As Fairfax stumbles further towards irrelevancy, by sacking yet more of their few remaining journalists, you have to question where news is going to come from soon, and by extension how democracy is supposed to function in the absence of newspapers.
People keep saying that the old model for newspapers is doomed in the digital age. Sadly that’s not quite true, the old model for journalism is absolutely doomed but not for newspapers. Newspapers were always about the advertising – they just needed a vehicle to get the eyeballs in front of the advertising. That vehicle used to be quality journalism for papers like the Sydney Morning Herald; but some others went with opinionated populism, or, in the UK, the simple expedient of a big headline and equally well-endowed topless model on page three. It was always about the advertising.
These days almost everyone has decided that quality journalism is not needed to pull in the eyeballs. Click-bait pieces of fluff are effective enough and certainly wildly cheaper to produce. The core newspaper publishing model remains the same, they’re just using something new to pull eyeballs to the adverts – and that’s not journalism.
So if the core newspaper publishing model has not changed, what has? The modern difference is that without a need for quality journalism there’s no obvious place for journalists as a profession. If you can get the eyeballs in through having a graduate copy and paste from Reddit then you don’t need to finance an in-depth investigations by the like of Kate McClymont.
There’s an argument that journalism can survive, that journalists will go freelance and sell their stories in the new piece-work economy. That might, might, work for already established journalists who came up in the days when they were backed by newspapers reputations, but it’s completely unrealistic for a new generation. Where does the training come from? Where do you cut your teeth and develop the network of contacts. Where do you get the resources to investigate for months on end? Where do you get the leverage to open doors. These were all provided by the mastheads in times past – and really cannot be replicated by an individual.
If we don’t have journalists doing investigative work and providing authoritative stories, who is to hold those in power to account? There’s a reason that people moving their regimes towards repression or mounting a coup hit the media offices in the first wave of activity. A robust, free press has been a crucial element of modern democracy: And a free press does not mean click-bait driven advertising factory under the banner of a once great newspaper.
Sadly there is no home for journalism into the future beyond, perhaps, a few subscription driven, high-end journals with global reach like The Economist. Other mastheads may well survive, but not with rigorous journalism as we have known it. We are driving off a precipice where behind us there was a proud tradition of free, rigorous journalism and in front of us there is only the unknown. That’s a sad thought not just for news and information, but for democracy as we’ve known it.
The day is not far off when someone mounting a coup wont even bother to put newspaper offices on their list of targets.