Saturday, May 28, 2011

Journalism as a Public Good

The Australian media is one of the least diverse in the world. At what point does the dominance of a single player become so great that our democracy is at risk? How, at a time of accelerating convergence in media and the slow death of traditional business models, can we encourage a multiplicity of voices while preserving and encouraging press freedom?  And why is no-one asking these questions in the mainstream  media space?

When the global financial crisis exposed excessive risk-taking by deposit taking institutions operating under an implicit  (and now explicit) government guarantee, respected economist John Quiggin said that if this public subsidy was to continue, banks should return to being basic public utilities. Why, after all, should these institutions indulge in dangerous speculation, privatising the profits and socialising the losses, while creating massive exogenous effects in the real economy from their casino-like behaviour?

While not having recourse to taxpayers' money in a crisis the way the banks do, the mainstream media nevertheless operates under a kind of public subsidy through a regulatory system that works against the entry of new players and encourages monopolistic behaviour that circumvents reasoned debate.

The dominance of the Murdoch press (it controls 70 per cent of the metropolitan newspaper market and its only major competitor Fairfax is struggling for survival) is such that Australia languishes at 41st position in the world in terms of media diversity. The dominance of one company - and one individual - in our media landscape has real costs for our democracy as we are now seeing, with The Australian and the Murdoch tabloids in Sydney and Melbourne regularly using their dominance to press the commercial and ideological imperatives of their owner.

In the meantime, with the national broadband network set to accelerate the development of new media platforms and opportunities for content creation, Murdoch and other established players are pushing for a monopoly in pay television through Foxtel's $1.9 billion takeover of Austar.

All this is happening at a time of increasing disillusionment with our media and our politics, resulting in what former Labor Minister Lindsay Tanner has described as a dumbing down of democracy - the mindless reporting of predictable political utterances, the obsession with conflict over substance (the fight itself rather than the issues), the twisting and distortion of public interest issues to fit a pre-determined narrative and outright lies and manipulation of public opinion.

No less than that bible of conservatism, The Economist magazine, has this past week laid part of the blame for the banality of Australian political discourse on a media obsessed with short-term biff, opinion polls treated like TV ratings and the 'Punch and Judy show' of the daily story cycle that is largely a media creation. While some of The Economist's prescription is questionable (it still ritually adheres to the Washington consensus), it rightly slams Australian politicians for dragging their feet on climate change and failing to use the opportunity of prosperity to widen the discourse behind xenophobic hysteria over refugees. Perhaps this debate is so circular because a concentrated media would rather keep pushing those buttons than talk about bigger possibilities.

The next great hope for increased diversity is the federal government's public review of media policy, now underway. The intention of this inquiry is to look at how regulation needs to change to accommodate the rapid convergence of media and communication technology to ensure the public goods of an open and diverse media are protected.  But anyone who has witnessed the evolution of Australian media ownership laws and regulation will not be holding their breath for any significant change out of this review. It is a brave politician, after all, who stands in the way of a Murdoch, Packer or Stokes. And attempts at tighter regulation usually backfire.

In the mainstream media space, one can only hope that an enlightened entrepreneur (Eric Beecher perhaps?) makes a bid for the Fairfax radio stations, now up for sale. In a market saturated by right-wing shockjocks and newspapers that ritually co-opt the public interest as that of narrow corporate interests, it seems hard to believe there is no commercial place for a progressive media outlet.

But if there really is no possibility of a media that is both commercial and responsible, perhaps we should be looking at not-for-profit ventures like US investigative journalism venture ProPublica that serves the public good by employing the traditional journalistic values of accuracy, balance, context, fairness and publicly spirited inquiry. That, after all, is what a properly functioning democracy demands from the media.

Irrespective of the commercial ambitions of media proprietors, the journalism they fund plays a vital function in a democracy. And for that reason, it should be a public good in itself, like banks. People need and want reliable information from trusted intermediaries. If the government insists on regulating media ownership, it should ensure that licensees and owners meet certain public interest tests. The question is how do you enforce those without threatening press freedom. Alternatively, the government could get out of the way completely and let market forces prevail. But we saw what happened when banks were allowed to run amok.

If this is all too hard, if we cannot imagine what journalism could be beyond the partisan Murdochracy we are now imprisoned within, then the Fourth Estate really will be a Failed Estate.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Journalistic Principle$

When Greens leader Bob Brown recently broke up the ritual of a Canberra doorstop to bravely take a direct swipe at elements in a thin-skinned media that demand intense scrutiny of everyone but themselves one could guess what was coming next.

Sure enough, journalists reflexively jumped onto their pulpits to say that Brown was wilting under the merciless pressure of a Fourth Estate merely doing its job in holding him to account. Leaving aside the fact that Brown showed no sign of 'spitting the dummy' over the deliberate misrepresentation of his party, he nevertheless found himself in the classic lose-lose situation of those treated shabbily by the media. You can either sit back and allow them to bag you and distort everything you say to suit their own agenda, or you can call them on it and then have them double their efforts to stitch you up.

This time, Brown called them on it. And didn't they (with the notable exception of Michelle Grattan) take it badly? One Fairfax radio reporter, clinging to the inch-deep attack line of his shockjock overlords, became so indignant at the media being publicly questioned that he sounded like he might break down and cry.
"You just come out here every day and you just bag out the Murdoch press or any media you don't like and you call them the hate press," the reporter whined. With remarkable restraint and equanimity, Brown simply replied: "The Murdoch press comes out every day and bags out the Greens -- why one rule for you and not one for the others?"
Indeed. It is hard to see how the Greens might ever expect to receive fair treatment from a media organisation which has declared it wants them destroyed; that they are "ruining Australia" and that the government they are helping to keep in power is illegitimate. As an indication as to why Bob Brown is peeved, take a look at this handful of recent headlines from Murdoch papers:
  • Squirming Brown Cornered and Relentlessly Grilled Over Coal - Daily Telegraph, May 19, 2011
  • Beware as Green Turns to Red - The Australian, April 19, 2011
  • Voters See True Colour of Greens - Daily Telegraph, April 14
  • If Gillard Means What She Says, She'll Divorce the Greens - The Australian, April 12
  • Greens Pulling the Treasury Strings - Daily Telegraph, April 8

Of course, newspapers are entitled to take an editorial line....on their editorial pages. But they are not entitled (unless they want to give up the fiction that they are 'news' organisations) to start using their news pages to run a political agenda of their own. (Lest this be seen as some kind of "leftist" view, even journalists who work for The Australian will tell you privately that they cringe at the partisanship and distortion of the news agenda at that paper to serve the Murdoch agenda.)

News organisations often talk piously about "holding politicians to account". And it is true, that that is one important role of journalists in democracy. But accountability cannot be selective. You cannot put one political party under the grill and wave through to the keeper another's lies, deceptions, half-truths and  dodgy arithmetic. Indeed, anyone who has grown old in journalism knows that this high minded language about accountability increasingly is used to justify confrontational behaviour that is purely about drawing attention to itself. Journalists and media figures too often now see their role purely in terms of the level of "hits" or manufactured outrage their work creates. Think back to the Tony Abbott staredown with Mark Riley or the extremely ill-mannered reception "Ju-liar" Gillard received from Alan Jones (who while not a journalist receives all the privileges of one).

The fact is most journalistic output is entertainment dressed up as 'news'. Long gone are the old Chinese walls that separated the editorial and the commercial agendas of the media organisations which employ journalists. For their part, many journalists deal with this disconnect by sticking their fingers in their ears, screwing up their eyes and screeching every more loudly about the "public's right to know" or their own "sacred trust" as guardians, when the real motivation is the grubby commercial and ideological imperatives of their employers and the advertisers who pay their salaries, a point Lindsay Tanner makes in his book 'Sideshow':
"Much of the media's campaigning on matters of journalistic principle is, in fact, thinly  disguised self-interest- the energetic pursuit of more marketable content - dressed up as the public interest."
While nominally non-commercial, even the ABC in recent years has become more commercially-oriented in its approach to news and current affairs, particularly on television. The intention appears to be to create a more low-to-middle brow Nine Network-lookalike that focuses on car crashes and crime and, in terms of politics, old fashioned adversarialism for its own sake. Look at the rebadged '7.30', which this year cast aside the crumpled but substantial Kerry O'Brien for the rather more marketable Leigh Sales and her sidekick, political correspondent Chris Uhlmann.

It was the latter who this past week trumpeted his 'interview' with Bob Brown, full of warmed over Murdoch talking points, as an accountability exercise. The whole interview (in which Uhlmann hardly let his subject answer a question) was based on a misrepresentation - that Brown wants the coal industry shut down overnight. Responding to criticism by viewers that he had not let Brown get a word in edgeways amid his hysterical interjections, Uhlmann's response was that the Greens leader needed to "harden up" (a phrase that would have sounded appropriate coming out of the mouth of Tony Abbott, a politician much closer to real power and one whom he incidentally had given an armchair ride to in an interview the week before).

The sad truth is the louder journalists thunder from their bully pulpits about accountability and the public's 'right to know', the less savoury are their real motivations. Scratch a little below the surface and you will find the grandstanding is really about a need to generate hits and ratings or attract eyeballs in an increasingly competitive marketplace. It's about branding themselves as players in the political game. It's about impressing their bosses or their fellow journalists. It almost always has nothing to do with the wider public good. And the most telling evidence of this self-interested pantomime is that journalists themselves cannot bear the slightest scrutiny of their own behaviour without squealing like stuck pigs.

See also:
Tim Dunlop, 'On Journalism and Fish Milkshakes' - The Drum
Ben Eltham, 'Bob Brown Versus the Press' - New Matilda

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Dark Side Inside

 Do people want the truth, or a dressed up and airbrushed version of the same? The difference in the dollar price between the two is the margin between journalism and public relations. While it shouldn't surprise anyone that PR costs more than journalism, the hard part these days is distinguishing between the two. 

Journalists talk about moving to the 'dark side' when they make the inevitable transition - usually by middle age - between journalism and PR. The dark side  pays more - much more - but as one would expect, there is a price in this Faustian bargain.

Traditionally for the journalist who makes the leap there is a nagging sense that one has given away something valuable. 'Selling your soul' is the easy descriptor, but it is more a feeling of leaving the tribe, of joining a grubbier world (like a priest who swaps the dog collar for a shirt and tie) and the loss of more than a shred of pride. After all, one is swapping a role that involves revealing the truth to one that is dedicated to hiding the truth, or at least to constructing publicity and selling it as the truth.

For the journalists who stay behind inside the crumbling citadel of the Fourth Estate, there traditionally are mixed feelings as well - usually a combination of envy that their colleague has found a way out, but also a grim determination to go down fighting alongside the remaining scarred members of the priestly tribe against the dark, soiled corporate PR forces camped outside.

I say 'traditionally' because the 'dark corporate PR forces' are no longer camped outside. They broke through the editorial walls long ago. The copy written by publicity agents, corporate communication flaks, advertisers and political minders now makes up the bulk of what is sold to the public as 'journalism'. (A university study undertaken and published last year by a team led by respected former journalist, lawyer and academic Wendy Bacon showed just that). This really isn't surprising, given the white spaces that keep the ads apart have increased as the number of journalists has dwindled. Something had to give.

But now the PR agents are so far within the gates that they are dictating the transformation of the industry itself. Look at the work that spin doctor Sue Cato has done for Fairfax Media in massaging its message over the axing of more than 80 sub-editing jobs as an "investment in quality journalism". So embarrassing has this makeover of the message been that it has been commented on New York's Columbia Journalism Review.

One sympathises with Fairfax's commercial position - this economy after all has been a long time coming - but it's not clear that the Australian people yet understand the price for journalism and democracy of these cuts at our second biggest news organisation. For one, it outsources editorial judgement and discretion to a much less able organisation - in the form of Pagemasters. For another, it destroys the unique voice of the Fairfax broadsheets - the last quality for-profit media company standing between Rupert Murdoch and a monopoly over the Australian print media.

And onto Mr Murdoch. It is a rhetorical point and obviously does not apply to every individual, but a case can be made that when a journalist leaves News Ltd for PR, they are really just swapping one publicity role for another. In their new job they will be representing a dozen or so corporate clients. In the old, they were representing the interests of one - the world view of Rupert Murdoch, as constructed by the harried editors he appoints to sell that world view in the public realm in countries around the globe. And, as we repeatedly see, when the facts clash with the Murdocrachy's agenda, the facts must be amended to fit.

Examples of this Orwellian world can be seen in Murdoch's papers every day, but a classic recent case was The Australian front page splash that had Westpac CEO Gail Kelly "joining the carbon tax revolt" by business leaders against the government. As Kelly herself said, and as ABC's Media Watch showed, the truth was quite the opposite. But that version simply did not fit the Murdoch agenda to wreck the minority Labor government and engineer the election of a friendlier one, so the story was appropriately altered.
Or look at the biggest "news" story out of the recent Federal Budget. News Ltd papers - which represent 70 per cent of our metropolitan print media - decided that the angle was the government's alleged assault on the "new Aussie battlers on $150,000 a year". Leaving aside the fact that News Ltd itself just two years before had led calls for an attack on middle class welfare, the story was a beat-up anyway. The budget had merely extended a freeze on indexation of family benefits to those on more than $150,000 that was first applied in the 2008 budget. But News Ltd wanted the budget to serve its purpose of building a sense of outrage over the government's alleged incompetence so great that it forces another election.

So what happens next? Well, of course, the Murdoch papers run a Newspoll which discovers that Labor is experiencing the worst reaction to a federal budget in 20 years.  The poll finds 41 per cent of people feel they will be worse off as a result of the budget; 11 per cent better off.  Now ask yourself how people came to this view; based on what information and whose version of the truth? Meanwhile, the prime minister in waiting gets a free pass after delivering a address in reply to the budget which was essentially another attempt to to shout Labor out of office as one would punters at closing time

None of this is to deny the Gillard government is damaging itself (as Peter Hartcher and others have argued) by jumping at shadows of Tony Abbott's making and by limply buying into the agenda framed by the Opposition and its media agents. But Gillard and Swan have been aided in their communications ineptitude by a Murdoch empire that clearly decided last year that the government is illegitimate (insofar as its proprietor's business and ideological interests are concerned). Now his serfs are doing everything in their power to foment an atmosphere where an election comes to be called.

That the Australian people - waiting for another government handout to meet the payments on their flat screen TVs, mortgages and margin loans - apparently haven't woken up to this conspiracy by a US citizen and his paid employees to decide our government highlights the difference between journalism and PR.

The dark side is now inside.

(See also Bernard Keane in Crikey: Media Bias Vs Political Substance in the Budget - subscriber)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Locked Up

The Federal Budget is 'The Big Day Out' for the political and financial media in Australia. Busloads of hacks (only the lucky ones go by plane these days) make the long journey to late autumn Canberra to join their full-time press gallery brethren in what is a media and political ritual - a six-hour lock-up, a frenzy of writing and then off to The Holy Grail (these days the Kennedy Room, I'm told) to get stonkered till 3am.

It's a ritual because the moves are rehearsed and wholly predictable. And it's an empty ritual because the budget these days is a political event, not an economic one. The AFR journos will run a comb over Treasury forecasts on GDP and inflation (which usually differ only slight from the RBA's own forecasts) and hope that there's some announcement on depreciation that they can splash for all their accountant readers. The Daily Tele and Herald Sun crowd will be flung some morsel about tax support for low income earners to justify the expense of putting them up in a flash hotel for the night. And the press gallery political heavyweights will supply the "over-arching analysis" - usually something about the government being caught in a pincer movement between the need to cement its fiscal credentials while winning back the heartland support.

The photographers will be tearing their hair out trying to come with visual images other than shots taken up the Treasurer's nose, as he stands in a little prayer circle with a bunch of journos inside the lock-up - surveying the sacred text of Budget statement number 2 while chewing on their pencils. The AFR, once again, will knock-up some waxwork figurines - this year most likely showing Swan as the Grim Reaper and Gillard holding a whip and an alarm clock. His Holiness Paul Kelly at The Australian will no doubt fulminate and ruminate and cogitate and all the other "....ates" about the budget marking a "profound change" in Australian politics as the party of the centre left takes the axe to the welfare bludgers.

The chosen ones will get a drop or two ahead of budget day to keep them onside and spread the news out over two or three days than just the one. And on the day itself, going into the lock-up, hundreds of journos will queue to surrender their mobile phones and sign affidavits to swear they will not release the thrilling information before 7.30pm when the treasurer gets to his feet.

This entire security charade - which goes back to the 80s when Australia opened to global capital markets under Keating - is built upon the anachronistic assumption that the markets care deeply about what the budget contains. But the fact is the Australian public sector's call on capital markets is so insignificant in the scheme of things that budgets come and go these days without causing so much as a blip in trading of Australian government bonds or the Australian dollar.

To put our budget in perspective, Australian public sector debt represents about 22 per cent of GDP, compared with Japan's 225 per cent (10 times as much in proportional terms),  the UK's 76 per cent and the USA's 59 per cent.  Out of 132 countries ranked by the CIA in terms of cumulative public debt (with number 1 being the most indebted), Australia ranks 108th. Our actual deficit (the difference between revenue and spending over one year) is about $50 billion or 4 per cent of GDP. In the US, the Budget Office forecasts a deficit of $US1.4 TRILLION this fiscal year. So the popular notion that Australia is sinking in a rising tide of debt and deficits is just nonsense.

The irony is that global asset managers - starved of safe assets to invest in - are actually hanging out for 'AAA'-rated borrowers like Australia to issue more debt. The fact is the growing indebtedness of countries like the US and Japan (and much of southern Europe) is making Australia even more attractive to foreign borrowers, who can invest money here in a safe environment for yields of 5-7 per cent - the highest in the industrialised world. It's a phenomenon The Economist magazine noted recently.

The government, of course, could go back on its (quite frankly stupid) promise to return the budget to surplus within three years as some business commentators are urging it to do. Funnily enough, none other than those guardians of fiscal rectitude Moody's, in a recent statement affirming Australia's top-ranked position, advised the Gillard government essentially not to sweat it over reaching the self-imposed budget target.
"Whether it reaches a balanced position in 2012-13 -- as targeted by the government -- or somewhat later is not important as long as the improving trend is in place. Because of its low debt levels, the government has some leeway in this regard."  
But, of course, this is not the point. Having tied itself to the mast, the government has issued a challenge to the  press gallery (forever looking for the "gotcha" moment) to find it going back on its word. So any suggestion from Swan or Wong that there is nothing sacrosanct about reaching budget balance in a particular year would unleash howls of horror and the tearing of garments in the media, who have swallowed whole the Opposition line that the government has somehow wrecked Australia's public finances, throwing money onto a bonfire of pink batts and school halls. That's the narrative. And facts can't be allowed to stand in the way of it.

So the emerging story around this budget is whether the government is good for its word (watch out for Budget Backflip) and will take the axe to its spending. If Swan can do that while putting the boot into single mums, the disabled and the long-term unemployed (the favoured targets of the drooling fascists of talkback radio), he will have achieved the quinella. Of course, no mention will be made of the $60 billion in revenue foregone by making the mining tax acceptable to the multi-national resource giants. The trick is to be seen to being tough - as long as he's 'tough' with those who can't fight back.

And the media will go on implicitly believing in the perverse morality of the budget charade; that somehow subsidising bankers with funding and deposit guarantees and charging cheap rents to multi-national mining companies is about advancing capitalism; while paying decent benefits to the least privileged in our community is something we can't afford. What a circus.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Forgotten 'Poeple'

The Americans call them copy editors; the English and Antipodeans call them sub-editors. Whatever you call them, they are traditionally the most under-valued and under-appreciated people in journalism. And with Fairfax's latest bout of self-mutilation, they take one step closer to extinction.

"We get all of the blame when things go wrong and none of the credit when good things happen." That frequently heard occupational grievance - heard so often in pub conversations between co-workers - could have been invented for sub-editors. These journalists - and let there be no mistake: sub-editors ARE journalists - are the real crafts people of newspapers and wire services.

Subs are the perennially eagle-eyed people who spot the monumental f**k-ups in the making - misattributed quotes, the absence of a little word (like 'not' - as in 'The Prime Minister said the ALP was not on the ropes), the mistaking of one person for another ('Former RBA governor Ian Macfarlane blasts the government's budget'....don't you mean the OTHER Ian Macfarlane?), potentially defamatory claims ('Dr Hawkins, a known associate of underworld figure Clams Maloney..' - err, maybe he really is only his doctor) and all the silly little mistakes that appear in reporters' copy; mistakes that - if not corrected - gradually erode the trustworthiness of a media outlet's brand. And it is trust, more than anything, that makes a media brand valuable.

But aside from correcting copy and saving a newspaper from embarrassment and multi-million dollar lawsuits, the best subs can also make the copy shine or least make it readable. Inelegant and clumsy grammar, jarring segues, cheesy leads, buried context, inappropriate or heavy-handed use of metaphor - all can be, and regularly are, purged from the raw material and honed into something that is a joy to read. Well, that's what sub-editors traditionally did (aside from eating bad food at their desks at ungodly hours). On top of all that, they wrote headlines that said 'read me' and captions that provided the missing information. When mistakes were made, the subs always got the blame. And when it all went right, who do you think received the kudos?

When you watch a movie, you don't see the script-writers and editors and story-boarders. You see the stars. And reporters in the last decade or so have become the stars of journalism. Their job is to dig up the information and get the interviews and write it all up in time for deadline. Well, that's the theory. The reality is that 90 per cent of the time these days, reporters are assigned to "event news". These are staged and pre-fabricated set-pieces - usually put together by a PR firm or paid flak - with ready-to-wear quotes and an appropriate visual.  Of course, you could go and find your own news - something to distinguish you from the competition - 'but here's something we've prepared earlier'. Too easy.

This leaves reporters with the onerous task of cutting and pasting from an electronic media release, folding in a bit of wire copy to pad out the missing detail and context and sticking their names on the top. Always the names on the top - the most important part, after all, even for a six-par story. Talk to a harried sub-editor and they'll tell you that many reporters can't even get that right. So the subs - at least the good ones - go online themselves and check the facts and search the archives for the context and start to realise that the entire news "event" is not news at all, but a publicity stunt. Too late, though. The hole must be filled to keep the ads apart.

But this is where the failing economics of the media comes into the story, because for the last decade or so newspapers have gradually been lowering the bar for sub-editors. At Fairfax, generations of the old grizzled, seen-it-all subs have gone - to be replaced by casuals and contractors who are told to do the minimum and shovel the copy through. These temps have no affiliation to the newspaper, are paid a pittance and know that  the consequence of tampering with the star reporters' copy (and their egos) is not worth the aggravation. So the word goes out to keep your head down and just cut the story to length, put a headline on the top and run the spell check. Do your seven and a half hours and go home. More and more, newsrooms became like Blake's Dark Satanic Mills, with drones pushing out widgets at the lowest possible cost and bugger the quality.

This is why Fairfax now has decided that it may as well just contract out the sub-editing to an even more lowly paid workforce at Pagemasters. It's probably inevitable given the dire circumstances of the mainstream media. But to say that this equates to investing in "quality journalism" is just a crock. The best journalism often results when a hungry, never-say-never and ultra quizzical reporter is matched with a wordsmith of a sub-editor. You very rarely get all the skills in one person.  Like a movie, it's a team effort - a news editor with great instincts, a section editor with great contacts, a reporter with enormous energy and chutzpah and a sub-editor who adds the gloss and the flair. Throw in the visual elements - graphics and photography and design - and that's how newspapers are made.

To be more correct, that's how newspapers WERE made. It's not economical to make them that way any more. And that's fine if the public wants to live with the consequences of that. (I'll give you a hint: Without proper sub-editors - particularly for the marque reporters who can't actually write - newspapers' output will resemble "Stars Without Makeup". You'll see all the bad lines).

My own view is the newspapers should have seen this coming more than a decade ago. Back in the late 1990s they were all setting up online versions of the print edition and furnishing tiny work spaces in the corners of their newsrooms where the emerging digital natives lived. But it never progressed beyond there. With ink in their fingernails, the old hands could not (or would not) imagine a digital-only future.

Some of us warned them. We said it would make more sense to go completely digital - after all the biggest costs are printing and distribution. That way the money could be invested in multi-media teams that developed digital apps built around specific sections of the old one-size-fits-all newspaper.

We've known this for years. But now, it's too late. And so, as the sun sets on newspapers, we say goodbye to our old friends, the sbu-etdors, the stu-botieds, the sub-editors.

(PS: If you don't want to take my word for it, read the experiences of another old sub, former Melbourne Age night Jonathon Green, writingon The Drum - Subless Fairfax is a Fast-Sinking Ship.
Also see Who Cares About Sub-Editors by Mel Campbell on New Matilda)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Hole the Front Page

Will this new documentary, 'Page One', do for journalism what Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth' did for the global movement on climate change?  The two films are from the same production company. Both suggest time is running short for their respective subjects - mainstream media journalism and planet earth. Both carry the seed of hope. Both suggest time may run out before those hopes can be realised.

'Page One' focuses on one year in the fortunes of the world's most prestigious English language newspaper, The New York Times. But the issues it explores relate just as much to Australian broadsheets, which are struggling to survive amid the combined onslaught of declining readership, the explosion of social media, the migration of advertising to other platforms and the disaggregation of disintermediation of news.

Certainly, the news that hundreds of sub-editing jobs at Australia's last two quality broadsheets - Fairfax's The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald - are being culled in the name of developing "quality journalism" suggests that commercial media organisations, if they are to survive, will be much leaner. But the question must be at what point, in the pursuit of keeping shareholders happy,do these last remaining brands in quality journalism destroy what little substance they have left.

My own view is that it is too late. If Fairfax really wanted to save money and invest in quality journalism, it would not be cutting the jobs of senior sub-editors and switching those positions to its half-owned AAP offshoot, the sweatshop Pagemasters - where the subs receive much worse pay and conditions. It would be stopping print production and distribution (thereby saving significantly more money), going completely digital and spending their savings on journalists.

In the meantime, get ready for lots more typos on page one and page two and page three and....