Amazing! A bunch of media people gathered at the ABC’s Sydney headquarters last week to discuss the future of journalism, and not one of them whinged about those awful bloggers. Hurrah! Unlike July 2008, when journos were still looking for someone to blame, the debate has finally moved on.

Watching long-established US newspapers dropping like flies does tend to focus the mind.

Increasingly, blogging and its meth-paced spawn Twitter, are seen as valid components of a new media landscape. It seems everyone agrees that landscape still needs to include what Crikey publisher Eric Beecher prefers to call “public trust journalism” to form a healthy democracy — along with functioning parliaments and courts.

But this quality journalism, especially investigative journalism, is expensive. While one of its traditional Australian homes, public broadcasters ABC and SBS, seems safe for now, what about its other home, quality newspapers? Are newspapers doomed? If so, who pays for journalism then? At last week’s forum, hosted by Geraldine Dougue, it was all questions but no clear answers.

Beecher reckons there’s a 60% to 70% chance that newspapers will stop funding public trust journalism in the next few years. As with climate change, the risks are so great that even with uncertainty we need insurance. American internet newspaper The Huffington Post has just launched  a public fund for investigative journalism, with a start-up budget of US$1.75 million. But with Australia’s smaller population and lacking America’s culture of philanthropy, Beecher says public funding is the way.

News Limited’s Group Editorial Director Campbell Reid, however, says journalists seem overly keen to write their own obituary. Newspapers are a “vibrant business”. They’ll change their look but, says Reid, “The last thing they’ll give up is good journalism”. He wrote off the French government’s massively increased subsidies for newspapers as “another example of the wacky French”.

But is this just bravado for News shareholders? Is he in denial?  What makes Australian newspapers so different that they’ll survive the revenue slump? And anyway, the forum was about the survival of journalism, not the survival of newspapers. They’re not the same thing.

Alan Kohler, publisher of the Eureka Report and, with Beecher, Business Spectator, says there’ll be a few newspapers left so chaps of his vintage have crosswords to fill in, but journalism will flourish online. Newspapers are dying, and that’s great — because newspapers are holding back journalism by shaping it to fit their out-dated, inefficient delivery mechanisms.

Wendy Bacon, who heads the Centre for Independent Journalism at UTS, agrees. “I’ve always thought that the internet is the natural medium for investigative journalism: the story never stops,” she says.

Indeed, former Liberal leader John Hewson believes public trust journalism will increase as blogs take on that role. He’s also critical of the increased prominence of the public relations industry in news reporting, claiming “PR is the home for failed journalists and journos who can’t get a job.”

Who’d bother becoming a journalist when freelance rates have dropped from $1 a word a few years ago to 65 cents a word now, asked freelancer Margot Saville. Will only the rich do journalism, a hobby for the gentleman-amateur?

[Note to editor: 65 cents a word? Goodness! Can I have this wealth?]

Questions. Questions. All very good questions. But who has the answers? Whoever you are, you’d better hurry up. The media is dying.

“Quality Journalism: How to pay for it? Does it matter?” will be broadcast in ABC Radio National’s Saturday Extra this Saturday 11 April from 7.30am.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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