Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Good Democracy needs Strong Media: What impact the Fairfax sackings?

Yesterday, Fairfax Media, the publishers of some of the oldest, most respected newspapers in Australia announced it would radically downsize and move its prime business on-line. More video, Lateline and a detailed timeline.

"The Fourth Estate" is a fundamental to strong Democracy - in Economics terms, it (notionally) provides "full/perfect information" for the Market. It's how the Public become informed of Things That Matter.

I posit that the "Golden Age" of Democracy of the 20th Century co-incided with a strong newspaper, newsreel and later "electronic media" culture:

  • there is strong public demand for "information" coupled with a willingness to pay.
  • "Fresh" news and stories are a competitive advantage: News 'Scoops' made money.
  • Strong competition amongst providers for "fresh news" funded a lot of technology, a lot of research and stimulus to "look under every rock".
  • Under this pressure, the News Cycle shrank from weeks, to days, to hours and minutes. Twitter with its 'news cycle of seconds' may be the end-game.

Media companies had a sound Business Model for around 100 years because they filled a fundamental human need: curiosity and concern.
They had worked out a great way to place a tax on that, far better than just paying for 'a' paper: advertising.

But is this Value Proposition of "Fresh News" dissolving in the New Media?

Newspapers used to be "News", i.e. the facts of {Who, What, Where, When, How and if known, Why}, not "Opinion" - the stuff that I'm writing.

After the Vietnam War, TV took over the immediate delivery of "News", as in "What's New(s)?".

Newspaper couldn't 'break' fresh stories because TV would always beat them with the 6PM or 10Pm bulletins, unless stories were non-obvious and required unusual research.

Newspapers found new niches with Opinion, Analysis and Entertainment and Informing (vs 'News' of delivering new facts).

Woodward and Bernstein's "Watergate" investigation happened precisely because:

  • Post Vietnam, TV had taken over as "where Fresh Stories break" forcing the paper to "dig deeper" for stories,
  • the Washington Post had the resources and editorial judgement and nerve to fund the research and publish the results "without fear or favour",
  • "sources" respected the paper and its journalists enough to speak, with an implied contract that they'd be treated fairly and respectfully and their identity would be protected if needed, and
  • the public trusted the facts were real, correct and checked, and trusted that any fraud, confabulation or misrepresentation would be outed and all those responsible would "suffer consequences".
The Washington Post had an owner that was interested and engaged, and would back their Editors and Journalists. The people on the coal-face trusted they would be defended if they told the truth and acted in Good Faith.

What evolved with News reporting was a delivery pipeline with well-known "rendezvous points", Trust, Respect, and "Reputation" that took decades to build and a moment to destroy, and diversity with competition.

Who kept the Media Honest? Their competitors!
Who prevented complacency, sloppiness and indolence? Their competitors!

And the Media, "the Fourth Estate", with its insatiable appetite for News and Fact, kept those in positions of power and trust, Politicians and Business leaders, accountable.

For a hundred years, the public could (mostly) trust what the papers said and trust them to hold those in power accountable on their behalf.

Without a vibrant, competitive and highly professional News Reporting disciple, this half of the democratic system dissolves...

In a Democracy, the citizenry has a duty to care, to actively maintain their Rights and hold those in positions of power to account. We're not going to see riots in the streets over this, it seems like an inevitable, and minor, business failure or restructure.

But what can and will replace a strong, free Press?
The Internet does Change Everything, but where's the business model that will fund good News Reporting? None has yet to emerge, and after ~15 years of "The InterWebs", if it was going to appear, it should be apparent.

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