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It’s not the Internet; blame bean counters

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I’m heartily sick of hearing how newspapers are doomed because of the Internet.

It’s over-simplified rubbish; right up there with the so-called ‘clean energy economy’ and similar Gen X and Y catch-cries.

As someone who has actually worked in newsrooms, I’m firmly convinced that the newspaper ‘business model’ – surely one of the most stupid phrases ever penned – is not ‘broken’ as a result of a dramatic switch to online news sources. The noble profession of journalism is facing challenging times, of that there’s no doubt.  But the role the Internet is playing is being greatly romanticised.

Speak to journalists and they’ll tell you that, as usual, the industry is afflicted with bad management, bean-counting, cost-cutting and a lack of vision. More than ever, the old journalistic wisdom that “accountants will be the end of the media” is being heard more and more around newsrooms. Most journalists will attest that the newspaper industry has a history of ill-conceived snap decisions to cut costs, regardless of the long term impact.

Take, for example, the recent decision by Fairfax Media to end subediting at two of its most successful regional newspapers, the Newcastle Herald and Illawarra Mercury. It’s hard to see how online competition is behind the move to send these jobs to New Zealand. It looks like penny-pinching, plain and simple. 

Of course, Fairfax probably needs to save money wherever it can because of the decline in revenue at its flagship newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne. And, that decline is caused, in part, by a loss of advertisers as circulation has fallen steadily in recent years.  However, it is a vast simplification to simply blame the advent of the Internet for this crash in circulation..

There’s no doubt that the Internet adds another growing layer of competition for the SMH and The Age – and every other major newspaper. But, both the SMH and The Age have online editions – as have the Newcastle Herald and Illawarra Mercury.  More to the point in this case, all Fairfax publications are operating in spite of a board and senior management that both appear to be verging on chaotic.  

The esteemed Fairfax board has presided over a spectacular crash in the firm’s share price and a puzzling stance that is keeping its biggest shareholder, Gina Rinehart, from occupying a seat at the boardroom table. 

Senior Fairfax management has set the SMH, The Age and even the Sun-Herald on a leftist, pro-Green editorial policy that has stunned much of its readership – especially in the nation’s business sector – and is fast destroying the group’s long-standing and once-proud reputation for objective journalism. This almost extreme editorial stance reinforces the impression that the central Fairfax mastheads have lost touch with the general population and are waging some sort of class war against much of their readership.  

The Internet poses particular problems for Fairfax, News Limited and every other media groups. For a start, the web has developed as a club of freeloaders, who simply don’t want to pay for content.  Secondly, iPhones and iPads have altered news reading behaviour by creating a generation of scanners, who want information to cut to the chase. And thirdly, advertisers are gun-shy and are uncertain how to reach people anymore. But these are problems that intelligent and visionary media executives need to tackle.

Unfortunately, the Australian media has never been overly blessed with those management attributes. And, as the behaviour of Fairfax shows clearly, it doesn’t look like much has changed – and I suggest that this is a bigger and more immediate threat than iPhones and iPads.

Written by ianandsue

June 17, 2012 at 11:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized