need to be part of the solution or face the prospect of being picked off by management who see mass redundancies as the only way to make “sustainable” savings.

    As a former editor and managing editor of regional newspapers – including “old-Fairfax” publications – and now Canberra bureau chief for AAP – I learned very early on that to save the jobs of your people you had to make cost-savings decisions at the coalface and before senior management demanded them. Sometimes that meant doing without, but more often than not it meant doing more with less. In the environment that exists now, and where everyone is desperately seeking and failing to increase the revenue that keeps the business sustainable, intelligent self-sacrifice by journalists and their line managers might help save the ship and most of its crew.

    It might mean actively seeking out staff open to voluntary redundancy; doing without staff who leave; giving up 2-3 days of annual leave; agreeing to a wage freeze or even a small reduction in salary; doing away with last-century shift loadings and; addresssing other inefficient and costly work practices.

    Journalists can’t sit back and wait for management to find the silver bullet, if it exists at all. Ditto passionate words about threats to democracy, and thank-God-it’s-not-me empathy for colleagues, commendable as both are. Neither will save anyone’s job now or in the future. Journalists and their not-so-senior managers need to actively engage more in making viable the business that employs them, or face the consequences.

  3. The key to the whole issue IMHO might lie with the ABC and its website
    Instead of defunding it to the point of holding a clearing sale, politicians of all parties would benefit from boosting it up to being a forum where journalists of all persuasions could have their copy posted, and be paid for it out of public funds according to the number of reader hits. Duly audited of course.
    Otherwise, the essential transaction for funding the news media: the purchase by the reader of the right to read a journalist’s copy, will disappear, and everyone will become facebookers and twitterati: hardly a healthy situation. Not even the Neanderthal Right of the LNP Coalition would benefit.

  4. A really good read by one of the smarter thinkers around but like every article by journalists on the death of ‘journalism’ this one too fails to define what it is. What is ‘journalism’, JG? What is it we’re supposed to be saving (for society’s sake!), exactly? What does journalism uniquely ‘do’?

    This is the crucial question now, because the epistemological revolution ushered in by the internet hasn’t (just) concerned the slow barbarian incursion of ‘sensation’ and ‘confirmation of bias’ over ‘quality journalism’ as the metric of viability. Also included as part of the wonderful new internet age is the capacity for non-‘journalists’ to do our OWN ‘quality’ journalistic research; conduct our own debates, write our own news stories; go to source ourselves…the list goes on. ‘Quality journalism’, JG??? Oh, I can assure you that if I really want to know what Politician A said in Question Time, I go to Hansard online, not The Age or The 7.30 Report. If I really want to know the footy score I go the AFL’s own live website on my smart phone, not 702. For economics…straight to Treasury, ABS, Reserve Bank sites…you get my drift.

    So…what, again, is it that ‘journalism’ really does now, in an age of (if you want it) direct information autonomy?

    Mate, forgive my own, but your vocation’s arrogant epistemological assumptions, your profession’s ballooning of credentialism over the decades, have become such a definitive part of how you see yourselves that you honestly can’t imagine that anyone – let alone most of us – who isn’t a ‘journalist’ (wha’ that, JG?!?!) can possibly do their own ‘quality’ information husbandry, and have always done so, for all the self-important noise you guys have made about your core epistemological role. Seriously, most of us, even a Meeja junkie like me, just don’t spend that much of our lives paying ‘journalism’ much attention. ‘Journalism’…it’s a pretty closed loop, mate. You’re now mostly talking to each other, about each other, in rigid set proforma styles and forum templates, using weirdly self-serving journalistic jargons, operational and stylistic tics and information ‘conventions’ that to most of us are as absurd as Latinate Mass. It’s quite hilarious to behold your collective pomposity…and never ceases to amaze and amuse, just how thoroughly ‘journalism’ has elbowed aside in our civic consciousness the authentically aspirational concept of the ‘general educated layman’. Journalism, by monetising information (purely on the briefly serendipitous circumstantial grounds of that advertising/journalism symbiosis you mentioned) has served to make ‘information’ itself feel like the preserve of ‘info-professionals’ alone: the ‘professional’ commentator; the information-collecting ‘tradesman’; the prose-crafting ‘yeoman scribe’…journalism has deigned to ‘professionalise’ (guild up) basic skills of literacy, research, comprehension and cognition, and critical thought that we literate beings all possess, allocating themselves some magical ‘information conduit’ gatekeeping powers, like the old Priesthood used to assume the role of God’s bouncers.

    But….What is ‘journalism’? What can you really do for me, JG, when it comes to information, that I can’t do for myself, now that the internet makes us all ‘journalists’ in the shallower superficial senses (that have increasingly come to dominate ‘real’ journalism anyway…)?

    That has to be the start point of any discussion about any ‘new journalism’ future. Paring the ‘trade’ – and Jesus, why the tedious blue collar fetish among you uni educated middle class tossers?! – down to its epistemological essence, and then working out how to make that (and only that) essence viable.

  5. Actually what has been really missed (or at least not talked about for reasons of intestinal deficiency) is the biggest elephant in the room of all.

    When a certain is business is deliberately run into the ground by those at the top in order to make it a more viable takeover target for wealthy interests (those Saboteurs-in-Chief being handsomely rewarded for their efforts regardless of the damage they wreak upon honest workers who genuinely want the business to succeed).

    Why would a media company be such an attractive target for a financial multinational ? Well, duh ! So they can control the stories and ensure that only coverage in line with their commercial interests receives an airing or column inches.
    (Because lord knows, the percentage of Australians who simply absorb and regurgitate what they see and hear through facile sound and fury channels only seems to grow each year)

    It’s a dirty business and maybe it has always been thus (although I’m not sure to the current extent).

    What I still find boggling is how easily everyone else can be manipulated and misled into directing their umbrage in exactly the wrong directions.

    (… Actually, on second thought, no I’m not so surprised at all …)

  6. ‘Easily manipulated…’ for the purposes of ‘controlling…’ etc etc ? Gah, Rutegar, I think that’s just undergraduate piffle, man. I think you make the same mistake pretty much everyone does in these ‘Meeja’ discussions, assuming that the only things in the whole wide sentient world that are ever, ever said, thought or done ‘about’ the media by all and any sentient people everywhere are…what appears ‘in’ the Meeja, which includes (now) big parts of this thing too, the Net, sure…but the thing is that the internet is infinite. To claim that ‘The Meeja’ has any capacity to manipulate the masses was always dubious, but it’s ridiculous now. ‘People’ manipulate ‘people’, and only if both parties essentially act symbiotically out of an existing mutual inclination. If anything, the democratisation of information inherent in a truly universal means of communication (internet + literacy) ameliorates the danger of manipulation by providing a degree of self-correction. Witness not just Trump’s unexpected election, but his increasingly likely premature demise. Let all the poison that lurks in the mud hatch out.

    And I think even a conspiracist view of the meeja like yours is ‘of a piece’ with said-same meeja’s egregious self-importance. You and JG both seem convinced that nothing of epistemological worth occurs anywhere but ‘in the media’ anymore. I think that’s nuts, a deeply solipsistic world view, increasingly a narcissistic one, too. I’d argue that it just doesn’t – can’t – stack up to the way the world is now, and the unexpected and unforeseen (and, to many media types, inexplicable) triumph of Trump/Brexit perfectly articulated that. As will, as I mentioned, his premature demise. The media rabbits on endlessly to itself about itself…and the rest of us get on with life, increasingly bypassing the lot of them. We can, now, is the point. Pretty much every info-thingie you need can be got direct from source: the good, the bad, the ugly, the nasty, the batty, the dangerous, the counter-dangerous…I’m increasingly not convinced we even need journalists/sm anymore…not for your sinister reasons, Rutey…just that once you factor in all the tedious rubbish that it appears to be part of the package. the cost-benefit equation is getting more and more debatable, at the very least…

    Yet still the ‘media’ – ‘information professionals’ – insist on regarding themselves as having a public epistemological gatekeeper’s role, as if they are the collective ‘MC’ on all our civic, political, economic, artistic, sporting, etc etc…discussions. Increasingly they are refusing to consider what I suspect: that more and more of us regard them/their vocation as we regard performing monkies at the zoo. We pause – as I am now, typing this earnest looong comment – to watch their antics and have a little play with (them while on the bus/having our lunch/a snooze/a poo)…then go back to our real lives.

    I think it’s likely that most people just don’t care about journalism, journalists, the media, its future…and as for the (alleged) public debates and discussions that ‘it’ hosts, well, again, most people pay no attention to most of them. Not because ‘most people’ are democratically apathetic, disconnected, selfish, too busy, stupid, manipulative or manipulable…NOT because the only consumers of media content are increasingly those seeking only ‘sensation and confirmation of bias’…but simply because…well, there’s no way to avoid being blunt: the vast, vast majority of even what calls itself ‘quality journalism’ now is…meh. Vacuous, pointless, space filling pap on a loop. It’s not because journalists are any worse than they used to be. It’s just because technological evolution has diluted the currency of journalism. The 24-7 demands for content – and more importantly, journalism’s refusal to resist it, ignore it, refuse to try to sate it – of COURSE render most of what appears…meh. Couple that with the business model demise JG notes, one that fuelled just enough quality content for a few decades’ Golden Age to play out…and Journalism has become suicidal hostage to its own media.

    And we get that, us amateur mug consumers. We increasingly recognise that hollowing out of content, even as we’re bombarded like never before with it, we’ve increasingly grasped that the ‘message’ that journalists/journalism rote-asserts as being so ‘essential’ to our civic life/democracy, as JG too hints at (but doesn’t itemise) is… increasingly not. We are all media ‘savvy’ now that the internet has shown us how easy it is to do so much of the superficial stuff of journalism, which has increasingly has become the ‘only’ bits of ‘journalism’. We are all so informed and schooled in the ‘medium’ aspects of the media that we are no longer dazzled into accepting these alone as ‘message’ enough to go to the barricades to defend.

    When I watch, for example, Leigh Sales (a ‘quality’ journalist) interview a Malcolm Turnbull or a Bill Shorten on the ABC’s 7.30 Report (a ‘quality’ journalism forum), I know there are only two epistemological certainties I can really trust:

    1. Neither of the pair will ever tell me the full unadorned truth – what they know to be true about an issue, how they really feel about it, what they are really thinking in real time about each other, the questions, the answers, the exchange – except very obliquely/accidently (on trivialities, or perhaps a rare emotional slip). It will be a ‘performance’: a controlled, a stylised, a self-edited and projected performance. Not just from the interviewee, but from Sales, too.

    So right from the start, we know that we are watching ‘fake’ – or perhaps ‘faked’ is fairer – news. (If something is not the full truth, it’s not the truth.) In many ways the closer to (but not completely) true ‘quality journalism’ positions itself, the more dangerous and lying – fake? – it is.

    Now, journalists still try to assert that this ‘detachment’, this performance aspect of their craft…represents some kind of desirable ‘professional objectivity’. I’d argue that it’s no such thing and never has been, because once you start down the road of self-censorship in any form (which is what ‘media objectivity’ really is) you never stop. The result? I simply don’t trust Leigh Sales and I don’t believe her. And she is one of the best.

    But she’s an actor before she’s a journalist. The medium demands it.

    2. Because I also know that at least in the forefront of Sales’s mind right through that interview are the banal operational demands of the exchange. (Or, if the interview is recorded, then she’s performing via the even less trustworthy mechanism of the edit suite.) Leigh is constantly commanded by her ‘medium’ to apportion part of her front-lobe cognitive sentience to banalities of craft: How much time do I have? What’s the list of questions again? What’s that the producer is saying in my ear, just now? Cripes, I must control my cadence, my expression, my tone. Hope that’s not snot poking out, FFS, girl, don’t pick your nose, Leigh. God, how can I frame this next question so that I don’t risk defamation/blowing a source/sounding stupid/pissing off the PM so much that I lose access…and so on. Perforance, a pose, an act…it’s acting in greater or lesser part. And if we talk about print, well…it’s the banalities of space, deadline, house style, editorial hierarchy, freelancer politicking/careerism…these are the ‘medium’ banalities that intrude and impose on the content. Print journalism, too, is nothing if not a performance. So again, it’s less than truth, even at its best.

    Again, ‘journalism’ has always presented the deft management of this ‘info husbandry’ as desirable and admirable aspects of the tradecraft…but again, to most of us, many of the ‘craft’ demands of journalism are now anachronistic, absurdly contrived, often counter-productive restrictions on truth and information transfer.

    Just one example and then I’ll shut me up, coz this has been a hobby horse for decades and I’m boring everyone:

    If JG can explain to me the difference inherent in an journalistic ‘convention’ as common-place as ‘off-the-record’ and ‘on-the-record’, and why it remains epistemologically valid and legitimate in this digital era (it never was, IMHO)…I will be grateful. But he won’t, because he can’t. Because that kind of daily workaday convenience has always been a self-serving con, and the same applies to so many of journalism’s alleged ‘crucial’ operating conventions.

    As I said in my first comment, what journalism really needs to do if it wants to survive is ask itself: what am I, anyway? What is journalism? What makes it uniquely valuable, epistemologically, and thus worth salvaging?

    Cheers Overland. I do go on. But the thing about the internet is…you can. No ‘tyranny of the medium’ here.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.