Sunday, June 3, 2012
Burying the Lead
ABC Radio's Saturday Extra took that angle recently, in an item entitled 'Newspapers and the Media of the Future'. Norman Swan, standing in for regular host Geraldine Doogue, explored the issue with a single guest - Steve Allen of Fusion Strategy, a representative of the advertising buyers.
Allen reiterated the now well worn theme that the mainstream media is in a transition phase, caught between its formerly high-margin, but now no-growth, hard copy past and its fast-growing, but highly commoditised and low-margin digital future.
As a former dot com journalist from the early 2000s, I've been hearing these business school discussions for 10 years and they are just as uninteresting and speculative as they ever were. The problem of a broken business model is really not much of interest unless you have shares in Fairfax, Seven, Ten or News Corp.
The more interesting question is what happens to journalism, not what happens to the capitalist edifice subsidising it. That the ABC chose an ad buyer to explore the issue shows just how arid their imaginations are. They're asking people still surviving inside the dead model to imagine a world beyond their experience. This is a pointless exercise that never reveals anything of note. Their conclusion is usually just about the need to create more "clickable" content. If you want to know where that leads, look at the SMH and Age websites.
What we're seeing now in the mainstream media is classic creative destruction in the Schumpeter model, This refers to the idea in capitalism in which technological innovation disrupts (and in some cases completely destroys) an established business model supporting an industry. Of course, the degree to which you see this process as 'creative' or 'destructive' will depend on whether you are on the sharp end of it (like the sub-editors Fairfax is letting go).
While many talk up alternatives, these are usually just tired variations of what already exists built on the assumption that the crumbling shells of the existing players will form the basis for what comes next. This explains why Gina Rinehart is spending so much effort storming the already broken down citadel of Fairfax, on the view that what the Australian market really lacks is another media outlet that kowtows to the resource industry. In the same vein, on the ABC program cited above, Steve Allen (whose business concern is aggregating large audiences to sell to audiences) rather bizarrely cited Alan Jones' shock-jockery and manufactured outrage as "alternative media".
These are all important issues, and I'm sure they'll keep MBAs in discussion for many more years to come as the circus moves on elsewhere. But my feeling is the business model will look after itself. The bigger and more interesting question is about the value and purpose of journalism, irrespective of how it is funded. Which is why it was so refreshing to meet up in Canberra recently at a function organised by the Public Interest Journalism Foundation to speak alongside Professor Matthew Ricketson, who worked on the Finkelstein independent inquiry into the media, and the digital media advocate Craig Thomler of Delib.
The discussions there, involving journalism students, practitioners and academics, were more illuminating than most of the circular and self-interested ruminations on business models. For a report on the gathering, see this piece from Croakey's Melissa Sweet (formerly of The Bulletin and the SMH) here.
Posted by Mr D at 10:26 PM