Will there be enough journalists? For those
who care about democracy and the role of the fourth estate this is the crucial
question that arises from the changes engulfing the media, including Senator Helen
Coonan’s reforms.

Journalism and the media are not the same
thing. Media are the means by which audiences are delivered to advertisers.
Journalism is supported by and enmeshed with media but has a different and
older function
.

As we have seen new media (like craigslist) can
do the profitable things – sell ads – without bothering about the journalism. Meanwhile
a thousand news and current affairs blogs bloom, but so far most are concerned
with opinion rather than reporting. Finding things out takes skill and
experience, and costs money. It is what journalists do, or should do. Will
proprietors invest in it in the future?

With the lifting of cross media ownership
rules big media organisations will soon require their newsrooms to service
print, web, radio, telephone sets and television. The risk is that journalists
will package and repackage a diminishing pool of reportage. It’s already happening. Step into the
newsrooms of Sky News or Hutchison 3, and repackaging is most of what you will
see. New platforms do not necessarily mean more journalism.

But it’s also true that people are seeking
news and information in different ways. The fact that internet news sites are
dominated by big media organisations is only part of the story.

Figures from the online monitoring company
Hitwise show that as Parliament prepared to vote on the abortion pill RU486, there was
a dramatic spike in searches for terms such as “RU486”, “RU486 safe” and “RU486
medical problems”. Similar trends were visible when bird flu was in the news.

So where did these searches lead Australians?
Some to the existing big media – the ABC web site (10 per cent) and The Age
(4.5 per cent), but also and in equal or greater numbers to the websites of
lobby groups and sites run by independent journalists. Right to Life got nearly
as many hits as the ABC, and a site run by
Canadian blogger Ted Gerk compiling information all over the world got more
hits than The Age. The national
parliamentary site also got high traffic. In all 79 websites received
extra hits.

This suggests two things. First, that it is
vital search engines maintain a clear distinction between “organic” search
results and “sponsored” links. This may be the editorial independence fight of
the future.

Second, Australians are prepared to look
beyond big media for those authentic nuggets of information.

This, surely, is opportunity amid the risks.
There is no reason why a stand-alone specialist journalist reporting on RU486
or avian bird flu could not have received some of that traffic. Such journalists
do not yet exist in this country – but they are emerging, and networking, in
the United States and Europe. This, too, is part of the future.

Peter Fray

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