Building up the online publishing business WorkDay Media has forced founder and publisher Ian Rogers and COO David Walker to spend a lot of time grappling with the economics and future of delivering useful information to people. So in Octber 2011 WorkDay Media wrote a submission to the federal government’s Independent Media Inquiry setting out our view. That submission has now been published by the Inquiry.
Australians are relying less and less on information from “the media” - that is, existing newspapers, TV and radio stations. More and more, they are getting and exchanging information from a far richer variety of Internet-based sources. For many people, media is now mostly what they read on Facebook or in Banking Day or via Bloomberg or on some site they never heard of until it popped up in a Google search.
The new online information sources number in the tens of thousands. They are random bloggers, email newsletters, Facebook pages, experts publishing online, government and company records, published speeches, Twitter feeds, single-topic websites, academic paper collections, Wikipedia, Hansard, online university courses, Google and Google News, consumer discussion boards, group blogs, subscription information services, searchable ads for products and services of every description, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Parliamentary Library, and the websites of traditional media from around the globe.
The future for Australian newspapers in this new environment is uncertain. Once they were the gatekeepers; now they are not. They are losing advertisers and readers to a fundamentally more attractive and efficient Internet. The media analyst Roger Colman calculates that "all metropolitan newspapers in print editions will be unprofitable, definitely, by 2020".
Many of those who fear for the future of "the mainstream media" in Australia - like academic David McKnight, or publisher Eric Beecher - are concerned about how we will reproduce the activities of big newspaper newsrooms as newspapers gradually go out of business. They believe this is a very important question.
We believe that such a focus on the media past signals a failure of imagination. Big newspaper newsrooms will not be recreated in online form. Facts, news, analysis are all going to have to come out in different ways than they have in the past.
And they will. They already are. You have to be enormously enthusiastic about the old media environment not to believe this: the new media environment, for all its faults, is far better than what it is replacing.
Media analysts have worried that online sources would never have uncovered a Watergate scandal. They're probably wrong, in every way. Now more than ever, the truth will out. Richard Nixon's corruption was mostly uncovered by official investigators; Woodward and Bernstein, great journalists that they were, were merely conduits. In the age of the Internet, Watergate might have evolved over weeks, not years. Just in the past year we have seen yet another new information innovation - Wikileaks - whose model suggests secrets will be harder than ever to keep in the decades ahead.
There will probably be times in the future when Australia will look back at some event, some scandal, some development in the society, and say that newspapers might have done a better job than the new information sources. But we suspect those cases will be few and far between.
New online players would already be even more numerous in traditional media areas such as politics, public policy and business if not for the presence of mainstream media, particularly newspapers, whose large online presences are hugely subsidised by their traditional businesses. This is certainly the biggest bar to the expansion of many online information ventures, including WorkDay Media.
Australia has entered an age when media can be created, transformed and transmitted far more easily than ever before. Australians who believe in the importance of an informed society should treat the 2010s as an era of huge optimism and opportunity. For there is every reason to believe that the Australian society of the next 20 years will be better informed than ever before.
Facing such a future, it makes little sense to try to impose a more restrictive regime on the dwindling existing "mainstream media", or to subsidise its continued existence. We can improve the Press Council. We can have governments make more information available to citizens. But there is no need to choose this moment to impose either a new regulatory regime or a new protection scheme.
This is a moment to embrace the information future, not to embalm the media past.