MELBOURNE — Adapt or perish was the underlying message in a briefing to employees last month at Fairfax, one of Australia’s biggest media organizations. Under a radical restructure, Fairfax’s two newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s the Age, will operate a 24-7 news desks, filing for web, mobile and print platforms.
Founded in 1841 by John Fairfax & Sons, Fairfax Media’s operation spans newspapers, magazines, radio and digital media operating in Australia and New Zealand. In June, the organization decided to cut 1,900 jobs in mass redundancies and close down their two newspaper printing plants.
Following the shock announcements, three senior editors at both city mastheads submitted their resignation with many others following suit; there’s also the current controversial bid by Fairfax’s largest shareholder, Gina Rinehart, for three seats on the Fairfax board; and to top it all off — Fairfax’s share price is struggling.
The decline of one of Australia’s oldest media empires has prompted questions around the role of media and to search for more sustainable business models. To learn more about the implications, SmartPlanet caught up with journalist and media expert Margaret Simons, Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne.
SmartPlanet: The Fairfax upheaval is a shake-up for media businesses in Australia. What will the flow-on effects be?
Margaret Simons: Yes, although in most ways it is simply the inevitable result of the changes in the industry. Fairfax, like News Ltd, is trying to stabilise the news media part of the business at a sustainable level. The problem is that nobody knows what sustainability looks like in this new environment.
Whatever the model, the future for legacy media is smaller newsrooms and less profitable business models.
SP: Can you explain how this restructure will impact on news production and journalism in Australia as a whole?
MS: Big question. I won’t attempt to answer it definitively, other than to say that we are entering the post industrial age in many areas of manufacturing, including news media. Rather than being produced exclusively in large industrial organisations, much news media in the future will be in the hands of individuals and cottage industries.
SP: Do you think this networked model will elicit a reactive style of reporting from journalists, so rather than breaking or investigating news, they’re acting as a news wire?
MS: That is a risk. But they are also moving the supervision of the investigative and political teams to the national model, which may (just maybe) increase their strength and capacity. Here’s hoping.
SP: The restructure seems to suggest that Fairfax is phasing out the traditional role of the editor. Would you agree with this?
MS: A more accurate way of putting it would be that they are putting the editorial power and resources into a national structure, so that most content is generated in a hub, and then radiated out to various platforms. So the mastheads are just platforms, not individual editorial presences in the way we have come to understand them.
SP: What happens to editorial independence in the absence of a strong editor?
MS: Watch the space! We don’t know, but we do need to come up with understandings of editorial independence that are not as reliant on the notion of a strong editor. In this, journalistic training and external accountability mechanisms will be crucial. In the future, much of what we might want to call journalism will be the product of small to medium enterprises, not all of which will emerge from the same culture that produced the traditional newsroom. In fact all organizations with websites are in some sense media organizations, and many put out news. Whether we would want to describe it as journalism is a different matter, because the word journalism implies standards of verification and integrity.
All media is funded one way or another, through some mix of subscriptions, advertising or proprietorial patronage. Throughout history, some editorial decisions have been influenced by the money. Would there be so many property journalists were it not for real estate ads? Would the travel pages devote so much copy to luxury cruises were it not for advertising? Would local papers even exist, without local government and real estate ads? Independence in this context means a preparedness for the funder/s to tolerate journalism that does not serve their interests. I think in the new world integrity might be a more useful concept than independence which begs so many questions about business models and proprietors.
SP: Has the sense of independence in journalism changed in recent years? Is technology a catalyst?
MS: My blog post has things to say about independence. But we have to understand that the scale of technological innovation we are living through will over time change most things about society, including journalism. The last innovation of this scale was the printing press, which over about 200 years led to the creation of journalism as a profession, the modern idea of democracy, the modern idea of the nation state, the decline of the power of the Pope, revolutions in many countries, the enlightenment, etc etc. We are living through the beginnings of an equivalent period of change.
SP: There’s that age-old debate about whether journalism is a business or a public interest. What’s your view on this?
MS: Journalism is an act of citizenship, and some such acts may not be paid for, or at least not with money. Having said that I think that new business models will emerge, and the old ones will survive in different shapes. Journalism will continue to be both a component of business and a public interest activity. But the enterprises will be smaller, and the profits modest. It should also be emphasised that the problem is not, and never has been, lack of readers. The Fairfax content has more readers than ever before, if you combine online with print readership. There is no evidence of a declining appetite for news. The problem is the business model.
SP: What do you view as the biggest challenge for Fairfax now?
MS: Sustainability and independence.
SP: What can journalists do to survive in this current climate?
MS: Journalists must learn to do everything video, audio, text, social media. They must build personal brands, independent of any employer, and they must learn to interact with the audience as never before. Also, they must get back to basics. Identify or gather an audience, and give them journalism that is useful. Shed old ideas about what quality means and be prepared to find new definitions of that word. Journalism is changing, so hanging on to old ideas about what journalism means can only get in the way. Be bold and entrepreneurial and experimental. Embrace the potential of the new tools.
Photo: Flickr/NS Newsflash (main), The University of Melbourne (insert).