Most of what is called quality journalism is not quality at all — it is leaks planted by vested interests, to journalists who need to stay onside with those interests (politicians, sports administrators, business people etc), or it is plain bias — either from the journalists or the proprietors. The sort of courageous, public-spirited scrutiny journalism that is needed for a healthy democracy has been in decline for a long time and apart from die-hard pockets in the ABC and the occasional flash in the broadsheets and Crikey, is twitching — nearly dead.

In my view the internet provides the opportunity for the rebirth of this kind of journalism, not its death.

Journalism has been funded by the monopoly rents collected by wealthy families and poorly managed public companies as a result of a cartel. The cartel has existed because of the large amounts of capital required to be a publisher. They have been able to demand excessive prices for advertising and get high cover prices for second rate products because of their tight hold on the market.

Two things have changed: the barriers to entry have collapsed because publishing is now a low cost activity, and advertising has become completely accountable — that is, there is no wastage with online advertising so the amount spent can be targeted and therefore can be much less for the same result and access to the same audience.

The lower barriers to entry have led to fragmentation of media, driving the cover price to zero, and this has been exacerbated in its impact on revenue by the fact that accountability has reduced the price of delivering a given audience to advertisers when it is delivered online, because of the lack of wastage.

It is possible to get a “cover price” (ie subscription revenue) for highly specialised, high quality journalism in newsletters, but the cover price of mass journalism of the sort that has traditionally appeared in newspapers and magazines is now zero and will never be more than that.

A key part of the problem for journalists is that when journalism became a profession in the 1980s (salaries increased, the union became irrelevant, all universities began offering journalism degrees), the other things that normally go with professionalism did not occur. That is, there was no effort to license journalists and to demand a consistent qualification, or commitment, or even the slightest level of brainpower as a minimum, and no application of any enforceable ethics.

The definition of a journalist was, and still is, someone who gets a job as a journalist. Other professions, such as accounting, law, medicine, and even plumbing and electricians, require a license and in most cases the members of that profession must adhere to a certain ethical standard, as well as having a minimum qualification. As a result, the public is happy to pay for their services and the members of that profession, having qualified, can be certain of making a decent living.

How can journalists expect to be paid properly for their work and make a living when their customers know that anyone can call themselves a journalist and then do anything they like when they become one? Consumers expect, and want regulation or the products they buy, but this particular product — journalism — is totally unregulated.

“Journalism” can involve investigating the underworld and exposing corruption, but can also be publishing 25-year-old pictures of someone who looks a bit like Pauline Hanson. The public are bewildered by the range of “products” that pose as journalism. And then hypocritical publishers demand to be able to do what they like in the name of freedom of the press and then they bleat and moan when consumers and advertisers reduce their income at the first opportunity.

It is too late now to impose qualifications and ethics on journalists so that consumers might be persuaded to pay for it, and in any case that would be so fiercely resisted by journalists arguing that it is inconsistent with freedom of the press (it wouldn’t be in my view), that the only course now is for the business model to adapt and the cost of doing it to be reduced.

The calls for Government or philanthropic support journalism are a distraction. Nice theory (Government and philanthropies support the arts, why not journalism?) — but it won’t happen. The Australian Government already supports journalism via the ABC, including the ABC news and current affairs websites, and will not tip in any more for something that is printed on paper. Would it support another website? Hardly. And why would anyone pay money to support something that is inherently inconsistent and uncontrollable? The arts is a known consistent thing. If the Government buys Blue Poles it is one purchase and its benefit is clear. Likewise opera or literature or film. But what is journalism? What is quality journalism? Will it be tomorrow what it is today?

So what is the business model? It is free, low cost mass news and basic analysis funded by advertising, plus subscription publications targeted at niche audiences.

The appearance of general turmoil at present is caused by the noisy death throes of the traditional publishers weighed down by bloated cost structures based on the old monopoly rents.

New publishers like Business Spectator and Eureka Report are not in turmoil, although they are still working to prove up the business model (they will succeed).

There is actually a flowering of journalism taking place. It has suddenly become a global borderless business as well as being local, as it always has been. New websites and blogs are starting up every day. Some are good, some bad. Some are “quality journalism”, some are not. Some is parasitic — (selecting and linking to other sites) while others are highly original. There is an incredible amount of activity taking place — more than in the heyday of newspapers 100 years ago.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is as much a market as there ever has been, possibly more, for all kinds of journalism: low and high quality, news, commentary, investigations, scrutiny, celebrities, hatchet jobs, you name it.

The fact that some of the old publishers are going out of business and the industry is being forced to get leaner and hungrier is great.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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