Once upon a time, when I was a cadet at The Age and Tyrannosaurus rex roamed the earth, it was understood that advertising would never appear on the front page, for fear of debasing the credibility of the masthead.
That principle has long gone. Ads are routine on the front. Over the past couple of years we have also had to put up with those annoying sticky post it notes placing ads over the masthead, and for the past two days we have also had half-wraparounds that effectively harness the authority of the masthead for an advertiser.
We all know why. The classified advertising that used to provide Fairfax with rivers of revenue from numerous small advertisers have dried to a trickle as advertisers and buyers move on line. They have to try and make up some of the shortfall from new methods of display advertising.
This is a worldwide phenomenon, but has particular resonance in Australia, because much, arguably most, of our quality journalism has been underwritten by classies.
So today is a significant moment in our media history, because of the announcement by Telstra that the Trading Post, the publication that made scanning the classified adverts almost a hobby for many Australians, will become an internet only publication from the end of this month.
There are two sides to this. Journalism is in crisis partly because of what is happening to classies. Yet as anyone who has looked for a job, a home or a car in recent times knows, the internet simply does classies better.
Hence, Fairfax chairman Ron Walker’s defence, when under pressure, of the diversification of the company under his watch. He said recently that the company would have disappeared by now if it had continued to rely on the cash flows from broadsheet newspapers.
Ironically yesterday’s wraparound on The Age was spruiking the new method of searching Domain online real estate classies, allowing you to set up a search that specifies what sort of home you want and delivering tailored results.
Face it. This is a job that print can’t do. The revenue will never return to print products.
Yet even if Fairfax, which once tried to buy Trading Post, had not missed the bus and had bought online advertisng sites in the early days of the internet, the problem for journalism would remain.
The ads and the quality journalism used to be harnessed together by the physical artefact of the newspaper. You might buy the paper to look for a job, but you got Michelle Grattan as well, along for the ride.
It is now possible to have super-accessible and user-friendly classified advertising without any journalism. (The Trading Post in print form demonstrated this as well, of course. But the Fairfax broadsheets still had their grip on the majority of the market).
Whether it is possible to have quality journalism without the ads is another question entirely.