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Image: Elijah O’Donnell, Unsplash (CC0)

In 2008, after one of the early rounds of what now seems like essentially constant job shedding by (then) Fairfax Media, I was asked by my editor at New Matilda to write about the implications for Australian democracy of Fairfax’s decline.

As a cub reporter for a young and energetic digital news site, I was bullish. The old business models were certainly breaking down, I thought, but this didn’t mean that journalism was doomed.

While I agreed that it was regrettable that grand old mastheads were losing specialist reporters, surely no one would miss the acres of newsprint devoted to real estate advertisements or luxury four-wheel drives. In the meantime, new business models and new talent were emerging, and they would carry the flame. Nimble online operations would build their own well-staffed newsrooms, creating genuine journals of record that would cover national events, break stories and fulfil the time-honoured role of holding the powerful to account.

Boy, was I wrong.

What happened instead was wholesale job destruction. According to Census data compiled by myself and Margaret Simons at Monash University, there were 6,306 print journalists working in Australia in 2006. By 2016 there were just 3,827.

That number has since fallen further, of course, with multiple further rounds of job cuts in the now-vanished Fairfax, as well as at regional newspapers and in the ABC. Numbers of online journalists have grown, but not by nearly enough to make up the difference. All told, at least 3,500 journalists have lost their jobs in Australia in a decade – a decline of approximately one third.

Yes, there are some green shoots, notably the success of the Guardian’s Australian operations, which have hired around 55 full time journalists and are reportedly breaking even in revenue terms. But aside from the Guardian, most digital news outlets are small and lean affairs, numbering perhaps a dozen staff including editors each. Crikey, the New Daily, Junkee and New Matilda work hard and often cover stories that the majors won’t touch – but they are small, vulnerable to defamation suits, and their ability to exert democratic scrutiny is limited.

In this context, the recent announcement that John B. Fairfax, scion of the family fortune, is investing in Crikey is particularly interesting. The new funding has allowed Crikey to advertise a significant number of new investigative positions. In the US, the benefaction of billionaires has been vital in keeping afloat famous mastheads like the New York Times (Carlos Slim) and Washington Post (Jeff Bezos). In Australia, there hasn’t been quite the same interest, Rupert Murdoch notwithstanding – most observers were relieved when Gina Rinehart abandoned her stake in Network 10.     

Which brings us to BuzzFeed, in the news last week after massive job cuts worldwide. The Australian branch of the US shareable content phenomenon was small, with under 20 journalists and editors. But in its short life, it has already punched well above its weight, breaking important stories and attracting significant readership.

You always felt that if any company could make money out of making content on the internet, BuzzFeed would. This is the site that seemed to define an era. BuzzFeed embodies virality; the site’s undeniably fun approach to news reporting exemplifies a Millennial attitude that is equal parts committed, neurotic and irreverent. BuzzFeed brought us that dress; it also doggedly pursued Coalition employment minister Michaelia Cash for her role in tipping off the media about a police raid on the Australian Workers Union.

You always felt that if any company could make money out of making content on the internet, BuzzFeed would.

In Australia, BuzzFeed built one of the most vigorous of the new digital newsrooms, hiring a team of talented young newshounds. Some of them, like Josh Taylor, were already known as quality reporters; others, like Alice Workman, Lane Sainty and Gina Rushton, have become genuine stars, delivering scoops and changing the political debate.

In the process, BuzzFeed Australia seemed to show that there might be a vibrant future for digital newsrooms in this country. While the ABC looked over its shoulder at a vengeful government and Fairfax was gobbled up by Nine, BuzzFeed demonstrated that for all the trending quizzes and meme-worthy listicles, what makes for important journalism is sound editorial judgment and good old fashioned hard work.

Now all that is in jeopardy, with the American parent spilling all positions last week, with just a handful of journalists to be re-hired. The redundancies were part of a global retrenchment by the US parent company, which has seen around 250 jobs shed across the company. When I spoke to BuzzFeed staff recently, it was unclear who would stay (as of this writing, some departures and retentions have been made public, but not all). Editor Marni Cordell has been given the unenviable task of covering a federal election without most of the newsroom she hired and developed.

The BuzzFeed job cuts are especially discouraging for those worried about the health of our public sphere, battered by the onslaught of fake news and the dominance of oligopolistic US tech giants. BuzzFeed provided at least a sliver of hope that pure-play web content operations could eventually grow a meaningful workforce of journalists.

Whether or not journalism can discover new business models in the 21st century is awfully important. Our democratic public sphere depends on journalism to hold powerful corporations and governments to account. A future in which our access to information is dominated by a handful of tech giants will be ​poorly informed, less equal, and less free.

A future in which our access to information is dominated by a handful of tech giants will be ​poorly informed, less equal, and less free.

And yet our politicians and policymakers seem entirely unconcerned about what is happening to our mediascape. Facebook and Google have established a duopoly on Australian internet content (the technical term is ‘reach’) that makes leftist anxieties about Rupert Murdoch look trivial. The complacency of local regulators has allowed the tech giants to devour essentially the entire online advertising cake, leaving just crumbs for Australian publishers.

The dominance of the platforms means local outlets are essentially at their mercy when it comes to the sharing of their content. Facebook’s now-notorious ‘pivot to video’ of 2016 is the perfect example. The pivot – now known to be based on fake figures cooked up by Facebook – was supposed to deliver more revenue to content providers. They duly invested heavily in video production, only to see the rug pulled out from under them when Zuckerberg changed the algorithm again in 2018.

The 2018 News Feed algorithm tweak put a huge dent in the clicks of publishers relying on Facebook sharing to find readers, and therefore advertisers. It is the main reason for the recent carnage at BuzzFeed and other web sharers. But it merely underlines the root cause of the problem, which is that our democracy has allowed the main information platform of ordinary citizens to fall under the control of a single, rather unethical individual. As US media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan is fond of saying, ‘the problem with Facebook is Facebook.’

As a result, and as the BuzzFeed layoffs show, there appears to be no viable future for online journalism based on advertising revenue alone. As Farhad Manjoo wrote in the New York Times, ‘collectively the blood bath points to the same underlying market pathology: the inability of the digital advertising business to make much meaningful room for anyone but monopolistic tech giants.’ Manjoo called it a ‘democratic emergency’.

So what’s left? The only plausible future for web journalism appears to be the subscription model, in which news consumers pay a monthly fee for the privilege of browsing. Will this be enough?

In some niches, and for some communities, it might be. Community radio in Australia can boast 40 years of listener funding; stations like 3RRR in Melbourne, 4ZZZ in Brisbane and 2SER in Sydney have built genuine communities of interest devoted to music and intelligent talk radio. Regional newspapers also retain loyal (if declining) readerships in many smaller cities, although their newsrooms too have been decimated. 

There appears to be no viable future for online journalism based on advertising revenue alone. So what’s left?

And subscription models can boast some successes in terms of national news coverage too. The Nine newspapers do pull in modest subscription incomes, and the Guardian’s revenue is now thought to be majority subscriptions. But in the broader scheme of a multibillion-dollar industry, subscription revenue is essentially a niche strategy. 

The problem is that there are are certain things that niche publication with a small subscription base ​simply can’t do. While they might employ a star investigator and a string of freelance columnists, they are much less likely to support a team of investigative journalists with the time and resources to dig deep. They almost certainly won’t fund foreign bureaus in overseas capitals, or a presence in the farther flung regions of Australia. They probably won’t even employ full time journalists to cover state governments, let alone metro city councils. 

The biggest deficit of all is in specialist reporters with a focus on a particular policy area, whether it be defence, or climate science, or industrial relations. The news trade used to call such assignments ‘beats’ or ‘rounds’, and they typically went to experienced journalists for a number of years, allowing them to build up deep networks and multiple sources. Policy journalism is poorly served by generalists trying to cover complex issues on the fly; this is why Canberra political journalists struggle when asked to report on renewable energy or a Royal Commission on aged care. This stuff is boring, but vital: we need people who are employed to report on what our spy agencies are getting up to, or the roll out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, or questionable mining deals by a smaller state government. 

Such news deficits do matter. Without them, we simply won’t know. This doesn’t bode well for the health of our public sphere, or our democracy.