Election 2013 media panel

For whom the new newspaper readership data tolls

There’s nothing like a vigorous national election campaign to bring out the best in Australia’s mainstream newspapers. Some would say it also brings out the worst, but these remain subjective judgements.

Front page treatments with headings like “Send in the Clown,” “Kick This Mob Out,” and “I Know Nuthink’” sparked a polarised debate in the early stages about the role of media and its reduction, even trivialisation, of the fundamental democratic process.

These works of newspaper “art” sustained a short life of their own beyond the standard 24-hour news cycle. And, yes, witnessing PM Rudd’s “Murdoch media” reaction, they lured at least him into a vortex.

They also helped newspapers to gain the early high ground advantage, instigating multi-media debate and swatting down any semblance of a counter-balancing social media surge of influence on voters as hoped for by Mr Rudd’s guns-for-hire from U.S. presidential campaigns.

Politics and more has been all over the shop in the campaign period media, with parties adopting a “whatever it takes” mantra.

Amid the scurrying for one-upmanship on policy fronts, there’s been incessant set-piece announcements from the campaign trail, snappy, coco-pop pollie appearances on breakfast TV, Q&A talk fests (how do you do it, Tony?) and MPs in aprons on the ABC.

Offline, Rupert Murdoch changed his leader just like the Labor Party and Pamela Williams’ tome about the decline of Fairfax was launched, the scions of dominant media families gracing the cover.

At the start of week three, the major newspapers found good reason to talk about themselves. It had nothing to do, however, with their latest political polling results or a policy scoop, the latter all-too-rare in this media-managed era.

The big story was new research that, as The Australian said, “turned on its head” the metrics of the number of eyeballs (readers, not copies sold) which actually engage with newspapers in this nation.

Newspapers trumpeted in their reports an implied “we aren’t dead” salvo when it comes to their audiences. Compared to previous surveys, the Daily Telegraph’s (Mon-Fri) readership was calculated to be greater by a staggering 53%, The Courier Mail’s (Mon-Fri) by an equally impressive 46%, The Australian’s by 41%, the Sydney Morning Herald’s (Mon-Fri) by 38%, and the Financial Review’s (Mon-Fri) by 37%. The list of other big readership gains is wide-ranging.

The climate that has hovered over Australia’s newspaper publishing landscape in the past few years has been bleak and foreboding. Think dramatically falling circulation, downsizing and/or re-dedication of editorial staffing, plus determined political threats to independence that were classic Fourth Estate bullying.

By dint of various influences, predominantly the proliferation of free Internet news and information but also questionably competent leadership and management, media companies have fallen badly around the world, some never to rise again.

The new figures will breathe buoyancy into Australian newspapers, enabling them to start reclaiming advertising dollars that often aimlessly have been chasing eyeballs on disparate Internet platforms.

In this electoral climate, and as a pointer to where voters are sourcing their diet of campaign news and policy announcements, they are a reaffirmation of market strength and suggest an unshaken commitment by readers to this most traditional media and maybe also its youthful on line siblings.

The chief editor and founder of On Line Opinion, Graham Young, wrote in The Australian on Monday “there is nothing legacy about established media.”

In asking where a winning political campaign would pitch its message, he responded: “If you’re out to convert people, the answer is clear - newspapers, because that is where the voters that count are.”

In their heart of hearts, savvy newspaper editors have always known this. The new readership numbers, however, should give them greater confidence to go harder in telling it as they see it over the next two and a half weeks.