October 24, 2019

The news in Australia is under siege

Well-produced, true, meaningful, helpful, locally relevant, news and information publishing/distribution that isn’t rooted in fear or control, is under siege.

Four stories about the news are on my mind today.

The first is about Newsweek, once a stable of American news publishing. Today however, the publication is fighting, not for life, but for clicks, views, and dollars, all whilst whittling away what trust anyone had in its pages. The lede for the story tells it all: “No one working at Newsweek can tell me why it still exists.” Newsweek used to set the agenda, now it writes viral headlines that Google will throw searchers to.

The second is about a radio station where I worked for about two years, Brisbane’s news and talk radio station 4BC. The Courier Mail reports that the automation computer that identfies as a ‘radio station’ is moving to its new owner’s premises, Channel Nine’s Brisbane studios. When I was there the radio station was local from 5am to midnight, with every single hour on-air being dedicated to creating content that informed and helped the Brisbane community. Now it’s just a Sydney radio station that plays Brisbane ads in between. There was a team of producers scouring the region for great stories to tell, and a newsroom dedicated to describing the current state of Brisbane. The radio station once had a massive staff, and now 4BC is literally a computer with a soundcard.

The third is from Stratechery’s Ben Thompson in his article The Internet and the Third Estate: “The first three estates are commonly thought to be the three branches of government: the executive, legislative, and judicial. It is the press that holds all three accountable, and in Zuckerberg’s telling, the Fifth Estate that gives everyone else a voice.” Ben goes on in great detail about how the first, second, and third estates, across America and Europe have not only evolved over time, but been the cause for great changes in power. Mark Zuckerberg is really pushing for Facebook to lead the fifth estate revolution that can only end terribly, because social media doesn’t make you an asshole, you already were one and social media can shine a light on it.

The fourth story is simply how Australian newspapers this week redacted their front pages in protest to the limitations our federal government has been imposing on the press.

Many of us are indulging in retrospection as we mourn the news as we knew it, but the fourth estate, and the fifth, as we once knew it wasn’t the healthiest lion in the pride. 4BC was launched so that John Chandler, of Chandlers fame, could sell more radios. Many Australian newspapers find their roots in manipulative power and control, instead of the noble cause of telling the news as it is. Facebook started as Mark Zuckerberg’s answer to finding out whether girls really were hot, or not.

Meanwhile there is a community trying to wring something good out of the bloody cloth that we have known as the news. Organisations like The Guardian, New Matilda, and Crikey, are working on new and different business models for the news while Australia’s publicly provided media, the ABC and SBS, are being defunded quicker than our Prime Minister can ask ‘how good is the media?!’

In an industry plauged by so much corruption, failing business models, and excessive noise, the future of the news looks bleak and on fire.

But I wonder if what we need is for the entire house to burn down so we can actually rebuild on the remaining foundations?