Rupert Murdoch (Image: AAP/Dan Himbrechts)

As Australian media reels from the dismantling of its regional newspaper business, can I dare to suggest that perhaps it is not all Rupert Murdoch’s fault.

I’m not saying News Corp’s decision was anything but its own, or that the company didn’t make mistakes. I’m simply saying that it is not alone. Nor even first. Just the biggest.

After all, Nine offloaded its Australian Community Media (ACM) before the merger ink with Fairfax was barely dry last year.

New owner and former Domain exec Antony Catalano was then going to be the saviour of the News Corp regional papers until that deal broke down only two weeks ago.

This led to News announcing the closure of its print titles this week while Catalano, who has also shuttered most of the ACM papers during the pandemic, refused to say when or if they would reopen.

And let’s not forget that Nine is as complicit as News in the current efforts to kill Australian Associated Press.

Nor is the problem confined to Australia where the Murdoch media certainly has an unhealthy dominance. The US has been heading down this path for many years, but 2020 began with the sound of the death knell for local papers ringing louder.

The great investment guru Warren Buffett was the harbinger of bad news in January when his Berkshire Hathaway company announced it had sold off its entire newspaper stable.

It was significant not just because the Oracle of Omaha so rarely admits defeat, but because in the space of a few short years he had gone from being a self-declared newspaper “addict” to dismissing the industry as “toast”.

The depressing terms “news deserts” and “ghost papers” we see being used this week in Australia come from the American experience.

Only last December the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism reported that over the past 15 years one in five newspapers in the US have closed.

Not only have some 2000 papers disappeared, but so too have a quarter of all journalists’ jobs.

Australia would now be rivalling them for devastation. Our only salvation is we have a fine public broadcaster which is now even more vital for regional news despite the attacks of columnists in The Australian suffering ABC derangement syndrome.

The US’ handling of the same crisis doesn’t provide much in the way of encouragement.

Private equity buyouts have been as disastrous as everything else they touch. Headlines talk of the hedge fund newspaper rescue model “buy, slash, sell the buildings”.

Being America, philanthropists are being seen as the saviour of last resort.

Though as they learned with Buffett, no matter how rich the owner, these are businesses underneath.

One group trying a different model is The American Journalism Project which bills itself as “a new venture philanthropy organisation dedicated to local news” by providing investment and support to local civic news organisations.

The rare cases of media philanthropy in Australia such as the Judith Neilson Institute have not been as targeted. And who can forget the eminently forgettable The Global Mail online newspaper which philanthropist Graeme Wood exited after only two years.

Some US examples who have gone the full not-for-profit route warn the downside can be that trying to appease rich donors can result in a product that is just, well, boring.

Not that Australian media is unfamiliar with the experience of appeasing rich owners, from Big Kerry Packer to Little Kerry Stokes and of course the biggest of them all in Rupert Murdoch.

We’ve seen how that story ends. If they haven’t bailed out or gone broke, it’s usually only a matter of time.

To be fair to News Corp, they’ve been hanging in there longer than most.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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