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Name: Antony Loewenstein
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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

News judgement

The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) claims to be Australia's finest newspaper. Interesting, therefore, that the latest circulation figures show a massive decline in readership. The weekday SMH lost 3.5% to just over 214,000 copies, while the Saturday edition shed a massive 5.4% to 352,482. There is trouble in Fairfax land. With speculation rife that management is hoping and praying for a change to cross-media laws after July 1 - allowing the once-great media company to be bought by a hungry mogul - the paper's relevance to the Australian community is decreasing weekly. Numbers sold are far from the only barometer of success, but with less people still reading the paper, at what point does it become less relevant to informed debate?

Take today. "They're having a baby - and eight Tassie cousins eagerly await a playmate", screamed the article at the top of the front page. The pregnancy of Denmark's Princess Mary is undoubtedly news-worthy, but the ever-increasing elevation of celebrity gossip to prominence shows an editorship, under Robert Whitehead, losing focus on what constitutes serious news. If the paper wants to be a tabloid, let the broadsheet morph into a tabloid or place such "news" in the entertainment section.

During a recent media forum, head of UTS journalism school, Wendy Bacon, spoke about the increasing reluctance of Fairfax to tackle the corporate takeover of Australia. She co-wrote a piece for the SMH in early March on the Australian connections of Halliburton. She said that she had had great difficulty getting the piece in the paper, "and if I was a nobody it possibly would have been impossible." The facts in the story were alarming and yet no follow-up has occurred.

I recently spent time with one of the Middle East's prominent journalists. I asked if he knew Paul McGeough, Fairfax's leading foreign correspondent. He looked at me blankly. "Never heard of him", he replied. McGeough is indeed one of Australia's finest reporters, but his newspaper's impact on setting agendas outside of Australia remains minimal, despite the advent of the internet. A newspaper's success should never be solely dictated by its effect on the world, though it's one important factor. We’re a small fish in a big pond, and seem to be becoming more parochial as time goes on. Shouldn’t a local paper want to challenge established norms in Washington, London and Canberra?

Is the mainstream media capable of seriously examining the tightening relationship between government and corporate interests? Are senior editors concerned about upsetting the status quo (witnessed during last year's Federal election, when the Fairfax press either supported John Howard's re-election or gutlessly sat on the fence, despite spending the previous years criticising Liberal Party policy.) We all know the agendas of the Murdoch press. We should be more questioning of how the Fairfax press conducts itself in a democratic Australia. If the organisation fails to listen, circulation figures will continue to haemorrhage and they'll only have themselves to blame.


Blogger weezil said...

Ant, there's little doubt that the quality of work coming out of Fairfax of late has sucked dog's balls.

In particular, there's been a LOT of simple errors in the SMH online content... bad spelling, sentences fragged from sloppy edits, dead links, etc. These come from using cubs as grunts for the actual posting of the material.

However, I also agree that a lot of the content is fluff. As you well know, I could not give a shit about the pope-a-palooza nor (despite her seeming incredible niceness), anything about Princess Mary. This is an editorial policy function, not the fault of the working journos at large.

Mind you, if you compare the odd Fairfax fluff to the absolute torrent of tawdry twaddle that comes out of Murdochian meeja, it's barely significant.

No paper can be all things to all people and those that make a concerted effort at being 100% news + 100% fluff fail rather miserably at it, as you might think.

Regardless, I think that Fairfax is doing a fairly good job at presenting hard news and being a reasonably entertaining low-brain-activity diversion to stare at while one is wolfing down a sammich during a modern 30 minute lunch 'hour.'

I have my suspicions as to the causes of Fairfax's recent circ number drops for the dead-tree version of the publication, but I wonder just how dire things really are. Moreover, I can't imagine that rusted-on Fairfax readers actually switch allegiances and buy Murdoch tripe.

There's got to be other explanations- in example, Fairfax's readership might well be migrating to the online content for lunch hour entertainment instead of buying the dead-tree editions.

When I last lived in the USA, I was in Indianapolis for the most part, which is a one-paper town. That one paper is the Indianpolis Star, which is owned by the Pulliam family. The Pulliams have long been well connected to the Indiana GOP. Incidentally, former Vice President J. Danforth Quayle is a close relative of the Pulliams. You can imagine the editorial wrongability and swapping of column-inches to fluff, away from hard news, particularly that critical of the Repuglican way of being.

Fairfax HAS to exist on its own, separate from conglomerate editoria control.

If Fairfax is suffering from lack of cash flow, I'd be happy to pay for an subscription to the online content.

I can't imagine life in Australia without them!

Wednesday, April 27, 2005 11:29:00 am  
Blogger Antony Loewenstein said...

Having work at Fairfax for two years, I had some insight into the 'progression' of a once great media company. Yes, Fairfax papers are generally more interesting than the Murdoch efforts. Not much effort required. However, the last years have seen a massive reduction in news space on pages, replaced with advertising and the like. The corporate dollar is king.
Besides, editorial interference does occur. Witness last year's Federal election. Fairfax wants to be bought, and then the senior managers, most of whom have no media experience, get a massive share bonus and frankly, don't really care too much about the editorial future of the paper.
Fairfax is now fairly dysfunctional. It's important having alternatives to Murdoch and co, but increasingly Fairfax isn't that option. What is? Bloggers, the MSM, online forums, Crikey and a host of other options.
Things are dire at Fairfax. They know it and so should we.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005 12:23:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the alternative option to Murdoch?

"Bloggers, the MSM, online forums, Crikey and a host of other options."

The MSM? Huh?

Wednesday, April 27, 2005 1:50:00 pm  
Blogger Antony Loewenstein said...

A mix. Not just the MSM, but other sources, then, maybe, a semblance of truth may be attained.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005 2:01:00 pm  
Blogger weezil said...

Ant said: "Fairfax wants to be bought"

You can either run a newspaper or you can cultivate a commodity... not both.

Journos should be running Fairfax. I'm thinking employee buyout. Such a transaction could attract a religious readership due to a perception of intrinsic democracy.

Yeah, you could say I'm dreaming... but if Fairfax doesn't go some long and visible way toward differentiating themselves from conglomerate media, one of these days a group of independent bloggers will create a news network (which somehow will earn trust) that will eclipse not only Fairfax, but ABC as well.

Nuts? I'm not so sure...

Wednesday, April 27, 2005 7:20:00 pm  
Blogger Antony Loewenstein said...

What a great idea! A collective of indy bloggers taking on the so-called might of Fairfax and/or Murdoch. I suspect this will happen sooner rather than later. We can either wait for these media companies to shape up - arguably impossible due to corporate pressures - or forge ahead with alternative media.

Thursday, April 28, 2005 9:02:00 am  
Blogger weezil said...

Ant, pop in to the Cat & Fiddle tonight and we'll ruminate.

Friday, April 29, 2005 12:23:00 pm  

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