I think it would be fun to run a newspaper

Fairfax jettisons jobs as Ms Rinehart hoves into view and prepares to board (if you’ll pardon the pun). Broadsheets go tabloid. Murdoch goes free. The news about news these days is disturbing, but it seems to portend something even more sinister. Changes of form are in some ways the inevitabilities of the digital age; they don’t necessarily spell trouble for news qua news. The Guardian, for example, has wholeheartedly embraced the web and has not obviously suffered for it. But at stake is the whole idea of a free press, which we seem ready enough to surrender.

I would argue further that freedom of the press is just one of many institutions now under attack and indifferently defended. I read that only 39 per cent of Australia's 18 to 29-year-olds regard democracy as preferable to other forms of government. Hard-won freedoms, worthy institutions, proven principles are taking broadsides from mere clout and clamour, neither of which we seem to have the wherewithal to resist. We seem to have conceded that profit trumps anything civil society might put up.

Many, including journalists, argue that Fairfax needs a wealthy patron; nobody explains how such a patron might make the company profitable, or why she might want to absorb the loss it otherwise represents. A rep from the always irritating Institute of Public Affairs reaches the conclusion that Fairfax's product was no good, since people are always willing to pay a price premium for excellence. I don't know from which branch of economics his thinking derives, but it runs counter to the experience of most of the past sixty years, if not indeed the history of the world. He, unsurprisingly, sees Gina as saviour.

The tycoon these days is an ambivalent figure. To some a villain, but to many a hero: a job-creator, a wealth-creator, someone without whose lucre we would all struggle to stay afloat. It is this ambivalence that seems to provide tycoons, bigwigs, nabobs, and assorted fat cats with their opportunity to avoid the social obligations that John Maynard Keynes considered capitalism's saving grace, and to buy influence - which, given its proven unprofitability, seems to have a higher value than profit in Fairfax’s case. 

The Hungry Jacks mogul Gina wants on the Board beside her has said unequivocally 'newspapers are business,' and that they are a convenient tool for those with an agenda and the money to pay for it. These seem to contradict one another. On one hand newspapers become a crude exercise in marketing, generating profit by printing exactly what sells; or they are simply vanity publishing, printed at great personal expense to the owner. In either case, the freedom of the press is radically compromised.

A couple of new books tackle the subject of the influence of money on our society: Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, and Robert and Edward Skidelsky's How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life. The Skidelskys posit an older iteration of the good life against the dogma of economic growth, but Sandel's book is more disturbing, bringing to light the monetisation of more and more in our culture. Everything - from your doctor's mobile number to carbon credits to vital organs - is for sale.

Market-think is so dominant now that it must be proved over again - in the very rubble of history's worst financial crisis - that the profit motive corrupts.  Indeed there are many things, as the late Tony Judt so persuasively argued, that only work when profit is not the motive, for example the uneconomical services a humane community provides to its ill and elderly, or, more germane to the present case, the unprejudicial gathering and reporting of news, supposed to keep a democracy informed and accountable. The 'free' in 'free press' is not the absence of a paywall.

We need to resist market-think, and defend vehemently the democractic institutions that have historically depended more on collective good will than on marketability, as Marilynne Robinson gently urges in When I Was a Child. But there’s the rub. Our institutions are weakened, neglected, disavowed, or, worst, corrupted. When a challenge like Rinehart’s (or Romney’s for that matter) comes along, there seems no real will to resist. With contempt bred of familiarity, we see no reason not to sell our inheritance to the highest bidder.

Beyond indifference, there's active mistrust. To traditional broadcast journalism, we prefer the net's narrowcast; we desert reputable journalism in favour of idiosyncratic brands of unsubstantiated opinion-peddling. And when idiosyncratic opinion pays for space in the mainstream media, as Murdoch and Rinehart do, we don't object. At the behest of tycoons, we dismantle the very institutions that stood the best chance of protecting us from the tycoons' piratical appetites. 

However, we shouldn’t expect human institutions – no matter how many abstract nouns go into their founding – to be impermeable or infallible. If the forms of collective action and intention move online, the principles of truth, freedom, and justice need not be left behind. High quality reporting and writing, and behind them, the motive of truth-telling without fear or favour, may seek refuge on the web if traditional media no longer support them. And the other side of that doubloon is that Rinehart may find she's captured a sinking ship.