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Sep 1, 2011

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What kind of democracy would we live in if it didn’t include the work of a thousand-or-so newspaper reporters and editors who currently cover politics, government, justice, business, economics, social issues, the professions, the arts and other important subjects?

We may be about to find out.

Because it’s now apparent, as a result of the release of Fairfax Media’s latest financial report last week, that the print versions of three of Australia’s four “serious” newspapers — The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian — operate at a financial loss, while the fourth, the Financial Review, has seen its profits halved in the past two years.

That’s bad news for their shareholders. But it could be even worse news for the stakeholders in Australian democracy, who depend heavily on the independent scrutiny carried out by those thousand journalists (as well as hundreds more at the ABC and other serious media outlets).

The commercial model that has historically funded large-scale “public trust” print journalism is collapsing, and so far in the media revolution nothing on the same scale has emerged to replace it. Although this trend has been evolving for several years, it has reached a new inflection point this year due to a combination of cyclical and structural factors.

Which raises a seminal question: if the free market can no longer fund it, should quality civic journalism be supported by some form of government funding? As it is in countries such as France and Sweden.

Such a suggestion may seem radical. But if government support becomes the only way to maintain “public trust” journalism — just as government support is the primary funding source of the arts, culture, museums and libraries — surely that’s preferable to watching it disappear.

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