By Lawrence Gibbons
The first edition of the City Hub was published 25 years ago this week. That same month, in August 1995 Bill Gates launched Internet Explorer, one of the world’s first web browsers. Since then, access to the world wide web has revolutionised the way news is delivered and has all but obliterated the old-fashioned newspaper business upon which the City Hub was based. More than any other technological advance over the last century, the internet has done more to obliterate the role of journalism in our modern society. Radio and television broadcasts may have whittled away at newspaper readership, but the Internet has driven a stake into the very heart of the local news business.
Over the last quarter of a century the City Hub has chronicled the closure of numerous Sydney based publications, lamenting the loss of thousands of journalists’ jobs. Australia has long been one of the most monopolistic media markets in the developed world. But the devastation wrought on the media landscape over the last six months in the wake of the COVID pandemic has been unparalleled.
Earlier this month, News Corp announced that revenues for its Australian and UK newspaper businesses were down by over $US1.5 billion with turnover at its Australian titles reduced by over 30%. In May News Corp shuttered more than 100 local and regional publications across Australia, with once successful inner city titles like the Inner West Courier and the Southern Courier permanently closed.
In April the Australian Community Media and News Corp Australia also closed down dozens of other regional newspapers, which it had recently acquired when Fairfax was disembowelled by the Nine Network. The Fairfax rural publications were siphoned off so that Nine could acquire the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age creating a media corporation with more turnover in Australia than Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. 144 media jobs were slashed when Nine took over the former Fairfax assets and following the recent market downturn eight more journalists at the SMH were made redundant.
No part of the Australian news business has escaped untouched by COVID. Even digital newsrooms have been impacted. BuzzFeed closed-down its Australian operations retrenching five local journalists. The Ten Network eliminated 30 more local journalists from its online news operations.
The ongoing erosion of media coverage threatens democracy itself. If the role of the fourth estate has been to serve as a watchdog of government and to educate and inform the citizenry of what their elected officials have been doing; the elimination of jobs for journalists means there are fewer people keeping the bastards honest. Studies overseas have shown that the loss of news readership leads to a lack of knowledge about local issues, disengagement, cynicism and ultimately distrust of all social institutions.
As the Australian media duopoly of News and Nine hide their news coverage behind paywalls in order to make up for lost revenue, information is only available for those who can afford it. In order to bypass subscription-based news services, citizens increasingly turn to large transnational tech firms like Google and Facebook who do not generate content or employ journalists. Instead these massive US based tech firms dole out tailor made information according to each person’s existing prejudices, beliefs and algorithms, ensuring a loss of objectivity and balance.
Over the last quarter of a century the shift away from traditional news media outlets to new digital platforms has meant a loss of local advertising revenues that once supported jobs for journalists. It should come as no surprise that last month it was reported that Google and Facebook are now taking 85% more revenue out of the Australian economy than the nation’s two largest media conglomerates combined. Together News and Nine generated $2.7 billion in revenues compared to Google and Facebook’s Australian revenue of nearly $5 billion.
25 years after the launch of the City Hub, it is sobering to think that this publication is now one of only a handful of freely distributed publications on the streets of inner Sydney. From our very first issue we proclaimed it was our mission “to print the news and raise hell.” A small band of volunteer and underpaid journalists have diligently carried on that work in what is without a doubt the least competitive media market in the western world. And the news is not good. These are some of bleakest days the City Hub has chronicled over a quarter of a century.