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Print media's not dead, just in the ICU

By Jonathan J. Ariel - posted Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Given at this time of year most of us are busy shuffling from kitchen bench top to oven to dinner table, and from retailer to wrapping paper to Christmas tree, one of the least joyful tasks we look forward to when we find a chance to steal a few moments alone with the iPad is surely to wade through reams of verbiage in order to get to the nub of an article.

So permit me to come to the point.

This is a short 134-page book that is good, but far, far from great. It has the makings of a wonderful essay or perhaps an uplifting oration but it’s not a cool book. Not cool at all.


There are just too few facts and only a small part of a very important story is conveyed. If you’re a working journalist, a recently made redundant journalist, an aspiring journalist or merely interested in the media you’ll be left wanting.

That said, like all great storytellers, the author, Margaret Simons, the Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne, raises more questions than she answers. And as they say in creative writing classes: she shows rather than tells.

I expected the book would explain the changing face of print media and how the current business models of most mainstream media firms are broken and in need of repairs.

But it doesn’t.

Two major forces that are diluting the profitability of print media – softening advertising revenues and a collapsing (paid) readership - are both exacerbated by the current economic slowdown. The former Editor-in-Chief of The Age Michael Gawenda explains this and more in the book’s thoughtful foreword.

The economics of media (both legacy and new) that underpins the financial viability of a business barely makes a cameo appearance in the book. There is scant mention that a significant factor in the transformation of the media over the last three years has seen marketers lug their spending away from paid mass media print advertising in favour of online communications, be it customised (non banner) advertising on e-zines, loyalty programmes, Facebook campaigns or reeling in customers to their own web sites.


In ad speak this is called  “below the line” marketing, and already represents three-quarters of most marketing budgets, having grown faster than paid media since well before the current slowdown. Below-the-line campaigns is tipped to consume the bulk of marketing spending as the economy improves, placing a cap on the ad recovery that print media outlets are counting on to restore their profits or even to ensure their capacity to hire staff and allow journalists to produce high end content such as investigative pieces or long form articles.

The rise and rise of digital media has hit print hardest, since print ads are priced at a significant premium over other kinds of advertising and crucially marketers have been lethargic to reduce spending on print media’s closest substitutes: broadcast and cable television spending, because these marketers want to continue creating and developing brand awareness.

In addition, former print advertisers, as they consider travelling towards more and more digital communications, will be shocked to find that the digital space already resembles a crowded airport runway, teeming not only with same-industry rivals but also with a much broader set of opportunists, including Google, Yahoo!, Facebook and Big Media’s online properties, all attempting to aggregate “eyeballs” from an array of sites.

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Journalism at the Crossroads: Crisis and Opportunity for the Press by Margaret Simons, Scribe, Melbourne 2012 $22.45

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About the Author

Jonathan J. Ariel is an economist and financial analyst. He holds a MBA from the Australian Graduate School of Management. He can be contacted at

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