Media as business: In defence of Fairfax

As Australia’s journalism depth becomes ever shallower with the sacking of 150 Fairfax journalists, the big question to ask ourselves amid all this argy-bargy is “What on earth did we expect?”

The entire Fairfax focus is not on ensuring you and I have are informed and educated Australians; that in many ways is the role of the ABC. The entire Fairfax stable including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Financial Review and 2UE, is essentially media as business. Like any business, its primary mission is to make profits for shareholders…the dominant one being John B Fairfax himself.

This is a markedly different role to that of the ABC whose role it is to educate, inform and entertain in a way relevant to the broad spectrum of Australians. If a similar cost cutting occurred at the ABC we should and would be upset. Yet if a similar cost cutting occurred at Ernst & Young or perhaps Coles Myer would we be as concerned? Not on your life.

The emotional lynchpin in all of this is that The Herald, as one of Australia’s first newspapers, has a social responsibility to bring us ‘quality’ investigative journalism not stifled by  a lack of resources or the need for profit. What rubbish! The Herald is no more a social service than Pizza Hut or McDonalds. It exists to make money, and if we want ‘quality’ we may have to look elsewhere.

This ‘responsibility for quality’ we hear bandied about is the responsibility of the individual journalist, not of the media entity that presents itself as business. While it has been the case that Fairfax employed journalists who maintained ethical and responsible levels of journalism to bring us a ‘quality’ product, there was no guarantee this would continue. In the world of slipping media profits and greater competition from web-based media, there is no way that the Fairfax business could maintain its old-world standards in the face of real-world profit decline.

The truth is that Fairfax missed the boat when it failed to snap up online media products over the last 10 years. A greater online presence in its stable may well have provided the buffer it needed to maintain quality broadsheets like the Herald or the Age.  In the wake of poor past leadership, its flagship products,  the ones that bleed most money, need to be realigned. Like it or not, that would be the decision that any modern management team, a team that leads a business, not a social service, would make.

Most media watchers have known for some time that Fairfax has been piling money into its online entities like Domain, RSVP or SMH.com at the expense of its old-world broadsheets. A simple look at the Herald website shows a dumbing-down of intelligent discussion and a rise in celebrity-driven guff. In the world of business, this shallow ‘fast-food-journalism’ clearly makes more money than the serious stuff we used to digest.  Sad but true.

So should we be horrified at the sacking of Fairfax staff? No. Media as business has the right to do what it likes. The real reason for our horror, and a reason that should shake us all to the core, is that as our flagship quality broadsheets make their initial slide into mediocrity, we have nothing left to fill the void.

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