As a former journo, I was recently asked if I’d recommend journalism as a career to a young person. I had to say I can’t. Sure, if you have a passion to become a reporter, then follow your dreams. My principal reason for being less enthusiastic – certainly about newspapers as a career – than even a year or so ago is the viability of newsgathering. On a recent visit to Australia, I picked up a copy of The Sydney Morning Herald. Five or fewer years ago, this, the largest broadsheet in Australasia, was groaning with pages, ads, supplements and inserts.
On the day in question it consisted of 22 pages and a sports tabloid insert and bugger all ads. During the seven years I edited The Marlborough Express I cannot recall many days where we published fewer than 16 broadsheet pages. Marlborough’s population is less than 1% of that of Sydney.
Several years ago, Fairfax (owner of both the huge Herald and tiny Express) made a strategic decision to purchase TradeMe. The reason was that even then, the so-called ‘rivers of gold’ – the newspapers’ classified advertising – were drying up. We are now all advertising our personal wares on TradeMe or elsewhere. That loss of revenue is now being followed by some losses of display advertising. TradeMe now has jobs and more recently homes. Ok, so NZ papers are faring better than their Aussie counterparts for display advertising but for how long?
Of course newspapers have two revenue streams – ads and circulation. But note how the figures now quoted are for readership, not as it used to be for circulation. I still get The Press and Sunday Star Times home delivered but you can’t but observe that a lot of newspapers are being given away – at places like universities and airport terminals. This suggests a marketing strategy to raise readership (and hold some ad revenue even if it costs casual sales.)
When you combine this with a recession, the impacts on newspapers and therefore journalism are pronounced. And that’s a worry for everyone with an interest in democracy.