The passing of former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser last Friday prompted me to recall his warning about the state of Australian media ownership in an interview I did with him during the last federal election.
He said: “In my term, there were seven print proprietors. Now there is one and a bit. We have the most concentrated media in any democratic country, anywhere in the entire damn world. That is dangerous.”
Malcolm Fraser for The Conversation: Does it matter who owns our papers? Yes it does
Malcolm Fraser’s warning is one we should take seriously. As Fairfax Media finalises union talks this week to cut 80 local jobs across its regional newspapers, and federal communications minister Malcolm Turnbull is again flagging relaxing media ownership laws, local news is particularly under threat in the global media environment where large audience reach matters.
More regional cuts
In Victoria, to remain competitive in this environment, Fairfax has proposed cutting 62 editorial jobs among the 80 full-time positions earmarked for redundancy across 13 regional mastheads including Albury Wondonga’s Border Mail, The Ballarat Courier, Bendigo Advertiser and The Warrnambool Standard.
Local MPs and city councillors in these regions have spoken out against the cuts with independent MP Cathy McGowan telling the Federal Parliament last week that regional newspapers such as the Border Mail play an important role providing local news and any job cuts could impact on this service.
The union representing local reporters, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, will meet Fairfax in Sydney today to discuss the cuts. It is understood that the Border Mail will lose up to 23 staff, the Wimmera Mail will lose 40% of its workforce, the Ballarat Courier will lose some reporting staff and its news director, and most of the newspapers will lose some photographers and sub-editors.
Diversity being squeezed
Fairfax’s regional publishing business Australian Community Media (ACM) is also proposing a common newspaper template with opportunities for content sharing. Journalists spared from the sackings will be required to do more with less including taking photographs, sub-editing their stories and uploading them online.
The implications of these changes are concerning for the diversity of local reporting, its accuracy and future print circulation figures, which until now have remained buoyant compared to their city cousins. A well-functioning democracy requires an informed citizenry and, to do this, journalists find and verify information in the public interest, rather than just selecting information from press releases. Citizen journalists can fulfil some of this local news gathering role, but subject coverage can be patchy and lacking editorial authority.
The all-too-soon forgotten Finkelstein media inquiry in 2012 reminds us that some local communities are already the poorer for losing local news outlets.
There is some evidence that both regional radio and television stations and newspapers have cut back substantially on their news gathering, leaving some communities poorly served for local news. This may require particular support in the immediate future, and I recommend that this issue be investigated by the government as a matter of some urgency.
Changes mooted for media laws
Yet, Malcolm Turnbull, photographed last year standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the nation’s media executives and flagging changes to media laws, has this month again raised the prospect of such reforms in a submission to the Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Turnbull’s argument essentially is that the internet has lowered the barriers to entry and enabled greater competition and more media diversity. At face value this sounds promising. Yet, such changes would make possible further media mergers and acquisitions and what such reforms would mean for local news reporting requires careful consideration.
Veteran journalists can readily recall the days when Canadian Conrad Black divested his stake in Fairfax because foreign ownership laws in 1996 prevented his company owning more than a 25% share of an Australian media outlet.
Today, among Australia’s top 10 news websites, all are digital iterations of traditional media outlets. The only new entrants to this list are not new Australian start-ups but large, foreign-owned companies such as Britain’s Daily Mail (fourth) and the Australian version of the British-owned Guardian (sixth).
Foreign-owned media companies are reaching out to Australian shores as never before — not only do we have Australian versions of the Guardian and Daily Mail, but BuzzFeed, and very soon the Huffington Post (in a 51-49 partnership with Fairfax). In the broadcast media sphere US-owned Netflix announced it will undercut local competitors — Presto, jointly owned by Foxtel and Seven West Media; and Stan, a Fairfax and Nice Entertainment Co. partnership — to stream video content to Australian subscribers for $8.99 a month.
The arrival of foreign-owned media is interesting in the context that we once had specific laws to guard against it in the name of protecting Australian news content and its democratic function. Oddly, in 2015 when local newspapers are experiencing financial duress, there is little examination about what these offshore arrivals mean for Australian audiences and Australian news content, particularly in terms of local news.
Start-ups struggling to survive
Perhaps, the important question arising out of this global media environment is not how to limit competition and potential sources of news diversity; but rather, what can be done to encourage growth in Australian news media start-ups? The current environment makes it very difficult for them to succeed long-term, as Wendy Harmer identified yesterday when announcing her online outlet The Hoopla will close. In the US, start-up news reporting entities are tax-exempt non-profits recognised by the IRS under section 501©(3) of the tax code.
Australia’s Finkelstein media review also included suggestions for tax breaks for non-profit news outlets. Another idea was to allocate a proportion of Australia’s multi-million dollar government advertising and public notices expenditure for new news ventures.
Of course, the ABC plays a unique role delivering local Australian news across the nation’s states, but it too has suffered recent substantial funding cuts and journalism job losses.
The right formula to preserve the diversity of Australian local reporting might lie elsewhere, but shouldn’t we at least engage in the conversation?