November is a month of two tales for the Australian media industry: one of hope, the other of despair.
The arrival on Wednesday of the online news site The New Daily, and reports that The Monthly’s publisher Morry Schwartz is set to launch a new Saturday newspaper, are the industry’s good news stories. In a boost for democracy, the new startups add diversity to Australia’s highly concentrated ownership of news media, and provide experienced journalists with full-time jobs.
But first, the industry’s bad news. Last week’s annual general meetings and financial market disclosures revealed a grim advertising market for Australia’s two largest print media owners. Fairfax Media’s total group revenues fell 8.2% compared to the year before. Its larger rival, News Corp Australia, reported even sharper revenue falls of 22% for its Australian mastheads. Advertising shortfalls also struck a blow to free-to-air television. In October, Channel Ten reported a A$285 million loss. In 2012, these three proprietors between them shed 3000 jobs.
The latest print circulation figures are also gloomy. The recently turned tabloid Monday-to-Friday editions of Fairfax’s The Age and Sydney Morning Herald fell 15% compared to the same quarter the year before. News Corp’s Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph also fell 15%. The broadsheets from both companies fared slightly better. The Australian slipped almost 8%; the broadsheet Saturday editions of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald dropped around 12%. On the upside, digital paywalls’ revenues increased, but not enough to offset print losses.
Now, the good news. Australian journalism is flourishing despite print newspapers’ decline. Not only are new start-ups appearing, they are showing that journalism does not need to be funded through a traditional market model. Non-market and mixed-market models, as well as cross-media collaborations, offer high hopes for quality journalism.
Look at the latest entrant, The New Daily. With significant start-up funding of A$6 million, together with online advertising, the digital news website has hired 11 skilled journalists — many from the news desks of established newspapers — but unlike most mainstream media sites The New Daily is not reliant on hardcopy advertising, masthead sales or paywalls to subsidise its journalism. This is not unprecedented in Australia, but it is significant.
Unlike the United States, there are still relatively few Australian online news sites that employ journalists to produce original journalism, which are not dependent on traditional media’s resources and revenues.
Crikey, New Matilda, the Australian edition of the Guardian, the Global Mail and The Conversation are among the small number of Australian digital news sites that employ journalists without a local hardcopy version to attract advertising revenue.
Each of these news sites provides hope for Australian journalism, offering quality reporting, and each is funded slightly differently with a mix of market and non-market mechanisms to pay its journalists.
While it is early days, and there should be no pretending that starting up a digital-only news site is easy, it can be done.
The Sydney-based Australian Guardian, which launched earlier this year — admittedly funded in part by its British parent — also attracts philanthropic support from Wotif founder Graeme Wood and through local advertising. Its Australian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner has flagged its newsroom will expand to Melbourne soon.
In 2012, Wood also donated A$15 million to start Australia’s first philanthropically funded news site, the Global Mail. Like the philanthropically funded US public interest website ProPublica, the Global Mail is a not-for-profit news and features website offering independent journalism. But in 2013 — proving that the startup path can be difficult — shed 20% of its journalists.
Crikey, another influential Australian online news site, relies on the traditional market model of advertising and subscription. New Matilda, which has had its share of tumult, closing and reopening due to financial woes, has managed to survive through crowd sourcing donations.
Since 2011, The Conversation has operated with mixed funding from academia, industry and government and public donations. It employs professional editors and collaborates with academics to provide Australians with expert opinion, analysis and reporting. More than a million readers visit the site each month.
My research into who will pay for expensive journalism such as investigative reporting in an era of declining newspaper revenues to support it, found investigative journalism was in fact thriving partly because online and print media were engaging in cross-media and institutional collaborations to produce it. We saw this when The Age’s Nick McKenzie returned to his former employer the ABC to broadcast on 7.30 his print story about corrupt custom officers at Sydney Airport. The two media organisations have collaborated on several stories since.
Three points are particularly innovative about the latest entrant, The New Daily: its novel source of funding (backed by three of Australia’s largest superannuation funds which have contributed A$2 million each), its ready-made audience and its commercial agreement with the ABC to share audio and video news content. My research found cross-media collaborations with established media deliver larger audiences and boost story impact.
The three industry super funds, United Super (CBus), Australian Super and Industry Super Holdings are understood to be using their administrative budget (rather than investment portfolios) to contract Motion Publishing to produce The New Daily. Motion Publishing’s directors include experienced media proprietors and editors: Eric Beecher, Paul Hamra and Bruce Guthrie. Guthrie, The New Daily’s managing editor, says the site will provide the latest news plus financial stories directed at improving Australians’ financial literacy. Guthrie has signed an agreement of editorial independence with the superannuation fund owners to guard against editorial interference. And, if all goes to plan, the next step for this new media entrant is investigative reporting.
If there is a lesson to be learned this month it is that print media’s grim future should not be conflated with the outlook for Australian journalism.