Letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald, copied to #mediawatch
Letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald, copied to #mediawatch

This letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald from a disgruntled reader was posted on #mediawatch on Friday.

The writer’s had enough of Fairfax clickbait and cancelled his or her digital subscription forthwith:

My digital subscription is cancelled effective 18 March…The digital version panders to a side of me I can’t help and don’t like. Moreover it wastes my time chasing what turns out to be trivial and misleading.

There was no shortage of support on Twitter e.g. this endorsement from the ABC’s Leigh Sales: “a brilliant letter”. It seems the “trivia, misleading headlines and sleaze” that upsets the letter writer has already led others to stop paying for Fairfax’s digital services.

I’m often critical of Fairfax too, but I don’t think the presence of clickbait is convincing evidence that the paper is “no longer rational, wide-ranging and public-interest minded”.

Clickbait is avoidable. I mostly don’t even see it because I choose to read the tablet version or the hard copy version. I still get presented with numerous lightweight stories on “lifestyle” and the like (some thinly disguised advertising) but I choose not to read any I’m not interested in.

I’m keeping my digital subscription to The Age because:

  • No other outlet gives me the breadth and depth of reporting and opinion on local issues that The Age provides. Nothing else comes close. It seems to me that’s the paper’s key competitive advantage.
  • The Age has specialist writers who focus on particular topics. In my area of interest it’s cities, transport, infrastructure, and state politics, but there are other specialists too e.g. education.
  • The Age employs talented, intelligent, resourceful and hard-working reporters who know their stuff and were trained/indoctrinated in the craft and professional responsibilities of journalism. They don’t always get the details right but they do a remarkable job given they’re necessarily not technical subject “experts”.
  • If it weren’t for The Age a lot of stories about Melbourne and Victoria – whether in cities, transport, education, police, or whatever – wouldn’t get anything like the exposure they should.
  • The Age has a culture of public obligation; in fact it has an investigations unit. I’d like to see that culture widened and deepened but the paper still has a critical and effective role (see Do the Walkleys promote hard-nosed policy debate?).

If I were going to cancel my digital subscription to The Age it wouldn’t be because of clickbait; it’d be because of the way editors and sub editors select, frame and construct stories to appeal to what they think the market wants to hear rather than in accord with the sort of professed journalistic principles espoused at the Walkleys.

While I’m disappointed by the The Age’s editorial policy (see here), I appreciate the stresses caused by structural changes in the industry. Responding to these pressures is inevitable in privately owned mainstream media outlets. It’s the nature of the beast.

The company knows the industry better than me and the changes it’s implementing might well be the best approach in terms of its obligation to look out for the interests of shareholders. Maybe.

I’d prefer it responded by committing to create “a paper of record” (or perhaps more realistically a “website of record”) that crossed partisan boundaries; I hope this option’s been thoroughly assessed.

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance doesn’t think all options have been canvassed. It’s calling on Fairfax Media to reverse the current round of staff cuts “and engage with your staff to find smarter, alternative ways to stay competitive and reduce costs without undermining these mastheads”.

I’m not keeping my subscription on some “use it or lose it” industry support theory; I’m doing it because it’s still a valuable, albeit flawed, product.

Despite all the talk about media diversity in the internet age, there is no substitute for the local news and analysis provided by newspaper publishers. TV never did it well and in any event has abandoned local markets. The internet doesn’t do it at all.

Sure, “Vatican sex bomb” stories don’t fit with my self-image or preferred public image either, but I won’t forego the value of The Age just because of that. Until someone comes up with a better business model I’ll accept that clickbait is something, like advertising, that goes with the territory.