As predicted in Crikey a couple of days ago, Communications Minister Helen Coonan has signalled that she may delay changes to cross-media ownership regulations until the analog television signal is switched off, which could be as late as 2012.

This face-saving and heat reducing option was always there in her discussion paper. But what would it actually mean?

Most people don’t grasp how completely different the media landscape will look in five years. Alan Kohler sketches some of the future in his column in The Age today, but to summarise his points and others’: IPTV will be with us. Reeltime has already obtained a licence from the Australian Communications and Media Authority, whether or not one is needed. Fairfax is also interested in this new medium, which shows how quickly regulations that prevent newspaper owners from having a broadcasting licence are becoming irrelevant.

Most people also don’t understand what datacasting is, which is understandable, because it isn’t really anything other than a digital broadcasting licence confined by government regulation. Coonan now plans to liberalise those regulations, which means, among other things, that many people will be getting their news on a handheld device.

Podcasts are already taking off. This means that, for young people at least, music radio will soon be fairly useless. Talk and talk back will survive, but there will be different methods of delivery.

Newspapers will survive, but the business models will have altered fundamentally. The Australian Financial Review is showing one way forward, with its high masthead price, highly targeted advertising, and premium online subscription service. Another way forward is “snack news”, delivered in any way you please on a free to air, advertising supported model.

Meanwhile, overseas media organisations such as The Guardian are boosting their overseas bureaus, with the idea of providing an online news service to the locals, as well as to the Brits at home. So far this is confined to the USA, but if it was extended to Australia it becomes clear that regulations prohibiting foreign ownership of Australian media also begin to look a bit silly.

If Coonan puts off changes to cross-media ownership laws until 2012 then all she is doing is allowing the present paradigm to die a quiet, rather than sudden, death.

A call to action, or at least to thought. The new world is full of opportunity and threat for the best of journalism. Those who care about such things must be careful not to become the new conservatives, simply by hanging on to the old world. We have about five years at the most to get our act together.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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