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Requiem for quality journalism


The Age

I still wince at the memory of the morning after my first day on the Sydney Morning Herald. I had been appointed a leader writer and my initial editorial was about to hit the streets.

So I got out of bed at 5 am and paced the house until the corner shop opened an hour later. Then I slipped through the door of the shop, bought a paper and read four times the sage advice on an Argentine political crisis that I had assigned to the country’s oldest and and most respected newspaper before it finally sunk in that I’d become one of its journalists.

It was a totally inconsequential piece to get so excited about. And yet, over the next twenty years as a Fairfax journalist and columnist, I never quite lost the excitement born of the responsibility I felt toward the public, the thrill of seeing my words in print, and the satisfaction of knowing that, in however small a way, I was helping to shape the thoughts of people across the city every day. 

The corner shop is gone now, unable to compete with the shopping complex that was built down the road. The Sydney Morning Herald is heading the same way – and for much the same reason.

From next year, together with The Age, the Herald will cease to be published as a broadsheet and appear in ‘compact’ (read tabloid) form. For how long is anyone’s guess. Fairfax management isn’t hiding the fact that the package of measures it announced on Monday is designed to move the company into a digital future. And the decision to close the printing plants in Chullora and Tullamarine in 2014 doesn’t bode well for the future of hardcopy newspapers in any form at all. 

We all know what prompted these decisions: changes in reader and advertiser habits brought on by the digital revolution. Not all of us, however, fully appreciate the impact of those changes.

One way to look at it is that 65 percent of Herald and Age readers access the newspapers’ content not in hardcopy form but online.  Another way is to consider that for every dollar of revenue from hardcopy advertising, the online equivalent is a about 10 cents.

On May 30, journalists at Fairfax went on strike for nearly two days to protest a decision to shift 66 sub-editing jobs off-shore. The industrial action was unprotected but management baulked at challenging the strike. The reason, according to reliable insiders, is that the company was saving far more money each day workers were out than it would have made if they were on the job.  

Late last year the Centre for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California released the findings of a ten-year study into the impact of internet technology on US media. Among the report’s findings was a prediction that most American newspapers will be out of business within five years.

‘We believe that the only newspapers in America that will survive in print form will be at the extremes of the medium – the largest and the smallest',’ said centre director Jeffrey Cole. ‘It’s likely that only four major daily newspapers with global reach will continue in print: The New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. At the other extreme, local weekly newspapers may still survive, as well as the Sunday print editions of metropolitan newspapers that otherwise may exist only in online editions."

'The impending death of the American print newspaper continues to raise many questions', Cole added. “Will media organisations survive and thrive when they move exclusively to online availability? How will the changing delivery of content affect the quality and depth of journalism?'

Fairfax is now confronting the first of these questions as it jettisons cost-heavy production platforms like a pilot tossing out everything he can to get more lift across the next mountain. Others will be watching Fairfax’s fortunes closely: not just newspaper companies like News Limited – which has announced its own restructuring in the slipstream of the Fairfax announcement but with as yet far less detil about what it will mean for jobs, formats and newsroom output. But also magazine producers and television broadcasters – all of which are hurtling toward the same cliff face.

And as for quality and depth? There’s no doubt both will suffer not just from job cuts but also due to the cultural shift from a world of lasting tangible hardcopy that rouses you at 5 am to fleeting virtual postings that can keep you awake all night.

But let’s hope Fairfax management remembers that in a crowded digital environment, quality and depth are the only things that can continue to distinguish its brands.

Chris McGillionChris McGillion was a writer, section editor and religion columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald from 1984 to 2004. He now teaches journalism at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst.

Topic tags: Chris McGillion, Fairfax, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Financial Review, good journalism



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Existing comments

And The Canberra Times also. Jack Waterford, John Warhurst, outstanding opinion writers and reporters. And how will I do without my morning sudoku?

Frank | 22 June 2012  

I find it difficult to feel regret at the imminent demise of news-papers - with the emphasis on paper. The number of trees that need to be pulped for each mornings 10 minute scan of even "quality" papers seems a poor trade off for providing a bleary eyed journo with something to read with his morning coffee. As the author acknowledges, it is the content that matters, not the method of delivery. And if SMH decide not to provide the content then Eureka Street, or New Matilda, or Crikey will. And here is one geriatric who welcomes the change, and accepts that it will have to be paid for. p.s I'm hoping to win the raffle.

Vincenzo Vittorio | 22 June 2012  

The milk bar analogy is telling, as are the references to pilots and mountains and cliff faces. What's on the other side of the mountains? What's at the bottom of the cliff face? As a lifelong reader of the Age and as an occasional freelance contributor to the Age over 20 years - and as a devotee of milk bars - I'm going to rue the day when Fairfax shut down all the presses. But not as much as those who work the presses.

Vin Maskell | 22 June 2012  

Totally agreed - we are passing through a stage of requiem for quality journalism - but also seeing the beginnings a the rebirth already. The truth is still out there.

AURELIUS | 22 June 2012  

One of the effects that totalitarianism has over democratic societies is the silencing of freedom of choice. In the digital age (so to speak) the gradual corrosion of the print media can be perceived as the global return totalitarianism. Witness for instance, Murdoch's pathological desire to 'own' the world's popular media, from newsprint to its digitised version. It is an economic version of totalitarianism that will silence all alternative views of how we perceive the world we live in, including the environment that surrounds us. The danger of all this, including the 'venerable' Mrs. Rinehart incursion into the country's oldest print media, as Chris MicGillon so aptly put is that "quality and depth" of any dissenting political public debate will be suffocated. As a nation, we've travelled a long way from the obscene days of White Australia. One of the things that we need to preserve is the equilibrium of a free press.

Alex Njoo | 22 June 2012  

Notwithstanding the recently announced newspaper changes, the quality of journalism in Australia's mainstream print and electronic media has been diminishing for the past thirty odd years. Most of the spoken and written articles on current affairs, politics, sport etc. are illinformed, self-indulgent, speculative and meaningless opinion. Most of these articles are based on quotes taken out of context from press conferences. The only good political journalists are Lara Tingle and George Megaleonis. If people want quality journalism they need to access radio programs such as Phillip Adam's 'Late Night Live' and community radio stations such as Melbourne's 3CR, TV news programs such as DW TV's 'Journal', the American 'PBS Newshour' and the Middle East 'Al Jazeera News' and print journals such as 'Arena'.

Mark Doyle | 22 June 2012  

The threatened demise of news papers also threatens the move towards a more insular, ignorant and uncaring society. The analogy comes to mind of the teenager living away from home trying to convince parents that just sending text messages is more effective com- munication than a phone call. What more can they want than "how r u." "LOL" every month? Truncated, online articles may suit those who do not wish to be informed or to connect with society and those journalists required to produce them will have no incentive to produce quality, reasurchased material. Ergo, their demise also. I hope I will not live in such a society or see the widespread unemployment that is being advocated.

Michelle | 22 June 2012  

I was going to write more but read Mark Doyle and condidered I had little to add. I would name a couple more journalists, Greg Sheridan reasonably often on foreign affairs for instance. I read the incomprehensible Micelle Grattan and despair. The Age Saturday Review is usually boring and underdeveloped with a typical literary editor and a real contrast to the Australian's version.

Brian Poidevin | 22 June 2012  

Newspapers are nostalgic, and I will miss them for that, but the new digital environment offers so much more.

It's a difficult situation, and I feel for the journalists, and those in the printing plants. Yet it's been a time of change in the last decade or two and the main reason so many jobs are now going is because of poor management in the {relatively} recent past. Unfortunately, those in leadership were not strategic or visionary about the way media would operate in a digital world.

Like Vincenzo, I am excited by some of the alternative publications and the writing that accompanies expertise in a particular area. I am confident that the journalists at Fairfax will have new opportunities for the more 'niche' markets that digital media brings (although yes, it is a shame that some other papers' journalists still have a platform despite shallow and partisan analysis).

The new digital era has caught many by surprise, and those who have profited from others' talent without adding much value are struggling (I'm thinking of you, recording industry). In papers, mass marketing dollars ended up making the company rich, even though readers had to sift through pages of ads to read the items of interest. I think the know-how and talent of the writers (and recording artists) will always be of interest. It's now time for an alternative platform and I wish them well.

Moira | 22 June 2012  

Perhaps they could just email the paper to subscribers, and also a little desktop publisher program. You could select the stories you want to read from a list in the email, and the desktop publisher formats it into a little A4 newsletter for printing on your own printer.

David Arthur | 22 June 2012  

Without realising it I only read on line. It is where the best opinion is to be had. i live in rural Australia and if i don't read the Oz then getting any other broadsheet is very difficaul. It is hard to share your regret att the passing of quality broadsheet. Many of us have not had it ever since we left the city.

graham patison | 23 June 2012  

If Greg Sheridan's style of journalism at News Ltd is worthy of praise, then I can foresee a future where a media outlet justifies a military coup in Australia to save our economy from a democratically elected left-leaning government.
Sheridan once wrote a piece in the Australian praising Pinochet for toppling Allende - and conveniently failed to mention that Allende was popularly elected by Chileans!

AURELIUS | 23 June 2012  

Aurelius, you are right about Greg Sheridan; I remember his support of Pinochet. I was bemused at Brian Poidevin's mention of him. He is a conservative right wing journo who travels on the same train as Pier Akerman and Andrew Bolt.

Mark Doyle | 23 June 2012  

I cannot comment on southern dailies, but Brisbane has suffered for decades from being a one paper 'News Limited' tabloid rag town. The result, biased sensationalism all in the name of trying to sell papers. A sad day indeed.

Eugene | 24 June 2012  

I wonder what Barney Swartz will now take on, he seems to have gone very quiet of late, unless I have just missed his articles. I think this inquiry into abuse has given him a few mixed feelings.

L Newington | 24 June 2012