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

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 and 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 was the highest average news-sharing site studied in the News Digital network at 13.6% monthly. The was next highest at 7.2%, the at 5.1%, and 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 shared top and national stories were from AAP. The figure was 87.5% for 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.

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