Once you de-code the mangled spin, the real significance of yesterday’s announcement is that for the first time in its history, Fairfax has made a public declaration that profits come ahead of journalism. That its role as a major custodian of Australian quality editorial is secondary to its responsibility of maximising the financial outcome.
At one level this is neither surprising nor wrong. Fairfax is a public company whose primary duty is to shareholders who have invested in the company with purely financial motives.
Until yesterday, Fairfax had maintained the pretence that the two aspirations — profits and public trust journalism — could coexist. Until yesterday, Fairfax CEO David Kirk perpetuated that charade with his absurd rhetoric about Fairfax newspapers being different to others afflicted by the problems of the collapsing newspaper industry.
Yesterday Fairfax came clean. If you’re looking for custodians of high-resourced fourth estate journalism in Australia, they effectively said, don’t look here. We’re businessmen and our overriding responsibility is to the pockets of our shareholders. Find someone else to deal with the societal responsibility stuff.
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At least that’s clear. Now the question is: can the quality, well-funded journalism that constitutes a pivotal plank of Australian democracy survive?
Asking whether newspapers can survive is the wrong question — many of them can, but on a much lower cost base, with far fewer journalists covering politics, business, foreign capitals, courts and the investigative beats. Newspapers like The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age can easily be produced with 150 journalists, not 300. They will be different newspapers, slighter and lighter, but they will carry words and pictures surrounded by advertising and they will dress up like quality newspapers.
The time has come for governments, politicians and other public policy makers who genuinely believe in the place of quality journalism within the infrastructure of Australian democracy to understand that if they leave its future entirely to the marketplace, and to News Corporation, it will almost certainly be gone within a decade.
What will be left will be celebrity/sport/human interest pap journalism and relatively small independent outfits (like Crikey) whose revenues will never allow them to replicate the resources that have made newspapers like the Herald and The Age indispensable partners in the ecosystem of democracy for more than 150 years.