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Media Changes to Hit Journalism Students

The recent cuts at Fairfax have caused panic in newsrooms all over Australia with almost two thousand job losses for the papers affected. While it has been an expected decline for over a decade, the sudden shift in Fairfax’s approach to the problem caught many by surprise.

While Peter White, Senior Lecturer for Journalism at UNSW, is hesitant to predict a direct link between the end of newspapers and the end of journalism itself, he worries that the alternative models won’t be enough to support the same number of reporting careers.

“The big questions aren’t so much whether print survives as a medium for journalism, but whether there is a funding model for quality journalism? I think the jury is still out on that one. Where will we end up? Where will we stabilise?”

Wendy Bacon, Professor of Journalism at UTS and New Matilda contributor, feels that the mainstream media’s preoccupation with pop-culture is more concerning than the decline of physical newspapers.

“There are lots of reasons for concern and I think those concerns have been there for a long time. You only have to look at the front page of the websites to see where the values have been up until now in internet publishing. It’s really designed to get the quickest hits.”

The bigger papers, such as the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, are going behind pay-walls for the majority of their public interest news, which begs the question, how much are people willing to pay for their information?

Professor Bacon is concerned that less funding for labour in newsrooms will result in more entertainment-based content and therefore less information worth paying for.

“Already, as lack of resources has led to less labour in newsrooms, we’re seeing more PR than we used to, more duplication of press releases or stories with just one source. This is going to accelerate if the quickest way to get a hit if the decision about stories is even more driven by what will get hits and advertising. That is a problem.”

Professor Bacon also raises the concern that many less mainstream issues, for example, those about disadvantaged communities, are in danger of losing what little coverage they are receiving. She worries that the stories which attract fewer “hits” on the internet will gradually fade even further in the mainstream media landscape.

“I don’t want to say that everything to do with entertainment is unethical but it is just not probing in the way that you would hope a fair bit of journalism is going to be.”

While there is certainly a worrying decrease in the larger, commercial papers, the emergence of new, independent media is a promising result of internet publishing.

Louise Ravelli, Associate Professor in the School of the Arts and Media at UNSW, is optimistic that quality news will continue to be published through these alternative news sources.

“They’re really important and contribute a lot to the landscape. I think the more there are, the better. People will keep going back to those sources that they find are delivering quality information and in the long run they’ll do well.“

“I think that we really need to begin to think about how alternative media can support each other rather than go into competition as commercial outlets do, but I think that’s a fair way off,” said Professor Bacon.

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Concerned about the impact of the announcements on student morale, Professor Ravelli sent an email en masse to every UNSW student currently enrolled in the university’s journalism degree early last month.

“Last week was certainly a watershed for journalism, and some of you must be wondering about your degree and your future careers,” it began.

“As I have always said, the news is not going away, it is just transforming, and this week only underscores that.”

While there have certainly been concerns from current students, Professor Ravelli says that there will be jobs for graduates in many areas of communications for those with a bit of drive and imagination.

“There simply aren’t very may cadetships available anymore so it’s not a practical pathway for many people. I believe very strongly that there are many jobs out there from small, independent and niche organisations to major corporations, all of whom are looking for people who understand the media and understand news,” she said.

“Students do need to think broadly about where they might be able to go.”

As Dr White points out, “The big newspapers haven’t been employing significant numbers of journalism graduates in recent years at any rate.

Like most experts, Dr White warns students against expecting to walk out of university and into a corporate job.

“It’s important that people aren’t going to assume they’ll go straight into the more obvious jobs. Those papers only ever took a few cadets a year. People are getting work in journalistic fields such as radio, television and suburban newspapers. We’re also seeing people go into corporate communications. Many organisations have communications positions.”

Professor Bacon doesn’t think that the decline of print media will drastically reduce the value of journalism degrees.

“I think that at the end of the day, most people who really want to become journalists do become journalists. You have to be fairly determined and you have to be prepared to practise journalism, put out stories, get involved in student journalism; all that sort of stuff before you get a job but there’s nothing new about that. The jobs, though, will be different.”

Dr White’s very practical advice to students even warns them not to take marks too seriously.

“In the academic world there is a saying, ‘publish or perish’, and I think that’s true of journalism as well. I’d advise students not to care too much about the marks they get. What they should be worried about is the skills they are developing.”

Lily Ray