I’m reading Ben Hills’ monumental biography of the great Age editor Graham Perkin “Breaking News” and it makes me break into a wry smile when I hear of the 1900 job losses and other sweeping changes announced today at Fairfax. A smile seems harsh when so many livelihoods are at stake in something in many quarters seen as a disastrous loss to Australian media. Yet I see it as a natural step of an industry that must change to avoid death.
Reading Hills’ account of The Age in the stultifying days before Perkin took over in the 1960s, the real wonder is how the newspaper has lasted this long. The paper was moribund, uninteresting, under the thumb of the government, hamstrung by libel laws, and almost bled to death by the dull Syme family who cared more about dividends than the paper. Perkin. with the aid of his go-getting equally young managing director Ranald McDonald (a Syme who broke the mould) turned the Age into a vibrant newspaper. I believe both Perkin and McDonald would have supported today’s moves by Fairfax CEO Greg Hyland.
The matter came up on ABC’s PM tonight where Mark Colvin interviewed David McKnight, senior research fellow at the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales and Andrew Jaspan, former editor of the Age. After joking about George Brandis’s comment in parliament the redundancies were the work of the carbon tax, they introduced a serious tax issue. The discussion was around Colvin’s point the financial papers, such as the Financial Times, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal, have made money because of their specialist readerships. Jaspan continued:
“I'm glad you mentioned that because the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times are seen as expenseable costs,” Jaspan said.” So if you work anywhere in London, or New York, US you can charge to your credit card the cost of those services. So they are really fundamentally different to the likes of generalist papers.”
No-one picked up on Jaspan’s point: why can’t generalist papers be like the WSJ and the FT and be expenseable costs? This is intervention thats governments – like Australia's – could make without compromising the independence of the publications. Make subscription to a news publication a tax expense. Why wouldn’t a businessperson in Sydney not want a subscription to the Sydney Morning Herald? Even with its now denuded newsroom, it is still the biggest source of journalism in Sydney and would have access to information – not just financial information - vital to the success of any local enterprise. Wouldn’t governments and big business want to encourage this information sharing by making buying a newspaper a taxable and/or expenseable item?
Yet ultimately newsprint is not a practical way to deliver news in the resource-conscious 21st century. Why should trees die for newsprint? And then there is the distribution costs —trucking all those newspaper copies to newsstands and homes, then back to recycling centres or worse still landfills. Slate argues the jury is still out whether online is more energy-friendly but the fact remains more people now prefer to get their news online. There is no lessening of thirst for news. People will pay for it. No longer according to the rivers of gold of old but they will pay for it. Fairfax have done the right thing to recognise where the future is. Now they have to make sure there are enough content makers to provide the niche content for their markets. They may or may not make it but that is not our concern. I would not mourn Fairfax’s passing if it dies.
Jason Wilson in Restless Capital calls it a collapse but I call it changing times. 20th century newspaper companies are like carmakers, only without the subsidies. Companies that cannot understand that, deserve to die. There may be a small deficit of news if Fairfax disappears but something will fill the gap. Maybe we will lose investigative journalism but that didn’t exist much before Graham Perkin anyway. The much loathed – but still popular - Today Tonight and A Current Affair programs show current affairs is still popular in tabloid form. The death of big journalism is not the end of the world and it won’t end investigative journalism. People will still flock to to newsmakers and also come to those who tell the story behind the news. Someone, somewhere – if not Fairfax – will learn how to do that digitally with a profit. Newsrooms may come and go but news will always survive.