On The Fairfax Aftermath

The fracas at Fairfax in Australia with the announcement of swingeing redundancies in its newspaper workforce is symptomatic of the revolution that is sweeping through the media. It is not simply a digital revolution.

The digital driver dialogue is superficial and fails to tackle the way social change emerges from the interplay of a mesh of influences. Death by a thousand cuts, if you like.

This is much more a sociological revolution in which the new technologies play a necessary part but are not sufficient in themselves to bring about change. The history of technology is littered with developments that either went off like a damp squib or, after a bright start rocketed to perdition. Fax machines, CD-ROMs and 8-Track cassettes are examples.

Nor are the sociological revolutions affecting the supply and demand of media third millennium events. Copyright came into force in the reign of Britain’s Queen Anne in the early 18th Century; Boots launched lending libraries in the UK following century and in the middle of the twentieth Allen Lane introduced the world to the cheap edition paperback at Penguin Books.

So what is going on right now under our noses?

The argument that people are substituting digital for print media is unlikely to hold water. In the book industry, for example, it is simply not the case that the ‘mix’ of print and eBook sales explains the dramatic fall in book sales. Following the development of ebooks over the last 15 years, the initial focus on the substitution of p-books by e-books has not been borne out by what is happening at the individual book sale level, despite the overall success of Kindle and the iPad.

What is happening, however, is that people are reading less in any format. Just think for a moment about the time you spend each week on Facebook and YouTube. In a world where the information super highway of the ‘nineties has become the information relationships network of the new millennium, we suddenly find ourselves devoting huge chunks of time to completely new activities. This is not substitution by any stretch.

The traditional media whether analogue or digital are being squeezed out by the social media and vast informal networks offering video games, photos, archival film, MTV and new channels for entertaining without analogue counterparts (fail.com; tumblr.com; stumbleupon.com etc).

Along with the coruscating impact of the new media are profound changes to the way our brains work and what is likely to turn us on. Attention spans are diminishing as fast as the once-smoked cigarette (which – for the record – may be one of the prime drivers that gave birth to tabloid newspapers). The loss of privacy is diminishing personal spaces for reflection and contemplation. And the fetish for outcome-driven education is removing scholarship (deep engagement) from the way we interact with the world.

As Gina Rinehart circles waiting to take up a dominant role on the Fairfax Board and a complementary interest in the company’s editorial policy, we can but hope that independent voices like The Larrikin Post will pick up the slack with a willingness to co-create the future of news-informed media and deliver new media opportunities for a new generation. Not instead of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age but as something quite different.

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