So, it’s finally over. Although it has been for a long time, really. What happened this week was just the full stop. Decades of mismanagement and executive asset stripping now sees Fairfax on its knees, bending to Gina. And the real prospect that hard copies of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age will cease. What next?
It is not on to have one big newspaper group in Australia. Fairfax hasn’t done the job of serious, gutsy competition for years, but it was there. Now that Murdoch has just bought the excellent online Business Spectator, that refuge for top Fairfax business reporters and analysts, that method of getting the truth out about Murdoch is no more. And where’s the protest at the prospect that he will control Foxtel by buying out Packer’s stake? He nearly got a similar prize in the UK until The Guardian finally broke through on phone hacking.
The challenge is much broader than Murdoch, of course. Where was the investigation of the Slipper story, broken by the Murdoch media? It never made sense, but who did the work, who asked the questions? We’re going to be losing many, many journalists, and that means fewer competitors at the micro level. For example, there will be one film critic across Fairfax. And presumably one environment reporter, etc, etc. That gives enormous power to the few now covering special topics, in one way. In another way, though, it weakens their power, because if the boss puts the kybosh on a story, there’s no risk it will be broken elsewhere.
And with Fairfax a creature of Gina or an online only tabloid site, the ABC comes under enormous threat. What would an Abbott government do to funding? Think John Howard in 1996. Remember Murdoch lobbied hard in Britain to cut funding to the BBC. Without the ABC, no scrutiny. One agenda setter.
All in all, an awful state of affairs for Australia and our democracy. So what is the solution?
The way I see it, the various independent online media groups need to get together, pool their resources, and step up to a genuine media alternative to the dregs of Fairfax and Murdoch. Academic institutions engaged in media would also be around the table, as I’d see links with journalism students in the new group.
It will take real money, and as I’ve long argued, the best model is a trust with sufficient capital to finance a long term project of creating the new Fairfax. I’d like to see Crikey, the Global Mail, New Matilda and Online Opinion come together. And the best specialist bloggers need to be brought in, from Fairfax and independents.
Personally, I’d like to see the new entity produce, along with a 24 hour website, a daily paper, through an app., and a weekly magazine. Hard copy still matters, for gravitas, and for the status it offers to people who appear in it.
Ideally, a consortium of rich people who believe in quality, independent media would take over Fairfax, so they can have the mastheads. This doesn’t seem viable, given Gina’s interest, so new mastheads need to be created. This mightn’t be legal, but how about The New Sydney Herald and the New Age Melbourne (joke).
To my mind, the Webdiary model still has a lot to offer as a part of the mix. I haven’t seen anything like it yet - I could be wrong as I’m an internet refugee. The idea was to bring readers into finding and investigating the news, and to write their own pieces. A sense of community is crucial to success. In the same vein, I’m very attracted to Meg Simons’ idea of readers suggesting stories and donating to make them happen, and to contribute to their creation. You can review my ideas in that regard in my March 2006 piece .
When I took Webdiary independent, a rich man introduced to me by Webdiarist David Eastman suggested a foundation, with several people of wealth making contributions. There would also be sponsors like to Lowy Institute. Tony Fitzgerald agreed to sit on the board and be the ethics supervisor, as a transparent, enforceable code of ethics is fundamental to establishing the trust and authority to make a mark.
Imagine the difference a new media group as described would make to the almost non-existent debate on media regulation. Fresh air, folks.
The time for action is now. Let’s hope the people who can make it happen get together and do it. For all of us.