“Remarkably, unaccountably complacent.” That’s how Rupert Murdoch described the attitude of most newspaper editors to the threat posed by the internet in his landmark speech last year.

One wonders whether his words could apply to local News Limited chief John Hartigan, who is on the cover of this week’s B&T claiming that the death of newspapers has been greatly exaggerated. The fact that newspaper audiences are dwindling and ageing is actually a strength, he claims. People over 55 are affluent and live longer, you see.

Hartigan might like to read a long and thoughtful cover article and editorial in this week’s Economist, doing the best job so far of summing up international trends.

One of the many points made by The Economist is that the newspapers most likely to do well (no matter how they deliver their content) are those that cater for the high end of the market – well informed readers wanting quality journalism, including “hyper-local” journalism:

A few titles that invest in the kind of investigative stories which often benefit society the most are in a good position to survive, as long as their owners do a competent job of adjusting to changing circumstances. Publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal should be able to put up the price of their journalism to compensate for advertising revenues lost to the internet—especially as they cater to a more global readership.

The Australian experience probably backs this up. Within the industry it is known (though never openly declared) that broadsheet newspapers are not making money, or not enough money to be attractive as stand-alone products to stockmarket investors.

But The Australian Financial Review is quite healthy, thank you, charging a premium price for its in-depth specialist content, and attracting advertisers after the eyeballs of the affluent and influential.

The international trends suggest there is no future in taking broadsheet newspapers down market. Do the managers of Fairfax and News Limited understand this? The signals are mixed.

Both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have reduced the space available for long essay style journalism in recent times, but there has been something of a revival in The Age’s investigative efforts.

On the other hand the Oz, in partnership with Melbourne University and the Australia Council, is about to launch a new, taxpayer subsidised, monthly review of books. I understand that Age editor Andrew Jaspan would dearly have liked to score this deal himself, but News Limited beat Fairfax to the punch.

Peter Fray

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