Opinion

The art of journalism still has a mystical currency. By Malcolm Turnbull.

Malcolm Turnbull
Malcolm Turnbull on news media’s struggles

When the US congressional commerce committee held a hearing into the future of journalism in 2009, its chairman, John Kerry, paraphrased Joseph Pulitzer’s line that “our Republic and its press will rise or fall together”, and added, “Well, certainly the quality of the dialogue in the Republic will.” 

This anxiety is not misplaced, for surely the work journalists do is as essential to our democracy as the work of legislators, judges and ministers. And it is also true that for many years the most important foundations of journalism have been the great metropolitan newspapers. With their lock on classified advertising – those rivers of gold, as Rupert Murdoch once described them – nobody else had the resources to employ so many reporters, or to dedicate so much space so comprehensively, to cover the events of the day.

As we all know, those foundations are shaking. The internet has smashed the business model of those papers by providing a more cost-effective platform for advertising. The hyper platform of the internet, of course, challenges all other media – print, radio, free-to-air and subscription television included. But as the launch of The Saturday Paper shows, the rumours of the death of newspapers, even printed ones, appear to be exaggerated. 

Of course, Pulitzer’s warning about the Republic and the press rising and falling together was not entirely altruistic. He was not only a congressman for a short time, but also one of America’s most famous, and now revered, newspaper proprietors. Not least because of the journalism school he founded at Columbia and the Pulitzer prizes that it established.     

And, who knows, perhaps Morry Schwartz will do the same as Pulitzer, and run for Parliament – they have so much in common. Both radicals, both idealists, both born in Hungary, both Jewish, and above all, both with ink in their veins. To mangle another line from Apocalypse Now this week – they love the smell of newsprint in the morning. 

In The Kingdom and the Power, Gay Talese’s famous book on The New York Times, he describes a world in which newspapers were very nearly a natural monopoly. The strategy was simple – lower the face value of the newspaper, go for circulation and rely on the high entry costs of the business to keep out competitors. Many American newspapers earned as much as 80 per cent of their revenue from advertising.  Newsrooms could be aloof from the grubbiness of commerce, enjoying the proceeds of the classified rivers of gold with the haughty independence of a duke receiving the rents of his tenant farmers. 

These days, few newsrooms have the luxury of ignoring where their funding comes from. In large part, the industry is yet to settle on a single model, or even strategy, that guarantees viability.

It’s no longer smart for news media companies to have a single approach for all consumers. In 2012, I tweeted an article on Monday Note arguing that newspapers should drastically increase the cover price of their physical papers, to capture as much value from high-end readers as possible. The Saturday Paper’s cover price and focus on quality journalism will bear out whether that argument was right (and I suspect it will prove so).

Other readers will have little loyalty to a masthead and will likely only read an article when pushed to it by an alert on their iPad or via social media. This is a tough demographic to get to. Most newspapers are using porous paywalls to slowly train them to start paying for content. Across the Australian industry, digital revenue still only accounts for nine per cent of all income – advertising still accounts for 61 per cent and physical circulation accounts for 29 per cent. It is too early to assume that digital revenue will step into the breach in the ongoing fall in print advertising revenues.

There are other models still, testing whether media organisations even need to be profitable. Famously, The Guardian is run by a trust, relieving it of immediate profit and loss pressures (though it cannot run at a loss forever). In the US, philanthropists such as Jeff Bezos are increasingly investing in media companies for the same reasons they might have invested in universities – to contribute to the civic life of their communities and to create a legacy for themselves.

Away from these considerations, readership is in rude health. The appetite for journalism is unabated – journalists have more readers than ever, their digital presence amplified by social media. What is missing is how to get paid for it. 

Whether digital or in print, the truth is that that old art of the journalist is just as mystical as ever. To capture the imagination of a reader – to inform, to explain, to amuse and amaze – is still, by and large, an art more than it is a science. And it is in this art that the reasons to have an optimistic outlook for newspapers is founded. Sharing stories is the most human of habits and the long form of journalism is one of the most pure, most enduring examples of that.

On that note, I wish the editors and journalists of The Saturday Paper the best of luck in their endeavours.

Malcolm Turnbull is the Minister for Communications. This is an extract of the speech with which he launched The Saturday Paper.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2014 as "Good luck but not goodnight". Subscribe here.

Malcolm Turnbull
is the Minister for Communications.

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