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Fairfax: This is the end beautiful friend

Date posted: Tuesday 19 Jun 2012

In an online opinion piece published in The Drum, Swinburne Senior Lecturer in Journalism Dr Andrew Dodd discusses the demise of print media.

 

 

Yesterday I felt like getting out the vinyl and cueing up Jim Morrison when the news landed about Fairfax.

Could anything have said it better than that apocalyptic anthem with those mournful lyrics, "This is the end… beautiful friend… this is the end"?

Fairfax was announcing its own demise. It was calmly lopping off its own arms and dispensing with 160 years of tradition. It wasn't hiding behind euphemisms – at least not a lot of them – as it spoke of shedding jobs and flogging off assets and hinted at its bleak choices ahead.

Yes, it was a dark day in the history of Australian journalism. But it was also the day we had to have, because yesterday the reality of what we're living through finally hit us. The changes affecting the media are so profound that almost nothing can be taken for granted any more.

Yesterday showed us that all those warnings about the loss of Australia's most respected mastheads are real and that printed newspapers really are moribund. Yesterday we saw that the death of newspapers doesn't just happen in recession-riddled America. It could very well happen here too.

We also glimpsed some of the dilemmas facing Fairfax executives. Although there was a chorus of commentators screaming out that they were slow to take action and that they failed to see the obvious trends that could have saved them back in the 1990s, it was nevertheless apparent that making choices about the future of the news media has always been difficult.

Yesterday was an important day because suddenly our future seemed to become just a little clearer. Some of the old thinking that has held us back for a decade or more seemed to evaporate, allowing us to see a different kind of media landscape and to view it with a little less fear.

For the first time, I found myself asking whether life without a printed version of The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald is all that bad? After all, it's apparent that there is a rapidly diminishing number of us still reading those papers in that way. For the first time I could see beyond the emotional attachment to those once venerable broadsheets that have been marking time and recording events for so long. I was a step closer to being able to let the printed versions go.

Of course, it's sad that so many skilled reporters will lose their jobs and that we will lose so much media diversity as a result. It is a shame too for the people staffing the printing presses at Chullora and Tullamarine. The idea of completely selling off those relatively new plants really does take some thinking about. Was there ever a clearer statement about the future of an industry?  But these days it's almost news when a newspaper doesn't sack someone, so I suspect the workers have been anticipating yesterday's announcement for quite some time.

It wasn't that long ago that Fairfax CEO, Greg Hywood, dismissed pay walls, and claimed the moral high ground as Rupert Murdoch's News Limited began to erect barriers around its online content. Yesterday, we saw that aspiration morph into realism. If we weren't aware before, we certainly know now that advertising and circulation revenues don't add up unless on-line readers pay for at least some of what they consume. We also know that we shouldn't be fooled into believing that Fairfax's decision to adopt the less restrictive freemium model reflects some vestige of altruism. Rather it is a cold calculation that more money can be generated that way.

It felt like the company was relishing its bad news yesterday, as if it wanted to bare its chest to impress the market, which predictably responded well. Fairfax appeared to be talking up the number of job cuts, rather than hiding behind the fact that some downsizing had already been announced. It didn't care that it was telling the nation before telling its own staff. But suggestions by some commentators that this had anything to do with Gina Rinehart's swoop on the company's share register seemed ludicrous. It's hard to believe she is overly concerned about the company's share price.

So now that we're on the other side of this momentous decision, isn't it time to get on with the future? As one person tweeted to the ABC yesterday, there was a "strange sense of relief," about it all because they felt like a "chook that has been eyeing the axe for a month".

The axe has fallen, so it's time to get serious about re-imagining our media and how we can get what we want from it. The Fairfax cuts should tell us that we need to work harder to find ways to foster good journalism, while seeking ways to make it pay. If yesterday's bad news helps us see that imperative a little clearer then there is at least one positive to be gained.

 

Dr Andrew Dodd has been a journalist and broadcaster for more than 20 years.