Tom Connell: When the last ink’s dried

[Recently I was interviewed by Tom Connell, a journalism student at RMIT University, about the future of newspapers. Here’s his resulting feature article. I haven’t edited it, apart from imposing my own idiosyncratic typographical pedantry and linky goodness. You read it now, and I’ll add my own comments tonight. It’s long, but I think it outlines the key issues rather well.]

Newspapers are folding in the United States at an astonishing rate. According to Paper Cuts, a website tracking the newspaper industry, more than 120 have folded since January, 2008. While Australian broadsheets have not succumbed just yet, there is a real possibility that they may not survive in the long-term. But is that such a bad thing? Tom Connell reports.

Mark Scott’s recent comments about the Australian newspaper industry would have sent chills through journalists and editors across the country.

“It does strike me that much of the bold and creative thinking about the future of print seems to be happening outside the major publishers — probably because the talented people within are too busy simply attending to the fire in the building,” Scott said, in and article in The Age on 9 April.

This was hardly the first doomsday article on newspapers, but what set this apart is that Scott, current head of the ABC, was until 2006 a newspaper executive at Fairfax Media –- the second largest newspaper owner in Australia.

Scott’s startling admission is a perspective from the inside, and speaks volumes for how dire the predictions have become for the broadsheet –- even more so given such articles are appearing regularly in the very newspapers they are talking about.

The fire Scott was talking about has been raging for some time; faced with the competition of the internet, broadsheet newspapers are struggling to come up with a way to keep making money.

Yet it’s not so long ago that newspapers were making so much money that the names of some of our most successful businessmen are synonymous with them. Titans such as Murdoch, Fairfax and Packer commanded institutions that had been making money for nearly two centuries, with no end in sight.

The origins of this money-making can be traced back to 1825. Until this time the government owned entirely what was known as the convict press. When two British lawyers, William Wentworth and Robert Wardell, began printing an independent newspaper, nobody stopped them, and by default the free printing press in Australia was born. The byproduct, of course, was that papers now had to be run on commercial imperatives.

There has been, in theory at least, a balance between popular entertainment, in order to sell advertising and fulfil the commercial imperative, and exposing the truth, in order to adhere to the notion of “protecting the public sphere”: to defend the defenceless and criticise those in power.

While newspapers were made viable with standard display advertising, they became big business on the back of one major advent: classified advertising.

Deputy editor of The Age, Andrew Rule, started working as a broadsheet journalist at a time when the newspaper was still king — when the classifieds, known colloquially as “rivers of gold”, were of such importance to Melburnians that leaking an ad before publication was a lucrative business, and in turn a sack-able offence.

“I can recall walking out of The Age on a Friday night in the late evening and seeing a queue of cars three deep, spread for four blocks, with police there trying to keep order, because people were so desperate to get Saturday’s copy of the paper, all because of the classifieds,” Rule said.

“Within a decade, that scene was gone. The classifieds lost their superiority and ad revenue started to go to other sources.”

The scene Rule described is so far out of date it’s unimaginable to later generations — the concept of having to physically queue for information because it can’t be accessed online.

The result, Rule explained, is that for the first time The Age, and similar papers, is trying to make a profit without the cushion of the classifieds, which may necessitate radical change for the newspaper industry.

“I suspect, if we have a future, that it is as a smaller circulation paper, with better material in it, at a higher cover price.”

If Rule sounds guarded about the broadsheet’s survival, it’s understandable given the steady decline in circulation in recent years.

According to the Australian Press Council, from December 2007 to December 2008, The Age‘s Monday to Friday circulation was down nearly 8 per cent.

The Sydney Morning Herald (15.1 per cent) and The Australian (10.1 per cent) also decreased in circulation during this time, and these figures only continue a long established trend of negative growth for Australia’s broadsheets.

But there is some hope in the statistics of the weekend editions.

The Age and The Australian recorded small rises in weekend circulation during this time, and the Sydney Morning Herald a much smaller drop than their weekday edition suffered. What, then, is the ongoing appeal of the weekend paper?

The answer could lie in ritual, according to Stilgherrian (a mononym he adopted in his 20s, Stil for short). Stil is a new-media figure whose output includes radio, magazines, blogging and podcasts.

“There is still an aesthetic thing about the big weekend broadsheet in particular — I can see that people will be willing to pay for it, if for no other reason than spreading the news out on the table on a Saturday morning over a cup of coffee,” he said.

Having started out working for ABC and community radio in Adelaide, Stil is now a regular online contributor for Crikey, with several of his articles focusing on the plight of newspapers in Australia.

He thinks that newspapers are “probably doomed”, but said this may not necessarily be a bad thing, depending upon what replaces them.

“It just so happens that the way history unfolded, newspapers filled the role of spreading information, but increasingly there are other ways of reaching people, other ways of distributing journalism. The problem is that newspapers, and experienced journalists are guilty of this, are thinking only within the box of what they’ve got to work with, and I think that’s really holding them back.”

This echoes the words of Rupert Murdoch, who in giving one of the Boyer Lectures in 2008 said “some journalists are misguided cynics who are too busy writing their own obituary to be excited by the opportunity of the internet.”

Murdoch, Stilgherrian and Rule seem to be roughly on the same page — the future revolves, somehow, around the internet. Perhaps not astonishing news, but stark revelations by two of the men, considering their vested interest in the printing press.

An online future represents a two-fold problem for the broadsheets.

First, online advertising is not capable of generating the amount of income to which newspapers are accustomed. According to the Newspaper Association of America, since 2005 in the United States the annual print advertising revenue dropped by $A17.65 billion, while over the same time online advertising revenue was up just $A1.53 billion.

Second, newspapers have not utilised the internet as best they could, and have lost ground to a proliferation of news websites both national and international.

According to the latest AC Nielsen figures, NineMSN gets nearly half a million hits per day, well ahead of both the leading sites of Fairfax Media (smh.com.au at 390,456 hits) and News Limited (news.com.au at 264,257 hits).

Sites such as NineMSN, though, could not be said to be in the business of in-depth news; their role is breaking the bare facts of news, with an obvious emphasis on entertainment.

Independent sites such as Crikey are proving popular for users who want more than just news. Crikey‘s motto is “telling you what they won’t”, with their focus on the story behind what they call the so-called facts.

The main criticism of Crikey, and similar sites such as New Matilda, is levelled at the people writing the content.

Freelance journalists contribute to these sites, but their type is nothing new. The new media figure is the blogger, or so-called citizen journalist.

This is, essentially, an individual who reports from the ground up; an ordinary person’s experiences of or opinions on the news. It is a much-derided form of journalism, though some believe it has real merit in today’s world.

One such person is John Pilger, who said that if journalism is the fourth estate, these individuals might just be the fifth — truly independent reporters at a time when public relations is said to have infiltrated news rooms.

“Corporatism and consumerism are laying to waste the breeding grounds of free, inquiring journalism when it has never been needed more,” he said.

“In these days of corporate ‘multimedia’ in thrall to profit, many journalists have become absorbed into a propaganda apparatus without consciously realising their true role.”

For Pilger, citizen reporters, or non-journalists, not only represent the future of good quality journalism, but they can also produce a superior product to that of the existing custodians; unaccountable to media organisations, citizen journalists report with neither fear nor favour.

But herein lies the problem — the lack of accountability of these so-called “citizen reporters” brings into question their credibility.

Stilgherrian believes this assertion is misguided, and that a shift from cultural acceptance of newspapers as the trustworthiest source is inevitable.

“We trust the story on page three of The Australian, not because we trust the journalist — in many cases they don’t even have a by-line — but because of the big masthead on the front of the newspaper which says ‘The Australian‘,” Stil said.

“The journalist is dressed up in the authority of the masthead. New trustworthy sources will emerge online, and have already.”

This seems a valid point. Stil’s own employer, Crikey, has over 10,000 paying subscribers, which might pale in comparison to current newspaper circulations, but the trend is in favour of sites such as Crikey and New Matilda.

While these sites are an excellent source of news comment and news opinion, and sites such as NineMSN are more up to date on events than newspapers could ever hope to be, there is one aspect conspicuous by its absence — investigative journalism. Which begs the question; will investigative journalism be lost with the last broadsheet?

As newspapers are killed off in the United States, the country from which Australia catches its colds, a new solution has emerged: not-for-profit organisations.

The Huffington Post has launched what is now one of several public funds for investigative journalism, the idea being that the fund is overseen by an editor who decides which stories need to be told, and freelance reporters are paid out of the fund to write the stories.

This seems a viable solution in the US, with a population of over 300 million and a philanthropic culture. But it’s hard to imagine enough funding for regular investigative journalism being forthcoming from our comparatively small nation.

Individual benefactors, suggested Stil, could be the solution.

Bill and Melinda Gates are putting billions of dollars into African health, but I can see that there will be people that will want to put their money into things we call journalism now.”

But this would seem to throw up a major problem: having investigative journalism funded by billionaire businesspeople will inherently create conflicts of interest too large to overcome.

An investigative report into Crown Casino funded by James Packer, anyone?

Perhaps, then, it’s too early to call the demise of the newspaper — maybe it does still have a role to play, albeit in a far different form.

There may be hope for The Age, for Rule is far from the old hack, rigid in his ways, which Murdoch alluded to. He is willing to concede the reality that broadsheets cannot survive as they are.

“You can’t afford to carry all the forms of journalism that those classifieds paid for. We now have cost-cutting, and central to that everybody has to pay their way.

“In the past, there were people who weren’t the best at what they did — they were second- or third-raters — but they were cushioned by those classified ads.”

Time for some tough decisions, then. The Age is moving to new offices in September of this year, offices that are smaller and that occupy cheaper land in the CBD. The prestige of newspapers, one feels, has taken a whack with this withdrawal — perhaps a necessary one.

But newspapers, and in particular broadsheets, should tread very carefully when trying to reduce their bottom lines, lest they defeat their purpose for survival.

An article in the online edition of The Economist in August of last year pointed out that newspapers were like many industries, in that “it is those in the middle — neither highbrow, nor entertainingly populist, that are likeliest to fall by the wayside.”

There would two seem to be two ways for a newspaper to survive, then.

The Herald Sun has so far done a remarkable job of being entertainingly populist; the highest-selling paper in Australia continues to increase its readership with uniformly tabloid content and format. Just don’t expect investigative journalism.

In contrast, Rule concedes that at the forefront of every decision made by broadsheets must be the need to maintain quality and depth of journalism. In doing so, they can hope to appeal to what to what he said will be a smaller but more discerning share of the market.

“You can’t really maintain quality when you are using cheap or amateurish material. Photographs and words are still as difficult to do well as they ever were. And I think, going forward, we’re going to have to compete to pay for the best talent.

“Ultimately there will be high price attached to the best talent. Because whether you’re running a newspaper, or a radio station, or a boxing gym, you need the best talent there to attract people.”

So is Rule saying that cost-cutting can only go so far, that the quality of the broadsheet must be maintained if it is to stand any chance?

“In my view that’s true. The only chance we have for survival is to go for quality and hope that people will want to pay for it.”

And herein lies the crux of the issue that is the broadsheet’s future in Australia — paying for it.

The online monster that threatens to consume newspapers has many advantages, not least of all that, generally speaking, it’s free. Calls for newspapers to go online ignore the fact that papers would simply become another online news site — and in doing so lose their inherent value.

While admitting the internet might be the future for newspapers, Rule is sceptical about it as a source of news, describing it as a “trash and treasure market”, full of misinformation.

“When it comes to something deeper, what we need in this cacophony of noise is to sit down and pay for expert people, the best of their generation, to analyse what’s going on around them and to write about it.”

There have been threats to newspapers before: television has saved a few trees in its time, as has radio.

But while these two media have in many ways complemented newspapers, the internet threatens to supersede them.

How is a broadsheet supposed to compete with words (without space limitations), pictures and videos?

The best chance seems to be with good quality, accountable investigate journalism. Online news sites are perfectly suited for what they are, but ill-equipped to cover stories beyond the reporting of facts and opinions; to “protect the public sphere”.

The masthead of credibility needs to be clung onto ferociously, whatever the cost, if newspapers are to survive and serve their purpose.

Without the rivers of gold, resources need to be used more efficiently. That may mean less focus on news telling, no more weekday papers and a raft of other cost-cutting.

Rule, for his part, is no optimist regarding the plight of the broadsheet.

“It took a while for surf boards and blonde hair to get to Australia and possibly, it’s just taking a little bit of lag time before we too start executing newspapers, putting them down like old Labrador dogs.”

Let’s hope Rule, and his broadsheet cohorts, are up for the fight.

For perhaps not all of us would miss getting up on a Saturday morning and spreading the world over our tables over a cup of coffee.

But if the old Labrador dogs of this country do get the green dream, investigative journalism will be the poorer.

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4 comments

  1. John’s avatar

    Interesting article — but I don’t get the blond surfing labrador metaphors …

  2. Richard’s avatar

    John Pilger bemoaning ‘propaganda’? Thanks for the first big laugh of the week.

  3. Sylvano’s avatar

    Good to see I could get to the end of the article without reading “business model” once!

    Remember that Murdoch told an audience earlier in April (according to Reuters), “People reading news for free on the Web, that’s got to change.”

    An Imperative, I believe! 😉

  4. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @John: Maybe the “blond surfing labrador metaphors” are a Melbourne thing? You Queenslanders wouldn’t get it.

    @Richard: Well, as this website’s tagline says, “All communication is propaganda.” Mr Pilger is a good communicator, therefore… 😉

    @Sylvano: If anyone’s going to take Mr Murdoch’s Imperative seriously, then the news had better be something that people will be willing to pay for, eh?

    … and in all of this: One of the key issues for newspaper proprietors is understanding that we can now separate the content (“news” or “journalism” or even “advertising”) from the content (“newspapers”). I’m increasingly starting to think that if they continue to jumble the two, they will fail.

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