Who's left to inform us of Alcoa's saviours?

The government is intending to save 600 jobs at one of Australia’s most environmentally damaging facilities, yet they show little inclination to save the jobs of those reporting on it. It’s a strange world.

Apparently both the Federal and Victorian governments are working hard to save the jobs of the 600 souls employed at the Alcoa aluminium smelter at Geelong.

Yesterday the Victorian Minister for Regional Cities, Denis Napthine, revealed that "We're all working hard to try to keep the smelter open, keep the jobs in Geelong and that's our objective what we're working towards".

Federal Industry Minister, Greg Combet, was only a bit tighter lipped: “Those three-way discussions have not yet concluded but we are obviously in close dialogue with Alcoa,” he said.

As for the 600 or so journalists who will lose their jobs at Fairfax and News Ltd – too bad.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said he was disappointed about Fairfax’s big redundancy announcement last week, but added: “I can't imagine the government putting … money into print publications.” Basically his message was: the world is changing; publishers have to adapt.

So making aluminium is obviously a lot more useful to society than journalism.

Never mind that the world is changing for aluminium, too – it is having to shift from using electricity produced by fossil fuel to renewable energy, mainly hydro because it takes 211 gigajoules of electrical energy to make a tonne of aluminium, or 58.6 megawatt hours. Alcoa uses cheap (subsidised) power made from brown coal in Victoria’s LaTrobe Valley, so it coughed up 10 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions last year as a result.

In fact not only are those 600 people at Alcoa doing something that’s bad for the planet, it’s fair to say the only way Australia will meet its bipartisan greenhouse gas emissions target is if that smelter is shut down permanently.

Last week Fairfax announced 1900 redundancies, including around 400 journalists, and while News Ltd did not reveal any numbers, its head count reduction is widely expected to be more than 1000. Of those I’d guess that at least 200 would be journalists.

So it’s probably a neat comparison: 600 aluminium smelter workers; 600 journalists. One group gets frantic government support to keep their jobs; the others are abandoned to their fate.

It’s very unlikely that the two newspaper publishers even bothered trying to blackmail the government into providing industry assistance, even though they would no doubt have had plenty of support from powerful unions.

No, the journalists are on their own, even though most of them do something useful. For example, without them no one would know that our politicians were about to heroically save 600 jobs at Geelong.

It is plain to see that there are too many journalists for the revenue that can now be produced from their efforts. The number of them must be reduced, probably by about half, in order for their employment to be profitable and therefore sustainable.

Forget whether it’s print or online, free or paywalled, the hard fact is that the world’s – and Australia’s – congregation of journalists can no longer be commercially supported by a combination of advertising and cover price, as it used to be. That’s because the price of both types of revenue has collapsed.

By the way, that’s also the reason those jobs are at risk in Geelong: the price of aluminium has dropped 35 per cent in a year.

OK, I’m not seriously arguing for an industry assistance package for newspaper publishers, but I do think that the number of journalists operating in Australia is an issue of national importance.

Forget the endless, tiresome debate about what is quality journalism, or whether the publishers concerned have charters of independence or not, or indeed the worthiness of who employs them.

The fact is that the size of newsrooms is shrinking and in my view this is the issue that should be addressed. How many journalists are needed in Australia to properly report on national and local affairs?

Unlike the production of aluminium ingots, everyone is agreed that this is a truly important function and that if it were not done, or were done less well, the nation would suffer.

Yet it is being left entirely to the market to sort out how many people will perform this function. Yes, it must be fewer, but what is the minimum for a healthy society?

As they say on Twitter: just asking.

Follow @AlanKohler on Twitter.


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