FEW practitioners of a profession or craft get paid for publicly speculating on the future, even the possible demise, of the trade that sustains their mortgages or rents.
But journalism is a singular craft, and its future, not least of the print variety, has insinuated itself at the forefront of international discussion. Time magazine gave the future of newspapers thousands of words a few editions back. The BBC World Service consistently digs up journalists or media entrepreneurs for interviews on the subject. So does PBS's The News Hour (seen here on SBS at 4.30pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays). And Radio National's Saturday Extra last week brought a well-credentialled panel together to discuss the fate, or future, of Australian newspapers.
To be truthful, journalists have always been willing to discuss their trade. Many (probably most) journalists are obsessed with journalism. It invades their social, as well as working, time. Who can't recall some long and labyrinthine pub tales of tremendous stories that somehow got away, of fantastic yarns that somehow got published not on page one but on page 19, of terrific features some ignorant editor declined to publish? It's endemic to the craft.
But today's torrent of discussion takes on a markedly different hue. At its core is whether there's going to be a front-page spot to argue about. It's about whether anyone gives a fig whether you have a great story or not. It's about if, or for how long, your newspaper will exist. It's a more sober conversation. It doesn't lend itself to beer-fuelled hilarity or casual insults. It calls for realism, even courage. It calls, as do so many dilemmas, for Will Shakespeare: "Raze out the written troubles of the brain/And with some sweet oblivious antidote/Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart."
Some sweet oblivious antidote is proving as elusive for sectors of print journalism as it was for Macbeth. The US newspaper industry is estimated to have shed 22,000 jobs last year.
Such revered mastheads as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune are financially embarrassed. Lesser-known papers have ceased to publish. Two-newspaper towns are getting rarer. Thus we must deem the current round of journalistic discussion about journalism to be of more practical use than all those pub stories about stories. Maybe it'll trigger, perhaps inadvertently, a sweet oblivious antidote. Or the seeds of one.
The RN discussion mentioned earlier, sensibly presided over by Saturday Extra's experienced presenter Geraldine Doogue, produced a disparate array of observations from such media-wise folk as Campbell Reid, John Hewson, Alan Kohler, Eric Beecher and Wendy Bacon. There isn't, unfortunately, enough space here to sum it all up. Very briefly, it did seem Beecher (a former newspaper editor more latterly associated with the founding of Crikey.com) and Reid (once the editor of this journal, now News Limited's group editorial director) found themselves -- more or less -- at opposite ends of the debate.
Beecher believes that what he calls "public trust" journalism is as important to democracy as the judiciary or parliament. He says the diminution in classified advertising revenues puts such journalism at risk, and that what we might call the journalism of scrutiny could end up at the mercy of public funding or philanthropy. On the other hand, this was Reid: "I walked over here to the ABC (headquarters in inner Sydney) from News Limited. On the way I had the opportunity to buy 30 newspapers, from the militant Green Left Weekly to News Limited's (free) MX ... Newspapers in this country remain an extremely vibrant business, and we make a mistake if we think the canary in the tunnel is the US newspaper business."
You wouldn't expect the humble scribe to have the definitive answers, and nor does he. He began pondering the future of newspapers at least a decade ago, at a juncture when you could somehow sense stormy times ahead. It's a strange thing, but he went through a phase when just about every front page he saw would infuriate him. He became convinced newspapers wasted too much space and journalistic endeavour on effectively repeating what had already become public knowledge via the electronic media. If asked to do a comment/analysis piece to accompany some news story he might have written, he probably put more care and energy into the analysis. You began with the premise that readers already knew the bald facts about what had happened. But they probably didn't know why it had happened, and what the likely consequences would be. The scribe came to believe the entire newspaper should adopt that format: a brief news item as a reminder of what had occurred, accompanied by longer analysis and comment.
It was just a phase, obviously not destined to be that sweet oblivious antidote. And in truth, most of the proposed models seem flawed. Some suggest newspapers should simply skip the paper product and publish online. But it's a more complicated decision than it sounds. Would advertisers approve? Would traditional readers follow you on to the net? Should there be a subscription fee? Should the content be freely available to search engines such as Google? If so, why? What about a paper version at, say, the weekend? Hard questions.
There's this US idea, outlined on RN's Future Tense (8.30am, Thursdays) last week, where citizens club together to commission and pay a journalist to do a specific story. Perhaps they should simply hire a private detective? These things can, in any case, lead to nothing. Newspaper proprietors pay the salaries of numerous journalists who daily hit brick walls as they try to snare particular stories. The list of stories the scribe would love to have got, but couldn't, is formidable. The thing is that someone was prepared to pay him to try. Which is precisely what Beecher was talking about: journalism costs money. Less money could enfeeble journalism.
Contrarily, Reid could yet be right. This is one of those times when you can actually watch evolution evolving.