The Journalism School is a drawcard for undergraduates, because of the diversity of opportunities that journalism studies create. Today there are perhaps 250 journalism students at the school, yet the only ones to attend this significant forum about the future were the handful drafted by their lecturers to manage registrations and to pass over roaming microphones to the practitioners in the audience.
Another student claimed he was the only journalism undergraduate to attend the conference who had not been drafted for such duties.
So where were they all?
“Finishing their assignments, due in tomorrow,” was one explanation. If that is so, and most of us are guilty of working on assignments until the deathknock, why couldn’t the university have extended the deadline to Monday, for instance? Was it not important that students go and listen to what the sages were saying about their future?
As it was, the grey, the bearded, the learned and the jaundiced did attend in numbers to listen to the soothsayers: editors, bloggers and academic-former journalists, including the notable Margaret Simons, author of The Content Makers, which MEAA federal secretary Christopher Warren rightly described as the virtual primer for students studying the new media in Australia.
Simons sits in the camp of Eric Beecher, Alan Kohler, Roy Greenslade and Tasmanian Times’ own Lindsay Tuffin: those who predict the end of newspapers is nigh, the new age of Internet journalism has dawned and it’s time we all got used to it.
I shall not attempt a summary of the forum; doubtless the MEAA will furnish that all in good time, but I was left with impressions with which many may agree and as many disagree.
Firstly, there is a blind faith, especially at News Limited, that newspapers will see off this challenge of the Internet, the blogger, the citizen journalist, just as they did with radio and television.
It was quite clear, to my ears, that, on the local scene, the approaches of Fairfax and News to the opportunities of the Internet for their own opportunities are like chalk and cheese.
Mercury editor Garry Bailey espoused enthusiasm, but showed little evidence, as does his website, of using the Internet to boost his newspaper’s appeal. Business models? None. This, from the company that has just axed 10 senior journalists.
The Examiner’s Fiona Reynolds, with the zeal of a greyhound about to leave the boxes, outlined her company’s plans to monetise their website and to actually start to derive real income. No-one at News Ltd appears to have done the same exercise.
To embrace new journalism one now has to have a glossary of new terms, such as “monetise”, “hyperdifferentiate”, “fragment” and “niche”. Simons talked at one point about “linking the niches” in this new world she has helped to define. She might as well have said, “licking the dishes” for all it meant to anyone.
“She needs to get out more,” commented the bloke behind me.
The motley crew in the audience included the new age Barry Chipman of Timber Communities Australia, fresh from his embrace of transgenderism and quite looking forward to a new frock for Christmas, he told me.
He asked perhaps the most pertinent question of the night, which threatened to go unanswered.
“What about the micro-regional papers?” he asked, “like the Huon News. What’s going to happen to them?”
These are, or course, his bread and butter papers. It was a good question, though, because the runts of the newspaper litter may actually hold the key to the survival of the genre.
If you take papers such as the Huon News, Circular Head Chronicle, North-Eastern Advertiser and even Tasmanian Country, there are some interesting characteristics. They have remained relatively unscathed from the Internet attack because:
they serve a defined demographic that is not particularly computer-savvy;
they appear once a week;
they are regarded as essential reading within their community;
they are not highly opinionated, but when they are, they are representative of that community;
they are cheap.
any of them form part of a diversified business. The Circular Head Chronicle, for instance, is a commercial printery as well as publisher of the local paper.
It may be a long trajectory from the local paper at Smithton to the Washington Post but the principles they have followed are the same. Under chief executive Donald Graham the Washington Post Company has diversified into education and broadcasting, reducing the printed newspaper’s proportion of the business to about 20 per cent. The paper survives, buoyed by the profitability of the rest of the business.
There are no simple answers to the future of journalism and the future of newspapers. One cannot predict the day on which the last newspaper, in its print form, will appear, though some have tried, one suspects with a view to getting their own 15 minutes of fame.
Newspapers are thriving in developing countries, notably in Africa and India, because they do not have the broadband infrastructure or the economies to support digitised news. Newspapers continue to thrive in Japan and Finland because there the culture of newspaper reading has permeated every generation.
But one has only to use one’s eyes to know that, as Murdoch once said, in the rest of the western world, the developed world, the thud of the newspaper on the front doorstep will be replaced by the click of a mouse.
The media organisations best equipped to maximise the Internet are those that don’t have money at stake. That means publicly-funded media organisations such as the BBC, the ABC and, to a lesser extent, SBS. Frankly, the ABC does Internet news and multi-media better than anyone in Australia.
So, my advice to those hundreds of journalism students who did not show up at the forum in Hobart, is to aim for a job at the ABC and think twice before you ever leave it.
And no, you probably won’t ever get a job on Getaway.
Bruce Montgomery, with The Australian for 20 years, this year completed a Masters of Arts degree at the University of Tasmania, with a research thesis on the future of newspapers. He is now back freelancing.