During the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 150 Australian news outlets have contracted, merged, closed or suspended production due to the financial stress. Just last month, WIN TV News announced it will be cutting more jobs.
Despite the upheaval in the news media caused by loss of advertising, the majority of Australians are unaware of the financial difficulties of commercial news organisations.
The findings are contained in the latest Digital News Report: Australia 2021 released by the University of Canberra.
The online survey of 2,034 Australian news consumers finds two-thirds of respondents were unaware commercial news organisations were less profitable than 10 years ago. A small but significant proportion (14%) of respondents thought news companies were doing better than 10 years ago. A further 12% thought their profitability was roughly the same. Moreover, 41% of Australian consumers said they “don’t know” if news media are facing financial hardship.
It is Australians from low socio-economic backgrounds who are the least likely to know about the state of the news industry: 78% of those with low levels of education compared to 58% of people with those with high levels, and 68% of low-income earners compared to 55% of high-income earners. This points to low levels of media literacy in these groups.
Australians are not concerned about the news industry
Only one-third of survey participants said they were “quite” or “very” concerned about the financial difficulties facing the news industry, while 49% were not concerned. Almost one-fifth said they “don’t know”.
Further, many consumers don’t think the government should step in to assist commercial news organisations facing hard times (44%). Given that most Australians are neither aware of the financial state of the commercial news industry nor concerned about it, this is not surprising.
This lack of awareness and concern is important because the report reveals people who are aware of the financial state of news are more likely to pay for it, and those who are concerned about the state of the news industry are more likely to say they will pay for it in the future.
We need more people to pay for news
If you happen to subscribe or donate to online news, you are part of the small 13% of Australians who do. This figure is below the average of 20 countries in the survey (17%). While more Australian consumers pay for online news than in the UK (8%), our contribution is much lower than in Norway (45%).
More troubling is that the vast majority (83%) of Australians who don’t pay for news say it is unlikely they will pay in the future.
Even though regional newspapers have been particularly hit hard before and during the pandemic, regional Australians in the survey were less likely to say they would pay for news in the future (10%) compared to city dwellers (14%).
Read more: Another savage blow to regional media spells disaster for the communities they serve
Given that people who are aware and concerned about the state of the industry are more likely to pay for the news they consume, it behoves us all to educate the public about the financial crisis facing Australian journalism.
The report also finds trust in news increased globally, including Australia, since 2020. However, the “trust bump” experienced in the early months of the pandemic has not been maintained. General trust in news rose (+5) to 43%, which is close to the global average in the survey of 44%. But the peak in trust associated with news reporting about COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic (53%) has not been sustained.
News consumption levels have also fallen from the highs recorded in the first few months of the pandemic last year. In April 2020, 70% of Australians were accessing news more than once a day. In 2021, this has dropped to 51% and is lower than pre-COVID news consumption. Interest in news continues to decline.
The fall in consumption and interest and lack of knowledge about the state of the struggling news industry in Australia point to lower engagement with the news overall and the ongoing need to improve media literacy in this country.
Read more: Alarmist reporting on COVID-19 will only heighten people's anxieties and drive vaccine hesitancy
Other findings include:
Australians strongly support impartial, neutral and balanced news. Most news consumers (73%) think news should reflect a range of views so audiences can make up their own minds. Seventy-one percent think all sides of an issue should be given equal time, and 57% say news should always try to be neutral.
Women, young people, regional residents and low socio-economic consumers are the most dissatisfied with how they are represented in the news.
People who primarily get their news from print (newspaper or magazine) are more likely to say they feel attached to their local community (73%) than those who rely on other news sources.
The proportion of Australians aged 75 and over who mainly use social media for news has more than tripled since 2019 (10%, +7).
Digital News Report: Australia is produced by the News & Media Research Centre (N&MRC) at the University of Canberra and is part of a global annual survey of digital news consumption in 46 countries, commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. The survey was conducted by YouGov at the end of January/beginning of February 2021. In Australia, this is the seventh annual survey of its kind produced by the N&MRC.