Media making headlines

Daily news journalism has traditionally required some acquaintance with ADHD, the attention deficit disorder that discourages thought on any single topic for any great length of time.

In a breaking news environment, judgments about what is "most important" can change from minute to minute. It's not a career for careful planners, more a haven for the easily distracted.  

And in newsrooms, it's the news, not the business of making money from the news, that motivates most journalists, even as the economics of their industry appears to be crumbling around them.  

That reality has been forcing change at a pace that is heating up everywhere, not least this part of the world.

The New Zealand Press Association closed last year after more than a century as a national news agency. 

The publishers of the New Zealand Herald, APN, have placed all their assets up for review, leading to speculation this week that even Fairfax could emerge as a bidder for the newspaper of record in our largest city.

In Wellington, meanwhile, Fairfax is preparing to create several dozen new subediting jobs as the Australasian publisher of this newspaper and the Stuff website, shifts Australian jobs here. Aussie journalists will still pound the streets of Newcastle and Illawarra, but Kiwis will be checking their spelling from now on.

Glass half-empty types see this as evidence we're a low wage economy. Pollyannas see it as evidence that globalisation works just like it says in the book. 

For New Zealand journalists seeking work, it's hard to argue with.

But that's just a drop in the bucket, compared with the tumultuous developments in Australian journalism over the last few days alone.

For a start, rolling cuts will see Fairfax staff across the Tasman whittled back by 1900 from around 10,000 today as it responds not only to the market pressures created by the rise of free, online media, but also to the appearance of mining baroness Gina Rinehart on the Fairfax share register.

As she approaches a 20 percent shareholding and seeks three seats on the Fairfax board, including deputy chair, a raging debate has erupted over whether her primary intention is to restore Fairfax's long term commercial viability or to use it as a mouthpiece for her own political views.

Fear of the latter is already producing threats from the ruling Labor Party to limit her ability to do so.

Just when Rupert Murdoch seemed to be sloping off the scene, a new very rich, very powerful figure has emerged who could replace him as a politically divisive media owner in a country that cares deeply about who owns and produces its news.

Yet, perhaps this is the future of news - a return to deep-pocketed, politically motivated owners who are less interested in profitability than influence.

If so, that would be back to the future. While the news industry today has sought to build trust with its readers by claiming objectivity, the history of journalism lies in duelling broadsheets operating under one or another political banner.

That tradition remains in Britain, as the Leveson inquiry into the relationships between Murdoch's News Corporation and the political establishment there keeps demonstrating.

But even if influence is her first goal, it's likely Rinehart also thinks there's still a quid in this media game. She's certainly not alone.

Just this week, it became apparent that Murdoch is far from finished with his Australian news interests, announcing a A$2 billion ($2.6 billion) offer for the 50 per cent of Consolidated Media Holdings owned by the casino and publishing fortune heir, James Packer.

Admittedly, this is more a pay TV than a print media play, but the CMH deal was accompanied by reports that News Ltd is also paying A$30 million for the specialist online business news site, BusinessSpectator, a competitor for Fairfax's pay-walled daily finance bible, The Australian Financial Review.

BusinessSpectator suggests there's a future emerging for high quality journalism that's paid for, even as traditional publishing struggles to adapt.

Predictably, this trend to placing the best journalism beyond the reach of the common punter raises questions: is it good for democracy or for social cohesion if the news is more aggressively privatised than it's been in the past, when all you needed was the price of a newspaper to stay well-informed?

Paul Kelly, editor-at-large for News Ltd's The Australian, suggests Australia risks diminishing "the debate that is essential to save quality public policy in Australia".

"It is not just politics that is being undermined by the tyranny of the digital age and the entrenchment of cheap, short-term populism," he fulminated. The rise of citizen journalism and fragmented media ownership "also creates a crisis for the democratic state as it destroys the ability of leaders to build consensus for necessary reforms".

To which one might simply say "get used to it".

The Dominion Post