The future of Australian quality journalism took a big hit last week, not that anyone seemed to notice.

Buried deep within the annual results released by Fairfax Media on Friday was the astonishing news that three of this country’s four quality newspapers are now barely profitable. (The fourth, The Australian, owned by rival News Limited, is almost certainly unprofitable and is run for non-commercial reasons).

The figures submerged in the Fairfax accounts reveal that in the first six months of this year the profitability of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review collapsed. Our best estimate of those numbers is that in that period the print editions of The Age and SMH between them are now in loss — compared to a comparable figure of about $60 million-$80 million just a few years ago. The Financial Review appears to be down to about $5 million-$10 million for the period, half its profit of a few years ago.

While Fairfax is hoping this capitulation is the result of cyclical pressures, anyone who watches trends in media knows that most of the collapse is structural and it will continue.

What we are now watching is a slow-motion train wreck of the quality fourth estate. Unless someone steps in — and the only logical someone is government — we could be within sight of the demise of half of Australia’s serious print journalism, The SMH and The Age.

The case for a full-scale government inquiry into the Australian media is compelling. Not an inquiry to denigrate News Corp, but one that confronts the reality of a market failure that is killing the viability of the most important newspapers in our democracy.

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Due to hamster reinforcements, here we are, back in your inbox with a bumper edition to atone for our sins. Apologies again for yesterday’s tech meltdown, and we hope you received our MacGyver-style email last night, cobbled together with sticky tape and string, containing the peace offering of a fresh work from First Dog on the Moon and Andrew Crook’s rundown of the Glenn Milne correction. We’re up and running again, and all is well on the website. Thanks again for being so understanding.

Peter Fray

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