Nothing excites journalists more than a debate about the future of journalism. While this is not unusual among professional groups, the media is unique in that such debates are conducted in public, with journalists interviewing other journalists. The impression is one of self-absorption.
The restructuring of Fairfax has been big news this week, indeed, much bigger news than if a non-media company of comparable size and national economic importance was on the chopping block. My interest in the debate stems not from the rhubarb of digital formats and paywalls, but the alibi being used to explain away the dismal financial performance of newspaper companies.
It’s all about the internet, we are told, that dreadful gadget which is dragging once-loyal readers away from traditional mastheads and into the cyberspace of news competition. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t know of anyone who regards the internet as a reliable source of quality information. Mostly it’s full of sex. If not sex acts then sex rumours. If not sex rumours then rumours and ridicule about every conceivable aspect of public life.
Interested in foreign affairs policy and the work of Australia’s new minister? Google ‘Bob Carr’ and you will find 719,000 entries for the nonsensical notion of ‘Bob Carr gay’. Interested in workplace relations and the minister tipped to be the next Labor leader? Google ‘Bill Shorten’ and you can read 571,000 ‘Bill Shorten rumours’.
What about the Prime Minister and her role in guiding Australia to unprecedented economic prosperity and international success? She gets off lightly. Her top entry is for 390,000 ‘Julia Gillard jokes’. Her fifth-highest entry, via a time tunnel into the politics of the Cold War, is for ‘Julia Gillard communist’.
Perhaps, comrades, we need to look elsewhere for the true source of newspaper decline. Could newspapers be offering a substandard product which an increasingly well-educated readership regards as unworthy of consumer expenditure? This is not an uncommon event in market economies. While old Fairfax lefties like Ken Davidson and Tim Colebatch have spent a lifetime looking for a solution, they still haven’t found a way of exempting newspapers and journalists from the laws of the market.
In recent years Fairfax’s broadsheets, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, have turned to trash. Their mistake rates have increased, their news-breaking capacity has deteriorated and their opinion pages have lost scholarly appeal, specialising in the repetitive sludge of Michelle Grattan, Adele Horin and Gerard Henderson.
Last Monday, as news emerged of the gutting of Fairfax, I purchased a copy of the Herald to see what the fuss was about. Naturally, I turned to the sports section first, catching up with Sunday’s rugby league match-of-the-day, between the Tigers and Roosters (sans Swan, Smith and Conroy).
I was only three sentences into a match report by Glenn Jackson when I read that at the 25-minute mark, ‘the Roosters led 12-4 and a converted try would have levelled the scores’. A converted try is actually worth six points, rendering Jackson’s report useless. To find out what really happened, I turned to TV in search of a Fox Sports replay. Perhaps it’s not the internet killing newspapers, but Foxtel.
Shaken but not deterred, I moved to the Herald’s opinion page, drawn in by the promise of Paul Sheehan’s column: ‘NAPLAN a vital piece of big picture.’ Here another error spoiled the argument. Sheehan claimed that Macquarie Fields High School was not partially selective. I know this school well — it was part of my old electorate of Werriwa. The NSW education department still lists it as ‘partially selective’ (that is, part-selective intake, part-community).
Ten minutes of reading had yielded two clangers — confirmation that the Herald is seriously overpriced at $1.70.
In trying to feed me misinformation, Fairfax should have been paying me to read this rubbish.
Things are no better on the other side of town in the Murdoch bunker. The day after the Fairfax announcement, the Australian editorialised on how ‘quality journalism will always have a strong future’. On the same page, one of its headlines bellowed: ‘Gillard tells world how to sucks eggs on economic policy.’ If the PM herself made such an error, the media would be all over her. Meanwhile, the egg-suckers at the Australian have been sucked in by the self-delusion of ‘quality journalism’.
At least Murdoch’s papers have found a novel cost-saving technique.
Why run an article once when, at no additional expense, it can be published a second time in the same paper? In tough financial times this is a wonderful space-filler. Thus on 17 May and again two days later, the Australian published the same column, word-for-word, by Stephen Loosley. This déjà vu editorial policy is gaining currency at News Ltd. Last Tuesday, pages four and five of the Daily Telegraph carried an identical report by Kathy McCabe on the US pop star Lionel Richie.
The internet need not bother trying to kill off newspapers. They are doing a terrific job by their own hand.
Mark Latham is a columnist for the Fairfax-owned Australian Financial Review and a former Labor leader.