Date: June 20 2012
I have no more reliable information than anyone else when the last newspaper will land on a Canberra lawn, but I should not be in the least surprised if it was more than a century after my death. For me that's optimism, or, rather pessimism about the capacity of the human spirit to cope with technological change - a problem with which newspaper owners, managers and journalists have been wrestling all my life, and many lives before it.
I do not resist change, and see the prospects of journalism, as a career as much as a vocation, with confidence. New technology gives those interested in what is going on in the world an array of fabulous extra tools. These plainly make good journalism better - and good journalism is good regardless of how it is conveyed to those who want it.
My journalistic life, so far, has been subsidised by advertisers who have wanted to reach the audience that newspapers reach. These are mass audiences, and quality ones who have bought newspapers as a reliable source of news affecting their lives. In recent years, as advertising has migrated to new technology, media operations have recognised that the investments they have made in assembling teams of journalists and others to produce newspapers can be also used to provide information to other mediums, in processes from which we can also derive advertising revenue. Increasingly, as the news this week about big changes in Fairfax shows, the balance is changing: the newspaper itself threatens to become an incident, perhaps not even an essential one, in our production. It is, after all, very expensive to produce: this paper you are reading today probably cost us $5 to print.
Already more than half of those who consult The Canberra Times on any given day do so via the internet or a mobile device. Some of these also buy the paper. We still deliver a mass audience - indeed a bigger one than ever - but a smaller proportion has bought it in print. Almost all of our ''readership'' growth is on line, and more and more of our resources are focused on it. A good many observers, and not a few journalists, expect that the newspaper, as we know it, will soon be a thing of the past.
Yet there's still value in newspapers, even if they must adapt. A newspaper is still quite cheap to buy, if not produce. If it costs, in real terms, about twice what it did when I was born, it now contains about three times as much material. It is still flexible and portable, recyclable, able to be separated and folded, and is particularly well adapted, compared with computer devices, for the longer read.
Just as one cannot reliably forecast the death of the book simply because there are Kindle-style devices, the fact that the ipad, 3G mobile or the computer screen can duplicate every function, and many more does not mean that some don't feel a need for something permanently in print.
But whether next year, next decade or next century, the last newspaper will probably bear little resemblance to the newspaper of today. It will probably be better, but stripped of much ephemeral material that present readers would think essential. A lot of hard news, a lot of spot news, and a lot of ''facts'', whether about politics, courts, business, sport or people will have migrated to the internet and social media, accessible to our audience in real time rather than up to 24 hours later. There will be no value in withholding information - and the tag of exclusive, so far as news is concerned, may have currency only for seconds.
For that sort of information, we will be in keen competition with supercharged broadcasters able to compete for immediacy, including with a full suite of channels and systems of access, but also any number of new media devices, some not even yet imagined, able to shout for attention in any increasingly busy bazaar already filled with noise. As now, with the internet, there will be no guarantee of reliability, accuracy or detachment about the news, views or explanations advanced. There will be some new players without the background, or resources, or even the sense of mission as existing players.
The value and immediate importance of instant news will probably drop, if not from lack of interest, but from oversupply. When one can update every few minutes, and flip from platform to platform and source to source, the currency of factoids depreciates and the slate may well clean itself in hours rather than days, in ''stories'' between editions of an old-style newspaper.
But professional specialised media organisations should be better - and better able to make money from news.
They can recognise news, and get it out quickly. Mostly, reporters are merely civilian witnesses with no rights greater than any other civilians. Reporters professionally deployed to be in places where interesting or important things happen, who understand the significance of what they see and hear, and are technically trained to send the information back for quick dissemination - should usually beat the amateurs - both with firstest and mostest.
Less important for an instant news system, but critical to a reputation as a news source, is the capacity to recognise patterns in the news, to see events in context, to understand the jargon or the shorthand of the players, to know the relevant history, and to be able to see forward to the point that one knows which other people or interests will be affected by events, and to obtain their reactions, contributions or responses. All of this involves not only the capacity to recognise news, but to analyse it and weigh its importance in relation to other items of news.
Another is to bring some sense of fairness and professionalism to a story. The diet customers expect includes expert analysis and opinion. But there is a big difference between this and advertising, propaganda, or the deliberate omission or misrepresentation of facts. Integrity and familiarity will be a selling point.
My biggest fear about the viability of big media organisations is not of their noise being drowned by the clamor of others. It is of surrender of the mass market in a belief that the ''new'' rivers of gold are to be found in almost individualised specialised markets. You can already, in effect, dial up just the sort of news and information you want; we can and will do it simultaneously for millions - probably, once we work out how, for big profits. Hitherto, however, media power has turned first and foremost on the mass in mass markets, or in the particular quality of the subset chosen.
Modern technology creates an unlimited number of specialised audiences. It will find ways of attracting and influencing the customers that advertisers want, but perhaps not so many at once.
Clever as that may be in business terms, it is not clear that it delivers media owners - or journalists - with the power and influence over public affairs they are now supposed to have. But we have yet to see how well it can deliver a mass market - and what sort of new relationships it creates between those who exercise power and those who are supposed to hold them under critical scrutiny.
Jack Waterford is Editor-at-large.
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