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Disappearing ink

I worry for the future of high-quality journalism as publishers chase an online readership

29 September 2012

9:00 AM

29 September 2012

9:00 AM

About a month ago, a London-based friend noticed my name on a long list of journalists taking voluntary redundancy and asked if I would write about it for his blog. So I did.

Within days it had travelled halfway back around the world, thanks to the  border-busting miracle that is social media, and I was being inundated with messages from friends and colleagues. As editor of the most-read and most-tweeted opinion page in the country (at least to the extent these things can be measured), I should have known better than to expect my missive would stay cocooned in the UK.

But I think its impact was largely due to the fact it landed in a vacuum. The mainstream print media has been very reluctant to write its own obituary.

One of the most difficult decisions journalists can make is how to cover themselves. Hacks at Fairfax and News Ltd have been confronted with this conundrum more than ever this year, as one in seven print journalists have taken redundancy, according to the journalists’ union.

News stories have run in the business and media sections, but I think it’s fair to say we’ve erred on the side of under-reporting it, for two reasons. Journalists themselves don’t like to seem solipsistic, and managers don’t want to panic their remaining readers. The unfortunate consequence is that many readers will remain only vaguely aware of the remaking of their media landscape.

As I wrote in that article for the Journalism Foundation, I started as a trainee at  the Sydney Morning Herald in  2003, just after the now-hackneyed metaphor of the ship of public  interest journalism had begun to take on water.

In those days, Rhodes Scholars and university medallists applied. It was considered one of the best graduate gigs in town. And it was my first full-time job, so I could be forgiven, ten years on, for thinking that all companies shed a quarter of their staff once every 18 months or two years, like snakes starting over with a shiny new skin.

After a decade of purges, though, I’ve come to realise what many repeatedly warned: it is simply not possible to slither onwards without leaving a living part of you behind. There is plenty of young talent coming through, and some mid-tier journalists will cheer at the departure of the glut of baby boomers who have kept them down. But so will politicians, spin doctors, crooks and vested interests, because Australia has lost the bulk of its most experienced professional detectors of bullshit in the past ten years, and most of them will never return to accountability journalism.

This time around, my gut just said it was time for me to go too; time to take the redundancy on offer and do something different, whatever that may be. For many at Fairfax — and also at News — the big difference on this occasion was that there was no longer a safe choice.

In the past, it always seemed riskier to go. The paper and its associated digital products would never enjoy the resources they once did, but you’d still have a job doing what you loved with people you respected.

This time, with billionaire ideologue Gina Rinehart playing cat and mouse with the company’s board, revenue declining even as readership is counter-intuitively  growing, and digital metrics gradually replacing editorial leadership as the compass that guides the boat, it seemed almost as safe to walk the plank.

And that is the other reason many journalists — me included — fear for the future of real journalism.

The arrival of ‘unique browsers’ and ‘page impressions’ in publishing has been heaven and hell for journalists who care about quality, and not just quantity.

To the extent the stats replaced unreliable qualitative market research groups as the best clue to ‘what readers want’, they have been a great relief. But they have also largely replaced editors; or at least they have made it harder for editors to give people what they don’t yet know they want.

I have not yet heard a cogent explanation for why going digital must mean going downmarket, but I have no doubt that one will lead to the other. You can see it happening everywhere, not just at Fairfax. It takes tremendous courage to ignore the numbers, and courage is a rare commodity in an industry in commercial decline.

There was once a viable broadsheet business model in print, supported by the demand among a smaller but more lucrative AB demographic for smarter, deeper, more nuanced journalism and the status that comes with consuming it. Yet the same model has not really established itself on digital publishing platforms. Why?

It may just be early days. The market is immature. Another theory is that we now know what the mass audience wants to read, and neither they nor we can pretend any longer that it is highbrow. There is an element of truth in that, but I have always believed people don’t know what they want to read until you show it to them, and if you keep feeding them junk they grow fat on it and lose their sense of taste.

My guess is that before long, as mainstream media competes for the mass market, a troposphere of niche publications will fill the vacuum at the high end. They might be pitched at an industry, a demographic or a geographical group. Some will fail, others will not, very few if any will be free — and they will be funded in a variety of ways, from subscriptions to donors to sponsors and maybe even governments. But the process will take some time yet and many, like me, would prefer to observe it from another angle.

I still love the sound of a newspaper’s thud on my front porch; opening it up to see what’s new is the first thing my daughter and I do each day. But as a so-called digital native, I then read most of the paper on an iPad on the way to the office.

So I’m not afraid of digital publishing. I love its possibilities. But I also worry about its uncivilising tendencies. I will mourn the days of big broadsheets as keenly as anyone because of the resources they poured into a kind of journalism that will no longer be possible: the kind you’d be prepared to pay five bucks for, delivered to your door for not much more than a dollar.

Joel Gibson, opinion editor of the Sydney Morning Herald until this week, is gainfully unemployed.

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