Back in the mid-’90s, there were three big moments newspaper publishers should have paid attention to: the launch of commercialised web browsers, emerging classified ad sites, and the “Ten Crack Commandments” of rapper Notorious B.I.G.
Particularly commandment number four: “never get high on your own supply”.
The supply they got high on? The power and influence that flowed seemingly as a matter of right from the entrenched habits of both readers and advertisers. Their mistake was to conflate their users’ habits with addiction.
The result? Newspapers — most of them, most of the time — have deliberately done a terrible job explaining the disruption of their own industry. The industry has tried to sustain their readers’ habit by burying the news, reporting only the occasional break-out — like this week’s reports of mass redundancies at the News Corp metro mastheads and the ABC — almost as stand alone events.
When you don’t trust your readers, it’s all the harder to rescue the journalism that matters from the wreckage.
Instead, the publishers brought a moral imperative: newspapers matter to democracy! (Of course, they do — or did — although as Clay Shirky pointed out over a decade ago, that’s never been much of a business model.)
This moralism underpins the rhetoric around the demand that the big tech platforms pay the traditional media companies for stealing away their readers and advertisers.
This past week or so, the faith in the addiction of habit surfaced in News Corp’s reporting on its own masthead closures. Turns out, they’re good news: “Digital switch keeps regions in touch,” The Australian boasted. “News won’t let regions down in its digital push,” assured Australian News Corp head Michael Miller.
The paper then chided critics who hadn’t got the message — “News Corp’s digital strategy lost in headline translation — and assured any nervous-nellies: “Digital-only newspapers ‘a proven strategy’”
Meanwhile, the Nine mastheads — normally reluctant to poke the News Corp bear — were hunting down National MPs to blast the decision, including former Wagga Daily Advertiser editor (and now Deputy PM) Michael McCormack who said: “for those regional Australians who like to read a printed edition of their local paper this is particularly disappointing”.
Underpinning this approach has been Biggie’s first crack commandment: “Never let anyone know how much dough you hold”. Traders in influence, the publishers couldn’t let on just how little disruption they had left in their pockets.
In 2017, News Corp even decided to stop releasing audited circulation figures. This is why eyebrows were raised this week at the delayed release of the April Nielsen news content rankings which showed that the once dominant news.com.au had fallen to an unprecedented sixth spot, with all the company’s individual mastheads outside the top 10.
Unfortunately, disruption denialism is working — even when you don’t want it to: a recent Pew survey found 70% of Americans thought their local media — the sort that News Corp closed in Australia last week — was “somewhat” or “very” financially well off. It’s hard to shake money out of readers with that entrenched view.
Traditional news media has never been very good at reporting on itself. Internally, journalists have developed their own forums, like the self-proclaimed radical sporadical New Journalist magazine produced by a shifting journalists collective in the 1970s and 1980s, or The Walkley Magazine partly funded by the Media Alliance from 1996 to 2018.
There have been attempts. The ABC launched Media Watch in 1990 and The Australian launched its media section in 1998 to be an authoritative source of news about the sector, before it was overwhelmed by corporate and culture war imperatives.
Now, reporting on the media is largely confined to the finance pages. That raises its own challenges. The media corporations are conscious that bad news in the paper can quickly lead to bad news in the market.
They know, too, that stock traders have their own definition of “bad news”. After the gutting News Corp closures and Nine’s sale of Stuff in New Zealand, both companies’ shares went up.