This article was published in Lot’s Wife on 15/10/2012

It’s hard to know what impact Fairfax’s decline will have on the Australian media landscape. Despite at times incessant coverage of the company’s staff cuts and boardroom wrangling (along with a simultaneous decrease in quality of newspaper content), the exact future of metropolitan broadsheets The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald seems unclear. If ominous statements from influential figures are to be believed, their fate could lie anywhere from reactionary tabloid to web-based gossip column. Whatever the case, most analysts are in agreement: the ‘quality broadsheet’ model represented by the two publications is fast becoming commercially unsustainable.

This is not, by any means, a new problem. The Fairfax mastheads have always held an uneasy position in the commercial mediasphere. One need merely glance at their circulation figures compared to those of tabloid rivals The Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph to grasp that, at least in Australia, serious newspapers function as niche publications at best. While that status has, up until recently, been enough for the broadsheets to at least maintain their existence, it is a situation at odds with the imperatives of the market economy. If journalistic integrity, editorial independence and non-sensationalist reportage are barriers to revenue, why bother maintaining them? All it requires is the appointment of a few more pragmatic board members for a newspaper’s standards to start slipping.

Such an eventuation in Fairfax’s case would be, to put it mildly, concerning. This issue far transcends the fate of a single media company or publication; at its heart, it involves democracy itself. It is difficult to overstate exactly how much democracy depends on a functioning, critical media. While few contemporary news publications come close to resembling the ideals of the fourth estate, journalism remains by far the primary means of holding government accountable. Print, radio, television and internet media not only provide the bulk of information available to the public, they play a crucial role in critiquing the government of the day.

It’s fair to say that Australia’s commercial news media outlets aren’t very good at this. News Limited tabloids often resemble celebrity magazines in content and match them in irrelevance. Reportage of world events is sidelined in favour of catwalk photographs; news of Hollywood break-ups and scandals lie scattered throughout; front pages are devoted to manufactured outrage campaigns. All of the above serve to divert attention from issues of national and international importance. What space is devoted to political coverage is reduced mostly to analyses of polls and Question Time stunts; tedious incidents in politicians’ private lives deemed more newsworthy than actual policies (the latter disposition as rife in the broadsheets as it is in the tabloids). The result is a highly superficial mainstream political discourse that is far more concerned with, say, Kevin Rudd’s prospects in a leadership spill than the ALP Government’s actual policy successes or failures.

The reasons for these phenomena are complex, but one factor seems constant: the role of the market. It’s no coincidence that the most commercially successful media outlets also happen to be the least threatening. Advertising, by its very nature, thrives on instant gratification and a less critical environment. It is ideal, therefore, that the content of a profit-oriented publication be aesthetically attractive, avoid causing readers discomfort and, most importantly, seek to confirm their existing beliefs and prejudices. This is the world Fairfax finds itself in, desperately struggling to justify the maintenance of standards and ethics in a landscape in which neither are profitable. Events of the last six months indicate that this battle is being lost.

In some ways, this eventuation has been prepared for. In 1929, the ABC was launched as a national government-funded broadcaster. It was a clear statement then, as now, that media in the free market couldn’t be depended upon to adequately serve the democratic system; that the Government had to devote part of its own budget to rectify that problem. It remains, in some ways, a shockingly radical statement; an acknowledgement that unfettered free market economy is not capable of solving the world’s ills (little wonder conservatives often take such a dim view of the ABC!).

In the current climate, the ABC has become more valuable than ever. Its radio and TV stations are still beacons of light in a dull landscape; its website a worthy successor to the dying giants of the print medium. While it might have been argued in the past that the network fills a niche that could just as easily be serviced by a commercial outlet, Fairfax’s travails should put an end to any such conjecture. The market economy is not friendly to serious journalism. If the latter can exist at all in the commercial sphere, it must do so in a state of terminal uncertainty. Similarly, there remains an uncomfortable irony about a government-funded body being left to carry the torch of the fourth estate alone.

Democracy, we should never forget, is a fragile institution, easily manipulated by powerful individuals and interest groups — it cannot function without the existence of strong, critical media outlets. It’s crucial that we do not allow the decline of Fairfax to herald the decline of Australian journalism as a whole; on the contrary, this may well be an opportunity for the development of a newer, fiercer, independent (online) mediasphere. It’s not going to happen by itself — what say you, Lot’s Wife reader?