Fairfax the fun ship

When the pithy comments begun appearing in my Twitter feed, I thought that it was the regular – humorous – trivialities. ‘Something something #fairfax something tabloid’. Hardy har. Certainly comments I tend to align myself with.

It wasn’t long before it became apparent that the venerable news organisation had announced a fairly profound shift in business. Shrink the mastheads to tabloid size. Eviscerate staff numbers. Get out of the printing game altogether. All sensible decisions were we in 2004. Today, my experience of Fairfax is already akin to a tabloid rag.

Being someone whose only real encounters with ‘print’ media is Saturday morning over coffee and eggs at my marvelous local cafe, the idea that Fairfax going to a tabloid format was strange was, in itself, hard to comprehend.

Since about 2010, I’ve done what I can to avoid Fairfax’s news sites, strewn as they are with crude linkbait, embarrassing and pointless recaps of reality TV, and a seemingly infinite number of images designed explicitly to titillate, such as the time there were five (5!) individual images with links to the latest Victoria’s Secret parade.

Unfortunately, I was and remain an avid consumer of news online. I attempted to shift to The Australian‘s website, which certainly considers itself a repository of ‘serious’ news, but I simply couldn’t get past the agenda-driven news production, and the porous border the paper has between ‘news’ and ‘Juliar’.

The result was forking out for Crikey (an investment which, incidentally, I do not regret in the slightest), and using Twitter much more actively as a news feed, letting journalists, academics and the genuinely interesting curate the web for me, linking to things of merit and informing me how to sidestep paywalls when required.

It is a happier world now, but the Fairfax decision looms as a concern over the media environment in Australia.

Firstly, I can see no reason why shifting to tabloid format makes a whit of difference. UK and several US ‘broadsheets’ have been in tabloid, or quasi-tabloid, format for years now, most notably The Guardian.

What self-respecting inner-urban wanker HASN’T thwacked a passing waiter as they unfurl and re-fold their copy of their local Fairfax broadsheet over breakfast? The size of the paper is nothing more than an impediment to reading in the places people like to read. Indeed, already, Fairfax are reporting that 77% of their readership is online. This number would grow irrespective of efforts of the company, so get on the horse they should.

The concern is that none of this matters. While consumers will happily click on salacious images and rubbish articles about bad television when it’s free, it’s probably a different story when you have to pay.

Reader behaviour is likely quite different in each scenario. If you happen to spend time at theage.com.au, then you’ll happily follow your id around the screen. But are these links and images enough to make you pay to spend your time there? Unlikely. It’s not like there is a shortage of those things scattered across the unfettered sprawl of hypertext.

In the wake of the announcement, journalists will no doubt bemoan and over-report the tragedy facing democracy (imagine how much attention the car industry would get if journalists had a vested interest!), but it probably doesn’t mean much. There is and will always be as much news available as the reader is willing to pay for. Many journalists insist that Fairfax’s challenges are from a bad business model and mismanagement, not poor journalism. Maybe true, but what is considered ‘journalism’ is increasingly sparse, and new writers are squeezed to produce as much low-rent content as possible.

This low-rent stuff won’t be worth paying for. Those who really want it can get more of it at the Herald Sun, if they really want to pay. If Fairfax can’t provide decent, serious news, then no doubt a raft of other sites – Crikey, The Conversation, The Global Mail, those yet to exist – will spring up to fill the void. And take the money.