Without Kate McClymont & Hedley Thomas – Democracy in trouble

Stone the crows! The unthinkable is on the agenda – Sydney without the Sydney Morning Herald. A table accompanying a story in the weekend Fin set out Fairfax finances, without the metropolitan papers.[i]

And if you think it’s impossible that is what they said in the crescent city when the print edition of the New Orleans Times-Picayune barely missed a beat after Katrina and did what great newspapers do – reported for and represented the interests of its readers.[ii] People praised it last week when the paper announced it was scaling back the print edition but those would be some of the same people who did not buy or advertise in it.[iii]

With the Times-Picayune down to three days a week, New Orleans has joined Oakland California as the second US city over a million people without a print daily.[iv] (Admittedly Oaklanders have easy access to the San Francisco Chronicle, barely a bridge away.)

But would it be a catastrophe if the print SMH disappeared but kept publishing on-line? Probably not, journalists are in the news not the paper business and both the AFR and The Australian have built serious content rich e-editions.

Indeed, the Crows can imagine a far worse fate – and not just for journalism – than a change in the news production process from print to digital.

What scares the Crows featherless is the possibility that online newspapers running hard news and analysis will turn out to be a product for the old, that the Facebook generation (which now covers everybody under 80) never acquire the habit of reading detailed stories full of facts and analysis which reasons rather than rants.[v]

Readers less interested in the affairs of state than the affairs of celebrities can now read what interests them to an extent unimaginable 20 years ago when what interested journalists was what was reported.

Jack Fuller argues this is inevitable given humans are hard wired for emotion and curiosity about each other, which the Internet can fulfil on a global scale. [vi]

It’s not that what Fuller calls the Standard Model of journalism has failed; it’s just that people who once bought and read papers without much enthusiasm now have alternatives that provide them with the news about nothing much that really interests them.

“The information revolution empowered users to decide for themselves what is important, what is credible, not entrust the decision to some faceless editor,” Fuller writes.[vii]

And in New Orleans it appears there are not enough readers committed to the Standard Model to keep the city’s paper printing.

Not to worry, the commentariat claims, independent activists will report all the news the capitalist press suppresses and put it up online.

At which the Crows caw because it mistakes low cost delivery for high quality journalism (not to mention the marketing cost of making your offering known in the cacophony which is the online market place of ideas.

And it ignores how hard good journalism is.

For a start, it is the professional press relying on stories to attract paying customers that does the investigating political leaders loath.

The Finkelstein inquiry cited the wheat for oil, Haneef and Reserve Bank currency printing scandals and the ABC live cattle export story as examples. [viii]

The first two, which did enormous damage to the Howard Government, were the work of The Australian and the third came from the AFR – and you don’t get much more capitalist than the Fin.

And not even citizen journalism (aka accountability journalism) admirers assume there is enough of a paying audience to make the crusading commentator much of a living.

Thus, Finkelstein suggested, universities could be funded to be sources of local and accountability journalism. They could be funded to provide faculty positions for individual journalists and so could become laboratories for experiments in innovative ways of gathering and sharing news.[ix]

Aside from audience size and funding, there is another reason why the DIY model cannot replace the broadsheet. The generality of self-selected online journalists rant rather than report.

Fair enough – this is how newspapers started, as propaganda sheets for political parties and interest groups.

But a solid diet of opinion site will leave you depressed by the rage and rudeness of reader responses, despairing at the group-think and deploring the way news and comment merge.

And while there are a mass of specialist websites produced by professionals who would make a living from them if a paying audience existed, most citizen journalists lack the skills to do much journalism. Most don’t do company searches, scour the Tasmanian Hansard, scour government websites and ask questions powerful people don’t want to answer.

And those who see their role as proselytising rather than reporting select stories that are suitable to report.

As former reporter David Simon, (of The Wire and Treme fame) told a US Senate inquiry in 2009:

I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere, believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives can be held to gathered facts by amateurs pursuing the task without compensation, training, or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying or from whom they are withholding information.[x]

So what happens if there are not enough paying customers, in print or on-line, to keep providing us with what Fuller calls, “the data of democracy”?[xi]

What happens if the Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate McClymont is not reporting on rorting by politicians and public servants, coppers and crims in Sydney?

What happens if The Australian’s Hedley Thomas is not chasing down the information that led to the re-opening of the inquiry into the Brisbane floods? [xii]

What happens if policy analysts like George Megalogenis, Judith Sloan in The Aus and Alan Mitchell in the Fin are not analysing Treasury and ATO data and explaining why the government’s numbers do not add up?

What happens is democracy is in trouble.

Serious news reporting and analysis is not fungible – if it stops appearing in the papers or on-line the same stories will not turn up somewhere else.

A world where readers focus on their private worlds of physical and FaceBook friends and ignore the way we are governed is a world where the spivs and smarties in public life run riot. Because people who don’t care much about politics will not have the option of picking up or logging on to the paper when they hear something on the radio or read a piece on a news aggregator site, both of which now source their stories from the morning policy press.

We are already seeing what happens when a generation disengages from politics with the Lowy Institute survey finding that only 39 per cent of Australians between 18 and 29 think democracy is preferable to other forms of government. [xiii]

And you won’t read about why that is really alarming on FaceBook.

Disclosure: Stephen Matchett also writes for The Australian


[i] Ben Holgate, “Closures the last resort at Fairfax,” Australian Financial Review, June 16

[ii] www.newseum.org/exhibits-and-theaters/previous-exhibits/katrina/ recovered on June 16

[iii] Cameron McWhirter, “New Orleans clamours for its paper” Wall Street Journal, June 12

[iv] Martin Hirst, “Will we miss our daily newspaper,” The Conversation, June 5 2012 @ http://theconversation.edu.au/will-we-miss-our-daily-newspaper-7413 recovered on June 16

[v] According to the Pew Research Centre US some 32 per cent of Americans were social media users in 2008, increasing to 52 per cent two years later. Lee Rainnie et al, “Social networking sites and our lives,” Pew Research Centre, June 16 2011 @ http://pewresearch.org/pubs/2025/social-impact-social-networking-sites-technology-facebook-twitter-linkedin-myspace recovered on June 16

[vi] Jack Fuller, What is happening to news: the information explosion and the crisis in journalism, (Chicago, 2010) 24-27

[vii] Fuller, op cit 110

[viii] R Finkelstein, “Report of the independent inquiry into the media and media regulation, February 23 @ www.dbcde.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/146994/Report-of-the-Independent-Inquiry-into-the-Media-and-Media-Regulation-web.pdf 331 recovered on June 16

[ix] Finkelstein op cit 468

[x] David Simon, “Testimony, US Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the future of newspapers,” May 6 2009 @ http://davidsimon.com/wire-creator-david-simontestifies recovered on June 16

[xi] Fuller, op cit 107

[xii] Rosanne Barrett, “Queensland to meet legal fallout from Wivenhoe Dam,” The Australian February 4

[xiii] Lowy Institute, “Lowy Poll 2012: Gen Y not sold on democracy,” @ www.lowyinstitute.org/news-and-media/hot-topic/lowy-poll-2012-gen-y-not-sold-democracy recovered on June 16