In the first of five extracts from her new book The Content Makers, Crikey media commentator Margaret Simons examines the sometimes all-too-close tie between the commercial and journalistic arms of the modern media enterprise.

In one of The Age’s many troubled periods over the last two decades, the then Fairfax CEO, Fred Hilmer, managed to offend journalists by referring to them as “content providers for the advertising platforms”. Most were mortally insulted. He had shown insufficient respect.

Senior Age journalist David Elias remembers that he felt Hilmer was referring to the journalists as the “toy soldiers in the cornflakes package, the little attractive toy that makes you buy the thing … but really, the whole media system was trying to sell ads. That’s what it was about, that’s all it was about.”

I asked Hilmer what he meant a few weeks before he ended his period as CEO of Fairfax in 2005. The business of media, he told me, was about “aggregating audiences through excellent journalism, and then monetarising those audiences”.

So was Fairfax a journalism business or an advertising business? It was both, he said. It was an information business.

At the time of our interview, Fairfax had just bought the internet-based dating site RSVP. Wasn’t this about advertising rather than journalism? I asked. Only, he said, if you defined journalism narrowly, in an old-fashioned way. The journalism could be a plus. There might be articles about dating, about falling in love, that would complement the advertising but still be good journalism. The journalism would be “infused” into the classifieds.

I can understand why Elias was offended by Hilmer. I was too. I also think his record shows that he never really had faith in, let alone understanding of, journalism. The truth is that Fairfax had two businesses: journalism and advertising. Hilmer didn’t understand one and missed opportunities in the other.

Nevertheless, I want to embrace and use the term “content providers” or, to change it slightly, “content makers”. “Content” is a good word. It implies not the plastic soldier and not the packaging, but the thing you really want. The content – the thing that will nourish you.

Just as technology has made it clear that advertising may exist freed from journalism, so too it is becoming clear that “content” might exist without “media” – without big advertising-supported businesses.

This brings me to one of the main ideas of this book. Media and journalism are not the same thing. Nor are drama and media. Nor are any kind of content that really matters and media.

“Media” is the business of delivering audiences to advertisers. To the advertising industry, the word “media” means, as one trade magazine put it recently,
“anything that can carry an advertising message – a T-shirt, a billboard, even the sky when there is a skywriter aloft.” (B&T, December 2005)

News and drama have older and more important purposes than media. In the modern world they are supported by and enmeshed with media. There are good historical reasons for this.

It will continue to be the case, but just as the printing press made possible the business of media, new technology now makes something else possible as well. The bonds between media businesses and content are loosening.

This is an extract from The Content Makers by Margaret Simons, Penguin rrp $35.00, available in bookstores 3 September 2007.
Tomorrow: ”News Limited really is intergalactic”.