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Sep 1, 2011

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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27 comments

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27 thoughts on “Beecher: govt funding could stem loss of serious newspapers

  1. Rodney Topor

    Time for an Australian Publishing Corporation to complement the Australian Broadcasting Corporation?

  2. Gavin Moodie

    The Australian Government already funds quality civic journalism in the ABC and the SBS. There is no need for it to subsidise journalism on dead trees, papyrus, tablets or any other old medium.

  3. Michael James

    Beecher’s Crikey rightly derides rent-seeking industries seeking to suckle from the teat of public money, right up to the point where it’s their own industry threatened, at which time rent-seeking subsidies by industry becomes OK, as long as they approve.

    The stench of self righteous hypocrisy is overwhelming.

  4. Duds

    Eric, go and talk to Bernard Keane about his thoughts on protectionism and then come back and explain to the readers why newspapers deserve protection, for the sake of journalism, but manufacturing doesn’t. Good journalism, “public trust” journalism, has nothing to do with blank ink on white sheets of paper! Good journalism is about the ability to perform diligent research, make innovative connection, provide insightful analysis and last, but not least, to wrap it up with eloquent storytelling.

    I take your point that good journalists need employment and to feed themselves. But, hey, the music industry is coming out the other side of the same revolution. Broadcast television is starting to feel the revolution and will struggle with change over the coming years. Why are newspapers special? You and the other Crikey journalists are a case in point. Good journalists will adapt to new media and continue to wrap their unique blend of investigation, analysis and insight with great story telling that I will pay to read.

    I don’t agree with the conclusion of your analysis but I did enjoy reading it and will continue to pay for you to do so.

  5. GocomSys

    Please clearly define “serious” newspapers. Would you “seriously” include News Limited publications? Many don’t.
    Gavin Moodie, agree, let’s get rid of fish-wrappers!

  6. Bill Hilliger

    Ha, ha, ha. The Australian a newspaper? News Limited a serious media organisation in Australia… ha,ha,ha – groan.

  7. Peter Ormonde

    Aw strewth…

    There is only one way to resuscitate “quality journalism” … that’s with quality journalists, encouraged – even allowed – to produce informed, insightful and well-written news and analysis.

    It is not just the financial model of the newspapers that is disintegrating – it is their content, it is their very value to the communities they purport to serve.

    Should Andrew Bolt be made a protected species, or Janet Albrechtsen (not sure about the spelling and don’t care) declared a national treasure? Should Glenn Milne have his salary topped up by taxpayers?

    I’d rather protect seal clubbing.

  8. JamesK

    The answer to Ereeec’s question is a better one.

    Especially if The Phage is the first to go followed, please God, by the Fin Review.

    Not only would our democracy suffer from less misinformation and leftist activism but the Gaia would see her human children happier enjoying a better quality of life with less evil big government stealing from their wallets and less misery because aforesaid media makebelieve misery peddlers creating completely unnecessary planetary angst.

    Perhaps the SMH might be slavageable if Fairfax rids itself of lefties Grattan, Marr, Coorey, Hartcher, Gittins, Taylor…….

    Aww what’s the point?

    The SMH would be best gone as well.

  9. CHRISTOPHER DUNNE

    Recall the diatribe against “protectionism” when the Australian book publishers argued against letting our own local industry get mugged by the MacDonalds types?

    Irony, or what?

  10. Steviate

    Here, Here, Michael James – You nailed it.
    The type of Hypocrisy that Crickey so regularly derides is so evident in this piece by Eric Beecher.
    Now to adopt the non hypocritical line that Crickey so tries to maintain (and rightly so) – the News Limited and Fairfaxes need to change their business models and stop running their businesses like they have in the past.
    The most obvious way is to stop making their content free online. Although, if they did that, people might find far higher quality online journalism like Crickey and not read their trash, because no-one wants to pay for trah, but they will read it if its free.