The age of reinvention is shaking the Australian media by the throat as the agonies facing the nation's newspapers trigger a new wave of debate about democracy and society in the digital century.

The country's two biggest media groups, Fairfax and News Ltd, this week announced huge changes to the way they will operate, though diverging in their views of the future of print and strategies for survival.

Fairfax is heading hell-bent for digital readership, charging for the online content that will become its priority as the august Sydney Morning Herald and the Age shrink to tabloids with an uncertain longer-term prognosis. Almost 2000 jobs will go, as will two major printing operations.

Fairfax is meanwhile under siege from mining magnate Gina Rinehart, now the largest single shareholder. She is demanding three seats on a board that by and large regards her as a monster out to replace editorial independence with conservative, big-business influence.


News is also placing great emphasis on digital technology and is seeking dominance in pay television through a controlling interest in Foxtel. But the group has expressed its continuing faith in newspapers - albeit streamlined to contain costs - and doesn't predict extinction.

Behind the economics of the industry lies a much deeper debate about the role of the media in society, the importance of vigorous, independent journalism to democracy, and whether laws are needed to protect a free press - even from itself if necessary.

Rinehart has become a lightning rod for this debate. Australia's richest person and the world's wealthiest woman has no love for journalists and has refused to sign the Fairfax board's charter of editorial independence, which protects editors from day-to-day interference.

A change of editor could change editorial policy, which many believe Rinehart would reshape to promote her own views.

Even this appears too much for Rinehart, a staunch opponent of Labor and its mining and carbon taxes. Treasurer Wayne Swan said a Rinehart-dominated board would threaten democracy, and Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned that if she destroyed editorial independence the magnate would also destroy the brand.

All this is taking place in a landscape of wider uncertainty: the primacy of mining and its distortion of the national economy; political leadership that appears unable to cope; and rapid and bewildering changes reflected in the decline of traditional sectors, with a rolling wave of job losses that obscures the gains from new and emerging industries.

The accelerating impact of the technology that has headlined the new Fairfax and News strategies is reaching into almost every aspect of life. Google, Facebook and a flood of new technologies have all burst upon society in the past decade or so.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy saw the Fairfax upheaval as part of a much broader phenomenon, warning "this cannibalisation of supply chains for all businesses is going to continue and grow in pace".

IBISWorld founder Phil Ruthven predicts key companies in book, magazine and newspaper publishing and retailing, radio and television broadcasting, reproduction of recorded media, and film processing will fall to online or digital rivals within 15 years unless they can reinvent themselves.

Wholesalers and retailers are under similar threat: business surveys consistently show deep concern at online competition, with a report by accountants Ernst and Young forecasting retailing will shed almost 120,000 jobs in the next three years.

Newspapers have been fighting off emerging rivals and struggling to maintain advertising revenue and circulations for years. New media, from the internet to mobile phones, have compounded their agonies.

Fairfax intends counter-attacking using the same weapons. But analysts warn that whatever the difficulties, print readers pull in more revenue per head than online or digital counterparts, and analysts predict this is unlikely to improve. Many also believe Fairfax's woes reach much further back, and that management - rather than technology - bears much of the blame.

Either way, the implications of the media's tectonic changes are beginning to sheet home. Newsrooms are shrinking, diversity is contracting, the dissemination of news is increasingly fragmented, and the ability to cover developments ranging from major national issues to regional and local affairs is diminishing.

This applies even where print survives. News Ltd, which sells about 11 million newspapers a week and remains confident about their value, is hauling all its city reporters into single metropolitan desks, hardening concerns that news coverage is becoming increasingly narrower and more homogenised.

Newsrooms have shed hundreds of jobs, and will lose hundreds more, reducing their ability to investigate and analyse. In Canberra, the Fairfax reshuffle will merge the political bureaux of the SMH and Age, and the Canberra Times will close its parliamentary office.

This has triggered alarm bells about the potential damage to democracy from the loss of scrutiny by a free press, and for the ability of politicians to develop consensus for policy development.

National's Senate Leader Barnaby Joyce summed up their views: "Don't think politicians protect democracy. It's the transparency of the fourth estate that is the protector of the nation's democracy."