It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall at the Fairfax strategy meeting on Monday. It was addressed by Professor Jeffrey Cole, a world expert on the impact of the internet, who apparently predicted to the assembled executives that newspapers as print products would cease to exist in Australia within the next 6-10 years.

Cole’s opinions do not come out of thin air. Ten years ago, he founded the World Internet Project. The WIP is an international collaborative undertaking that looks at the social, political and economic impact of new media technologies. It is some of the most authoritative research in existence on the impact of the internet. The Australian WIP partner is the ARC’s Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation based at the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University.

So when Cole speaks, media executives tend to listen, even if they don’t like what they hear. Cole told me yesterday that Fairfax’s Melbourne chief executive, Don Churchill, was “at one with me” on the future of print newspapers, but that some other members of management seemed to think, or at least hope, that the bad times for Fairfax papers would fade with the end of the global financial crisis.

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Yesterday afternoon Cole expanded on his views at a public lecture at Swinburne University. He said that print newspapers will cease to exist in the United States within 3-6 years. The rate of decline in Australia is more gradual, but he gives us a maximum of 10 years, with the only possible bright spot being weekend newspapers, because they are more like magazines, some of which will continue to do well.

Cole sees a bright future for some news organisations including those previously best known as newspaper publishers. The internet allows “newspapers” to compete as never before, directly with radio and television. In the future, he said, there will be fewer, bigger media companies, but “branding” will be more important than ever.

Cole was pessimistic about the chances of getting readers to pay for news content online. Rupert Murdoch, he joked, had not consulted him before making the decision to move toward putting content behind pay walls. According to Cole, the research suggests that most internet consumers won’t be ready to fork out for news for at least the next five years.

Until then, he said, advertising will continue to be the main business model to support news content, but advertising will have to change — to become more engaging, and more interactive.

Meanwhile, Cole says, the data shows that social networking, is “the real deal” in media futures. Brand names such as Myspace and Facebook may come and go, but the functionality will be the key factor in bringing together the many things that the internet has broken apart.

For the moment, he said, journalists and editors should be learning everything they can about Twitter.

Declaration: Margaret Simons is a part-time lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology.

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Peter Fray
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