I was surprised to see a series of reports on comments made by the Chief Minister of my old stomping ground, the Australian Capital Territory, dominating my news feed relating to international journalism issues the other morning.
Even more so when I found the CM, Andrew Barr, had launched a tirade partly against my old newspaper, the Canberra Times, and generally against mainstream journalism.
He described the Times as “a joke”, and that it would be only a matter of years before it closed, while the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was relevant only to old fuddy-duddies in their 60s and above.
In Barr’s new world, his message will be presented to the populace via social media channels “and that is the path we are going to be pursuing over the next few years”.
If the Chief Minister thinks he is on to some radically different idea that is going to change the world, he had better think again. For years, Local Government in the United Kingdom has tried to by-pass traditional media through its own in-house publications.
These ‘Town Hall Pravdas’, have been derided as “propaganda sheets designed solely to tell people how great the councils are”. In many cases they have been so one-sided that the UK Government’s Minister for Local Government pronounced them a waste of ratepayers’ money and ordered them restricted to no more than four editions a year.
Barr talks about the “cutting edge of communication” which presumably means his alternative platforms would be digital, given that he believes this is the news source of choice for all but a few old has-beens in his constituency, but while I am not comfortable with the brutality of his words, he does have a point.
To return to the UK, newspapers there are closing at the rate of one a week. Of the publications I have worked on around the world since the 1960s, two have disappeared and one has gone from daily to weekly.
If Barr is right when he says the circulation of the Canberra Times is now about 15,000, that is less than half of what it was when I began to work there in the 1980s.
There is no doubt that hard copy newspapers are facing a crisis, but that does not mean journalism is in crisis. Newspapers may disappear, but journalists will not. If the Chief Minister believes that he will get an open and uncritical route to the people of Canberra via cyberspace, he obviously does not know much about it.
Granted when it comes to news the internet is currently chaotic, but so was the dawn of the newspaper age in the 18th century when consumers had to choose between solid reporting, satire and horrific scandal sheets that could and did, say what they liked about anyone and anything.
It took time (and libel laws) but eventually the more outrageous rags gave way to professional, well researched newspapers. People learned to tell the difference.
So it will be today. More and more people will switch from newspapers to the internet, but increasingly they will favour the sites that provide reliable, well-researched news and comment provided by independent professional journalists, over advertising puffs from organisations that have a barrow to push — either to sell a product or get re-elected.
Barr may try to dodge his local newspaper, but he will never be able to ignore local journalists.