In the wake of the historic merger between Nine and Fairfax, I’m thinking that maybe we need to rethink how our news is funded.
The Nine Network’s recent announcement it was gobbling up Fairfax Media has left readers across Australia dismayed.
For generations, we have relied on Fairfax, one of Australia’s oldest news organisations, to shine a light on people in power. We have valued its ethical and thorough reporting and took its unbiased, intelligent presentation of facts for granted.
The Nine Network, on the other hand, is well and truly ensconced in tabloid commercial culture and seems an ill fit to take over the running of Fairfax.
At best, the deal means there is an even smaller pool of media publishers in Australia. At worst, it will signify the death of rural newspapers and irrevocably change the culture and tone of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s reporting. At any rate, as many have opined, the deal is bad for Australian democracy.
However, if there is one shard of light we can take from this development, it’s the fact it demonstrates that the old news model is irreparably broken and in need of reform.
“News” and “profit” are now two words that can no longer be uttered in the same sentence – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Without the classifieds and real estate sections propping them up, print is effectively dead. And while digital publications and television news do make some money from advertising, their long-term sustainability is highly questionable.
However, before you think me unduly pessimistic, fear not, I have an answer! It’s simple: recognise news for the public service that it is and fund it as such.
Free the news websites, television and radio programs we cherish from begging for revenue from advertising and instead fund them through government and philanthropic sources.
After all, state and federal governments fund a range of authorities designed to maintain the integrity of our private and public organisations, such as ASIC, the Ombudsman and IBAC. These well-funded, well-resourced regulators play an important role in prosecuting corruption and deterring others from such behaviour in the process.
News organisations and quality journalism have the same – or perhaps even greater – effect. After all, it’s one thing to cop a fine, but knowing that your face might also be splashed across the front page of a newspaper is surely an even bigger deterrent for bad behaviour.
In addition, while regulators can prosecute people within the confines of their legislative frameworks, journalism can also draw attention to behaviour that is unethical, but not necessarily illegal.
Without a healthy and well-financed media, it is hard to imagine these stories, and their resulting reforms, would have come about.
Think about recent revelations of banks lending to people who could couldn’t afford it or the tragic suicide of Brodie Panlock, which resulted in bullying in the workplace becoming a crime punishable by jail in Victoria. Without a healthy and well-financed media, it is hard to imagine these stories, and their resulting reforms, would have come about.
But not all journalism is investigative, I hear you say. Many stories are whimsical, light-hearted reviews or chatty lifestyle pieces.
My response to that argument would be that these stories are just as valuable as the hard-hitting reports. Think about times you have had a belly-aching laugh at a witty headline or read a personal story about a problem you were grappling with (including in The Big Smoke!) These stories play an equally important role in lifting our moods and providing colour to our days.
Philanthropic and government organisations provide arts grants to enrich our society and ensure that entertainment is accessible. Why couldn’t the same groups fund a community newspaper, or an arts publication? Where are the philanthropic bodies for insightful online magazines?
I have heard people argue that government funding for news organisations would perversely encourage journalists to go soft on the government of the day. But of course that argument is nonsense, as the ABC and SBS have never shied away from asking tough questions.
If anything, having multiple publicly-funded news organisations would be good for democracy. The ABC would continue but we would also have a whole other raft of news organisations that are publicly-funded as well, with varying focuses. It would take the pressure off the ABC as it wouldn’t have to be everything to everyone; instead there would be many public broadcasters that share the responsibility of providing well-researched, ethical reporting that is backed up by the public purse.
At the very least, it would stop News Corp from complaining the ABC was unfairly stealing its readers.
Funding for these publications could be determined through usual budgetary processes, just as is the case with any other publicly-funded organisation.
While it’s true that we could just expect people to pay for their news, it’s better for society if everyone can access various sources of truth and not be confined to their subscriptions.
If we want empowered and educated citizens, news should be available to all, not just those who can afford it. So come on, philanthropists, policymakers and publishers, stop whingeing about the demise of the media and start innovating! We’ll all be better off for it.