After Fairfax: what’s the price of a free press?

The shocking overnight news from Fairfax  – 1900 job cuts and press closures in Sydney and Melbourne – comes like a bolt from the blue.

I’m lying. It was entirely predictable. Australia’s oldest newspaper group has been run by dolts, social climbers, profit gougers, chancers and failed business types for at least 30 years.

Fairfax has been dying on its feet through greed, laziness and incompetence. Its fortunes were based on the William Caxton, 15th century model:  originally this involved printing presses and gentlemen artisans performing highly skilled work to produce reading for the well educated.

When the model moved into newspapers it relied on vast tonnes of newsprint and advertising revenue from classifieds and display advertising. This income paid for the journalism and overheads while  the sales from circulation provided a tidy profit.

The microchip, computers, the internet, digital technology and instant globalised communication, all developed in the last two decades, have killed the paper-and-ink model.

Fairfax’s owners and directors (and other boneheaded newspaper proprietors) concluded that the new technology had killed journalism as well. So they began to dick around with the content of papers, dumbing down the journalism in the stupid view that it would arrest the decline in circulation.

But it was the decline in classified and display advertising – the drying-up of the “rivers of gold” – which was largely responsible for falling circulation – NOT JOURNALISM.

People who paid for advertisements bought papers to see their ads in print and people who wanted to buy goods and services bought papers to see what was on offer and to check the prices that were being asked.

Papers were a printed supermarket for advertisements. When the advertising shrunk, so did the circulation.

Cornerstone of democracy

So what now? Schools and universities are filled with students who are taught that a fundamental element of democracy is a free press. Along with the right to vote, the freedom of religion and the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press is a cornerstone of the Western democratic system. We regard the principle so highly that in recent years the West has invaded other countries to demand that they establish democratic institutions and embrace a free press.

Given that freedom of the press is such a vital element of democracy why do we leave it in the hands of Rupert Murdoch or invite Gina Rinehart to become a proprietor?

To enshrine the democratic values of a free press costs money and I believe that the next model for 21st century media will involve public money.

(Would someone take smelling salts to the editorial boards of The Australian and the Australian Financial Review? They seem to have fainted).

In the past Australia spent public funds to create a rail network, a telephone system, a national bank, a postal network and an airline and we are currently spending billions of dollars on a National Broadband Network, so why not establish a publicly funded model to maintain a free press?

There are public media enterprises in Western Europe and they have been successful. The arguments about political interference by politicians have proved groundless: an impenetrable firewall has been constructed between politicians and the public trustees.

We currently entrust the ABC board with the spending of huge sums of public money to maintain one of the finest public broadcasting organisations in the world. Surely a similar superstructure – corporatised and commercially competitive – could be developed for the new media?

There are journalists, academics, politicians, lawyers and technical experts capable of producing a publicly funded model so that the industry is placed on a viable footing to take its rightful place in our national life and culture.

Can we all stop worshipping the free market (which is in its death throes all over the world) and concentrate on a publicly owned, independently structured and commercially based media industry?

Too utopian? Well, I’m waiting to hear a better idea.

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