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Online Journalism Down Under: A Primer

Online journalism is emerging from its chrysalis and becoming a major opportunity in Australian media. Only a few years ago, staff on traditional newspapers saw it an oddity in what is now regarded as sexy and modern.

Driven by a boom in new media start-ups, salaries for senior journalists with online skills have exploded and journalists are looking for ways to get involved.

The fact that Australia is one of the most wired nations in the world has boosted the process. Australians have embraced the Internet mainly because of geography and education, plus government policy to encourage new entrants into a previously highly regulated telecommunications marketplace.

Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey has written extensively on the role that geography has played in Australia's development. Australians have traditionally adopted technology to defeat distance in a continent almost the size of mainland United States but with only 19 million people.

This year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that more than two in five adults, about 46 percent of the adult population, had accessed the Internet. This was a major boost compared to the one in five figure in 1997. The bureau also noted that a quarter of Australian households are connected.

Moreover, large numbers of Internet users were not included in the ABS figures because they are not yet 18. Most primary school children are computer literate. Almost three-quarters of them began using computers before their eighth birthday. The number of recorded Internet users will explode in the next decade. Some commentators are suggesting that the pendulum is swinging to the Internet, especially among younger people, because the Net provides instant gratification.

Relatively low cost of access is another factor in the rapid rush for the Web. Local calls cost between 8 to 12 cents US (US$0.54 = A$1). Because calls are not timed, people can stay online all day for the cost of one call. Australia has almost 800 Internet service providers and competition is so intense that some are offering free access to attract customers, selling advertising to make money.

Also, the national telephone structure is robust, a benefit from generations of government ownership. Deregulation from July 1997 saw the entry of three competitors for Telstra, the national telephone company. Competition has reduced costs.

The federal government last year completed the sale of half of Telstra. Since then, it and one of its rivals, Optus, owned by Britain's Cable and Wireless, have grown significantly. In 1999, Telstra was the first Australian company to register a A$100 billion (US$54 billion) market capitalisation, making it three times bigger than BHP, the country's industrial and mining giant. (Although its share price has dropped since then.)

Both Telstra and Optus are among Australia's 10 largest companies. Interestingly, New Zealand's biggest company, Telecom, is also a former government-run telephone company that was privatised.

Besides corporate activity, salaries have risen for trained online journalists who can provide reliable information. Start-ups tend to go to established new media outlets for staff. Two experienced journalists at Melbourne's The Age recently moved to online jobs where their salaries doubled overnight, to about US$70,000. Salaries for new hires are also good. A junior reporter on The Australian, one of the country's two national dailies, said when he moved to an online start-up, his salary had jumped from US$21,500 to US$43,000.

"Clearly doors are opening for journalists with online skills," said Alan Morison, who joined The Age Online in 1996 and is currently group sports editor.

Recent journalism school graduates also report a sharp difference in salaries between new and old media. One recent graduate with degrees in journalism and Information Technology, is already earning US$31,000 a year compared with the US$16,000 to US$17,000 on print publications. Some start-ups in Sydney are offering US$80,000 a year for senior journalists.

"New skills are bringing rewards for journalists. It appears doubly good for journalists with IT skills," Morison said.

Meanwhile, online organizations are raiding newspapers' classified and retail advertising.

"Property, jobs and cars are all battlefields. The outlook for traditional monopolies is unpredictable," Morison said.

Two other issues are emerging as online journalism takes root. The first is the potentially troubling links between news organisations and businesses, which poses concerns about journalistic credibility versus commercial interest.

"It's becoming much more difficult for new media journalists to differentiate between Church and State," Morison said. "In some respects it's a return to the days where there was no differentiation between advertising and editorial."

Professor Trevor Barr of Swinburne University in Melbourne published a book in February,, which traces the changing face of Australia's media. Mergers along the lines of AOL - Time Warner were likely in Australia, he said.

"The whole game now is about vertical integration," Barr said. "This market is so complex and the changes so new that big corporations want to position themselves to cover their weaknesses. Nobody knows where they're heading. And instead of saying let's build expertise within the company, their way of doing it is to go for mergers and acquisitions."

The other issue affecting new media is the stalemate over whether traditional print and broadcast journalists should be paid for work that also end up online. The Australian Journalists' Association is asking for more pay for more work. The union is not as powerful as it once was, with about a third of metropolitan journalists having moved to individual contracts.

Compromises have been made at some media outlets. Editorial staff at the national news agency, Australian Associated Press, have agreed to use mini-disk digital recorders from later this year, in return for more pay. Editor-in-chief Tony Vermeer said the deal was part of a productivity agreement negotiated last year but declined to say how much money was involved.

It's the first such arrangement in Australia. Vermeer sees the move as an adjunct to the agency's text delivery of news. A small group of AAP journalists with television backgrounds learned to use digital cameras, then shoot and edit digitally. AAP wants to be able to offer multi-media forms of reporting for its customers who produce Web sites, Vermeer said.

Trials of reporters taking digital audio recorders to jobs and doing voice pieces were scheduled to occur at Fairfax's Sydney newspapers from March. The aim was "to keep up with Fairfax's competitors: Yahoo!, News Ltd., the Packer organization and the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)," said CEO Fred Hilmer.

Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd., meanwhile, is training journalists on its News Interactive staff to produce multi-media reports. Their flagship site already offers video clips from the Fox news channel.

In some respects, newspapers are becoming more like broadcasters in the online world.

"The traditional news, business and sport mix is not enough to survive and/or prosper," Morison said. "Complete immersion in the customer's way of life is the end-game now."