Tragic as Fairfax’s job cuts are, I am even more saddened by the pending closure of one of the brightest sparks on the media landscape, Crinkling News, the nation’s only newspaper for school-age kids. Without an immediate injection of funds, Crinkling will publish for the last time next week.

The two events are related, of course. Fairfax will continue to shed jobs — and employee tears — until it cracks a sustainable business model.  You’d hope there’s more to it than float Domain and keep shrinking the rest. Being “Independent. Always.” doesn’t seem to have strong commercial legs.

Founded by two ex-Fairfax employees, Saffron Howden and Remi Bianchi, Crinkling turned a year old this week and has published 50 weekly editions.

It’s a smart play: super serve a media niche. Starting a newspaper for kids is not the most obvious use for a Fairfax redundancy, but it’s what they’ve done.

It’s been a grand success. Crinkling is sold into 800 schools (almost 10% of the national total) and thousands of homes. But Howden and Bianchi have, as is the way with start-ups, run out of seed funding.

Crinkling’s pending fate reveals a terrible truth of Australian media: everyone loves the idea of a free, independent, diverse press — but far too few are prepared to pay for it.  

How did we get here and how to fix it?

I could lambast Fairfax — and others — for giving away its journalism for free at the advent of the digital revolution. Why would sufficient number of punters now pay for something that’s a) ubiquitous, b) once free, and c) still very free on Facebook?

I might also, channeling my News Ltd past, suggest that taxpayer-reluctance-to-pay could be solved in one foul swat by taking the axe to the ABC. If it only got out of the way, private media would flourish.  

There is, perhaps, more than a dollop of truth (or solace) in both ideas.

But I am not here to kill off more journos. As a journo mate suggested yesterday, Media Freedom Day, May 3, shouldn’t be Freedom From Media Day.

Nor is there much use is rehashing the sins of digital ghosts pasts. Let’s not do the, “if only Fred Hilmer had bought Seek” routine again.  

Rather, it is to ask these loftier questions that the closure of Crinkling brings to mind:

  1. Do we really want our kids growing up not understanding the role played by journalism — and journalists — in a functioning democracy?
  2. Do we want the next generation to understand — as most of us do (if, perhaps, with a tempered, uneven love) — that journalists do hold the powerful to account?
  3. Do we want to contemplate this: if the original John Fairfax had never been born, Eddie Obeid would now be premier of NSW? Do we want our leading banks to keep shafting customers and not to be called to account by journalists at The Age?

That’s why I’m gutted by the thought of Crinkling‘s closure. I am willing to accept that legacy media needs to change, as do most of the journalists at Fairfax, by the way. But I am simply not prepared to accept that our kids should grow up media-illiterate.

And that’s what’s at stake here — in both the Fairfax cuts and the Crinkling end. 

The two are very much related, as I say.

Back when Fairfax journalists Kate McClymont and Adele Ferguson were mere girls (though it is unlikely they were ever “mere” anythings) there wasn’t much of an argument about the value of The SMH and The Age — or for that matter, the Melbourne Herald, the Sun or the Daily Mirror

These mastheads were institutions, integral parts of daily life: kids might not have read them much beyond the comics but they understood that their parents valued them — and they saw newspapers on the kitchen table.

That’s changed. And that’s why Crinkling News is so important. It does real news, proving that there’s more to pre-teen and teen media than cats and Kardashians. Eight to 14-year-olds actually enjoy the news. Who knew?

The only thing Howden, a reporter, and Bianchi, a designer, lack is a long enough runway to allow their dreams to fully take off. They need business development.

That’s why I am sad — and that’s why I’d gladly handover the final $2000 of my own Fairfax payout (probably the last of it) if others will join with me in keeping Crinkling afloat.

This is not a rhetorical flourish. Crinkling will launch a fundraiser page today and I’ll be among the first in. Help me to raise $200,000 by Monday next week to allow to Crinkling to survive and grow. Surely, the journalism of the future — and the media literacy of the next generation — is worth a few bucks?

You can support Crinkling News here.

Peter Fray is the former editor-in-chief and publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald, deputy editor of The Australian and founder of PolitiFact Australia.

He is on the advisory board of Crinkling News.

Peter Fray

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