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Fairfax changes good for readers, not so good for community

By Graham Young - posted Tuesday, 19 June 2012


What Fairfax announced yesterday was obvious 13 years ago when we first conceptualised On Line Opinion – 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.

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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.

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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.

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A version of this article was first published on our blog Ambit Gambit yesterday.



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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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