There is a growing body of opinion, a chorus of well-informed and considered thought, that is urging a role for public subsidies in support of quality journalism.

Newspapers, you see are dying. As Salon co-founder Gary Kamiya argues:

Journalism as we know it is in crisis. Daily newspapers are going out of business at an unprecedented rate, and the survivors are slashing their budgets. Thousands of reporters and editors have lost their jobs. No print publication is immune, including the mighty New York Times … 2008 was the worst year in history for newspaper publishers, with shares dropping a stunning 83 percent on average. Newspapers lost $64.5 billion in market value in 12 months.

Australia is not immune. Today the Fairfax group is trading at a share price of below $1.

Increasingly, thinking commentators are forming the view that there may be a role for the public support of quailty journalism and newspapers. In France, President Sarkozy has stumped up a 600 million euro package to do just that.

And in Australia? Here we are fortunate to have a rare working model of just how the donation of public money can suport quality journalistic endeavour. The example is the monthly Australian Literary Review a liftout published by The Australian newspaper — a sterling contribution to Auastralian intellectual and literary life only made possible by public funding of nigh on $500,000 a year. The money comes as an annual grant of around $150,000 from the Austalian government (through the Australia Council) and some $350,000 from various Melbourne University entities.

The Australian is thus, by a mile, the most heavily subsidised publication in the country.

Which is a fine thing. Curious then that the newspaper should editorialise, as it did last week, against the very concept:

The hand-wringers at Crikey are dead wrong. The death of a masthead would sadden all journalists, but companies deserve to fail if they produce products nobody wants, or cannot adapt to the modern world. Newspapers have a special role in democratic societies. But using government money to prop up failing papers would place them in an impossible conflict of interest.

Which is nothing more than extraordinary, hypocritical, breathless cant.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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