The countdown of great journalists calling out their farewells on Twitter and Facebook this month tells us that this round of job losses at both Fairfax and News could mark a point of no return for the Australian media.
It also suggests that a major argument for the government’s media law changes is wrong. Rather than building Australia-based global media players, we’re simply enable bigger monopolies in a smaller, more provincial, market.
That combination of foreign control with diminishing local newsrooms means Australia could be missing out on being more than a colonial part of emerging global media.
It means Australia may well lack the journalist base and the financial clout to build a significant global voice.
Yet global players are an increasingly key part of the media landscape. As the global language of news and finance, English provides a cross-border market for content that can sustain significant news production. And in the English-speaking world, UK and US players are attempting to exploit that niche. Yet, as the major English speaking nation in our time zone, Australia has the potential to provide at least an alternate regional voice.
It’s a gap one player is already trying to fill. Unfortunately for Australia, that player — the South China Morning Post — is in Hong Kong.
The commercial potential of a global voice is why both The New York Times and The Washington Post are investing in journalism to build a global presence. Both rely on a commercial model, with paywalls of varying density. Both have well established brands of quality and reliability. The Post has the advantage of being, more or less, individually owned by Amazon head Jeff Bezos. While the Times is publicly listed, it remains under the management of the Sulzberger family.
The Times has led the way in reaching crossover, with most of its revenues now coming from digital payments — including payments from around world like Australia — rather than advertising. The Post is engaged in extensive cross-promotion and selling with Amazon.
The Times has even opened an Australian office to build its global footprint. It has converted the International Herald Tribune into The New York Times International Edition. The Post has spent the past two years building its Talent Network — a global network of freelance contributors to provide greater diversity and spread of content.
Both have reduced traditional journalism work while investing in new journalism, particularly data journalism.
Global players have also emerged from the UK through The Guardian and the BBC. The Guardian has launched an online Australian edition and invested heavily (well, heavily by digital standards) in building a local news team. Run by a not-for-profit trust, The Guardian started with an online advertising model and is currently attempting to pivot to a membership donation base. The BBC is funded through UK taxation making it vulnerable as the UK closes in on itself.
Financial voices have also emerged from New York and Washington: the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal (which has long had an Asia edition) and Bloomberg News. CNN has also built an international edition.
The only voice to have emerged outside these traditional media hubs has been the Qatar-based Al Jazeera. Its English language content has produced stories out of the developing world that are usually missed by the UK and US players. However, it seems unlikely to survive the current Saudi-Qatar conflict.
At times over the past 20 years the ABC has played with building a similar regional voice, relying on Radio Australia and satellite television. But lack of commitment by ABC management, political interference by government and opposition from commercial media has stymied the work.
About 12 months ago, in a regional replay of the Bezos takeover of The Washington Post, Jack Ma’s Alibaba took over Hong Kong’s leading English language newspaper, the South China Morning Post. The new management took down the paywall with the explicit intent of growing readership globally.
In direct contrast to Australian management, the new owners appointed a CEO out of the tech world. In January, 33-year-old Garry Liu joined the SCMP as CEO from news aggregator Digg and, before that, head of Spotify Labs.
The stated focus is to report greater China to the world, with a particular focus on the Chinese diaspora.
“One country two systems” notwithstanding, it remains to be seen whether a Hong Kong-based Chinese-owned company can preserve the editorial independence essential for a creditable voice. But by investing in journalism, it’s a got a better chance than a continually hollowed out — and most likely foreign owned — Australian organisation.