News is changing at its core

The Australian newspaper masthead

The Australian: Using big-newsroom thinking

“We are not dinosaurs,” The Australian tells us in an editorial on the future of news published last weekend. The paper’s intention is to justify its continued investment in its ink-and-paper product, while at the same time spruiking its forward-thinking take on digital platforms. But some of the arguments it advances are scaly and lumbering. This is a shame, as the old brontosaurus puts out some of Australia’s best journalism and I’d hate to see it hit by an asteroid.

I don’t have a problem with The Australian sinking money into its newspaper edition – it’s sensible to continue investing there while revenues remain so much higher than at the digital version. According to research from industry group Newspaper Works, print newspaper ad revenue in Australia was $3.67 billion last year, compared to $259 million from newspaper websites.

But I do take issue with the article’s portrayal of digital media.

The editorial starts by setting itself in opposition to a straw man – a variety of apparently common-sense thinking that sees newspapers as a dying breed. These unnamed people (“everybody”, apparently) value celebrity news to local stories and sensory overload to deep thinking.

“‘Everybody knows’ readers have gone the way of the dinosaur, replaced by consumers who prefer global celebrity to local and international news scoops,” the piece says. “And anyway, why sit and read a newspaper when you can multitask with Twitter, TV and a tablet?”

But who, exactly, says readers have gone the way of the dinosaur? There’s rather a lot to read online. Some people do read about celebrities – but there’s a massive audience for local and international news scoops. It was the Queensland floods and the Japanese tsunami, not the death of Amy Winehouse, which drove news website traffic to record heights this year.

But this is by-the-by. There’s a deeper flaw in The Australian’s take on digital media that’s best embodied in this paragraph:

“We understand change is coming, that digital technology is a revolution that is far from over. But this is not a change to the craft of journalism. It does not mean an end to the core business of producing news. The transition to new publishing platforms is simply the next round of technological change.”

So digital media is a revolution, but this doesn’t change journalism. How can you have a revolution without change? Digital publishing is not merely a replacement for the printing press. It lowers the bar for publishing information to virtually nil. It smashes geographical restrictions. It allows instantaneous sharing of information with friends and strangers alike – a particularly important point. As my colleague Hal Crawford said in the first Share Wars post, “the digitisation of social interaction does have profound implications for news media”.

Social media transforms how news is gathered and accessed, and the way we tell stories has already started to shift. Readers contribute stories, information, tips, photos and opinions, and share these with their friends. Twitter breaks news faster than any single news organisation and the iPad app Flipbook creates a fascinating newspaper-like experience from social media feeds – except it’s your friends, and not some journo in a newsroom, who are determining the editorial mix.

The business of news is not a historical constant. It was born out of a particular set of circumstances, a mixture of technological, economic, philosophical and political factors unique to the 20th century. The circumstances are different now. Just yesterday, Wikileaks released another batch of government documents to the public. Thousands upon thousands of interested people sifted through these cables and posted their findings on Twitter under #wlfind. What’s the role for professional journalists here? Is it to read every single cable individually and disregard this collective effort as the unreliable work of amateurs? Or is it to curate the crowd-sourced material, fact-checking and gathering the best bits in one place so readers can quickly come up to speed?

What really changes the core business of news is money. The Australian’s leader makes much of the comparative advantage that newspapers have over digital competitors – massive newsrooms full of journalists. It warns against “responding to revenue pressures by reducing the size and quality of the product”, which will “hasten the day when the only news generated is taxpayer-funded”. But as we’ve seen in the US, huge staff numbers and high printing and distribution costs are the main cost drivers of the structural problem facing the industry.

Year-on-year, sales for Australian newspapers Monday-Saturday fell by 4.2 percent in the 2011 June quarter. Digital revenues won’t replace what is lost. The massive number of pages viewed on websites creates a surplus of advertising inventory. More and more content is viewed online, but there is downward pressure on the amount of money generated per page.

The Newspaper Works report forecasts that newspaper websites will pull in $317 million this financial year, 11 percent up on last year. Well, that’s great if it’s true – but to match current print levels, online revenues still need to grow more than 1000%. And as an industry body, Newspaper Works has a vested interest in presenting a positive take on the future of print. Certainly, recent plunges in share prices for Fairfax and APN indicate the market does not share the report’s optimism.

Effectively deployed paywalls and premium advertising environments such as iPad applications may help news businesses salvage a larger portion of their revenue. But unless you are running an organisation that reaches a global audience (such as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal), maintaining a newsroom with hundreds of journalists is most likely unsustainable.

The Australian need not reduce the quality of its reporting. But in time our national newspaper will most likely need to focus on its core – excellent national affairs and business coverage. Possibly, it will also need to find new ways to tell stories that involve its high-powered, highly intellectual readership more closely in the product. What that will look like is not yet clear, but a paper such as The Australian should be on the vanguard of working it out. (And it may well be – the paper promises that the “results of a major investment” in digital platforms will be released in the next few months.)

You can’t have a revolution without change. And even though it has some of the country’s best reporters and editors, The Australian will need to change too, because there’s no way the core business of producing news is going to remain the same.

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About Shaun Davies

Davies is News Executive Producer at ninemsn.

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