From “hate media” to another fine mess: How media reform got derailed

March 13, 2013

Don Pedro of Aragon: “Officers, what offence have these men done?”

Dogberry: “Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.”

William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing Act 5:Scene 1

May 19, 2011: On a mild mid-autumn day in Canberra, Greens leader Bob Brown held a fairly standard media conference to discuss climate change, emissions trading schemes and the carbon tax. During the Q&A session Brown mentioned The Australian and questioned why it was editorially opposed to making the big polluters pay. The following exchange took place:

Brown:The Australian has a position of opposing such action. My question to you is ‘Why is that?’”

Reporter: “As they said the other day, when you’re on this side, you ask the questions.”

Brown: “No. I’m just wondering why the hate media, it’s got a negative front page from top to bottom today; why it can’t be more responsible and constructive.” [Interjection]

Brown: “Let me finish. I’m just asking why you can’t be more constructive.”

Actually, that’s a fair question. The Australian would rather parade the ill-thought opinions of buffoons like Lord Monkton that get to grips with climate science. The science doesn’t suit the business interests of The Australian’s real clients.

On that now fateful May day Bob Brown made the point that the maturity of the climate change debate in Australia is questionable:

Brown: “The Murdoch media has a great deal of responsibility to take for debasing that maturity which is informed by scientific opinion from right around the world.”

Brown’s comments were reasonable, but challenging the collective wisdom of the Murdoch press is never a good idea; it is at its most effective, ferocious, vicious and unforgiving when it is under attack.

Pack instincts kick in and that is what Bob Brown was facing that day on the lawns of the parliamentary courtyard. He was having a go at the coverage of climate change in the press and argued that The Australian’s reporting was “not balanced”, it was “opinionated” and “it’s not news”.

This was inflammatory stuff; several reporters snarled and barked back. Brown responded with a comment that really goes to the heart of this whole matter:

Brown: “You don’t like it when we take you on. Don’t be so tetchy, just measure up to your own rules.”

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, it was the “hate media” grab – shorn of context – that made the headlines and the first (extremely rough) draft of history.

This was the genesis of calls for a public inquiry into media standards in Australia, but it was only the beginning.

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Media “reformers” drunk on Clayton’s tonic: How to be seen to be doing something while not doing much at all

March 13, 2013

Well Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has finally let the skinny, de-clawed and highly-stressed cat out of the bag. This week he has announced a raft of media reforms that will be introduced into Parliament in a series of piecemeal bills designed not to offend anyone.

Australian print and online news organisations will continue to be self-regulated through voluntary membership of a press standards body, which is likely to be the tame-cat and toothless Australian Press Council.

The announced reforms are the government’s official response to the Convergence Review and Finkelstein Inquiry into the media in Australia. But the proposals are watered down, wishy-washy and look like something the cat dragged in.

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The compact comes of ‘Age’, but the real fight for Fairfax is scooping digital eyeballs

March 8, 2013

Fairfax launched its new compact size in a week where Victorian politics dominated the national agenda, making it a very good time to consider just how Melbourne’s former broadsheet, The Age, fared with its now similarly sized competitor, the Herald Sun.

The re-launch of The Age as a compact was never about being the biggest selling newspaper in Melbourne. There’s no way The Age can compete with the genuinely tabloid Herald Sun.

The Herald Sun is a modern giant among Australian newspapers: its audited Monday to Saturday circulation hovers around the 450,000 mark. That adds up to more than a million readers every weekday.

The Age sells roughly one-third: Monday to Friday (157,000) and about half (227,000) on Saturday. Readership is about half too: 566,000 Monday—Friday and 720,000 on Saturdays, according to Audit Bureau figures.

So the driver of this week’s move was re-attaching Age readers who’ve let their subscription lapse, or who hated the unwieldy broadsheet.

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Over hump day with a bikie war then scalping the Premier seals the deal

March 7, 2013

So far I would have to say that in terms of news bang-for-buck the Herald-Sun is doing tabloid better than The Age does compact. It’s early days I know, but in Melbourne, at least, the News Limited paper seems to be ahead in the stand-out front page stakes..

Though, having said that, it seems that The Age has picked up some new readers this week. At my newsagent’s pick-ups of The Age have more than doubled and are now equal to, or a bit better than the Herald-Sun. That could be an anomaly; I  live in an area where there is a likely majority of Age-types given the number of private schools, Merc, Audis and Beemers that litter the neighbourhood.

Today’s editions (Thursday, 7 March ) might even the score for the Fairfax Media title in the stand-out competiton; but the full page picture of Ted Baillieu on the Hun might attract the mouth-breathers who like big pictures more than big words.

Herald Sun Ted Quits The Age

At least today The Age has learned that headlines should be short and sweet, but four words is still twice as many as two. Yesterday (Wednesday) it was seven words in a two-deck headline for The Age and four words in three-decks for the Herald Sun; the Hun also uses a much bigger typeface.

The issue here is that The Age is trying very hard not to look like a tabloid; it wants to be a smaller broadsheet and so it’s front pages are text-heavy.

This is OK as long as Age readers are happy to have the key elements of one or two stories related on page one. The Herald Sun is sticking to its formula of fear and emotion being the main drivers of sales based on front page scans.

Wednesday’s Herald Sun front page was a classic in that genre it had heart-string plucking sick baby Linkin Fauser and warring bikies raising “Police fear public could be caught in cross fire”.

Herald_Sun_6_3_2013 The_Age_6_3_2013

At least The Age was back in the game yesterday with its own Baillieu stuff up story detailing secret fund raisers and the ongoing fall-out from the secret tapes affair that ensnared the Premier and his deputy in a rolling maul that was getting closer to the business end of the pitch.

But The Age was always playing catch-up on the secret recordings story. It seems likely that the Herald Sun had been sitting on this little box of dynamite for a while and deliberately played it out as a spoiler to the launch of The Age as a comp-loid on Monday of this week.

That is certainly how a smart newspaper executive would play it, both to boost sales and to let the opposition know that life in the tabl-act trenches would be bloody and tough.

Today it just got bloodier and tougher because it is the first time this week that we can do a full comparison on coverage of the same story. It was an even playing surface for both titles; they heard about Baillieu’s resignation at the same time (about 7.25pm last night [Wednesday 6 March] and so had about six hours to get the story ready for this morning’s papers.

The Herald Sun is rightly claiming Baillieu’s scalp and today reveals how political editor James Campbell dropped the paper’s bomb on the Liberal party late on Sunday afternoon.

It was the Hun’s story; though as I mentioned, The Age did well on Wednesday to get its own exclusive angle of the rorting and alleged corrupt shenanigans at the core of Baillieu’s incompetency.

The Hun wins today’s battle because as the front page strapline says: “SECRET TAPES CLAIM PREMIER”.

Having said, that the depth of coverage was about the same in both mastheads and apart from the Hun’s own boasting about Sunday’s Spring street squirmfest neither paper had anything substantially new to add.

Friday’s papers will be telling. Does the Herald Sun have more dirt to dish?

If so it would be a hands down winner this week.

So for now, the Herald Sun gets to count coup, but The Age could have the last laugh.

If my newsagent is right and the new compact is walking out the door this week, then The Age may win the circulation battle.

The hope in the Fairfax Media offices along Spencer street is that novelty-factor sales turn into subscriptions.

There’s a long way to go yet before that score can be counted.


Media Inquiry? Inconvenient facts go down the memory hole (part 2)

July 28, 2012

Do you remember the Independent Media Inquiry?

You might vaguely recall the Finkelstein inquiry…yes, rings a faint bell?

It’s OK, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d forgotten most of the details.

What do you remember?

Oh yes. Finkelstein, isn’t he the guy who wants to throw the champions of the fourth estate in jail for telling the truth about the nasty and unloved Ju-Liar government?

That’s right, that’s exactly right. Here’s a free online subscription to the Heart of the Nation.

According to many ‘exclusive’ stories in The Australian newspaper, the sole aim of the Independent Media Inquiry was to impose heavy sanctions on the news media because the Gillard government doesn’t handle criticism very well.

Take this story from media commentator Mark Day on 26 April 2012. It is so important it got top of page 1 treatment;

A new regulatory body, funded by government and with powers to impose fines and sanctions on news outlets is a key proposal of the long-awaited Convergence Review of the emedia sector.

Unfortunately, this story was wrong, wrong wrong.

The Convergence Review rejected any idea that there should be any such government-funded organisation with anything like the powers suggested in this breathless lead par.

However, since this story was published it has become standard operating procedure to continue the lie.

It is only possible to conclude one of four things:

a) the budget is so tight at News Limited that as many words as possible have to be recycled on a daily basis which means that key phrases are used over and over again to save money

b) the koolaid in the LimitedNews bunkers is real tasty and no one’s yet cottoned on that it is the source of the medicine that results in obligatory groupthink

c) there is a deliberate mis-information campaign going on designed to fool Australians into demanding Stephen Conroy’s head on a platter.

d) we are being fed a bowl of chump bait with fear-causing additives so we don’t see what’s really going on.

It’s probably a combination of all four.

If we’re stirred up about bloody attacks on ‘our’ freedom of speech and we can be made to think that only The Australian and the Institute of Public Affairs stands between us and a Stalino-Fascist dictatorship of ‘befuddled’ Greens from the ‘tofu belt’ aided and abetted by the ‘soft-Left media’ then maybe we’ll be goaded into action.

Seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up even if you called yourself Chris Mitchell and spent your days dreaming of a world in which you could wield the absolute power that corrupts absolutely.

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An acceptable Press Council: We decide, you shut the f#ck up

July 11, 2012

The Australian Press Council has just announced five appointments to an advisory board that will help it review the APC standards and bring them up to speed with the digital reality of news publishing today.

Normally you might think this was good news, but not, it seems if you work for Chris Mitchell over at LimitedNews.

The panellists are all eminent in their respective fields, not folk I’d have round for a Gibson, but in their way decent, reliable and not prone to scaring the cats.

  • Hon. John Doyle AC (recently retired as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of South Australia)
  • Dr Ken Henry AC (formerly Secretary to the Australian Treasury; currently Executive Chair, ANU Institute of Public Policy)
  • Hon. Robert Hill AC (formerly Minister for Defence and Ambassador to the UN; currently Chancellor, University of Adelaide)
  • Mr Andrew Murray (formerly Australian Democrat Senator for WA; currently Chair, WA Regional Development Trust)
  • Ms Heather Ridout (formerly CEO, AiGroup; currently Board member, Reserve Bank of Australia).

Despite the credentialling and the vetting and the secret handshakes of these upstanding doyens of the establishment, The Australian‘s found sixty ways to Christmas to condemn, belittle and bemoan their appointment.

You may have trouble jumping over the firewall, though I understand their are ways around, under or through it (I pay for mine), so let me paraphrase and use a judicious amount of quotes – all of course legitimate in critical review and scholarship.

First a piece by Media diarist Nick @leysie Leys and the headline says it all in a loud, blaring voice:

Panellists have no editorial practice

A FORMER judge, a businesswoman, a former Treasury secretary and two former senators will be called on to advise the Australian Press Council on standards for journalists, despite none of them having any editorial experience.

Of the five appointments to the panel, none has any journalism experience and several have been on the receiving end of media scrutiny during their careers.

Well, there are not many people in public life who haven’t been subject to media scrutiny. But writing “on the receiving end of” makes it sound like they’ve repeatedly had some foreign object rammed up their bums — a bit like life in the Australian military it seems.

It taints them, subtle tarring and feathering – they must have done something wrong to be on the ‘receiving end’.

And of course, if you’ve ever been on the ‘receiving end’ of a late night call from a LimitedNews journalist with no agenda except to skewer the living beejesus out of you, then you would know how how it feels.

In fact, it could be argued that despite their lack of time in a functional newsroom (like many current LimitedNews hacks), their public lives and interactions with the media might make the famous five ideal and independent consultants for the important project of updating the Press Council’s standards, assessing their relevance and their relationship to the public interest.

In fact, nothing really remarkable as a media release from the Press Council points out:

Panel members’ advice will be provided on an informal basis.

The National Advisory Panel will be complemented by strengthening the Council’s other consultative processes. These include individual meetings with editors, regular Round Tables around Australia with media representatives and community leaders, and analysis of views expressed in the broader community. A number of senior journalists are also being invited to be general consultants to the Standards Project on an ongoing basis.

APC Update 9 July 2012

What sort of signal is that?

So you see, there will be input into the process from plenty of people with newsroom experience, no doubt some of them might even work for LimitedNews.

However, this reasonably balanced and low-key approach didn’t stop the increasingly erratic and unreadable Chris Merritt* from weighing in with another opinion piece.

There’s one thing you can say in favour of the senior headline writers at The Australian, they don’t fuck about; you’re never left guessing what the paper thinks:

They should stand aside if they want to help

Right, that’s clear then. So what did the great legal mind of one C Merritt make of this.

THE only way of making sense of the latest move by Julian Disney’s Press Council is to assume that its primary goal is political.

It looks like another move to distance his organisation from the media so it can be vested with coercive power.

Right now, the federal government is trying to decide whether the Press Council or some other body should be given statutory power over the media.

If the Press Council sees itself in that role, there is much to be gained by injecting more distance between the press and itself.

This helps explain why none of the five people who will have a role in reviewing the standards enforced by the council could be described as media authorities.

What?

“The only way of making sense…is to assume”

“It looks like…coercive powers”

Someone’s overdosing on the office kool aid.

What sort of signal does this send? If the rewritten standards bear the imprint of the panel’s advice, the enforcement of those standards could never be described as self-regulation.

The panel’s members must all be assumed to be people of good will. But if they really want to help, they should stand aside.

Their involvement, while well-intended, is presumptuous and counterproductive.

Recruiting such a panel for high-level policy advice on press standards makes as much sense as recruiting former newspaper editors to provide policy advice to federal Treasury.

What sort of signal does this send?

Well, let’s just assume that it’s loud and clear and follows the pattern established in a dozen editorials and countless op-ed pieces in The Australian over the last few months.

The signal is not too subtle and the signalers are wearing big dirty boots.

Just in case you can’t read the tea leaves, just assume I’m right. It goes like this:

Any attempt to impose any form of control, regulation, licencing, or pressure to behave in a nicer way to anyone who is in the way must be resisted at all costs and without fear or favour.

Opinion to the contrary must be stamped out, ignored, ridiculed and stamped out again.

We will not tolerate any opposition

Whatever you say will be taken down and used against you

Signals from the LimitedNews bunker are that not one foot-soldier will be spared in the war on media regulation.

It seems that Chris Merritt surrendered his sanity to the cause long ago.

There are plenty of news hacks who’s daily bread is predicated on giving advice to the federal Treasury on carbon pricing, which they consistently describe as a ‘tax’, on wages, which are consistently too high and on a myriad of other issues on which economics writers and newspaper editors feel qualified to have opinions.

So, quick corolary, why should lack of newsroom experience deny someone a say in the future shape of Press Council standards. Some might say it would actually be a good thing.

But will it satisfy Rupert?

As the leading figure in the Australian news media – the one with the most to lose – perhaps he should choose who gets to advise the news watchdog.

Seems only fair, so let’s help him decide.

Post your entries as a comment or email
ethicalmartiniATgmail.com

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Dear Media CEOs: stop meddling in our democracy

July 5, 2012

Dear media CEOs,

Thanks for your recent letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard outlining concerns some of you have about regulation of the news media industry.

First a question regarding your views of a proposed “public interest test”: What are you afraid of?

Your letter suggests that any public interest requirement would be a “massive” increase in regulation. But your evidence for this is very slight and even misleading.

For example, you mention the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) rules on media ownership, but these do not apply to the print media. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) powers and the Trade Practices Act are in place to protect the interests of news consumers, but they are not a protection of our rights as citizens.

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The future of newspapers: Anybody’s guess at this stage

June 27, 2012

This post is a work in progress; I have published today [June 27] to get the ball rolling, I will be adding to this post over the next 72 hours.

On Monday 18 June the sky began falling in the Australian news media. Within 10 days the world of Australian journalism had changed forever, but the change hadn’t stopped.

Over 3000 jobs were going to be purged from Australia’s two largest news organisations.

The West Australian mining mogul, Gina Rinehart, was poised over Fairfax Media like a vulture over the corpse of a dying baby.

We all knew why she was there; it was just a matter of time.

That was the week that was (June 18-24)

What is the future of newspapers? At the end of a week in which both Fairfax Media and News Limited announced seismic changes to their business – including ditching about 3000 jobs between them – what can we say about the printed news sheet?

Well, it seems that the answer is ‘heaps and heaps’. Millions of words have been written, blogged and spoken on the future of newspapers this week; tens of thousands of them even appeared in the newspapers themselves.

So what do we really know at this point?

Not much more than we did last weekend, is my quick answer.

The ‘perfect storm’ that hit Fairfax Media this week — with Gina Rinehart at its epicentre — has been a long time coming. The Fairfax share price has been on a really steep down slide for the last two to three years.

Today it’s under 60 cents, just three months ago is was over 70 cents. The last time it was over $1.00 was June 2011; it dropped under $2.00 in November 2008. It was last at $3.00 in June 2008 and we have to go back nearly six years to December 2006 to see Fairfax at over $5.00.

In contrast the News Corporation share price on the ASX has jumped from $16 to $20 since June 2011. It has been over $15 for the past three years despite some ups and downs and has risen from a low of $12.91 on 23 June, 2009.

This shows that the problems facing Fairfax Media are commercial and financial, not just or even mostly technological.

These problems are not brand new either. It is not the Internet that has caused the total collapse of the newspaper business model; it has been a long time coming. It is instructive to go back and look at the history of the newspaper industry in Australia to understand why we are in the situation of having the Rupert Rinehart duopoly looming over the news media’s future.

Fairfax has a new model

In the middle of the second week of this perfect storm – June 27 to be precise – things did become a little clearer.

Three senior Fairfax editors had left the newsroom for the last time. It seems that there was a period of negotiation – one incoming new EiC (see org chart below) admitted he had been in discussion with management for about two weeks.

Still, many reporters were shocked and emotional scenes were reported.

News Limited announced around 100 job cuts, mainly in regional areas, including the Gold Coast and Fairfax unveiled a new newsroom model to staff.

The Fairfax model looks a bit like the broken ferris wheel here in Melbourne and I can’t help wondering why some of the content wedges are bigger than others. Is it because they will get more attention in the new system of content brokerage across neutral platforms?

If it is then going ‘compact’, or ‘tabloid’ is about more than just the size of the page.

The Fairfax ferris wheel.
Click to enlarge

The new Fairfax organisational chart is also worth taking a look at.

It’s not that different from a traditional newsroom structure in many ways, but the convoluted explanations of roles and responsibilities that accompany it are straight from a weak MBA dissertation.

Fairfax Org Chart: designed by a poor MBA student?
Click to enlarge

In this model reporters who are covering breaking news are to be known as ‘first responders’, this gives the whole thing the feeling of a medical emergency.

And that’s what this is. It is an attempt to triage a series of seriously wounded patients on a bloodied battlefield.

The Fairfax mantra of journalism and integrity come first is pleasant soothing language that will hopefully comfort the afflicted, but when you rip the heart out of a newsroom no amount of placatory talking can alter the facts.

Then there’s the hovering vulture and her cronies.

In a statement released on 27 June, Rinehart’s advisers conceded that she might be prepared to negotiate and sign a new Charter of Editorial Independence, but this ominous set of phrases is where the really alarming detail bedevils:

“Active consideration of content or a change in content is required to attract readers and advertising revenue in the interests of shareholders, together with other options to increase revenue and hence share value.”

What does this mean?

Well, it can really only mean one thing: shifting the Fairfax editorial culture. But which way will it be shifted?

Most money is on the bet that Gina Rinehart will want to shift Fairfax to the right and into more ‘business-friendly’ reporting. This is assumed to include more climate change ‘scepticism’ and less criticism of the minerals industry.

However, it is questionable as to whether this will attract readers, increase advertising or enhance shareholder value.

It may well have the opposite effect as current readers of the SMH and The Age desert the papers in direct proportion to their rightward drift.

If this happens and the new tabloid-ified Fairfax mastheads begin competing with the Murdoch titles then the next logical step – to maximise shareholder value, mind – would be to merge the titles in Melbourne and Sydney and turn them into one-paper towns in line with the rest of the country.

That is the logic of shareholder value maximisation – or in blunt Marxist terms it is the application of the logic of capital accumulation.

It is also the history of the Australian newspaper industry.

In 1886 – just 128 years ago – there were capital city 48 daily newspapers in Australia. By 1903 that had dropped to 21; it was down to 17 in 1947, 15 in 1950, 14 in 1960 and it has continued to drop since. From the mid 1990s on the present situation became established.

Today there are 11 capital city dailies: two in Melbourne; two in Sydney; one each in Canberra, Adelaide, Hobart, Perth and Darwin and two that circulate nationally.

That is why questions of concentration, ownership and diversity are being talked about again in the context of both the Finkelstein report and the Rinehart push for editorial control at Fairfax.

The giant media fuss about Finkelstein and the frenzied cries of censorship and government control prompted me to look at the last government report into the news media, delivered to the House of Representatives in 1992. [I’ll come back to this].

 

News & Fair Facts

Just over 20 years ago, in March 1992, a House of Representatives Select Committee tabled its report into the Australian print media industry. It is worth looking at this report because it had bipartisan support and its findings make it clear that the issues that free speech alarmists are shouting about today have deep roots.

It is also interesting because the free speech alarmists — those who argue that government censorship is coming in the form of the Finkelstein report — would deny some of the language used in News & Fair Facts, particularly about the problems of monopoly and the concentration of media ownership.

For example:

On the basis [of figures given to the committee], the Australian print media industry generally is highly concentrated. In almost every sector of the industry one or two groups dominate in terms of the number of publications and related circulation under their control.

News & Fair Facts, 1992, p.101

Now the Rupert Rinehart apologists deny that monopoly is a problem.


Rupert Rinehart: Australia’s new fair and balanced (free) news media

June 24, 2012

Let’s drop the pretence that there is freedom of the press in Australia.

Let’s also recognise that the Rupert Rinehart media future is anti-democratic and a threat to our collective rights as citizens to have freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

Make no mistake, the Rupert Rinehart media want it all for themselves. Their freedom of the press comes at the expense of our freedom of thought and our freedom of action.

It is a nonsense to pretend that a Gina Rinehart controlled Fairfax represents the exercise of free speech just as it is bullshit to argue that New Limited is a paradigm example of freedom of expression in action.

Tx: Road less travelled – click for link

Murdoch sets the tone at News Limited and it is he alone who has freedom of speech across his newspaper titles. His minions either carry out his wishes or find themselves another job.

If Rinehart gets her way – and she will – then it is she who will set the editorial tone across the Fairfax titles. Her interest in Fairfax is not commercial, its political. The idea that she is a white knight who will turn around the fortunes of the failing company is a fairy tale.

‘What’s the problem?’ the free speech fundamentalists will ask. They will answer for themselves. The owner of the business, or in Gina’s case, the major shareholder, has the right to set the editorial line.

‘After all, it is their paper to command.’ The fundamentalists will then cross their arms with a smug smile of the self-satisfying undergraduate mass debater plastered across their chops.

Unfortunately, this argument is jibber jabber of the worst order.

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Miss us this day our daily newspaper? Where will the cuts come first

June 5, 2012

The hares are running on the proposition that the Fairfax Media board is considering a medium-term plan to give up on printed Monday to Friday editions of its main mastheads in favour of a digital-only strategy.

And while we’ve all been looking the other way, News Limited has quietly downsized newsrooms and subs benches at several of its titles, including the Geelong Advertiser and the company has outsourced some backroom functions.

The newspaper industry is quietly dying.

But will it matter to most of us? Avid readers will miss the pleasure of print, but the news will still be available in other formats.

It is fears about the dwindling bottom line that is driving talk of abandoning daily newspapers at Fairfax and the paywall strategy at News Limited. We can perhaps get an idea of the future from looking at recent events in the United States.

Closures, shuttering and digital only “newspapers”

At least 13 large US newspapers have closed since 2007 and 10 or more have cut back two or three editions a week, instead of publishing every day.

The argument is that by eliminating high-cost low-return editions the more profitable days can be continued and the newspaper brand survives.

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