UPDATE. Is this what Overington meant? Thanks to @MikeDobbie for the hint.

A session at the Media 140 conference just concluded in which The Australian’s Caroline Overington not only defended what she referred to as “her” media organisation, not only took some shots at the ABC boss Mark Scott, but also just possibly gave a hint about what News Limited is planning in its efforts to put content behind pay walls. In the process there was an entertaining tangle with the Sydney Morning Herald’s Annabel Crabb.

But first to the news, or the hints of news. Overington said that News Limited had many wonderful plans of which they were very proud, and they could not be unveiled yet, but she believed they would lead people to pay for content.

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Then in the closing stages of the session, she referred to i-tunes, and how people had turned to paying for music that they could get elsewhere for free because of the entry of a “cool new toy” in the i-phone.

She added: “That’s kind of what we are thinking about.”

So what is it, I wonder? Some kind of deal with Apple, soon to release its new electronic reader? A competing product? Very intriguing.

As for the shots at Mark Scott (who was once, many years ago, Overington’s boss at Fairfax) Overington said she was frightened by what she described as the ABC’s pitch for domination in new media.

The position of of The Australian was secure, she said, because it relied on a benevolent proprietor in Rupert. It was not dependent on the “rivers of gold” of classified advertising. The Daily Telegraph was not vulnerable because of its robust circulation. But the Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax – they were in real trouble. “Believe it,” said Overington.

Overington had previously noted that she was the only representative of News Limited speaking at the conference, even though “we” owned seventy per cent of the nation’s newspapers. This provoked the response from conference organiser Julie Posetti that senior News Limited people had been invited, but had either declined or failed to reply.

Overington described the potential dominance of the ABC as “scary” because if commercial media fell over, then that would leave the ABC as the only news source. Countries that had only one government funded news source were generally not the kind of places she would want to live in.

Then came the fightback from Fairfax’s Crabb, who shot off with “at least we are still profitable. We are not in as much trouble as you will be once your great leader drops off the twig.”

And later Crabb added: “I think it is wonderful that your survival strategy depends on the robust genes of a 78 year old.”

General laughter.

But the truth, of course, is that they are both right. Both News Limited’s The Australian and the Fairfax broadsheets are in long term, or even short term, trouble. And the ABC is looking increasingly important and dominant – as well as being the main threat to any pay wall news media models.

And it is also true that there is something worrying about this. I like the ABC and believe in an increased role for public broadcasting. But there is a legitimate point behind the several speakers at Media 140 today who have asked how the profession of journalism will survive if so many outlets, not least the ABC, increasingly solicit content from the audience, gathered for free.

The point I made in my session this morning is that while journalism will become more of a practice and less of a profession, and something that many more people will do, there are some kinds of journalistic dirty work that we will have to find ways of supporting if they are to be done consistently and with experience and expertise.

While Overington’s apparently uncritical  intense identification with her employer took me by surprise, there is no doubt she is entitled to talk about the difficulties and expense of professional journalism, having done many of the hard yards behind the breaking and pursuit of the Australian Wheat Board story at a time when that brought a heavy cost in antagonism from the Government. Could any organisation other than a large, powerful journalism factory have pursued and broken and backed that yarn in the teeth of attacks from the most powerful in the land? I doubt it.

And let’s not forget that it is a long while since the ABC broke a story that big. Let’s not pretend that all is well with the ABC’s journalistic culture, even as its boss emerges as an impressive industry leader.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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