What Fairfax announced today was obvious 13 years ago – the traditional newspaper model has been broken for quite some time. But that doesn’t mean that the alternative model is going to fill the role of the fourth estate as well as the existing one.
Not that the fourth estate has been functioning as effectively as it should. While technology is a problem for Fairfax, so is editorial. It has increasingly adopted a soft-left ideology at odds with the views of its readers, and with reality. The effect of that has been to double up on the erosion of its market share due to the Internet.
Which brings its own blessing, because if it is going to make a go of the Internet it will have to reconnect with the customer as subscriptions will be the only way to pay the bill.
Print news has become a bloated process because of the cross subsidies that used to be available from classified and display advertising. While those cross subsidies made life very comfortable for the news side of the operation, like most unearned income, it was poison to the recipient.
It allowed indulgence and encouraged over-production. It cultivated a journalistic culture which sneered at readers and served them what they should read rather than what they wanted or needed.
With the advertiser out of the way, the customer is now in control. And while the Fairfax news agenda is likely to swing back to mainstream opinion that doesn’t mean that print media organisations (better get used to not calling them newspapers) will have the broad reach that they used to.
Which means that the print news business is about to get fragmented. I’m not convinced this is going to be good for democracy.
The print news media organisation of the future is more likely to be like a Crikey (which has a sustainable economic model more or less at the moment) or an On Line Opinion (which is still working one out, but has such low overheads that it can keep operating on very little) than the paper behemoths of the present.
It is also more likely to be transparently an aggregation of smaller sites targeting niches. So you will have a sports site, and a finance site, and a lifestyle site, as well as a news and commentary site.
That means higher productivity from journalists, with a weighting towards name journalists (as occurs on the Alan Kohler Business Spectator/Eureka site).
It means fewer cross subsidies (financial news will be able to charge a premium, for example, while lifestyle will be strung out on display ads, pity the lifestyle journalists).
It means free, low value giveaway material being widely available, as bait to get much smaller groups of readers to buy news, and then news add ons.
The Internet will weight the value in the news operation away from the hard assets and the production and distribution network, which will allow print news media to prosper with fewer readers, and therein lies the rub.
At the moment we have mass media which consist of broadcast and print. Broadcast does a very good job of transmitting headline versions of the news, but a very poor one in general of analysis, and only a reasonable one of fact. Print has been diminishing as a mass conduit for the facts and headlines, but still retains a mass role in analysis (even taking account that analysis is more of a niche interest).
To the extent that serious news is going online it goes off the news stands, and more importantly, off the lunch room tables. The serendipitous encounters that we all have with news in the hard copy world will diminish.
Of course they will be replaced by online encounters, but these will be less serendipitous, and more directed.
We are all on someone else’s email list, even if we aren’t on their Twitter feed or friends with them on Facebook. I am certainly on all three, and my experience is that it is generally the partisans who are most likely to push something through to me.
As a result, were it not for the reading I do for On Line Opinion, it would be easy for me to live in an information and analysis ghetto. Partisans know your politics, and they generally don’t push stuff to you if they think you won’t be sympathetic.
So, while print news media is collectively about to get closer to its readers, it is also individually about to get further away from its community.
That is a challenge for democracy, and for the media’s self-imagined role as the fourth estate.