Short-term gains

I have written at least a gross of columns for Eureka Street—amazingly not having missed an issue—since it began in 1991, and find myself with mixed emotions as I write this for the last printed issue—at about the same time as Communications Minister Helen Coonan is circulating her white paper on the future of the media. I shall write on for the internet edition—assuming the editors want me to—and my job of doing so will not be different, right down to drafting the article on a computer, and sending it to Melbourne, late as usual, by email.

For at least the past 20 years, people have predicted the demise of the newspaper, the magazine, and, probably, ultimately, the book. I do not believe it for a second. Indeed, some of the new technology—not least the ebook—may well lead to a revival of interest in the printed word. Here in Canberra, I have a particular perspective on thinking so.

About 20 per cent of the population of Canberra—a proportion far higher than anywhere else in Australia, and possibly the world—are news junkies. They read, watch, listen to and otherwise access anything they can if it has some relevance to their lives. They are politicians, political staffers, public servants and other government advisers, lobbyists for private and public causes, and members of Canberra’s substantial education, military and diplomatic industries. Information and informed views—and being up-to-date on what occurs—are their stock-in-trade.

The news junkies sop up information wherever they can get it. They are the most sophisticated consumers of all mediums. Many get up in the morning and flick on television news and current affairs. They listen to AM on the radio, and browse the newspapers—three on average, sometimes more. As soon as they get to work, they are browsing the internet, and will likely consult news sources several times during their working day. They will go out of their way, if they can, to hear ABC news and current-affairs broadcasts, and to watch key television current-affairs shows. They buy books, particularly non-fiction, and are at least ten times more likely to do so than average Australians—themselves keen book buyers by international standards. And they read magazines, particularly current-affairs ones (a nice example is that about one in every 40 readers of the British magazine The Spectator lives in Canberra). They are catholic in doing so. A high proportion of, say, Quadrant readers also read Eureka Street, Arena and The Bulletin.

These sophisticates know very well the advantages of particular mediums: the immediacy of radio; images on television; the permanence of print and the capacity it and some delay allows for more detail, analysis and informed commentary; and the value of the internet for research. The highest consumption of any of these mediums—so far as news and views are concerned—is by the people who are the heaviest consumers of the other mediums. By and large, they are not dropping any old mediums for new ones—or where they are, it is not because of technological change or convenience, but because particular old mediums are less competent at doing their particular job, and the reason for using them is less pressing.

The majority of Australians—even of Canberrans—are not like these news junkies. Some people (worryingly, an increasing number) are completely turned off news in any medium at all. They would not read newspapers if they were free. They turn off, or move the dial, on radio and television when news or current affairs come on. They make only the most limited personal use of the internet. But while people note the slow and steady decline of newspaper circulations—about half of what they were 40 years ago—or the declining total audience of television—likewise—it has not been because of a switch of mediums so much as a decreasing engagement by and with audiences, not least in an environment in which the amount of information available is increasing exponentially.

Few media are now owned by people—such as the old Fairfaxes and perhaps the Symes—with some vocational sense of duty to enlighten, inform and influence the world. Owners are now overwhelmingly corporations, often mere wings of corporations, focused on farming potential advertising revenue and maximising profits. They realise that the bigger the audience, the higher the advertising premium, and that quality and quantity of content are critical to that. Increasingly, however, they are focused on costs, and on a dream that costs can be cut by finding ‘synergies’—ways of getting bigger audiences for the same content.

The dream is of a journalist who will, in the same day, tell it on radio and television—perhaps in an extended way on a subscription channel as well—and write it for the paper, which will, of course, republish it on the internet, probably sending you an SMS as it does so. And, of course, using the power of syndication to do it in separate markets with duplication of journalists. The pursuit of that dream—and the maximum audience—involves the idea that the new media empires should involve all mediums.

It won’t, in the long run, work. The hungriest punters do not want the same information repackaged for different mediums, and will only take it once, if at all, given that there are alternative sources. If syndication and cost-cutting make less of the product attractive, relevant, interesting, or urgently demanding to be consumed, the overall demand for the product will fall. A fresh range of market media analysts—a good few of whom are illiterate—will foreshadow impending death and call for more cost-cutting. More media concentration is to be resisted not because proprietors are telling editors and journalists what to write, but because the greater the concentration, the less pressure for quality, breadth and depth. 

Jack Waterford is editor-at-large for The Canberra Times.



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