Fairfax and Finkelstein

The Finkelstein Report earlier this year:

In considering the current state of the press in Australia, the Inquiry has given considerations to not only the submissions received but also to an extensive range of other local and international evidence. From this information the Inquiry has concluded that, despite the intense pressures facing it, the Australian press is in no immediate danger of collapsing. The main media companies appear to be reasonably capable of dealing with the pressures facing them at least over the medium term. Nonetheless, some potential pressure points are becoming evident.

This morning:

Fairfax has announced plans to cut nearly 2,000 jobs and switch its landmark The Age and Sydney Morning Herald broadsheets to ‘compact’ formats as part of cost-cutting measures.

The media company says it will cut 1,900 jobs over the next three years and ditch the broadsheet formats for The Age and the SMH on March 4 next year.

And it will fall in line with its main competitor, News Limited, introducing paywall subscription services for its flagship online services in 2013.

It will also close printing facilities at Chullora in Sydney and Tullamarine in Melbourne by June 2014.

If this is not a “collapse”, what would one look like? What criteria should be use to identify one?

Fairfax is effectively pulling out of printing. It is going to run a combined national newsroom. It is pulling its successful websites behind a paywall. It is retrenching 380 journalists. There is no end in sight, save the self-interested sponsorship of a mining magnate.

Too many of our public conversations about the media in Australia have been looking at the wrong things. Call it punishers and straighteners versus enlargers.

The Independent Media Inquiry bent over backwards to demonstrate the peristence of media power in order to build a case for regulating it further. But the real story is that traditional media are in a death spiral. These have been major social institutions. Despite what many see as their poor performance in recent years, it’s not clear what exists to replace them in that role.

When Fairfax is a plaything of oligarchs (which is likely to mean its mastheads will have even fewer readers) and Rupert Murdoch passes on to whatever his eternal reward may turn out to be, what will happen to public affairs reporting in this country?

What about the topics that might have led to ideas for expanding our choices when it comes to public interest journalism? What will the future look like? How can we support or encourage media diversity? What will journalism be like when the mass audience has fragmented to the extent that mass circulation newspapers are no longer viable for anyone?

These are the topics that almost all official conversations around media policy in the last year have avoided. Now, there may not be a further opportunity to have them.

Update More from Terry Flew, who considers just how precipitously circulations may have fallen in Australia. Glen Fuller disagrees with me at length following a conversation on Twitter today. And my piece has been cross-posted over at PIJF.

Update 2 A couple of readers have suggested that my remarks on newspapers here might be construed as suggesting that public sector broadcasting might also, somehow, be affected by the decline of the business model of independent commercial media. There’s no direct relationship, of course, although the ABC will very likely encounter political difficulties as the business position of newspapers, which they are effectively now competing with as providers of online print content, worsens. Anyhow, consider this a clarification, in case I have been misunderstood.