Transformation has a long way to go yet

As each day passes it is becomingly increasingly obvious the shakeout in the Australian media industry has only just begun.

The transformation in the platforms for delivery of news and other information to which we have become accustomed to has a long way to go and it is not at all clear yet what shape this will take.

That there is an increasing degree of apprehension – even despair – among those editorial survivors of this process is understandable, but to be blunt, futile.

What they need to do is adjust to a rapidly changing communications environment which is ultimately going to jettison our traditional concept of the newspaper.

Blogging and other forms of social media are rampaging over the top of the long established concept of the newspaper. But a major change in format with the emphasis on opinion rather than news reporting has been underway for some time.

In fact, this has reached a level where the dividing line between news and opinion has become blurred. While editors and writers may not see this as a bad thing it may, in reality, be contributing to the downturn in newspaper sales for two reasons.

For a start, one of the persistent complaints from traditional newspaper readers is that there is not enough news in “newspapers” anymore – so why should they continue to buy them? A by-product of this could well be to push traditional readers to social media as a source of information.

While digital online versions of newspapers may be catching some disaffected readers it would be interesting to see how many new readers are attracted to these sites, particularly if they are confronted by a pay wall on the way.

Social media, on the other hand, is not just free but a much speedier and more comfortable  form of communication.

Politicians realise this … just look at how many use Twitter and Facebook to communicate with the electorate and they don’t have to endure any pesky questioning about their policies when they take this path.

This is not to say that editors don’t realise the importance of social media – it is more a question of addressing the conflict they face in effectively surrendering editorial control to their readers. But they may not have any choice.

Fairfax’s decision to scale back its costs by significantly reducing its workforce and converting its Sydney and Melbourne daily broadsheets (The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age respectively) into compacts is a reluctant move to face up to the inevitable.

It should become pretty clear before too long whether this will work or whether more drastic moves are necessary to keep the company afloat.

Meanwhile, News Corporation’s decision to split this global media operation into separate electronic and print companies is a clear indication of where it thinks its future lies. This is a move of seismic proportions, the implications of which cannot be overstated.

News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch has always and will always be a passionate supporter of print, but the restructuring of this company demonstrates a realisation of the extremely rough road that lies ahead for newspapers. It starkly highlights where the profits are being generated … it’s in electronic entertainment.

Newspaper advertising and circulation have been on a roller coaster ride for years, but have generally recovered enough to keep the business going. But they have never before faced the challenges that they do today and the challenges show no signs of diminishing.

While being regularly criticised for his management style (most recently over the UK phone hacking scandal) there is little doubt that Murdoch’s commitment to print, which is most obvious here in Australia where he has over 70 percent of the market, has held back the tide that constantly threatens to sweep over it.

People will always thirst for information and that is what social networking is proving – just not in a manner that corresponds with the traditional concept of the media. The clock is ticking down on editors, journalists and media companies to adjust enough to be part of this changing world.

Malcolm Colless is a former senior executive at News Ltd.

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