They agree the vital signs look bad: a broken business model that is haemorrhaging cash, open wounds from massive staff cuts and the ever-growing threat from online competitors.
The specialists – Eric Beecher, Mark Forbes and Pamela Williams – spoke with Dr Margaret Simons, director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, as part of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival New News conference.
Eric Beecher, owner of online news site Crikey, said the patient would never recover.
“The print editions of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald are unlikely to survive because they are unprofitable,” he said.
Mr Beecher said society was witnessing the disintegration of Fairfax Media with the unravelling of its business model and its “catastrophic” financial results.
He said the only commercial elixirs were either to split the company into viable components and buy up assets to subsidise quality journalism, or to do what the owners of the Washington Post have done: “turn it from a business to a charity”, with a billionaire willing to bankroll it.
But the news director of The Age, Mark Forbes, said he wasn’t about to take an offer to Gina Rinehart.
Mr Forbes said although 25 per cent of Fairfax staff had gone in the past two years – “there was a fair bit of fat before” – the performance of the company, particularly its investigative journalism unit, meant there was a lot the company could be proud of.
He said the online statistics gave him hope and that the take-up of paying subscribers had “exceeded expectations” and had performed “significantly better” than News Corp. He declared the patient was not yet dead. “The throbbing heart of quality journalism is still there.”
However, he did caution that while Fairfax would look for additional digital advertising, it would never match the “rivers of gold” of print media’s past.
Pamela Williams, author of Killing Fairfax and editor-at-large of the AustralianFinancial Review, stated that good writing and research skills were still at the heart of quality journalism.
She said that although “Google was a fantastic development” she did not use social media. She said she was “still absolutely an old-fashioned investigative reporter”, which had stood her “in good stead”.
Mr Beecher said start-up blogs and news sites had changed the “media eco-system”.
Mr Forbes said more than 70 per cent of Fairfax Media’s audience was online – mostly through “shares” on Facebook or through Google searches.
But despite the concern over traditional news sites being killed off by start-ups, a Nielsen survey from May found the top ten news sites in Australia included The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Herald Sun.
A 2011 Australian Communication and Media Authority Digital Australians online survey found readers still trusted the ABC, SBS, commercial news television and online sites of newspapers (more than 50 per cent of audiences rated them as usually accurate).
This was compared with less than 15 per cent of audiences who rated blogs and social media news stories as accurate.
So, what was the specialists’ final prognosis?
Ms Williams said although recovery was possible, a cure would take a huge injection of funds.
“Newspapers are expensive journalism,” she said.
“High quality journalism does cost a lot of money and how are we going to pay for it?”