Press ganged

There is a basic fact about journalism that is sometimes easy to ignore: journalists need other journalists. News does not happen in isolation.

Journalism is by nature competitive. It is built from a language of bylines and exclusives. But without the expertise of other reporters, without the concentration of talents produced by newsrooms, journalism can never hope to properly understand the world it is trying to explain. When one media company is threatened with collapse, the whole profession is damaged.

A strike such as the one at Fairfax is an expression of horror at a company taking itself apart. Similar, less publicised, redundancy rounds are happening at News Corp. Journalism is in serious danger.

The newsrooms of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have shrunk beyond recognition. Good work is done in those newsrooms, but that work is imperilled by these cuts. Something radical must be done.

There are models overseas that involve state investment in journalism – funding that is given without caveat but that recognises the social good done by journalism. There are arguments for tax incentives, not unlike those in the film industry, to encourage investment.

Other models exist and more will be found. But none will escape this other basic fact: good journalism is expensive. It takes time. It is vexed by unfriendly defamation laws and a legal system insufficiently focused on mediation. Work is sometimes difficult to quantify. Reporting will occasionally go down rabbit holes. On some stories there is no payoff.

It is easy for conversations about journalism to become hyperbolic. The reason for that is simple: it is incredibly important. It sounds almost foolish to say that the cuts announced at Fairfax this week will hurt our democracy, but it is true. Our politics is only as good as the people reporting it. The dangers of power are too great otherwise.

It is no longer useful to appeal to shareholders in major media companies. Their interest is not journalism. But readers still have a part in this. The easiest thing a person can do to support journalism is to pay for it. Reward quality. Let proprietors know what is valued. The strongest journalism is the kind that pays for itself.

There is a tradition in newspapers to rattle a person out as they leave, to bang together printers’ tools and metal and have them walk out to a cacophony. The sound was once a celebration. Increasingly, it feels like a war dance. As quality news is made more and more vulnerable, through mismanagement and market shifts, it’s a fight worth having.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "Press ganged".

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