New twists on way in media fallout

IN 1976, printers at John Fairfax's newspapers fought a bitter campaign against the introduction of photo-typesetting and video screen layout technology at the company's production plant on Broadway in Sydney.

For 60 days the printers picketed the plant, burnt bundles of papers, which set cars alight, and battled management and truck drivers trying to enter or leave. In the third week of the strike The Sydney Morning Herald published an editorial, ''Why we bother.'' It argued that newspapers were nothing like as profitable as they used to be. The organisation had made a profit of $5.87 million in 1975-76, of which only 7 per cent came from its five papers. One reason for continuing, the editorial said, was that the company did not expect low profits to continue; a second was loyalty to employees; and a third that Fairfax had always been primarily a newspaper publisher.

In the end, 400 printers lost their jobs, the computer technology came into production and Fairfax generated large profits in later years.

Down in Melbourne, the changes to the industry were of great concern to four Fairfax journalists - Ian Reinecke, Julianne Schultz, Mike Roberts and me. After some discussion we anonymously published a booklet, Computer v Journalists - Who Wins? Journalists today might consider a re-write. Our pamphlet dealt with a number of myths doing the rounds. Examples were:

■ The new technology will give journalists the industrial strength they have always lacked. We said, ''It won't.''

■ The new technology will guarantee continuing job security for journalists. ''Untrue,'' we maintained.


At the time, the employers' argument - supported by conservative journalists - went something like this: ''Help us get rid of the printers and you've got a job for life. The increased profitability will ensure long-term viability for newspapers and jobs for journalists will be secure.'' Today no print journalist's job seems secure. Professional journalists who want to stay in reasonably paid employment are seeking a framework that will enable the organisations producing quality news to survive.

For the publishers, the question is whether they should continue being paper publishers at all. In the last financial year the leading quality newspaper producer in Australia, Fairfax, wrote down the value of its mastheads - The Age, the Financial Review, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times - by a massive $2.76 billion. This reflects the impact new technology has had on newspapers, which have seen readers desert them to get their news from the internet. At the same time advertising has fallen away. The newspapers' rivers of gold - classified advertisements for jobs, houses and cars - are now history.

At News Ltd and Fairfax, more than 750 journalists' jobs went this year. The Ten television network has also announced it will retrench reporters.

The ABC and SBS look to be the only safe places. But not for long. If, as expected, Tony Abbott wins the next election, there is no doubt he will take the axe to the ABC. In an interview with the Financial Review published 10 days ago, he said he thought there was an ''ongoing issue of bias in the ABC''. This complaint has been hammered relentlessly by News Ltd papers and right-wing commentators, without any real data to support their claims. But there are reasons beyond right-wing inclinations to maintain the attack.

If Australian news organisations stop printing - thus saving on the cost of running presses, buying newsprint, paying production and distribution staff and even enabling a profit for newsagents - and turn to selling purely digital news, they have one major problem - a free supply of news from the ABC.

It's not the ABC's bias that troubles News Ltd. It is its quality reputation. Will people pay for a digital The Australian, or for that matter a Sydney Morning Herald, Age or Canberra Times news service, if they have the choice of free, reliable ABC news?

Forcing a cut-back in the ABC's coverage, or even requiring people to pay for the ABC online, makes sense if you are a subscription-charging competitor. Tony Abbott is likely to oblige by cutting ABC funding.

The media companies know they must take innovative steps to survive, but are unsure of the direction. Cutting staff costs was the first obvious choice. Advertising on websites was the second. But what then? Stop printing altogether? When?

What selling opportunities are offered by the new technologies? Can something like a newspaper experience be offered in tablet form? If WiFi comes to be freely available on public transport would Sydney and Melbourne commuters subscribe to a news service they could scroll over on their long journeys to and from work? Could the media companies form an alliance with a service provider - Telstra, or more likely Optus or Vodafone - that would be a win-win for both, with the news organisation providing content to be sold as part of the service provider's package?

To be viable, the news outlets need mass sales. But a major impediment is the splintering of the market. It's not just that anyone can publish their news and views on the web. It is also that many choose to get their news and information from like-minded people.

Greens can choose to just read Green-leaning news; committed Catholics or Muslims can choose sites reflecting their religious leanings; the same with feminists or farmers, royalists or republicans, young or old.

How does a publisher generate mass revenue in such a market?

There's no simple answer but an essential ingredient is the maintenance of an independent quality reputation. For Fairfax, this is embedded in the charter of editorial independence - a charter that the major new shareholders, John Singleton and Gina Rinehart, threaten to change.