Nine and Fairfax have announced a merger, with the resultant company to be called Nine and Nine shareholders to control the majority of shares. This isn’t a merger, but a takeover. Fairfax, as we know it, is dead. With the death knell of Fairfax (publishers of The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times) comes the confirmation that online advertising isn’t sufficiently profitable to fund serious journalism.
News in this country is dominated by two main players – the broadsheets of Fairfax and tabloids of News Corp. Though the formats may have varied, the distinction between independent reporting and lowest common denominator clickbait remains the same. The ‘rivers of gold’ provided by classified advertising prior to the internet allowed The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald to assemble quality newsrooms capable of in-depth reporting and analysis of the serious issues of the day. In the form of a daily newspaper, these reports were available to anybody with a few bucks in their pocket who wanted to know.
But the internet changed everything. Both classified and commercial advertisers flocked online to where Google and Facebook offered space much cheaper than a place in Fairfax’s august tomes. Online portals like news.com.au and ninemsn sprung up, offering low effort content competing for the same advertising dollar. It was much quicker for these outlets to reframe a press release or hash out an opinion piece toeing the company line than to do the kind of investigative journalism with which Fairfax made their name. More profitable to report on Kim Kardashian than Kim Beasley. The ineffable logic of the market took hold, as Fairfax found itself facing expanded competition and dwindling revenues.
In an undifferentiated advertising market, its in-depth reporting could no longer command a reputational premium. So Fairfax entered a slow death spiral – cutting reporters to save money would mean quality dipped, then less subscribers would sign up, necessitating more reporter cuts. The Fairfax that existed yesterday was a pale shadow of its former self. But until today it retained some quality reporters and a steadfast commitment to editorial independence. The public knew The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald were markers of quality, and could still turn to them for reporting of worth.
Nine has none of these scruples. Chaired by former treasurer Peter Costello (who will retain this position in the merged entity), the television station has enthusiastically led the race to the bottom with risible dreck like A Current Affair. Like Australia’s other commercial TV stations, Nine has been quite happy to cede the high ground to the ABC in order to chase the stories of dodgy plumbers, sensational crimes, celebrity antics and manufactured outrage which infect the medium. It has no charter of independence, no space for investigations nor any intention of developing these.
Channel Nine, for over half a century, has never other than displayed the opportunism and ethics of an alley cat.
There has been no commanding ethical or moral basis for the conduct of its news and information policy.
Through various changes of ownership, no one has lanced the carbuncle at the centre of Nine’s approach to news management. And, as sure as night follows day, that pus will inevitably leak into Fairfax.
-Former prime minister Paul Keating
The merged entity aim to save $50 million per year, and under Nine management this is certain to come from Fairfax’s remaining journalistic capacity. Having already faced many rounds of layoffs, this will be just one more culling of talent from the corpse of Fairfax. The ABC may provide a lifeline for some, but it is facing its own problems. Others will try to carve out their own niches in the smaller subscription vehicles which serve the polical and media caste.
All those journalists who were trained while the ‘rivers of gold’ flowed at Fairfax didn’t simply disappear as the broadsheets downsized. But with advertising unable to support their work, they turned to subscription models or sugar daddies. As Fairfax redeces into the annals of history, The Guardian assumes a greater importance in the Australian landscape. But the British institution loses £50m per year following the startup model of hope that sufficient expansion will somehow turn losses into profits, and through its editorial leanings will never be taken seriously by anybody from the right of centre.
With advertising unable to support them and lacking the capital base of The Guardian, Australia’s journalists have turned to precarious niche publications in attempts to continue. Michael West, Crikey, The Saturday Paper, and the Quarterly Essay all do good work. But hidden away behind paywalls and without the kind of cultural cachet held by the Fairfax organs, these sites can only speak to a small political and media caste. The regular joe isn’t going to sign up for a subscription so he can check out analysis the week before an election. Only those already connected to the system even know they exist. These organs can only be a privileged group speaking to other members of that group, entirely disconnected from the realities of working class life.
So instead the media absorbed by the general public and conversation shifts inexorably towards the kind of low effort clickbait which Nine, News Corp and the portals can produce quickly and cheaply. Where Nine can bare broaching politics, it reports entirely on the boxing match of doorstops and polling, not ideas or interests. The pattern is repeated across advertising supported media, which sees more return on quick press release rewrites than in ideas or investigations.
The idea that the traditional journalism of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Financial Review has any qualitative similarity to the journalism produced by the Nine Network is like saying that a fillet of Wagu beef is qualitatively the same as a Big Mac.
-Eric Beecher, Crikey
The death of Fairfax has political consequences, not just journalistic ones. Without the kind of public platform for serious political conversation which they provided, our discourse can only lapse further into presidential politics. Into an environment where soundbites are more important than detail or policy (though some would argue we reached that point in 2001, with ‘stop the boats’). When the media doesn’t care to hold politicians to account, and with serious discussions reduced to the Quarterly Essay’s few thousand subscribers, our democratic environment must be diminished.
When the mainstream media doesn’t report politics seriously as a clash of ideas, those interested in them will find fringe outlets elsewhere. The Red Flag and the Green Left Weekly discuss ideas, as do Jordan Peterson and Sargon of Akkad. The spectres at the edges of civil society will be empowered by the ceding of the political space to them. Perhaps if we had a left wing worth a damn this could be positive, but I fear it will only empower the nativist right. For the consequences one only needs to look at the US, where the politics has become entirely entertainment on Fox, CNN and similar cable news channels. The logical conclusion was reached there, where an entertainer as president is only too happy to push conspiracy theory and white nationalism.
The only remaining backstop for serious independent political reporting available to the general population is the ABC. While it too has suffered from lacerating cuts in recent years, the ABC remains capable of proper journalism. But faced with a hostile governing Liberal Party who have declared support for its privatisation, one wonders how long this last bastion can hold out. Its own editorial independence is under threat, its reporters cowed. As the market deserts serious journalism, the ABC must double down and hold firm.