Cheeseburger Gothic

The long, slow dying of news

Posted March 18, 2016 into House keeping by John Birmingham

I realised yesterday, with a strange, contrary mix of emotions, that I now have more people subscribed to my book club than Fairfax has journalists on its payroll. A lot more, actually. The latest round of layoffs, another 120 jobs to go out of an already shrunken newsroom would have landed as a heavy blow in Sydney and Melbourne. I have no idea what effect the cuts will have in Brisbane, but I can’t imagine we’ll dodge the bullet again. It’s not just the newsroom, of course, the freelance budget has also been slashed. You can expect a lot more opinion pieces on the op-ed page to be written by politicians, lobbyists and the various urgers and bagmen pimping for vested interests and what they used to call in the 1930s “the money power”.

My Saturday morning column in the Herald was cut two weeks ago, although there was no announcement made. Wendy Harmer spilled the beans when they gave her the arse as well. It was gratifying to be a trending topic for a couple of hours as readers vented their anger, and then moved on to the next outrage-of-the-moment. As the media world contracts, I can feel my own acceleration away from it gathering pace. This has been coming for years, and I’ve been preparing for it for a long while now, but of course doing everything it just the right moment is a matter of timing.

I sat down to do some schedule planning yesterday morning, before the Fairfax announcement, looking at which books would be finished when, and even more importantly at what point they might start turning a profit if they’re ever going to. It looks like Cairo should be ready for distribution to bookclub members by mid April. It’ll be free and exclusive at jbismymasternow.com before dropping into the online retailers. But it’s not really meant to make money directly, simply to drive subscriptions to that mailing list.

The first real pay day comes with the launch of the two Hooper ebooks, A Protocol for Monsters, and A Soul Full of Guns, most likely on May 30. Given the way ebook payments work, I’ll probably see a return from them in September. Before then, of course, I have to cover the costs of production from my own pocket. Each novella length title, averaging 30-35K words, costs about two grand to drop into the channel. Stronghold, the first full length novel I’ll publish myself will probably top out at $3K+.

I have no idea what happens next at Fairfax, or whether I’ll have any part to play in it but I’m pretty sure that ten years from now my media commitments will be zero.

That’s why I’m sucking up the pain of building an independent income stream through my own ebook line. It is painful and difficult to do while managing the collapsing business models of old school media and book publishing, but the prospects for turning it into a sustainable business are a lot better than simply sitting in place and wishing for the best.

I’ve been pondering where the Burger sits in all this. It doesn’t have the firepower of Twitter or Facebook for channelling traffic and generating sales, but it does have a role to play. It’s a kind of complicated role, actually. In one sense it’s a simply place to retreat, like the bar in Cheers where everybody knows your name. We have a lot of social capital invested here, a lot of trust built up. That’s why I’m comfortable calling for Beta readers here, for instance, but nowhere else. If I did the same thing anywhere but the Burger, I am certain the raw drafts of those ebooks would be in the wild within days.

The Burger also gives me somewhere to write things that need more than 140 characters, on topics that would make most readers outside this joint scratch their heads. The people who follow me in the wider realm of social media have no interest in discussing things like naval strategy or a submarine program – not unless it’s to complain about all the kindergartens you buy for the cost of a Collins boat.

Finally, the blog can and does work to build the mailing list and provide a place for me to sell books directly, or at least via associate links to collect a little extra cream off the cover price. I’m talking to Dan about redesigning the site to foreground this stuff in the near future. He’s done yeoman’s work in the background getting a store set up. I’m not ready to cut the ribbon yet but for anyone interested you can have a look here.

36 Responses to ‘The long, slow dying of news’

Lulu reckons...

Posted March 18, 2016
I am saddened, and angered by the latest cuts at Fairfax. Also bewildered - it's as if they don't want my money. Really, really, really don't want it. I'm an old-school person who WANTS to pay for my media, and they're doing everything possible to turn their product into something nobody would want to shell out for.

Dave W has opinions thus...

Posted March 18, 2016
Ditto that, Lulu.
I actually subscribed BECAUSE I think that if I want real news, I should be prepared to pay for it- in the same way that when I wanted real news back in the good ol' days, I was prepared to go to a newsagency and, y'know, buy a newspaper.
And yep, cuts mean that I look at the byline and decide whether I'll read it based on whether the author is a vested interest on it.
BTW- the bookshelf looks nice and shiny, look forward to seeing the giant novelty scissors come out on grand opening day.

insomniac mutters...

Posted March 18, 2016
The bookshelf does indeed look shiny, but who is the figure in the favicon? I only ask because it looks like it has hair.

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Murphy_of_Missouri puts forth...

Posted March 18, 2016
I'd say the Burger's primary role is to serve as the focal point for all of your other efforts. Those who become greater fans will eventually come here to the Burger to see what is going on.

One thing that might help in that vein might be to have more discussion topics, maybe one or two a week, on the type of things we used to discuss years ago. I think the Alternate 707 thread is a pretty good example of how that type of thread can be entertaining and useful.


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Blarkon asserts...

Posted March 18, 2016
We get the media we are willing to pay for. Internet Utopians like Tim O'Reilly keep telling us that there is a business model - but there isn't.
The destruction of all that middle class income has just made a few people who live in office parks south of San Francisco rich.
Silicon Valley convinced everyone that "information wants to be free" - but real knowledge is expensive, and wisdom is priceless. Get people hooked on piracy and convince them that intellectual property is worthless. By the time the house of cards collapses, they won't notice that their sources of information are about as reliable as the water sources around Flint, Michigan.
The near future is an endless stream of interns generating click bait and calling themselves journalists. It's a short future - those interns will be let go and their job replaced by software that can do the same thing for essentially no income. The audience is used to pap without substance, and a machine can do that better than any grizzled veterans of the fourth estate.

damian would have you know...

Posted March 18, 2016
I tried to argue on Stross's blog that the problem is the passionate belief in one's convictions and the willingness to do anything in their name, even kill. Some there admired this quality even in their ideological enemies. I got redcarded for my troubles, but that is by and by.
I still think you tend to the extreme on this issue (but are a pretty good egg from most directions otherwise). I think you have called me a pirate for saying I wouldn't be watching something, and therefore didn't want to pay for it. I think you leave rationalism behind on this issue every time you say anything about it.

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AKM. asserts...

Posted March 18, 2016
I have to say I am enjoying watching your evolution and adventures, from up here in the nosebleed section of the stands- you are giving great insights into the process for us mug punters. Thanks.

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pi ducks in to say...

Posted March 18, 2016
We get The Age delivered for us on weekends, and have the electronic subscription. It's both good and bad that there's still a fair way to go before they reach the complete bottom.

I wish I knew of a solution to this problem. Hoping that people will pay their fair share doesn't seem to be working.

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DarrenBloomfield is gonna tell you...

Posted March 18, 2016
your books brought me to the burger (url printed inside the weapons of choice books??) And Twitter entrenched me here. Along with the content. I like the expansive nature of the topics, it does kind of feel like Cheers. Can I be Cliff? I also like that it doesn;t try (too hard) to sell me stuff. I mean, I buy it anyway, but like that this isn't an explicit retail space. I understand the need to do both of course, but don't overegg it I suppose.
Re fairfax. I'm sorry - and this won't be a popular view here - but the Age is a bad newspaper, full stop. And its now in a self perpetuating death spiral. Falling subscriber base because the content isn't very good - leading to poorer content, leading to ...
Life is going to be very tough for all trad media I suspect. But The Age's problems aren't exclusively because of that.

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Therbs asserts...

Posted March 18, 2016
The Fairfax papers will disappear within two or three years I'd say. Newscorp will gloat but their rags won't be too far behind as most newspapers get online and behind paywalls.They might do a 'print to order' premium subscription service for those who can't give up the fish wrappers. How many journos will they need? Less than they have now, because no-one will really be breaking stories; pounding leather on pavement, working the phones, hitting the pub after filing copy. Heaps easier to mine social media and lift things from other sites. Tricksy, thinky columnists and their damn hovercraft addictions won't be welcome because they want proper money. 'Interns' can be bought cheap.

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JBtoo would have you know...

Posted March 18, 2016
This has been happening to the Fairfax rural and regional papers over the last two years. It breaks my heart to see the travesty that my local paper has become - it used to be a genuine community resource, providing information that wasn't covered by anyone else - and it was profitable! But in the brave new world of Fairfax, one size fits all. Our editorial staff has been halved and they have stopped publishing circulation figures. Meanwhile we are bombarded by daily emails from Sydney-based execs on 6-figure salaries telling us how great life is and how the company CAREs.My position was made redundant last November. Local managers, finally recognising disaster, have worked around the Sydney rules to extend me to the end of Jan, the end of Feb, the end of April...There aren't a lot of employment options in the regions, so what do you do? Well I'm moving to real estate marketing, because, you know, mortgage.


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Duce mumbles...

Posted March 18, 2016
I've been writing UFC content for BT, for free, for about a year now. I thought I was playing the long con, doing it for free in the hope that eventually UFC would reach critical mass and Fairfax would need someone with the base knowledge to cover it, so hell why not throw some cash at the guy doing it for free already?
Well, I guess I can throw that idea out the window. Which is a shame, because everyone I deal with at BT is a pleasure to work with and they do really go out of their way to accommodate my yarns. I doubt I'll stop doing it any time soon, but if there's not going to be any long-term payoff - and given recent events, that seems extremely doubtful - I'm not sure it's worth it to just keep on plugging away.

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 19, 2016
I am regular reader of your work, Duce. In fact I'll take some credit for it, having suggested many years ago that we should get some specialist bloggers in. I did also suggest, however THAT THEY GET PAID.

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jennicki has opinions thus...

Posted March 18, 2016
This makes me so sad.
I subscribe to BT way over here because it helps keep my husband in contact with the local news back home.
It's worrisome and sad for the future of writers.
They did the same staff cuts here at our local newspaper a few years ago. They raised the price if subscriptions but now you can only get your paper delivered twice a week, and most of the op-eds have been outsourced from the national newspaper. The loss of community is deeply felt.
As for publishing, I fear for new writers trying to get on their feet. I've been getting serious about working on my books, and they may never have the opportunity to see the light of day. I know I'm not alone in this.
To put it simply: it sucks.

Murphy_of_Missouri puts forth...

Posted March 19, 2016
Pretty much what happened here in the States about twenty years ago. The last of the freelance newspaper stuff dried up right about as I left grad school.

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NBlob swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 18, 2016
1. Lots. You can buy lots of kindergartens, you can change the student : teacher ratios, you could keep open the early intervention for disabled kids schools, for the price of one Collins II.
2. I believe, with very little evidence, that people do want quality journalism. Not the finger-pointing hyperbolic crap of ACA, but real quality long form work. The person who works out a means of extracting $ for it will replace Rupert as media mogul to the Nth power.
3. I expect as content producers seek leaner production models, the quality will fall to a point where an appreciable % are prepared to pay.

John Birmingham asserts...

Posted March 19, 2016
Re. No1. Or you could force multinational corporations to pay their tax and you could have all the things.

NBlob has opinions thus...

Posted March 19, 2016
Curse of the BYT.
Regardless of the structure, system, rules or codes, those with assets with employ throngs of Bright Young Things to find the loopholes.
For so long as they are more worried by the shareholders than the local plod it shall remain so.

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Jevon Kasitch reckons...

Posted March 19, 2016
The regional newspapers here in the US have been suffering the same decline. You can watch the rot work it's way up from the smallest towns, to the small cities, and eventually to the huge ones. Staffs cut, pages cut, content becoming Press releases, AP wire copy, and advertisements. Local TV is still doing real reporting on Things That Matter but even that is mixed with a swirl of infotainment that is hard to stomach.
My own boss used to write a chess column for the local paper (he'd done it for 20 years) and he was cut three years back as 'too expensive', they were kind enough to tell him they would still be thrilled to publish his column for free though. So thoughtful!
So I feel what you have gone through.
On the topic of what CBG is for; It's your hub. The media platform closest to you that YOU control 100%. You can use it to build a community, to test ideas, to vent writing that you need to get out to an audience for feedback, to inform us of projects and so on. Warren Ellis covered this ground about a decade back with his 'Engine' site, and very convincingly made a case as to why it's a valuable thing for a self-publishing free lance writer to have. If only for the continued ability to directly speak to ones readers with no one else getting between you. A priceless thing.
I also think it's fantastic that you are investing in your own e-Book distribution network. Though pricy, in the long run I think it will prove profitable to you. It will allow you to get your media out with no idiocy regarding zones, and so forth. Again, priceless. It's work, but it's work for yourself that will pay.
As a reader, and a fan, I appreciate that I can directly get your work from you, and know you get the majority of the cash from me. And that I might even be heard if I have a comment or idea that touches on something you ask about.
Onwards into that brave new future. (In the 70's they promised me a flying car, robot butler who'd make me dinner, and vacations to the moon. Instead I got the internet and more porn at my fingertips then I could ever view. Ah human priorities.....)

John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted March 19, 2016
Thanks Jevon. Thoughtful comments and I appreciate your taking the time. I'm going to dig up this Ellis pieces because I find him to be very wise in these matters.

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DarrenBloomfield has opinions thus...

Posted March 19, 2016
Newspapers are like beer. Thirty years ago I drank Cascade because I lived in Tasmania. In fact I drank Cascade because I was in southern Tasmania (north of Campbelltown they drank Boags. Like some kind of Neanderthals. I bought and read The Mercury, and they The Examiner (north) and Advocate (NW) for the same reason.
Same all over the country. Now I have a range of global tastes and styles at my fingertips. NY times? Why not. Heinekin. Sure. Nine Heinekin and I'm maybe going to download a little illicit newscorp...

All I'm saying is that exposure to the world has expanded choice, and a preference for quality ( or quality adjusted price) will overcome parochialism at some stage. Be it beer, news, movies, white goods, cars, and the list goes on. Painful? Of course, and I'm not trivialising the job losses. But choice is good.

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 20, 2016
This is a very strong point. I subscribe to the NYT. I don't subscribe to any other news sources.

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GhostSwirv puts forth...

Posted March 20, 2016
I'm taking a short break from marking New Media reports my 16 yr. old students have submitted - most on powerpoint, a few on prezi and a Weebly website blog on the hot topic of how changes to production, distribution and consumption of media content has changed the industry and the society we all inhabit.

I take a long view on these changes encouraging them to investigate a chosen media form, such as print, cinema and television and track the technological changes over the past century to the present - linking the use of these media to significant historical events such as Goebbels Nazi propaganda via radio, print and cinema on the German people, televisions portrayal of the Vietnam War, Armstrong on the Moon, Tiananmen Square and 9/11.

They have grown up in a world where the internet, (of most things) is as ubiquitous as electricity and running water - social media for them is a natural way of life - getting everything they want from an app. is the norm and most importantly paying nothing for everything is to be expected.

I agree with those who say quality media content will win out - but the challenge nee problem, is that quality means commitment and commitment means time which equals cost in $.

Sadly most media outlets today don't want to invest in the cost of commiting human resources to generating valuable content, especially when another outlet or oligarthic search and engulf engine simply posts a link for free, thus rendering the intrinsic value of the original content zero bytes.

I don't like The Age anymore - I haven't for a long-time - I used to belong to CineTopia, before I discovered Cheese Country, but something in the way it was being shafted and its eventual demise heralded more problems to come.

My wife always used to complain about my stacks of papers that I used to say I was getting around to scrapbooking articles that I'd like, not any more - not for ages. I don't like it for its format, I don't like it for editorials, I don't like Paul Sheehan and his ugly Sydney-view of world affairs - mostly I don't like Fairfax because it has tried to follow the path of NewsCorpse - adopting policies and styles that were once an anathema to its readers and subscribers and its workforce of journalists, oh no sorry content providers.

The managment of Fairfax should ask themselves how is that Guardian Australia appears to be flourishing in this market - what are they doing right to attract a readership?

Think long and hard about that one Fairfax and you might win me back - you've lost my students though, they don't get anything from metropolitan dailies - in fact you never had them in the first place.

And finally we've all heard how the Oz branch of NewsCorpse looses money hand over fist compared to its overseas operations - will that continue under new, younger management whenever Rupe vacates the penthouse - I know that they don't pay tax but does anyone think Head Orifice will continue to the fund the likes of Chris Kenny and Paul Murray ... god I hope not.

Lulu would have you know...

Posted March 21, 2016
"I used to belong to CineTopia, <snip> but
something in the way it was being shafted and its eventual demise"

Oh, hai! <waves> Me too. I still miss it.

GhostSwirv puts forth...

Posted March 21, 2016
I miss our fellow CineTopians - some of whom have found salvation amidst the burgers - I don't the snark.

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jason is gonna tell you...

Posted March 21, 2016
As far as the role of The Burger goes. I started reading your books a while ago. Just another author I liked (no offence) then I started reading The Burger and taking part in the conversations. I now feel like the guy who got to go backstage and hang with the band. I know when the records are coming out and I cant wait to get them on the turntable. They also mean a lot more as I understand more of the process and the inside story. I now have an allegiance to JB (as noted in me signing my soul over to him recently).

I also have a suggestion. I am happy to pre pay for my books (possibly at a slightly discounted rate). You use the cash to keep the gold plated hovercraft fueled up and send me the book when it is finished. Your costs are covered and the post publication sales are all gravy.

insomniac asserts...

Posted March 21, 2016
I wouldn't be averse to going down that road.

NBlob swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 21, 2016
This Jason chap, he has ideas. May be worth inviting him to one of the Map Room meetings.

jason asserts...

Posted March 22, 2016
Jason has many ideas but no knowledge of what a map room is or any real idea about how to use (doesn't even know the name of the thing he is typing in to) this chat thingy.

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madmaximus asserts...

Posted March 21, 2016
Hi JohnKeep up the Burger, it's good stuff. I got here through the blurb in one of your books quite some time ago. I live in Victoria but read your BT articles (hopefully the page hits help!) and enjoy the stuff you post here.I also order your books through whatever link you recommend here, so hopefully you get some financial value out of it. I also believe that writers should be paid and tire of the terrible free amateur content and PR written rubbish that is sucking away professional journalism and writing.

John Birmingham ducks in to say...

Posted March 22, 2016
Thanks Max. It's always nice to know I'm not just typing into the abyss.

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Abe Frellman asserts...

Posted March 22, 2016
My oldest started a writing degree this year. She wants to be an editor or publisher, which makes me a little nervous for her long term job prospects. But how the hell would I know what sort of jobs will exist for the next forty years - weren't accountants meant to be replaced by computers by now anyway? What I ended up saying to her was this:1. Being able to write well is a great skill to have. I've been with my current employer for over a decade and I have noticed that the writing standards have fallen over time. Each year we lose one or two old hands who write beautifully and replace them with youngsters who, well, don't. So there is a scarcity value attached to it. Or there should be.2. As an employer, I find it easier to teach and explain the finer points of what we do than how to write. If you can work out how to write by induction when your paper comes back from me covered in red ink, great, but I'll never feel comfortable standing up at a whiteboard in front of a new cohort explaining how to write, while I'd happily do that every day if the subject matter was our raisin deeter. Case in point, I nearly hired a music graduate who could write well over a maths grad who couldn't, but the rest of the panel wouldn't have it. (Sausage making requires a remarkable level of numeracy by the way.)3. Book publishing and newspapers may not exist in even ten years in the way we understand them today and the technology will mean that suddenly everyone who thinks they have a book in them can e-publish it for less than they'd spend on a dirty weekend at Byron Bay. Regardless of the fact that said e-book only cost them a dollar, readers will still need a way of filtering the crap from the good stuff, as their time is limited. So maybe there will still be a market for editing all of this content. Maybe even good freelance editors will get a name for themselves and a following; who knows?4. You're the oldest and your youngest sibling is 11. Plus you don't eat much and occasionally help around the house. So don't sweat it too much if you're still here in ten years. But here's the thing, while you're here, could you help me convince your brother and sister to do a trade like plumbing? People are always going to need to shit.

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Rob reckons...

Posted March 22, 2016


The burger is the only forum I like (just the right amount of smarts and snark) and it inspired me to try my own blog, which has been fun. (writing what I want to read is my mantra and TV I want to watch on my channel) and the burger and JB rescued my art practice.

I did harbor thoughts of being a journalist, but by the time I got to Uni that had dried up, my sister is working still in London as an editor but its for a corporation not a paper. She's been made redundant a few times and done well out of it. But I think newspapers owners will have to fight to stay alive, google has devoured the advertising streams, and the internet has killed Saturday classified advertising, but at what price? Google has become a massive anti competitive competitor, if it wins, we (as society) are the losers. We will have lost the professional filter.

An artist who makes art but doesn't sell it and/or is not held in esteem, is not an artist. I truly believe you need to sell and earn to give it the quality and kudos it deserves.

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JG asserts...

Posted March 22, 2016
Sorry to hear about the latest cuts at Fairfax, and the loss of your weekly Sat column from the Herald, JB. It's a shame that so many journalists, sub editors, photographers, and freelancers are (or will be) out of work.

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Hewy mutters...

Posted March 23, 2016
No real surprise regarding Fairfax job losses.They've painted themselves into a corner where they are courting the same audience as a massively funded public broadcaster on one side and a cashed up (i.e. loss covering) trust on the other side (Guardian).There was only one result possible there, and we're seeing it.
Still, keep up the insightful posts on the publishing industry, JB. Always great to read. Best of luck building a Publishing 3.0 business model.

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Dirk asserts...

Posted March 25, 2016
Yes the times of paper in journalism are fading helas. You might consider this though: https://blendle.com . It works on a Itunes music model but then for written pieces. It's online here now for 18 months and business is booming. They are doing a beta now in the US so it will go global.

Nice thing you are doing about "tha shoppe" ... in a version 2 i would go for a few second tier shops also (Bol.com- you are sold there too now https://www.bol.com/nl/c/algemeen/john-birmingham/257194/index.html?lastId=2540 - in the Netherlands - you'll need a dutch bankaccount for it though, or one of these http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/avoiding-amazon-the-5-best-alternatives-to-the-online-bookseller-giants-10458698.html ) but i think for now you have the bases covered.

And the distribution of your own ebooks (or signed copies of the paper kind) is also an option. Cut out the middle man so to say. I'm working with a friend of mine here who does the latter.

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