What the “digital-first model” means for quality content

Australian journalists and readers continue to feel the fallout following Fairfax’s announcement in March to make 120 full-time editorial jobs redundant across its news and business divisions. Fairfax spokespeople have said the proposed cuts were a result of the shifting and highly competitive media environment, namely declining print and advertising revenue. While Fairfax is confident in their “digital-first model” we are yet to see what this means for quality, investigative journalism.  

Where’s the money gone?

People used to depend on newspapers for more than the news: classified ads and stock-market quotations. And these, in turn, brought in money needed to fund quality journalism. Now, this “newspaper business model” has collapsed thanks to the internet.

The internet has poached most of Australia’s newspaper classified advertising, and what the online advertising brings in isn’t nearly enough to cover costs let alone the content. This doesn’t look like it will change anytime soon either, which means the money that financed quality journalism for a century has disappeared, and there’s no replacement.

Will moving online save newspapers?

While Fairfax confirms it will continue to cover key news topics, including federal politics, state politics and policy, sport, entertainment, investigations and justice, as it always has done, it has been reported that the company wants to reduce the amount of news it produces to one-third, or 6,000 articles down from 9,000.

Newspapers have also been known to deflect their print problems by boasting about the size of their online audiences compared to newspaper readerships but these numbers don’t give a clear picture. The reason why newspapers like the Age and SMH have four to five times as many online readers is because the majority of visitor’s access free information like weather updates and celebrity “ clickbait” articles. They aren’t there for “quality” journalism and they aren’t interested in paying for it, either.

Who’s reporting the facts?

The recent Paul Sheehan scandal over the incorrect reporting of a rape case story in the SMH called into question corroboration and fact-checking responsibilities. The formal review included a comprehensive examination of editorial processes and found unacceptable breaches of fundamental journalistic practice.

With significant cuts to editorial staff across Fairfax as well as reduced contributor budgets and travel costs, it seems hard to believe the remaining staff can continue to produce quality journalism. Especially with the growing pressure to produce content 24/7 to meet the demands of readers. While Fairfax’s new newsroom model will be designed to support reporters and editors to focus on great stories, videos, graphics, photos and multimedia, spokespeople for the company haven’t announced what shape and depth these stories will take.

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be: what does the “digital-first model” mean for quality content. Instead, it should be: is there a place for newspapers in our digital world at all?