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Churnalism on the rise as news sites fill up with shared content and wire copy

This week’s unfolding print news crisis may have taken newspaper workers by surprise, but it has an inevitable feel to those who’ve been studying the latest phase of restructuring in our digital media…

Newsrooms across the country are emptying fast. Flickr/hellvetica

This week’s unfolding print news crisis may have taken newspaper workers by surprise, but it has an inevitable feel to those who’ve been studying the latest phase of restructuring in our digital media industries.

Australia’s print media companies have been preparing for a leaner, cross-platform future since as far back as 2006, when the Howard government, after at least a decade of aborted attempts, finally succeeded in watering down Paul Keating’s 1987 media ownership laws.

Under Howard, Australia cut foreign ownership restrictions and liberalised cross-media limits, allowing commercial media groups to own two out of three print, television or radio media operations in a metro or regional market. Howard ministers argued the rule changes would introduce greater competition into media markets and more ownership diversity.

Up to that point, Australia’s media had been dominated for two decades by companies that specialised in the big reach legacy markets: TV, print and radio. A few companies, like PBL and APN News and Media, had managed to build more multiplatform profiles where cross-media laws failed to address the control of magazines, national newspapers and regional non-dailies, subscription TV and online networks.

But the astonishing popularity of the internet and World Wide Web was the game changer, forcing the media to collapse and reconfigure itself - to be more interactive, agile and specialised. As Jock Given’s history of cross media laws notes, by 1999 even Labor’s Lindsay Tanner was arguing for legislative reform, saying that the dominance of newspaper and TV empires “would soon end” because of decreasing barriers to information publishing.

After the 2007 ownership rules shakeup, Fairfax Media was a first mover in the convergence stakes, acquiring Southern Cross Media’s radio interests, and then merging with Rural Press (even though that move would have been permissible under the previous ownership rules). News Corporation made a foray into television, buying a 10% stake in Network Ten, thanks to an arrangement with its co-acquirer, the Packer group. Kerry Stokes then engineered a move on West Australian Newspapers to subsume it in Seven West Media, after tricky boardroom manoeuvring - a play Gina Rinehart no doubt filed for future reference.

Yet while we saw some testing of cross-media legislation waters at that stage, and the movement of private equity into media ownership, there were no major shakedowns in what was already the most concentrated print media sector in the OECD countries. Then across the Pacific, in 2008, US newspaper revenues started collapsing as online competition stepped up, readers migrated and advertising revenues plummeted.

Locally the initial impact was relatively fast. Fairfax axed 550 positions across the company, and later cut the equivalent of a further 75 full-time positions. In 2009 the magazine industry started to experience lay-offs, with ACP and Newsmags slowly dropping people and titles.

At the same time News and Fairfax started to look for ways to save money by sharing information across their empires. In 2009 Murdoch established Newscore, the global News Corporation’s wire service, in New York. Both companies rolled out standardised web templates for their suburban and community newspapers, enabling them to share information between hundreds of small publications.

Both also began to outsource hardcopy editing, layout and production - News Limited in Queensland, with a centralised subbing hub, and Fairfax to PageMasters in News Zealand (and later Brisbane), which it co-owns with News Limited through their shared equity in Australian Associated Press.

It’s true that some new “print” jobs have emerged online during recent years, particularly in social media, web production, video journalism and production, and in front and back end development areas (user experience, web design, web and application development). Yet growth in these areas has been difficult to track, as it is incremental and in areas not traditionally unionised.

In comparison, the cuts at Fairfax Media and News Corporation’s reduction of 19 operational centres to 5 are the most serious manifestations yet of the changes wrought by industry digitalisation and convergence. If previous restructuring trends are anything to go by, the consequences can only be a massive loss of source diversity.

So if the Gillard government goes ahead and implements the main recommendation of its Convergence Review, to remove the last of the post 2007 media ownership restrictions, it will be a very slippery slide to greater media concentration and a generally impoverished news sector.

For a glimpse into that future, you only have to examine how the diminishing fourth estate will manage to supply the media’s multiplying, always-on channels.

Churning is on the rise at news websites, where squeezed staff are forced to share content, rewrite press releases and run wire copy to fill space. Flickr/edwardkimuk

Within days of news breaking about impending lay-offs at News Limited and Fairfax, one junior PR was already salivating at the prospect of lower editorial barriers to getting campaign messages out across multiple channels.

“Less [sic] journos will also mean that publications will be looking for content they can syndicate across the networks,” burbled Tina Alldis in Mumbrella, exhibiting the standard of expression we might expect of a young flack.

Her article was a remarkable example of hubris, given the possible squeeze impending in PR work as hundreds of journalists hit the job market. However you can certainly expect to see an increase in the republishing of press release and wire service copy as editorial jobs vanish. And the impact on media diversity is already a cause for concern.

In research we undertook in 2009-2011 we found evidence of narrowing source diversity in Fairfax and News Digital’s online news services. Interviews and content analysis suggested firstly that media content-sharing between co-owned-titles and platforms, affiliate publishers, licensees and users had accelerated with digitalisation and the internet.

News sharing, for example, enabled Fairfax to create two new metro news websites - Brisbane Times and WAtoday with editorial staff of under 20 at each site. Compare this to the roughly 800 editorial jobs now spread across newspapers and digital in Sydney and Melbourne.

When you then look at the increased recycling of news through social media, aggregators, and news writing robots you can see how media sharing has started to underpin the economic sustainability of a multichannel mediascape.

Print news organisations in particular have seen an intensification of content syndication between print, web and mobile platforms. Our data analytics model tracked the recycling of top and national news between four metropolitan Fairfax, and four News Digital, websites based on a sample of 29,000 news stories over a three-month period.

What we found was that Fairfax - the company under most economic threat and with two online-only titles - was doing far more internal sharing of copy than News Limited.

Fairfax sites theage.com.au and smh.com.au shared a monthly mean of around 97% of their content with at least one other metro, while at Brisbane Times mean sharing was 88% and at WAtoday, 95%. In comparison Melbourne’s heraldsun.com.au was the highest average news-sharing site studied in the News Digital network at 13.6% monthly. The couriermail.com.au was next highest at 7.2%, the dailytelegraph.com.au at 5.1%, and perthnow.com.au shared a mean of 3.5% of its stories in our two categories of top and national news.

Fairfax’s Sydney and Melbourne newsrooms also took the lead in republishing news agency content: 79% of the smh.com.au shared top and national stories were from AAP. The figure was 87.5% for theage.com.au. News Ltd sites republished less than 2% each of AAP content during the study period.

These findings are not cause for global criticism of change in the print industry. Production restructuring and platform cooperation are essential to producing richer multimedia content. Journalists can now more easily access and share digital archives and cooperate nationally on big stories like natural disasters and political upheavals.

We also found potential diversity gains of online news networking and reuse. Regional consumers appeared to have far more access to urban and interstate news than before thanks to syndication across web, mobiles, and tablets.

Editors also argued that re-use of more copy across publications and markets left journalists free to focus on what was happening locally. However we think this claim needs to be tested by measuring levels of locally generated content prior to online production.

We also need further study of diversity before and after the web - comparing news in online and hardcopy titles to assess the variety of genres, sources and viewpoints.

All the indicators so far are that as editorial jobs have fallen, media industry sources of original, first-run news and analysis are declining. How access to local news content will play out with the widespread rollout of paywalls and subscription apps will require ongoing monitoring by media regulators.

It is blindingly clear though that if restructuring proceeds as it is, editorial charters will be a bandaid solution to the rise of multi-platform churnalism.

Join the conversation

18 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Shared copy can be a good thing. Does it make sense for the Age and the SMH each to send a reporter to report on the same event in Canberra? Should an Australian newspaper send a correspondent to Paris when Reuters is already there?

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    1. Fiona Martin

      Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at University of Sydney

      In reply to James Jenkin

      It depends on what type of sense is motivating your editorial decisions James.

      Yes it does make political sense to have reporters from two different state based newspapers covering events in Canberra. They will pick up local angles more effectively and be better informed about issues that affect Victorian readerships. It should also make economic sense as better local coverage should attract more paying readers. It may not be financially supportable if your business is about to go down the tube…

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    2. Warwick Fry

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Fiona Martin

      Nice analysis, Fiona. Ideally there should be a healthy symbiosis between the journalists 'on the ground' and the gatekeepers.

      I think too that there should be a heavy distinction made between the 'on the ground journalists' and the 'paracaidistas' (parachutists, or 'firement') who are dropped in to conflictive situations by editorial decision, and end up displacing the veterans who have been on the spot for years, relegating them to the status of gophers, their experience dismissed if it doesn't suit the editorial line.

      We see the value of a symbiosis in reputable bloggers (for example Adrienne Pine, and academic who blogs on the situation in Honduras), established journalists and academics, who hitherto have been locked out of the mainstream media. If churning includes this kind of journalism, bring it on. But so far the prognosis is not good.

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  2. Peter Hobbins

    PhD Scholar at University of Sydney

    Historically, the 'sharing' of content was an absolute given for many newspapers throughout colonial Australia and New Zealand. Stories of interest would regularly run across repeated titles, transmitted either via telegraph or simply by copying items out of newspapers arriving from nearby towns on steamers or drays. Attribution to the original source occurred in a minority of articles and unless one happened across the original, one could never be sure whether - or how much - the copy was altered as it was reiterated down the line. This was hardly surprising for numerous regional newspapers, staffed by an editor and occasionally one extra reporter. Perhaps a key difference in that era was that the main revenue source was foregrounded: the first few pages were always occupied by advertising. Unlike today's front pages, one often had to wade through several pages of small-type ads for corsets and carriages before reaching any of the news items around page 4.

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    1. Fiona Martin

      Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at University of Sydney

      In reply to Peter Hobbins

      Thanks for the historical perspective Peter - especially the note on attribution.

      In recent years reporters have increasingly being identified by bylines and even biographical notes online - and so we have been able to get some better sense of who was generating our news.

      Where media companies are increasingly dependent on newswire copy that situation is reversed - stories simply have the generic newswire attribution AAP, Reuters etc. So, we see less 'transparency' of coverage.

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  3. Shafqat Islam

    logged in via Twitter

    This study is interesting, but only looks at half of the equation. While you state that there are potentially benefits, the title, tone and data analysis focus only on the fact that there is more news sharing. It seems like the implication is that this is a negative thing, although I couldn't find anything to back it up (unless the negative is simply the fact there is less diversity of sources).

    On the other hand, there are some suggestions as to why it might be positive, but those avenues are not explored further. Is there going to be a part two? Without both sides, hard to draw any meaningful conclusions apart from "there is more content being shared."

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    1. Fiona Martin

      Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at University of Sydney

      In reply to Shafqat Islam

      Indeed Shafqat we can only say, from our modest survey, that there is some decrease in source diversity given the significant loss of editorial jobs, and the attendant increase in sharing of news copy between different mastheads.

      Any decrease in source diversity is a negative thing, especially in such a concentrated print market. Indeed much of our media policy and regulation has been designed to avoid diversity loss eg. through ownership controls and subsidies to public media and community media.

      As we indicate in the story, we would like to do a deeper, longitudinal study of changes to print diversity as the industry moves online, to help policy planning and reform.

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    2. Tim Dwyer

      Senior Lecturer, Department of Media and Communications at University of Sydney

      In reply to Shafqat Islam

      I agree with Fiona, Shafqat, a larger scale longitudinal study would be ideal. This article is a story mainly about 'internal diversity' (but also, ultimately, 'external' diversity). Digitalisation of news, and the economies and ease of sharing/redistribution is the key point. And as Peter Hobbins points out, news sharing across syndicated titles has always been present in the newspaper chains. However, digital templates and computerisation make this so much easier on a very large scale, and instantaneous. So, yes, there's a lot of sharing now and a consequent reduction in source (internal) diversity -- particularly when combined with job losses. Now if you factor in the 'SMAGE' scenario, and the real possibility of the Sydney and Melbourne newspaper markets collapsing into a right of centre pro-big business voice, well that's when internal diversity becomes even more important.

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  4. Paul Evans

    logged in via Facebook

    Aside from the fact you present no data on the emerging strength of the local blogsphere as a counter force to this 'old' media consolidation, you've made no mention of the root cause behind the global trend towards republishing of press release and wire service copy for short format news, a massive fall in advertising revenue.

    The CPM (cost per thousand impressions) paid by Google (who dominate on-line advertising rates) are a small fraction of the kind of advertising page rate that used to be common in the main stream media. On-line news is now all about verifiable pageviews (unlike in print publishing were circulation was not as verifiable - certainly not on a page by page level as is the current standard) and if you only have a splintered - local audience, each page of news content has such little earnings potential it's not economically viable to pay someone a wage to re-write each and every bit of news, even if it's published across multiple low-traffic sites.

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    1. Fiona Martin

      Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at University of Sydney

      In reply to Paul Evans

      Much as we love the blogosphere Paul, that wasn't the focus of the story.
      Besides, the day bloggers cover courts, state parliament, and council on a regular basis - and get paid for it - will be the day I'll stop worrying about loss of media diversity. I come from a community radio background, and worked in its newsroom for years, so I'm not coming to this analysis with naivety.

      On advertising - see par 7. That's a mention. Again it's not the focus of the story. Bit of a given actually after so much coverage of that problem over recent years.

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  5. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    What is most interesting to me here is this exclusive focus on newspapers and their associated websites, as 'news media' without reference to other media. The issue is only concerned with how news copy will be disemminated, not substantive content.

    Books, believe it or not, are still media. Book publishing is declining steadily by around 5% a year, while epublishing is expanding by over 40%. By ~2016 global tablet sales will exceed 380 million per annum, which given a working life of, say, 3-4…

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  6. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    To me, the problem with AAP is that the journalist who writes these stories has an agenda setting role that is rarely questioned. The newspapers which publish these stories with additional information are indulging in a game of "chinese whispers".
    The quality of the original AAP story is often questionable. It is often very brief and in many cases a statement by a politician or a story "leaked" by a politician is presented as fact, generally with the addition of a slant by the journalist, who all…

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    1. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      A classic case in point is the recent capsizing of the boat off Indonesia.
      Despite at least six different descriptions of its position, no newsgathering organization has been able to describe its latitude and longitude. Instead they rely on a Minister's statement self-serving statement. North and North-west seem to many journalists to be the same direction as does 38 km and 180 km seem the same distance.
      It puzzles me that no journalist has attempted to actually get a geographical location correct. This level of uncertainty leads me to suspect that when I next read of an accident in Parramatta involving 4 people, I can be confident that it occurred somewhere between Wollongong, Lithgow and Newcastle and involved between 1 and 40 people.

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    2. Fiona Martin

      Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at University of Sydney

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      I can assure you basic literacy is a major concern for journalism educators, and the majority of young journalists are university trained. The Bachelor of Media and Communications degree at University of Sydney requires an ATAR entry score that is close to that of Medicine. We are looking for students who have outstanding language competencies - not just basic literacy.
      You don't detail the exact criticism of the article you link to (or should I say, to which you link?). However given the job losses in sub-editing, the increased pressure on journalists to do more in less time and to file 24/7 to the web, mobiles and tablets, it's not surprising that errors are made.
      And I doubt that will change until more people pay for their online journalism, and print companies establish online/digital business models that enable them to address these problems better.
      I'm sure that as an IT teacher, you're also a digital news subscriber Philip, so you'd be at the forefront of the shift.

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    3. Fiona Martin

      Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at University of Sydney

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Interesting comment about the hidden role of the AAP journalist in the news process Philip. See Susan Forde here:
      https://theconversation.edu.au/the-new-mantra-of-not-wrong-for-long-churnalism-and-the-role-of-aap-7792

      However I couldn't agree with your blanket statement about the quality of AAP stories. I teach with a current senior AAP journalist, who is as passionate about the need for factual accuracy, balance etc as any journalist I've known. I've interviewed and talked with many others who are the same.

      A large part of the problem everywhere is the degree of output expected of journalists to serve multiple publication platforms. That's why we have an interest in understanding how media diversity is impacted by content sharing across different titles and platforms.

      There are many interesting factors to explore here, such as whether content sharing does allow journalists more time to focus on local stories.

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    4. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Fiona Martin

      Shores vs sures !

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    5. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Fiona Martin

      Fiona,
      I receive email alerts from a number of sources. I also use Google alerts.
      In addition, I listen to radio and tend to watch news and documentaries on TV.
      My problem is not enough information but sifting through the available information, and assessing its reliability.
      I have come to the conclusion that some journalists are much more reliable than others, in trying to present a balanced view, in some cases - quelle surprise - presenting pros and cons.

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