The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
This is an oft-used quote by one of the Founding Fathers and the third US president, Thomas Jefferson. He penned it in 1787 in a letter to soldier and politician Edward Carrington – 230 years ago. That’s how long the concept of the need for independent scrutiny of power has been around.
And this is why we should care deeply about the suggested cuts of 125 editorial staff at Fairfax Media, publisher of The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Australian Financial Review.
These cuts are the latest in several redundancy rounds. Editorial staff reacted on Wednesday by going on a seven-day strike. The journalists are doing this at great risk: the strike is classified as unprotected industrial action, and they risk losing their jobs.
The journalists, though, have clearly had enough. The latest savings round is the last straw in creating an unsustainable workplace and journalistic environment.
Those left in the newsroom after the cuts will be asked to produce more content for more publishing platforms, further diluting the journalism created. This undermines the core Fairfax business model of providing quality and in-depth journalism – including investigative reporting – that can be summarised as public-interest journalism.
Imagine an Australia where clickbait and trivial content rules, and public-interest journalism has died due to lack of funding. The Australian public would likely be unaware of the following:
the exploitation of workers at 7-Eleven;
the Securency note-printing bribery scandal; and
the maltreatment of inmates at the Don Dale youth prison.
These examples are just from the last few years. A full inventory of the revelations by Australian investigative journalists in recent decades would create a list several pages long.
Many of the malpractices revealed in these stories should have been discovered and dealt with by government watchdogs. For various reasons, political or financial, they were not. But without in-depth journalism, these issues would still be unknown – and corrupt and dishonest individuals still in their jobs.
Is this really what Australians want?
Picture a world in which politicians are given free rein to communicate only their good news stories, and no proper scrutiny or accountability of them existed. And a world in which the corporate sector was not questioned about its lobbying efforts of government, and no-one independently monitored if their production polluted the environment.
Imagine, for a moment, if there were no independent journalists left to decipher PR spin.
Doesn’t sound too good, does it?
What for alternative funding models?
At the core of the current funding crisis for public-interest journalism in Australia and globally sits the collapse of the old advertising business model caused by digital disruption.
It is now clear that the so-called “rivers of gold” advertising revenue supporting the growth of large newsrooms from the 1950s until now is at an end. In retrospect, it seems this golden era of high-profit margin media companies based on journalism was a historical anomaly.
It is unclear what the new business model is. So, how do we fund public-interest journalism?
Clearly, the market cannot do it on its own. You could say the market model has failed, but that’s too harsh. We probably had unrealistic expectations.
The market model will, most likely, make up one part of the funding. But some other options worthy of serious discussion are:
Making sure we keep funding the ABC properly so it can carry public-interest journalism while market-funded journalism transitions.
Australian governments have to take the funding crisis in journalism seriously. In other parts of the world, like Scandinavia and France, governments have already acknowledged the importance of supporting public-interest journalism via tax breaks, subsidies and other measures. If Australian governments ignore this, they clearly disagree with Thomas Jefferson.
Altruistic funding. This is easier said than done in Australia, which does not have the US tradition that sees wealthy individuals and foundations backing entire legacy news organisations and funding start-up and established public interest journalism. It is time for Australia’s super wealthy to step up and fund public interest journalism.
The funding issue won’t go away. It is high time Australia had a serious discussion about the democratic consequences and what should be done to tackle the current situation.
Senator Nick Xenophon is trying to start this discussion. He should be commended. For the health of Australian democracy, his fellow elected representatives ought to listen.
The choice is quite clear: do we want cat video journalism only? Or do we want it mixed with the odd disclosure of corruption and malpractice, and in-depth journalism that explains society to itself?