A week or so ago I was contacted by the Sunday Herald in Scotland and asked to comment on just-announced job losses of 90 staff at the Daily Record/Sunday Mail newspaper in Glasgow. This after the loss of 70 editorial posts in 2009. The latest cuts were variously described as 'extraordinary', 'savage' and a 'terrible blow' by commentators including the First Minister in the Scottish Parliament Alex Salmond himself.
Owned by the UK Trinity Mirror Group, the Record and Mail had once been Scotland's top-selling newspapers, dominating the popular press landscape completely. At its circulation peak the Daily Record was selling more than 700,000 copies every day. In 2011, though, sales had fallen to 286,000, their lowest ever.
I pass this on because it puts into perspective the scale of the crisis affecting what we used to call print journalism all over the advanced industrialised world. Yes, print sales are healthy in the developing and emerging markets such as India. Yes, we are some way away from the long foretold death of newspapers as a viable commercial platform for journalism. But the writing is on the wall, in Scotland and the UK, in the United States, and here in Australia. Everywhere, circulations and advertising revenue are falling, titles are closing or merging, production efficiencies are being sought. The editor-in-chief of the Record and Mail stated that 'in common with all newspapers, the Daily Record and Sunday Mail are not immune from the current difficult economic conditions and our industry is experiencing unprecedented structural change'.
Economic conditions vary from country to country, and Australian newspapers are in relative terms doing better than the press in many countries. But in Australia too the trends are unmistakeable, as is the reason for them. The rise of the internet, and the migration of readers away from print to online, where much news content is accessible free of charge, is eroding the fundamental business model which has sustained the press for centuries. The GFC may not have impacted so hard on Australia as it did in the UK and the USA, but that technology-driven process of structural change is every bit as evident here, and requires a response from the 'old', or traditional media.
One such is News Ltd's announcement that from October the Australian and other titles will put online content behind a pay wall, charging $2.95 per week for a digital subscription and $7.95 for a digital-print package. The parent News Corp has already introduced pay walls in the UK and the USA, and this move in its Australian business was not a surprise. Uncertainty remains, however, as to its prospects as a financial model capable of replacing the circulation and advertising income lost to its newspapers.
Some communication analysts believe that in the digital era information 'wants to be free', and any attempt to cage it is doomed to failure. Others, including News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch, believe that journalism of quality costs money, and has to be paid for by the consumer, online or offline. If we won't pay, the future is one of poorly researched, unreliable news of uncertain origin. Say what you like about the quality of commercial journalism these last few decades, and it has not always been high, but if the free news habit becomes fixed amongst the young generation now growing into adult media consumers, argues Murdoch and others, we ain't seen nothing yet. The fake 'gay girl in Damascus' blog, written by a married man living in Edinburgh and eluding media exposure for much longer than any self-respecting journalist should be prepared to accept, is the way of the future. No income for news organisations will mean no resources to source and check stories, to do the big investigations which cost time and money with no certainty of outcome.
Now, I enjoy my freebies like everybody else, and the proliferation of free, quality news online has been a wonderful and unexpected byproduct of the internet. But as a citizen and a consumer of journalism I know this isn't sustainable. Sometime, somehow, the bills have to paid for all the things required in order to make journalism of quality. Trained professionals skilled at something called 'journalism'; equipment and other resources needed for journalists to do their job properly; economic independence from those who would stifle and suppress honest journalism.
I don't doubt that many commercial media organisations neglected their responsibilities in this regard long before the internet or the GFC became an issue. There has always been a lot of crap journalism around. But good journalism – journalism that confronts power, exposes corruption, that entertains and enlightens and educates as it services democracy – doesn't grow on trees, or fall like magic from the sky. So I believe that it should be paid for, like any other cultural commodity. And I am willing to pay for quality journalism, even if in the short term I don't have to because there's so much excellent free stuff around.
Indeed, I already pay for a digital subscription to News Corp's British titles, the Times and Sunday Times. I pay for the Courier-Mail iPad app, and for one or two Scottish titles, the better to stay in touch with events back in the homeland. I pay for all of these despite the fact that I can access the Guardian, the Telegraph, the BBC, ABC and many others online free of charge. Those providers have their reasons for not charging, and I don't challenge them. Let's see how they fare in the new media marketplace, where advertisers don't care if your users are paying or not, as long as they are getting their ads seen. But many outlets need an income stream to guarantee editorial stability and longevity, and I am prepared to pay a reasonable fee for access to their products.
Put like that it seems like a no-brainer. But will the pay walls work? Can today's teenagers and young people be persuaded, as they grow into adulthood, that they should shell out their hard earned dollars to read a story the gist of which can be found in any number of free-to-access locations online? Many observers are dubious, and the uptake for News Corps' online paid-for journalism has not been encouraging. In November last year, four months after launch, News Corp in the UK had attracted only 50,000 paying customers for its online offering (I was one of them, although my departure from the UK meant I was no longer buying a print copy, so no net gain there). Of some three million unique visitors a month at launch, the pay walls had proven attractive only to 1.5 per cent of them.
This, of course, is precisely the challenge faced by the big beasts of the old media. People happily pay for print, and will continue to do so for a while yet. But online it's a different matter, and no news organization has yet succeeded in recruiting the numbers of paying contributors required to replace the losses associated with print's decline.
My earnest hope is that news providers will respond to the online challenge with a pitch based on the 'quality' of their offering, and that the effort to make pay walls work will lead to a general improvement in journalistic standards. And that means you too, Rupert. Less party bias (notwithstanding the legitimacy of editorial viewpoint), more independent analysis, better coverage of foreign affairs and politics, better writing and packaging. If we are going to pay for journalism in the digital age, we need to have confidence in its unique selling proposition. We need to want it to survive, because it gives us something of value we can't get elsewhere. So go on, Rupert, make your Australian online titles indispensable, essential, required reading. Exploit the communicative power of the internet, the presentational gloss of the iPad. If your managers in Australia can do that, many of us will buy into it.