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Apr 8, 2009

“Public trust” journalism is an essential element of a functioning, informed democracy. It is just as important, in its own way, as the parliament or the judiciary.

By “public trust” journalism I refer to journalism that applies scrutiny, analysis and accountability to governments, parliaments, politicians, public servants, judges, police, councils, the military, NGOs, diplomats, business and community leaders and the recipients of public funding.

This journalism includes investigative reporting, analysis and feature writing, commentary, opinions, editorials, campaigns as well as the day-to-day reporting of parliaments, councils, courts, tribunals, wars, stock exchanges and all the other tentacles of the polity, the judiciary and the democracy.

Without the existence of well-resourced “public trust” journalism — the arm of democracy that attempts to keep the other arms open, honest and accountable — it is far more likely that custodians of democracy will be dishonest, deceptive or will abuse their positions of trust.

“Public trust” journalism is very costly to produce. In a country like Australia, it requires hundreds of reporters, editors and commentators, supported by costly infrastructure, to do time-consuming, research-heavy, often painstaking work.

In Australia, historically, that work has been undertaken primarily by two groups: public broadcasters and privately-owned newspapers. To be specific, large-scale “public trust” journalism in Australia is undertaken — and funded — by the ABC, SBS and daily national and metroplitan newspapers. And to be more specific, the heavy lifting of “public trust” journalism in Australia is undertaken by five media outlets: the ABC, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Financial Review.

Through an accident of history and commerce, most of this journalism has been funded by the profits from the highly lucrative classified advertising that appeared in the same newspapers that also undertook the “public trust” journalism. And those newspapers and their owners loved it while it lasted: they got to make extortionate profits from the classified ads at the same time as they were basking in the power and glory of running “public trust” journalism.

Now, as classified advertising migrates from newspapers to the internet, that funding source is disappearing.

That means there is now a high probability that commercial funding of “public trust” journalism will be reduced to an unsatisfactory level for the health of Australian democracy. That’s because the public companies which own the newspapers that currently invest in this journalism — companies whose fiduciary obligations are to their shareholders, not to democracy — won’t continue to fund unprofitable journalism that is no longer subsidised by classified advertising. That process has already well and truly started.

This raises the obvious question: if the newspaper publishers can no longer afford to pay for it, where will the funding for “public trust” journalism come from in the future?

Some people believe a new online commercial business model for quality journalism will emerge. That is already happening on a small scale (such as at Business Spectator, Crikey, Smart Company and Eureka Report, in which I am involved), but there is no hint anywhere of an emerging commercial model for the large-scale “public trust” journalism I have described. Not a hint.

Because it is so vital to our system of democracy, I believe it is far too risky to leave the fate of “public trust” journalism in the hands of publishers who can no longer rationally support it (even if some of them heroically pretend they still can), or in the hands of a new business model that doesn’t exist.

The time has arrived, in my view, to move “public trust” journalism into the basket where it belongs. The basket where nearly all the other important components of democracy sit. The public/philantrophic basket.

No-one questions the public/philanthropic (supported by user pays) funding model for arts or culture or education, or indeed for public broadcasting. None of these crucial elements of society would exist on any scale if they had to depend entirely on a commercial mechanism.

The most important journalism to our society is now in jeopardy due to a market failure. It’s time to recognise that the accident of history that created the funding system for ‘public trust’ journalism has itself been corrected. It’s time to focus on the end rather than the means, otherwise “public trust” journalism — and the vigorous Australian democracy it supports — will wither on the vine.

Tomorrow in Crikey: Alan Kohler’s take — “In my view the internet provides the opportunity for the rebirth of this kind of journalism, not its death.”

Eric Beecher and Alan Kohler were participants in “Quality Journalism: How to pay for it? Does it matter?” a forum discussion to be broadcast in ABC Radio National’s Saturday Extra this Saturday 11 April from 7.30am.

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