May 172017

Today I’ve been invited to appear before the Australian Senate’s committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism. Here’s my planned opening remarks looking at the challenges facing media organisations, particularly in an Australian context.

I’d like to start off by pointing out I’m not a career journalist, I fell into the media industry through a series of happy accidents starting with appearing on ABC Radio to discuss the Y2K bug twenty years ago, this evolved to where I’m now a freelance contributor to all the major Australian media outlets.

As a longstanding contributor to various ABC stations across Australia ranging from ABC Darwin through South Australia’s Riverland to the national Nightlife program where the hosts pretend to be floating somewhere above Middle Australia rather than admit they are in the Sydney studio, I have seen some profound changes within the organisation.

Due to cost cutting and political interference, the organisation has steadily seen power and resources concentrated in the Sydney head office to the detriment of local coverage and regional stations.

To be fair to the ABC, the same process has happened in commercial media – in print, radio and television – as flawed policy decisions over the last forty years have seen market power accumulating in Sydney and Melbourne at the expense of local content, diversity and regional coverage.

Wasting the digital dividend

One of the great missed opportunities of our time was the gifting of the digital TV spectrum to the established radio and TV operators.

The digital broadcasting switch was an opportunity to bring diversity back into Australia’s media landscape and spur both journalism and the creative industries.

A few minutes watching what the Free To Air networks have done with those new channels shows how that resource has been squandered.

This concentration of market power has left Australian media organisations saddled with a protected and well paid breed of managers incapable of responding to the threats posed by US and Chinese social media networks – not to mention streaming services like Netflix or the continuing catastrophic declines in advertising revenues.

Journalism as a team effort

Producing quality media to compete globally is a team effort. Good journalism isn’t just the result of good reporters, it requires good sub-editors, producers, researchers, photographers and a small army of other skilled workers. Not to mention strong, principled editors and station managers.

The media industry’s casualisation, something as freelancer I’ve encountered the brutal reality of, makes it difficult to develop those skills. The ABC is a good example of this where, outside of management and administration, there are few salaried staff aged under 40. This has great ramifications for the workforce, industry and the community.

It’s difficult to see what governments can do in the face of the global industry’s changing economics, particularly in the advertising industry’s shift.

We should keep in mind however if we were having this discussion a hundred years ago we would have been asking how people can make money from radio. Entrepreneur David Sarnoff who founded Radio Corporation of Australia figured out the commercial broadcasting model in the 1920s and that industry went on to become one of the most profitable of the last century.

So it may well be that encouraging a new generation of media entrepreneurs and journalists who can figure out 21st Century business models can be the best thing Parliament can do to ensure a diverse media culture that tells modern Australian stories to today’s Australians.

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