The journalists’ union, the MEAA, has invited two News Corp editors to head up its “future of journalism” summit this month in Brisbane.

Courier Mail editor David Fagan and Brisbane Sunday Mail editor Liz Deegan have been asked along to give delegates the latest on “the future of journalism” under the title “Adapt or Die, newspaper editors on their survival strategy”.

Aren’t these two likely to trot out the line that as long as their staffers are willing to “adapt” (and we all know that’s corporate speak for “do more with less”) they won’t have to die (figuratively speaking, just as others now have to in Fairfax)? But if that’s the future of journalism, I’ll eat my funny hat.

Admittedly, Fagan and Deegan are certainly in a position to tell us about the future of News Corp … and fat chance they’ll tell us what’s around the corner in that mahogany row. But the future of News Corp is not the future of journalism, which is exactly the mistake my old union the MEAA has made all along.

Just as the future of Fairfax is not the future of diversity, or quality journalism, or public scrutiny, or anything like it, despite what the strikers have been saying.

The future of journalism rests with journalists, not with the owners and managers of the processes of capital designed to deliver journalism. This is the incredibly simple distinction which MEAA officials have failed to make explicit — perhaps even to realise — in the current stoush (and in all previous ones I’ve witnessed since I paid dues from 1981-1995).

You never hear medical doctors say the “future of medicine” is under threat by government cutbacks; they say the “future of public health” is under threat. Lawyers never say “the law” is under threat; they say the “administration of law” is threatened. Even teachers don’t say the “future of knowledge” is at risk, whereas they might be forgiven for saying that the future of schooling looks a little dodgy. Likewise engineers, accountants, architects … all solid professions which know the difference between what they do and who they do it for.

Of course there is at least one analogy for the MEAA’s position in another trade union: airline stewards. They might reasonably say that the future of commercial flight is threatened if airlines cut back on safety and schedules. But the future of journalism in Australia is NOT under threat at all because now the delivery mechanisms for journalism (= the stewards’ airliners in the analogy) have been uncoupled from the capital of the big corporations. This is true even if the future of newspaper-delivered journalism looks shaky. Take a look at this data put together last month by my research team at the University of Queensland:

According to the authoritative Margaret Gee’s Media Guide (the bible of the PR and advertising disciplines, updated quarterly and uncontested in the industry) there were 99 Australian journalism workplaces in November last year (2007) each employing 10 or more journalists or producers. But there were a stunning 2357 other journalism workplaces, each employing 1-9 writers, editors or producers (depending on the medium).

The 99 bigger workplaces, “Big Media” such as large newspapers and television operations, employed 3407 journalists. Those other 2357 workplaces, smaller newspapers, radio stations, internet publications such as Crikey, and the many trade and speciality magazines for which the Australian market is justly famous, employed a third more — fully 4560 — writers, subs and/producers. By the way, Margaret Gee’s lists another 310 workplaces for which the number of journalism employees is not even given, such as even smaller regional newspapers, multicultural newspapers, and many magazines where the journalist is also the owner is also the publisher.

Margaret Gee’s also doesn’t list numbers of journalist positions (some paid, others voluntary, but supplying real journalism none the less) at the many community broadcasting outlets which provide local as well as networked national and international news to their large audiences; or at the wire services, and emerging non-traditional media agencies and internet news services. But don’t make the mistake of excluding these thousands of “other” workers from the title “journalist” or “journalism”: nothing could be further from the truth. They’re as well (or as badly) educated and formed in the ways of journalism as their Big Media colleagues.

But they bring with them extra traits such as entrepreneurialism, ability to write to a particular market, and technological adaptability not normally evident in the big newspaper companies so far.

These are the jobs I’m preparing my graduates for: the “Big Market”, not just “Big Media”. Graduating journalists can be confident that work is there for the taking, away from the Canberra Press Gallery or the strutting editorials of the capital city dailies which purport to run this country instead of politicians. By the way, many of those journalists working in the Big Market (not Big Media) are also MEAA members, in the freelance section where I belonged for some years.

I recently gave a seminar to Queensland MEAA freelancers, after having addressed the national freelancers’ conference on how journalists can compete their way to success, and members later pressed me to start up both a new technology journalism blog and a series of professional development seminars to help them compete in the new media environment which confronts them every working day; the kind of thing I routinely offer my university students, but nuanced for mid-career professionals.

I was hired to fly to Iran last year to give senior journalists there such a workshop, and will be doing the same in New Delhi this year. But the Australian journalists’ union told me late last month it’s too “flat out” to commit to supporting such professional development seminars; they’re flat out looking down the barrel of the “past of journalism”.

Peter Fray

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