Update 23/06: This post was also featured on The Urban Times. It’s a great site, you should check it out!
This week has marked major shake ups in the print and online journalism industry in Australia. This post summarises those developments and offers suggestions of how to prevent the situation from worsening.
Recent developments at Fairfax:
On Monday Fairfax Media announced plans for the future that involve fundamental changes to its business structure. For my non-Australian readers, Fairfax is one of Australia’s leading online and print news sources. It produces, amongst other things, major metropolitan newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. To summarise the changes at Fairfax: 1900 jobs will be lost (including 300 journalists, nearly a quarter of all their journalists), two printing plants will close, major broadsheet mastheads are switching to a tabloid format and they will erect a paywall for digital content. The impact of these changes will change the face of Australian journalism.
Rinehart’s takeover bid on Fairfax
This announcement occured around the time Gina Rinehart increased her share in Fairfax to 19%. She is now bidding to take over the company and wants three seats on the board. However, she hasn’t yet signed the charter of editorial independence and Fairfax journalists are calling her on it. If Rinehart and her people don’t sign the charter, there is nothing to keep them upholding the values of Fairfax as an independent news source.
Rinehart is the world’s richest woman and her main business interests lie within the mining industry. She has a few options in terms of attaining a majority of the company such as buying more than 30% of Fairfax’s stock, which would effectively make her the majority shareholder in the company. Should the takeover bid be successful she can then set the companies direction according to what she wants.
Last night’s discussion on Lateline raised perhaps the most important question on this issue; why does Rinehart want more control of Fairfax? Does she want the ability to wield influence over issues that affect the mining industry like mining tax, the future of coal and climate change? Does she want to influence government and ultimately manipulate public policy? Whatever her agenda, giving her more power over a major Australian news source without adhering to editorial independence is worrying.
It is also worrying for Fairfax as a business. Without independence readers could lose trust in the company and eventually stop reading/buying.
If Rinehart’s bid is successful, most Australian newspapers will be controlled by just two people. Like Rinehart, Rupert Murdoch is very right wing. Having both major players in newspapers with a right wing focus will affect Australian political discourse and ultimately, democracy.
I have previously discussed how the decline in quality journalism is a threat to democracy. With these recent developments, if Rinehart takes control of Fairfax our democracy is threatened further as she uses her influence to meet her own political business needs. As well as this, Australian newspapers will be dominated by right wing political bias. This is not looking like the best situation for the Australian public right now.
So what is the solution?
How do we ensure Australian journalism is high quality and independent while also being profitable? I don’t have the answer, but here are some ideas of where to start.
Pay for content you enjoy: By no means is this a new thought, but it is imperative to support your favourite media sources with your hard earned dollar bills. Paying for online content, or indeed any decent content, is the only way of ensuring your favourite outlets have a viable revenue structure. Subscribe to services you value or they might disappear.
Government funded industry package: Writing on New Matilda, Ben Eltham feels this development is a “good case for a government-funded industry adjustment package”. It could help journalists, editors and print workers who are left jobless retrain for new industries. It could also fund new media outlets in order to retain talent in the industry.
Opt-in extra funding for the ABC: As the quality of journalism declines and democracy gets more threatened the ABC will become vital in maintaining democracy and independent journalism. Many people realise this and want to support the ABC. Would people be happy to ‘opt-in’ for additional payments towards the ABC news service? Maybe. Is it worth exploring? Definitely.
Shifting the style of news reporting: In terms of the quality of the content of news reporting we could learn something from Ira Glass. If you haven’t seen it, Ira Glass hosts “This American Life” and you should check it out immediately (it’s free). Seriously, go now, you can finish reading this later… OK so as the host of one of the most successful radio shows/podcasts in the world he knows how to create entertaining content. Glass and his team find stories that are interesting and tell them in a way that is different to regular “news” style publishing. They present news facts and current affairs using the style and tone similar to what you’d find in an opinion piece. In that they allow the interviewer to be in awe, surprise, wonder and amazement. They don’t hold the authoritative “know all” tone of news reporting. They produce content that’s objective and thorough, but sounds like it’s coming from a normal human being. And it’s really effective. With the increasing use and popularity of opinion pieces and blogs, maybe a shift in the style of reporting would be a good tactic to retain readers in the competitive environment.
Are you worried about the future journalistic landscape and the potential loss of democracy? Do you have any other ideas of how to ensure we have good quality, independent reporting that is also profitable?
And he writes on the same topic in an opinion piece for Fairfax.
Ben Pobjie on How To Fairfax (and WIN!)
Ben Eltham wonders where the media bail out package is?
I didn’t touch on the changes at News Limited, but this article in The Australian is a detailed summary of the plan.