Lee Duffield

Edited by Lee Duffield
Freedom and Truth

News Corp Closures – destructive impact for Australian communities

Newscorp’s closing down of its community and regional papers, with small numbers left standing and others staying as online only, cancels centuries of belief about media in the community – but that was close to killed off already.

Gone overnight are the “local papers” familiar to dozens of towns and with them assumptions about what the media are supposed to do.

Since the 19th century advent of machine printing presses and mass circulation dailies, the idea set in that the news would be business, professionally produced, selling a service not promoting causes  — and that would mean benefits to all.

The coverage would be popular, like sports, crime, cartoons, crosswords, market information, the weather, horoscopes, astonishing world events, and on and on. The real estate and classified advertisements were vital to economic life of the community. Politics and all other sensitive matters would be done according to an ethic of fairness and balance, generally respecting all views; best practice with the vital commercial spin-off of not offending customers by confronting them with too much they did not want to read. It was the birth of the dictum of objectification for journalists when doing the news, and it did a lot for civility, tolerance and keeping the peace. It worked for democracy.

JOURNALISM, OR SOMETHING ELSE?

That has been thrown out during the last decade by News Corp, taking up instead the approach worked-up by the parent organisation in America, with its Fox News – essentially blatant propaganda backing conservative political interests.

The former Prime Ministers, Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd, have been saying that Newscorp has gone further, wanting to take part in political decision-making, for example campaigning within the Liberal Party, and in its publications, for Turnbull’s removal.

Several devoted journalists have been noticed leaving the company. Others have soldiered on providing conventional, and marketable news of the town, but operating in bad company. These have been increasingly displaced by campaigning editorials, notably supporting the News Corp fixation against recognising climate change; sneering commentators, syndicated across the chain; other devices, like the closing off of the letters columns to all but the political right – gone any idea of access and a citizen forum.

MONEY TALKS?

Yet, suddenly, the corporation has responded to its other keen interest, making money, and brought forward some inevitable decisions about keeping the print runs going. The dramatic drying up of revenue in the coronavirus crisis just kicked it over the edge.

As is well-known, its trouble is firstly the product of new information and communication technology, generating a complex of factors working against newspapers: very effective alternative advertising formats, both classified and through social media, busting the media company budgets; many-to-many communication, like social media, swamping the scarce few channels traditionally provided by the media corporations, busting their hold on huge audiences; broader cultural and economic changes working against consensus and sharing, like neo-liberalism or new racialist movements on the right wing – chiming in with the fragmentation of media.

The squeeze on media means that media businesses become smaller, and so less interesting to the types who owned them up to the present time. In the classic case of Channel Nine, always a subject of great interest to its proprietorial family, the Packers; when free-to-air television began to falter the current patriarch moved on to casinos instead.

NEWS CORP’S MANY CHANGES

In 2013 the Rupert Murdoch newspapers were put under the News Corp Australia name, and separated from the rest of the media empire, which was working on new media solutions of its own, e.g. buying into online classified businesses and pay television (not always that lucrative, either).

Why did they keep going with daily print operations this long?

  • Hopes of building upon the residual good market position of newspapers, down but not out, with new solutions, like multi-media ventures with television and online?
  • Keeping them as useful for political interests? Before the closures announced this week, stories were rife that at last they would fold The Australian. But The Australian is a conservative organ for the business community; it is a favourite child of Murdoch (picture – above) who founded it in 1964, declaring it would be a small-l “liberal” outlet, which it was for its first seven years, before he pushed some people out and put a stop to all that. The Australian, always run at a loss, can be useful for pleasing or pressuring political leaders, and promoting causes, like, of all things, denying climate change.

THE HIT-LISTS

In the outcome this week – see listed:

After the suspension of 60 News Corp papers in April, News Corp has now pronounced the full list: 112 newspapers will end print publishing; 36 of those will close altogether; 76 will continue only as online publications. Three newspapers in Sydney, the Wentworth Courier, Mosman Daily and the North Shore Times, will come out of temporary closure to resume print operations. The News Corp metropolitan mastheads will stay in print, along with some of the regional or community papers, e.g. Townsville Bulletin.

In 2016 Newscorp bought the suite of regional newspapers operated by the APN company, which saw better prospects elsewhere, like operating its billboards the length and breadth of the country.

Several of those acquisitions are now on the death list announced by News Corp or set for conversion to online-only: In Queensland, the Sunshine Coast Daily, the Mackay Daily Mercury, and the Queensland Times in Ipswich, and in New South Wales, the Northern Star and Daily Examiner,  have all been listed to go over to digital-only.

Over time the corporation has absorbed dozens of household-name publications, going back well over a century; like the long-time family owned Bowen Independent, a go-to office for information, announcements, help, now closed. It is a lonely but typical example.

WHY?

Why the drive for monopoly control of the regions in print? If it is bean counters thinking of copy sharing and economies of scale, there is a plain flaw: the product is a cultural product, communication among communities, extremely awkward to fake or manufacture on a soulless footing.

What is to come out of this destructiveness towards community across the land?

The surviving newspapers, (ones that have passed a bottom-line test in the accounting department, or maybe a political-usefulness test in the bent-journalism department), and the “online only” ones using their old mastheads, may survive as smaller media enterprises – a new normal, media no longer as big business?

There are gaps now being left open in the market for small operators, especially with online publications, especially with a talent for diverse funding, running beyond scratching-up local advertisements or a small slice of national campaigns. Who has a business model, access to some capital, a will to make a go of it? Another kind of product, micro media in very small communities, might fulfill many of the historical functions; people contribute – births, deaths, marriages, performances, local campaigns. It must be a labour of love; Pulitzer prizes come rarely in this category.

JOURNALISTS – LAST NOT LEAST

Certainly there are many journalists. The journalists union, the MEAA, has been beset by redundancies and mass sackings for more than the last two decades. This time, it heard the news through leaks coming out of News Corp. After 12 hours individual journalists had received no word about their position.

The MEAA chief executive Paul Murphy called the company’s move a “massive blow to communities”, and with hundreds of staff likely to be lost.

“We are still waiting for clarity from the company on how many editorial staff will be affected by these changes across the News Corp network”, he said.

“We are determined to see proper consultation and fair treatment for any affected staff. The closure of so many mastheads … coming off the back of hundreds of previous regional closures during this period, underlines the seriousness of the crisis facing regional and local journalism.”