As the Fourth Estate falters, how should the Fifth Estate respond?

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Friday, 22 June 2012 16:02 by Ad astra
In the same way that climate scientists have been warning us of the changes we can expect from global warming, media climate analysts have been warning us of the changes we can expect from the digitalization of the media. But no one predicted the precipitous changes we have seen this week. Nobody predicted that Fairfax would reduce its staff by 1900, close down its two major printing plants, and go to a tabloid format. Nobody predicted that News Limited would consolidate its operational centres from nineteen to five and would release an unknown number of its staff, estimated to be around a thousand. This is a revolution akin to the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg around 1440.

The printing press allowed, for the first time, the distribution of written material to a mass audience. Until the advent of the Internet it remained the almost exclusive conduit for the mass distribution of written information. The Internet emerged in the late 1980s, by the mid 1990s it had become commercialized, and since then has expanded vastly into what we enjoy today, with still more to come, some of it as yet unknown. While it still allows mass communication through online news, magazines and books, much of it has become individualized, with messages being directed to a single individual through email, to groups through Twitter and Facebook, and to larger audiences via blogs. The communication mechanism has changed in just a few years from distribution of the same message via mass print media to anyone who chose to receive it, to individualized messaging.

In between the printing press and the Internet, we have seen the advent of radio and television that have served as mass distributors of information and entertainment in auditory and visual form, and with subtexts and scrolling marquees in printed form. Many people rely on these media for much of what they need to know. Newer television sets are now equipped with Internet capability.

The end of newspapers
Newspaper proprietors predict that newspapers will soon phase out; The Guardian estimates three years, and Rupert Murdoch says five years will do it, even although this week News Limited CEO Kim Williams re-committed to newspapers – he didn’t say for how long.

The growth of online news outlets has been spectacular. Fairfax says its online audience has grown by 30 per cent from 5.5 million to 7.2 million since 2007. Such growth will accelerate. By mid-decade what proportion of our information needs will be provided by the Internet? You guess. This week advertising guru Harold Mitchell told Jon Faine on ABC 774 Melbourne radio that he reckons that by the end of the decade 80 percent of the world’s media will be digital. Nothing can stop it.

So how does that affect those of us who own and use blog sites to transmit information? How will these radical changes to the Fourth Estate impact upon the Fifth Estate?

In my opinion, these changes offer those of us in the Fifth Estate untold opportunities to extend our influence, to compete on a more level playing field with the giants of the press.

Where do blog sites fit in?
Let’s look first at the purpose of blogs, such as The Political Sword. To me they provide an opportunity for ordinary citizens to express views and opinions about whatever subject they choose, in our case mainly Federal politics. In this field, are our opinions less worthy than those of the media insiders? What insights do they have that we do not?

While it might be expected that journalists who walk the corridors of parliament, who rub shoulders with politicians, who are on the ‘drip feed’, who are able to swap stories with their colleagues down the corridor or at their favourite watering hole, would be better informed and better able to predict, that has not been the case. Remember how the Canberra Press Gallery was caught flat-footed at the time Kevin Rudd was removed by his party, and again when PM Gillard presented Bob Carr as the new Foreign Minister. Reflect on how many times it has predicted a leadership coup by this date, or that date or another date, only to be wrong every time. And still to this day journalists are talking about leadership. Even the last leadership contest, when the PM soundly defeated Kevin Rudd, was not predicted by the mainstream media, so much as it simply followed the event as it unfolded with the Gillard forces well in control. Were their predictions of the final numbers accurate? No.

Do they have information we cannot elicit or access? We know that we are not equipped to be investigative journalists, although some, like Peter Wicks, manage to get hold of information that even the MSM journalists cannot. Apart from investigative endeavours that require ‘wearing-out boot leather’, or ‘working the phones’, we get the same information as journalists do nowadays. We have access to online news outlets that are not pay-walled such as ABC News, ABC News Radio, SBS World News, Bigpond News, all the ABC programs such as AM, The World Today, PM, Lateline and The Business which follows, as well as Insiders, Inside Business and Q&A, in addition to all the online news services here and overseas, some of which are pay-walled. Then we have Lyn’s Twitterverse and Twitterati that are often linked to news items. And on top of that, we have brilliant search engines such as Google, and Wikipedia, which are so comprehensive that almost any piece of information one wants is there for the taking. Sometimes even the pay-walled items can be circumvented by using Google, for example those in The Australian.

What about the items to which we can’t get access without paying? Well, anyone who really needs them will pay. For example, many of us subscribe to Crikey where much useful information and opinion is available. But if we don’t wish to pay, what are we missing? Take a look. Much of it is ‘he says, she says’ journalism, derived from readily available information that you and I can access and about which we could have written. Much of it is simply opinion, which is often unbalanced, biased or flagrantly partisan. Of course Rupert Murdoch regards ‘opinion’ as ‘news’. Why are our opinions not as valid as those of journalists? Moreover, much of their ‘opinion’ is the product of groupthink among journalists who work together, drink together, watch or read each other’s offerings, and so often rely on the same sources, some of them unreliable.

Rupert Murdoch has often expressed his anger at what he terms ‘the aggregators’, such as Google, whom he accuses of ‘stealing’ information that has painstakingly been gathered at great expense to him by his well-paid journalists. This is why he decided to pay-wall his online outlets.

Why look beyond the pay-walls?
While we are on the subject of pay-walls, ask yourself why you would expend your money accessing articles, for example, written by Dennis Shanahan. Almost everything he writes is unbalanced, partisan, and too often downright incorrect. Just this week he wrote a story about PM Gillard being ‘slapped down’ at the G20 summit by the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso. That was wrong. Barroso’s comment had been in response to a question from a Canadian reporter and directed towards Canada’s PM Stephen Harper. Despite knowing he had it wrong, he wrote in another piece, "Europe won't be 'lectured' by Julia Gillard, EC chief Jose Manuel Barroso has said", and he persisted with questions at Julia Gillard’s press conference in Los Cabos along the same lines, trying to justify his initial assertion, and was twice put in his place by her answers. He could have written a story that was complimentary of Australia’s outstanding economic situation, a story that made us proud, but such a story might have reflected favourably on the Gillard Government, and that would never do, would it? The man is incorrigible; almost every thing he writes is anti-Gillard, anti-Government; he is part of the push by The Australian to dislodge her and her Government. So why would anyone pay a cent for his warped writings?

And it’s not just Shanahan. Why would anyone pay for reading Peter van Onselen, Matthew Franklin, or for that matter Paul Kelly, who seem to have morphed into supplicant mouthpieces for Rupert Murdoch? Kelly’s piece on the Fairfax ‘upheaval’ makes some interesting points, as do most of his pieces, but being heavily laced as they are with his anti-Gillard, anti-Government sentiments, leaves the balanced reader annoyed at his persistent antagonism. In this piece he echoes Murdoch’s oft-repeated tirade against public broadcasters, the BBC and the ABC, that being funded from the public purse, they constitute unfair competition to commercial media outfits. Kelly writes: “Given the market vacuum opening, Australia can no longer afford a heavily taxpayer-funded ABC locked into a fashionable "writers festival" political culture that caters to a dedicated "true believer" minority.” Murdoch couldn’t have said it better. So why would anyone seeking balanced journalism pay for such writing as this?

I would pay for an article by George Megalogenis, but for few others that write for The Australian or any News Limited outlet. But to access them, News Limited requires a subscription, a big price to pay for access to just the few writers worth reading. Fairfax has a better proposal, a quota of ‘free’ articles, say twenty per month, after which payment is required, presumably for the desired articles/writers. That seems a fairer system – pay only for what you want, rather than paying for access to the lot, dross and all.

By not having access to pay-walled News Limited material we are not missing out on much of political importance, and a bonus is that our equanimity is maintained. Most News Limited media is directed to those who already believe what their journalists do – it reinforces their entrenched views – or to those who still have an open mind and whose opinions News Limited wishes to shape to its own.

Murdoch domination
Another reason to avoid crossing the News Limited pay-wall is that it is Murdoch controlled and reflects his will and intentions, which as we know include regime change in Federal politics. Having read much of David McKnight’s book Rupert Murdoch – An Investigation of Political Power (Allen & Unwin, 2012), it is crystal clear that Murdoch controls his empire, sometimes subtly, but if needs be, with an iron fist. There is a myth around, perpetrated by his senior staff, that he never instructs them. Technically that may be so, because he lets it be known in subtle ways what he wants, what Robert Jay QC described at the Levinson Inquiry as a ‘pirouette’. Even with this subtlety, he gets what he wants. But don’t believe for a moment that Murdoch is always subtle. Page after page of McKnight’s book describes how ruthless Murdoch is, with examples of how he has replaced editors whose approach has not coincided with his own views – so much for editorial freedom! There is no doubt that Murdoch has habitually used his media outlets to pursue not just his commercial interests, but also his ideological position. The extent to which he has interfered in high level politics is mind-boggling. The Levinson Inquiry is uncovering some of this, but you would need to read McKnight’s book to marvel at the way he repeatedly exercises his power and influence at both a national and an international level. So why would we voluntarily pay for the emissions of his media empire, except to wonder at his audacity.

In a word, because of its already poor standard of journalism, we bloggers could ignore all News Limited publications and lose almost nothing.

Rinehart, a mini-Murdoch
As if it isn’t bad enough having a 70 per cent Murdoch dominated metropolitan press in this country, we now face the prospect of another 20 percent, that dominated by Fairfax, coming under the control of its 19 percent owner Gina Rinehart, who is now insisting on three seats on the Fairfax Board, including deputy chair, and is refusing to be subject to the charter of editorial freedom to which the Board currently subscribes. Commentators assert that she wishes to use Fairfax media not only to promote her mining interests, but also to push her stridently conservative ideological position. This would be consistent with what she did when she acquired a large shareholding in Channel Ten, whereupon she gained a seat on the Board and promptly installed Andrew Bolt and his extremely right wing Bolt Report. There seems little doubt that she wants to be a mini-Murdoch, using Fairfax to promote her extreme political views. We would then have 90 percent of the metropolitan press and a very large chunk of the regional press, estimated as over 80 per cent, controlled by two autocrats prepared to shamelessly use their media power in their own commercial and political interests. What value would that be in the pursuit of truth, balance and fairness?

And if Murdoch gets his way with his attempts to neuter the ABC, which would likely occur if Tony Abbott were elected, the mainstream media would deteriorate even further.

Where to now in the Fifth Estate?
So how does that place those of us who operate in the Fifth Estate? In my view, as the powerful retreat from the mass circulation print media to the online media, we are strengthened. We could never compete in the print media, but we can in the online media, which is the only milieu we know. We are at home there. We have access to almost as much information as they. We can go online to seek it via a variety of news sources that are not behind a pay-wall, to a plethora of websites to many of which Lyn links us daily, to many official sources, such as, for example, Hansard, and to accessories such as Google and Wikipedia to research our offerings. We lack almost nothing to research and document our contributions.

Where the mass online media still outstrips anything the Fifth Estate can offer is the extent of distribution. While, for example, online news from Fairfax media boasts over seven million subscribers, almost a third of Australia’s population, the Fifth Estate can access but a tiny fraction of that. Where we make up for the low penetration of individual blog sites is through our collective, where we have a wide audience for our offerings. Remembering that we run specialized websites, the potential audience is considerably smaller than the whole population. So while we cannot access the large audience of the online news outlets, we are able to influence thinking in our chosen field among those who have similar interests. In other words, our influence on the wider population is exerted through the much smaller select audience who come day by day to read what we have to say, something we could never have achieved in the pre-Internet days when print was king. This influence is now substantially extended via Facebook and Twitter, where all those who share our interest in politics talk incessantly with each other. Even those who do not have a Twitter account where messages from those followed can be read hour by hour, we have our own Lyn aggregating and posting interesting tweets for us twice a day. The Twitter information flow from politicians, journalists and interested observers is extraordinary – sometimes it is mind stretching to take it all in.

Writing in The Conversation , one of the quality alternatives to the mainstream media, Malcolm Fraser says: “How much can new media, social media, the Internet, Facebook or Twitter, The Conversation or advanced schools of journalism make up for these deficiencies? Certainly the Internet makes it possible for people to read half a dozen papers each morning, or more, including journals that maintain high standards, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, the Financial Times or those with another language, French or German papers. Here we can find diversity. It is more and more readily available, it will certainly mitigate the coming lack of competition that will be evident in the Australian print media.”

Seize the day!
So let us seize with both hands the opportunity that now presents as the penetration of mass print media, where we have almost no place, decreases, and online media penetration, where we are comfortably at home, increases. They are moving onto our turf, turf with which we have been familiar for years.

We in the Fifth Estate can virtually match the Fourth Estate in accessing information, and our opinions are as valid as theirs because we put as much effort, perhaps more, into formulating our opinions, and we can express them at least as lucidly and convincingly, often more so, than they do. Much of what is offered by the Fifth Estate is superior in quality to that in the Fourth Estate, and that will increasingly be so as the latter sheds journalists in the hundreds, leaving those who remain to do what many more once did. Standards will drop even further. Competition from the mainstream media will diminish.

Moreover, through our links service so diligently overseen by Lyn, we have become a distribution hub for the Fifth Estate, knowing as we do that many visit here not just to read the pieces and the thoughtful comments that our visitors leave, but also to link widely into the web of information that we know as the World Wide Web. This is a service the mainstream media in the Fourth Estate does not offer.

We in the Fifth Estate are looking at a stunningly exciting future – let’s join hands as the accelerating media revolution we saw this week gains momentum, and make the most of it.

What do you think?