Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Monday, June 18, 2012

Is This Week The End of Print Media?

I don't talk about my family much because, well, they're mortified that I'm not only a journalist but also a writer and a memoirist. (However, they're relieved I have a different name; this allows them to pretend, when asked, that they're not related.)  

But I want to mention my brother this week (although I'll refrain from naming names), because he's caught in the Fairfax crossfire over the battle to save print media in Australia, and I'd like to defend him, before he and his media colleagues are set upon and lynched with tightly rolled-up newspapers directed at places newspapers should never be directed at. (And trust me, the press – and much of the public – are baying for blood like vampiric Twilight characters who haven't had a suck for a century.)

I'd also like to talk about the business that he's in, which is perhaps not the best one to be in at the moment.

It's the business of print media.

My brother, you see, is part of the senior management team at Fairfax Media. This legendary Australian media company owns The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Canberra Times, the Financial Review and a stable of other great news outlets. I don't tell many people this, just as he doesn't tell many people I'm a journalist. Probably best. Never wise to associate with "the great unwashed", as a colleague once dubbed us in the editorial department.

My brother has been with The Age for more than a decade, but this would no doubt be his most challenging week. If I thought I was having a dismal week, mine is nothing compared to the doom and gloom taking place down in the Docklands. Even Darren Percival doing a rendition of Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive couldn't brighten that lot up.

If you haven't yet heard yesterday's big news, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia's two biggest broadsheet newspapers, are going through the biggest crisis in the company's, and indeed Australia's print history. Basically, in 13 words or less, Fairfax has had to dramatically restructure, or cut the losses and close up shop*. (Oh sorry, that's 14 words. Where's that sub-editor gone?)

(* This is not Fairfax's opinion, but mine and indeed many others. Even Rachael Leahcar could see the company has been long overdue for an editorial nip and tuck.)

Yesterday, Fairfax announced it was taking radical steps to stop the company's profits from leaking like melted chocolate out of a self-saucing pudding. (See Epicure recipe, above, for illustration.)

The company announced it was going to slash 1900 jobs, close printing plants and downsize the papers' formats in order to prepare for heaving the whole lot online. It was one of the biggest restructures in Australia's media history. 

The one thing that surprised me about all this was: Why has it taken so long?

Newspapers and magazines have seen the writing on the wall back page for years. The Internet didn't just poke its head up yesterday. The New York Times, The LA Times, and the London Times have all struggled with falling readership and revenue for almost a decade. Even US Vogue is stumbling on its Louboutins.

Obviously Fairfax was trying to do the right thing, not only by its staff but by the Australian public, raised on a diet of Leunig and news.* (*The Age is repeatedly bagged as being written by "latte-sucking leftists from Fitzroy", but that's untrue. Leunig might be a Fitz boy but a lot of the columnists live happily in right-wing lives over in middle-class Malvern. They barely go north of the river without their passports.)

Now I know this blog is usually about entertaining things – 'lite' journalism for you time-short Internet flickers – but just this once, if you'll indulge me, I want to revert to my journalist's role and focus on something deeper: The Future of Print Media.

Or should I say, The End?

It's gonna be painful, but we need to do it.


Once upon a time, there were newspapers and magazines. Good ones. Vogue. Vanity Fair. The New York Times. The London Times. Then people started to say: What about the trees? Isn't this a waste of paper? So someone came up with an e-reader. And the trees breathed a sigh of relief. (Someone else – I think it was Rupert Murdoch? – said: "What about all those cheques?" But that's a bedtime story for another time.)

After a period of visual adjustment (those backlit screens were brighter than Piccadilly) the world turned to their e-readers. And the exclaims could be heard from here to Fleet Street. E-readers were light, bright, multi-functional, and (if desperate) you could use them for self-defence on the train late at night, unlike a tattered copy of the back section of the Fin Review.

There was just one problem. Sentimentality. People might have been reading iPads but they still had emotional ties to paper. They liked the tactile nature of it. It felt traditional. Reassuring. Trustworthy. They liked the past time of reading the weekend editions over a coffee after a walk around The Tan, or the Bondi-to-Bronte track. They liked that you could screw up the cafe's copy and stain it with coffee so the next person couldn't read the share prices. They even liked it that you could slip the sports / style section into your bag when nobody was looking.

Nobody knew what to do. So magazine and newspaper proprietors kept printing.

But as more and more people betrayed print by decamping to e-formats faster than a disillusioned Confederate, advertisers started taking note. Money fell away. And concerned magazine and newspaper proprietors started cutting back on their Chateau Lafittes.

The ironic thing was, the content hadn't changed. It had just morphed into a different form. It was like arguing which tastes better: Coffee in a mug, or coffee in a paper cup? What's the point of the debate?

If we're going to progress into the future, we have to embrace technology, or we're all just flailing around in the past. I know some of you will vehemently disagree here, and that's fine. I resisted for the longest time, too. I know how you feel.

Here's the good news. We have had centuries of great journalism. And that will continue. Just in a different medium. Those naysayers ringing the doom bell and announcing that "this is the end" might get on a commuter train one day and count all the workers with an iPad or an e-reader, browsing the sites. It's not the end of media. It's just the end of print. Even parts of the vintage issues of Vogue (above) are still available online.

Now The Death of Print will not happen by 5pm this evening. Newspapers will not go quietly into the night. There will be shouting. Anger. Tears. Print workers are not like ladies from the CWA. And quite a few of us sentimentalists will feel the loss, too (There's nothing like pulling up the lino of a place and discovering an old newspaper from the 1950s underneath.)

But let's embrace the possibilities. Let's celebrate the flexibility of e-readers, iPads, and the whole magical Internet, with its easy links, its search engines, and its "press here" technology. Newspapers may be beautiful, but they're like a lover we can't quite leave. Perhaps it's time to finally cut the ties?


  1. In a way, internet journalism versus print journalism is old news. I don't even think Black Caviar can catch that bolted horse!
    What I perceive is the difficulty for the readers of Fairfax broadsheets, is will the tabloid format dilute the quality of the journalism, and thus when Fairfax starts charging for internet content will it be worth buying? Time only will tell. I am sure this is a question your brother wishes he knew the answer.
    Of course, Fairfax has even more pressing issues, it has a baselining share price and a mining magnate who wants seats on the board and editorial control. Those angry print workers don't look so worrisome, when your unique selling point (perception of quality, unbiased journalism) in a crowded market could be lost.
    Anyway, I am off to internet research why broadsheet format rather than tabloid has been historically the format for quality journalism!
    Oh and yes, I no longer buy newspapers but still get the occasional magazine.

  2. I agree Claire, it does seem old news. But people still seem to be stuck on the paper trail... (So to speak). I loved the Black Caviar comment though.
    Yes, I was going to mention Ms Rhinehart and her audacity. Just because you're a majority shareholder doesn't mean you get to be the Deputy Chairman and hire the editors. Does she think she's a media mogul? I'll step down off my high-horse now, but she does get under my skin.
    As for quality, well, I think a lot of journalism has fallen by the wayside, and not just within Fairfax. But I wonder if that's due to the dilution / constant restructure within the industry? (And good journalists moving away from it?)
    And for your (very good) question of why broadsheet sizes have stayed in vogue for so long, that's because they were made for the classified ads ("the rivers of gold" ) that funded the papers. Now that they've gone, the larger size is no longer necessary.
    Finally, I do believe that all newspapers (and magazines) need to start charging for content. Otherwise, readers will simply expect everything for free, especially if they've had it for free for a long time. It's important to set a precedent now. We paid for content before (with the various cover prices of newspaper and magazines). We'll be happy to do it again (for a modest fee). But it needs to be done now, not in 5 years, when we will have been given so much for free that we'll refuse to pay for information.

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  4. A fascinating post, Janelle. Your poor brother. A cherished reading the SMH during our 11 years in Sydney. It really was a cut above its peers. When we returned to Hobart, we still subscribed, even if it arrived a day late. We only stopped when our budget tightened. But I really miss it. And yes, the tactility is something important to me. We're an iNothing family. We're not Luddites but we just can't afford the latest gadgets. So I guess I'll be a reluctant convert. But you are right - if the quality of journalism is there, then it's worth paying for. J x

    1. Hi beautiful Jane, Yes as I told smr, I love the SMH. I'm loyal to Melbourne but those Sydney journos DO know how to write a good line!

      And don't worry - I haven't bought an iPad yet either! (Despite my elderly parents AND my anti-Apple partner buying one.) I keep meaning to get one from the Apple store in New York, but spend the money on books instead!

      What does that say about me, I wonder? Perhaps I'm a luddite too?

  5. It's a hard one but being a Sydney girl!!!? Im an SMH junkie. A friend told me yesterday she was given a free SMH app because she was an SMH subscriber. no free trial period, nada, free for all time. So that is probably the writing on the wall.Can't help but think how useful newspaper itself can be though.

    1. Do you know, I actually prefer the SMH over The Age? (Hope my family isn't reading this.) It's a wittier, more interesting and often more colourful paper. (A colourful headline will always pull me in!) I love staying at hotels in Sydney, just so I can get a free SMH to read at breakfast! What a simple life I lead...

  6. I read the news on the internet during the week, but I will really miss the broadsheets on the weekend. My family has a regular tradition of getting the paper on Saturday, disembowelling it to read the sections we are most interested in, swapping 'Life and Style' for 'Good Weekend', 'Drive' for 'Insight' with each other before gathering to do the crosswords and quizzes together over lunch. I suspect an ereader won't have the same interaction of bargaining with family and friends which section you can read next.
    On a different but not unrelated topic: I will be forever wedded to paper books because you can't underline beautifully constructed sentences or highlight favourite sections. And I love coming across old dedications and commemoration plaques in the front of old books: "To Mabel. For attending Sunday School every Sunday in 1912. From Jean". You just won't get that evidence of a well-loved book in a computor file.
    I regret the loss of print media and will resist it. But I think that reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. It may have to morph and change shape, but there will always be a place for print on paper.

  7. Good point Fiona. Newspapers were always great on weekends; almost part of the whole culture of weekend life, really. I've been buying them on weekends out of habit, but kept finding that they'd still be stacked up on the ottoman Sunday night, and I'd have to race through them before they were put out in the recycling garbage Monday!

    And yes, I will always love paper books. We have actually been stockpiling our library these past few years so that we have a fantastic collection. I have it in my head that we'll sit and read when we retire.

    Thank you for posting such a thoughtful comment.


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