The Future of Serious Newspapers in Australia

For generations two broadsheet newspapers have been central to the life of Australia’s two great cities , the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and the (Melbourne) Age. For some time, however, their circulation has been in free fall, the SMH now selling far fewer copies than it did in the year in which I was born. A few days ago the owners of the papers, Fairfax Media, announced radical changes.   1 900 workers are to be sacked, large printing presses will be closed, the titles will move from broadsheet to tabloid format, and a paywall be incorporated into their websites. 

While these are grim developments, another Fairfax title, the Australian Financial Review (AFR), will be largely spared, while a fourth, the Canberra Times, seems likely to emerge completely unscathed. So it makes sense to ask what have they been doing that is right. The simplest answer would be that they have not changed the way the SMH and the Age have. The latter pair have increasingly published celebrity gossip (the last page of the first section of the SMH would be a disgrace in anything that thought of itself as a serious paper), lifestyle pieces, and columns by people who expect us to be interested in witty observations about the trivia of their lives. Against this, the AFR and Canberra Times continue to publish investigative journalism and serious commentary (the liftout Review in Friday’s AFR is superb.) Admittedly they cater to specialized audiences, people involved in business on the one hand and the politically engaged inhabitants of a smallish capital city on the other, but surely cities the size of Sydney and Melbourne could each support one such paper, even if it cost more.

Meanwhile, News Ltd, the Australian arm of News Corp, has announced its own program of costcutting. The various measures won’t cut as deeply as those in the Fairfax restructure, but they touch on the role of the national broadsheet, The Australian. There’s a lot to dislike about this paper: the right wing filter through which much news passes, the loopy views of some of its columnists, and its juvenile obsession with pointing out, day by day, alleged flaws in its rivals. It prides itself as defending common sense against powerful elites who subsist on diets of lattes and chardonay, which they consume in trendy inner suburban cafes and wine bars. (The claim to be opposing elites is a bit rich when it comes from someone as well conected as that former Australian, Rupert Murdoch.) This said, The Australian has far more information than the Fairfax papers, its columnists express a variety of viewpoints, and its cryptic crosswords and sudoku puzzles are more difficult than those published elsewhere!

If this were not enough to be getting on with, the immensely wealthy Gina Rinehart, believing that media outlets are not friendly to the mining interest, has been buying shares in Fairfax. She now has enough to ask for seats on the board of directors, a say in the hiring and firing of editors, and influence over editorial content. Some years ago her father, the late Lang Hancock, feeling that the press in Western Australia was unfavourable to miners, founded his own newspaper, and surely it is more honorable to add a new voice to the choir rather than force an existing one to change its tune. In any case, I suspect that at the first sign of editorial interference the readers of the SMH and Age are likely to desert these titles, so frustrating Mrs Rinehart’s plan.

This posting is too long already, but two quick thoughts to end on. It’s clear that both media companies see a future for their papers that is largely on-line. They aproach this in different ways: Fairfax will apparently give unfettered access to its site up to a monthly limit, after which users will have to pay, while News Ltd already makes basic material free at all times, but charges for premium content. But they have powerful competition in the form of www.abc.net.au/news/, which is free and carries no ads!

Finally, while the hard-copy versions of metropolitan papers languish, their cousins in rural and regional Australia enjoy prosperity. I wonder why this should be so.

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