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Why newspapers will win the media wars – news commentary by Andy McCourt

Thursday, 21 September 2006
By Print21

Rumours of my loss of sanity are greatly exaggerated. I mean what I say in the headline. All of the doom and gloom stories that have been the newspaper industry’s lot for a decade or more – circulation declines, loss of classified advertising, haemorrhaging of display ads, mass redundancies – will soon be forgotten as newspapers (the smart ones anyway) storm forward in the services they profitably provide to consumers.

The latest PIAA/ABS data shows that newspapers have added five percentage points to their average operating profits from 2002-04; to a high 27%. Contrast this to the pain of owning one of Australia’s free-to-air TV channels.

So, where’s the rationale for this polemic?

In a word, it is to found in the name of one of the greatest presses ever to be manufactured; Community. Whoever named the Goss Community newspaper press in 1962, the year of its introduction, really understood what newspapers and media are all about. At all levels, it’s about community. The Goss Community press is still selling strongly today with colour towers, JDF automation and various folders being added to this remarkable feat of engineering. Thought to be applicable only to circulations of up to 35,000, many Communities have produced mainstream papers up to 100,000 and even 300,000 at multi-press sites.

Australia, with hundreds of far-flung regional communities, is a very strong market for the Goss Community press. A good friend of mine recently joined the Hamilton Spectator (the ‘Spec’), a country paper in Victoria and noted that the owner; “gets very ‘shitty’ if too much reporting from outside the community gets in.” Good on him for that but, moving away from the heavy metal, community is where all newspapers really shine – from a 2,000 circulation farming community weekly to a half million copies city daily.

Community means us – we the people – in our myriad varieties yet forming cohesive societies that are the bedrock of civilization. If you prefer a dictionary definition, community is: “a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.”

To serve those communities with media and information, you need to be part of it, not some anonymous blogger whose words can be changed, censored or deleted after they are published. Newspapers have their heads on the block every morning from around five when the trucks roll out. A real person takes responsibility for the content and real people (journalists as well as printers), work hard to inform, entertain, disrupt, expose, examine, interrogate and, to use John Pilger’s words: “Explore the myths and true meanings behind the messages.”

One such real person is Chris Mitchell, editor-in-chief of The Australian. Two weeks ago in his editorial column, he published: “Modern newspapers face some tough decisions, but there is still a bright future for those that remember why they exist in the first place.”

Papers will outlast Google?

Mitchell cites US Professor Philip Meyer’s book ‘Vanishing Point’ (actually, The Vanishing Newspaper – Saving Journalism in the Information Age) that predicts newspapers will outlast Google – probably until 2043. (Google itself has predicted newspapers will cease to exist on March 9th 2014. Nostradamus would be impressed!)

However, Mitchell has several shots at opposition newspapers that, “lighten up, dumb down or busily undermine their own foundations.” He says; “Newspapers that allow themselves to be seduced away from the bedrock of good journalism do so at their own peril.”

In particular, Mitchell shies at Fairfax and ceo David Kirk, claiming the company has; “…staked its future on fridge-door journalism to entice an organic-food eating, new age-thinking reader demographic with names like Wilhelmina, Finbar and Mifanwe.” Phew! I bet Mitchell’s off Kirk’s Chrissy card list after that one. (I knew a Farquar once and he was a nice Farquar too.)

The final bitch-slap is where The Australian’s editor says; “(Kirk) says the company is adapting to consumer preferences driven by technology and lifestyle, and thinks some people may even want a chip implanted in their heads to receive the company’s products. As a consequence, Fairfax last year sacked 55 journalists and reported a 9.7 per cent profit fall.

“In the end, a newspaper has to stand for something and know its market,” says Mitchell. I guess that’s another way of saying community focus.

MY CALL:
Newspapers rule okay? Not because of the physical newsprint and ink, but because they, above all other media, understand content. Look at the Sydney Morning Herald or The Age websites and you will find video features, audio news, posts updated hourly and no less than 37 blogs on topics from fashion and dating to…well I’d rather not mention some of the topics particularly on Sam de Britto’s ‘All Men are Liars’ blog!

What the blogs do is not a substitute for journalism but they seem to attract a younger audience who would not normally buy and read a newspaper. Perhaps a culture of news and opinion appreciation can be engendered this way.

Sacking newsroom staff and turning newspapers into light-reading bumpf with stories on Ophra’s latest diet mixed with Reuter’s and AAP bought-in wire stories is a way to ensure the industry’s destruction. I’m with Chris Mitchell on this one.

Another very successful Australian newspaper group is Rural Press because they understand the value of communities, especially those outside of urban areas. What kind of company would Fairfax be today if Rural’s John B Fairfax and not young Warwick had gained ascendancy in the 80s? APN is another.

Not everyone loves them but most people trust newspaper reporting above other kinds. Sometimes this trust is misplaced but I am reminded of the words of 19th century reformist Charles Bradlaugh, which I used in my Challenge 21 presentation for the LIA a while back:

“Without free speech no search for truth is possible… no discovery of truth is useful… Better a thousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial slays the life of the people, and entombs the hope of the race.”

Only newspaper thinking can deliver this, guaranteed. The TV channels (except our ABC) seem to have wholeheartedly abandoned not just quality journalism, but quality anything. Okay, insult our intelligence but watch out when the community wants to insult you back by turning you off. The internet is a chaotic Spanish omelette of misinformation, disinformation, libel, filth and narrow opinions – except for newspaper websites where practiced editorial standards reign.

Circulations of physical newspapers may fluctuate but newspaper companies are growing and prospering. The printed article will always be needed but the days of mass-circulation are gone and papers know that. They now control their circulations and it has been alleged, even orchestrate intentional circulation declines, focusing on subscribers, people of influence and demographics favourable to advertisers.

Because most large papers are cashed-up, they have been able to buy back the lost classified advertising revenue by acquisitions of online trading sites, other internet businesses and advertising-only papers and freesheets.

Australia’s newspaper industry is now magnificently equipped to lower costs, produce more colour and run quality heatset magazines too in some cases. It has learnt the lesson that you can’t increase prices and lower quality, which it tried to do in the 90s. You can only go forward with better value and increased quality.

I wouldn’t start a new newspaper today, but I would certainly buy shares in newspaper companies who have survived the most tumultuous upheaval of their businesses in history, and come out of it changed, smarter, stronger, more environmentally aware and more than anything else, still believing in quality journalism and genuine freedom of expression. And the communities they serve.

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