Tuesday April 18, 2017
The Fairfax Media building in Sydney. Big newsrooms everhywhere have shrunk beyond recognition. Photograph: Paul Miller/AAP
Australia’s two largest legacy media organisations recently announced big cuts to their journalistic staff. Many editorial positions, perhaps up to 120, will disappear at Fairfax Media, publisher of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and News Corporation announced the sacking of most of its photographers and editorial production staff.
Both announcements were accompanied by corporate spin voicing a continuing commitment to quality journalism. Nobody in the know believes it. This is the latest local lurch in a crisis that is engulfing journalism worldwide.
Now, partly thanks to Donald Trump, many more people are turning their mind to the future of news, including “fake” news and its opposite.
How, in the future, are we to know the difference between truth, myth and lies?
Almost too late, there is a new concern for the virtues of the traditional newsroom, and what good journalists do. That is, find things out, verify the facts and publish them in outlets which, despite famous stuff-ups, can generally be relied upon to provide the best available version of the truth.
As this week’s announcements make clear, the newsrooms that have traditionally provided most original journalism are radically shrinking.
News media for most of the last century appeared to be one relatively simple business. Gather an audience by providing content, including news. Sell the attention of the audience to advertisers.
The internet and its applications have brought that business undone. As any householder can attest, the audience no longer assembles in the same concentrations. The family no longer gathers around the news on television. Most homes have multiple screens and news is absorbed as it happens.
“Appointment television” is nearly dead, at least for those under 50.At the same time, technology has torn apart the two businesses – advertising and news – that used to be bound together by the physical artefact of the newspaper. Once, those who wanted to find a house, a job or a car had to buy a newspaper to read the classifieds. Now, it is cheaper and more efficient to advertise and search online, without needing to pay a single journalist.
Publishers and broadcasters have moved online, but the advertising model fails. Ads on websites earn a fraction of the amount that used to be charged for the equivalent in a newspaper or during a program break.
All this is last century’s news – but over the past five years the landscape has shifted again because of the dominance of Google (which also owns YouTube) and Facebook. These social media engines have quickly become the world’s most powerful publishers. Besides them, Murdoch looks puny. Yet Google and Facebook don’t employ journalists. They serve advertisements and news to the audience members on the basis of what they know about their interests.
For advertisers, it’s all gravy. Why pay for a display ad in a newspaper when you can have your material delivered direct to the social media feeds of people who you know are likely to be interested in buying your product?
It is now estimated that of every dollar spent on advertising in the western world, 90 cents ends up in the pockets of Google and Facebook.
Today, just about anyone with an internet connection and a social media account has the capacity to publish news and views to the world. This is new in human history.
The last great innovation in communications technology, the printing press, helped bring about the enlightenment of the 1500s and 1600s.
The optimists among us thought the worldwide web and its applications might lead to a new enlightenment – but as has become increasingly clear, the reverse is also possible. We might be entering a new dark age.
Fake news isn’t new. The place of Barack Obama’s birth was about as verifiable as a fact gets – with the primary document, his birth certificate, published online. But the mere publication of a fact did not stop a large proportion of US citizens from believing the myth that he was born overseas.
It is very hard to say how many Australian journalists have left the profession over the last 10 years.
This is partly because the nature of journalistic work has changed. Many now work aggregating or producing digital content, never leaving their desks.
Institutions such as universities and NGOs are now producing journalistic content, published online, but the people employed to do this task rarely show up in the figures compiled by unions and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, because their employers are not classified as media organisations.
Nevertheless, the big newsrooms have shrunk beyond recognition. This week’s announcements were the latest in a 15-year trend. In 2013, industry commentators estimated that more than 3000 Australian journalists had lost their jobs in the previous five years. Since then, there have been further deep cuts, and last week’s announcements were merely the latest. In the US, it is estimated that 15 per cent of journalistic jobs disappeared between 2005 and 2009, and the cuts haven’t paused since then.
At the same time, and offsetting this, there are new participants in the Australian media. We now have online local versions of the British Daily Mail, the youth-oriented news and entertainment outlet Buzzfeed, the New York Times, (which has just launched) and the Huffington Post, which operates in partnership with Fairfax. Not least, there is this outlet – an Australian edition of the Guardian.
There are also many small, specialist outlets that exist because the economics of online publishing beat the cost of buying broadcasting licences or printing on bits of dead tree, trucking the papers around the nation and throwing them over the fences.
For the same reasons, almost any large organisation can, if it chooses, use the worldwide web to be a media outlet – though whether the output classes as journalism or public relations is another matter.
Most of the new entrants to the business employ only a few local journalists. The reputable ones struggle to perform miracles each hour with hardly any reporters.
So what does the future hold?
I think it is clear we will have many more smaller newsrooms in the future – including new entrants, non-media organisations touting their wares and the wasted remains of the old businesses.
Some of these newsrooms will operate on the slippery slopes that lie between news, advocacy and advertising.
Some of them will be the fake news factories, devoted to earning an income from spreading clickable, outrageous lies.
If it were only the decline of businesses, we would not need to worry so much. It is rare in history for those who have profited from one technology to go on to dominate the next. Cobb and Co ran the stagecoaches, but not the steam trains.
But it is more serious than the decline of private businesses.
The future is far from clear, but here are some things we can expect to see delivered more quickly than we might think.
First, social media companies will begin to invest in quality content, because otherwise they will lose their audiences.
This is not merely wishful thinking. In China, WeChat, owned by Tencent Corporation, is the dominant social media engine and has functionality that makes Facebook and Twitter look old-fashioned. If you want to know what’s coming next in social media, look to China.
As I found on a recent research trip to China, WeChat is investing a lot of money in original journalism. Many of the most interesting journalists in China – including some who have been jailed in the past for their work – are now earning better salaries than those available on party media outlets by freelancing for Tencent, which actively supports and encourages them in multiple ways.
It’s counterintuitive, given China’s record on freedom of speech, but then the country is changing so fast and is so complex that preconceptions can only be challenged. China might have begun by copying the social media activity of the west, but it has long since outstripped it.
Not that the future dominance of Tencent-like operations is entirely reassuring. WeChat is also a cashless payment system, earning money from transactions. It knows absolutely everything about its users, to a much greater extent than Facebook and Google. It surpasses all previous means of citizen surveillance.
Second, governments will have to take some responsibility for news and information. In Europe and Canada, they are experimenting with methods of helping bolster journalism.
Meanwhile, international research confirms that countries blessed with a strong tradition of publicly funded media are more cohesive, better informed and less polarised. Our own ABC is one of the main reasons we can hope that the trajectory of our democracy will be better than that of the United States.
Lastly, there are citizens. The experience of the last decade tells us that citizen-journalism cannot replace the work done by properly resourced and trained professionals, but it will be a permanent part of the news ecology.
For the foreseeable future, we will be only a few minutes and clicks away from a citizen leaking information, publishing a bare account of a news event or providing a subversive point of view.
In fact, being a responsible consumer, funder and purveyor of news and information is now best understood as one of the many duties of good citizenship. If we can hold firm to that notion, we will come through the crisis.