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Newspapers in decline, digital slowdown – what’s new in the news?

AAP/Julian Smith

The most recent ABC circulation figures for Australia’s newspapers show a continuing decline in print sales across the board. That isn’t surprising, given global and national trends over the last few years. Australia was slow to join the global march downwards for newspaper sales in comparable markets such as the USA and the UK, showing some resilience until 2012 or so. But now, annual falls of up to 10 per cent are routine.

More surprising, and more worrying for the press as an industry, are the figures for digital subscriptions, which appear to be slowing down. Some are doing better than others, and no doubt news consumers are responsive to the functionality and aesthetics of the competing digital offerings. Some organisations have learnt the rules of the interactive media age better than others.

On the other hand, those same consumers have access to what is by now a rather luxurious range of free sites and apps producing journalism, factuality, and ‘truthiness’ of high quality. In that context, the slowdown in Australian paid-for digital becomes explicable. It’s not that online users are moving away from online news – simply that they have more options than ever before to access it free, and at a quality comparable with anything in the paid-for sector.

We have, for example, two world class overseas outlets now editionising in Australia. The Daily Mail Online, long one of the world’s leading digital sites, born of the iconic Daily Mail in the UK and popular for its celebrity content, has a substantial editorial presence in Sydney, under the leadership of Luke McIlveen. A mix of global and local stories has proven successful in embedding Daily Mail Australia.

The Guardian Online’s Australia edition also invests in the local scene, with the staff and resources required to cover Australian politics and public affairs with authority and depth. At the same time, it provides global coverage of Pulitzer Prize winning quality, all of it free to the Australian consumer. The Guardian Australia is a major addition to the news ecology in this country, and you can access it entirely free of charge.

This is what makes these new entrants to the Australian media marketplace so threatening to the established providers. They take the local market seriously, at the same time as integrating that coverage with the international scene. Australians need and want both, and all credit to the Mail and Guardian for delivering it.

The US-based Gawker also delivers Australian content, also free at the point of access, as does Buzzfeed. Neither of these outlets are as invested in Oz as the Guardian and Mail, but even before the ‘Johnny Depp’s dogs must die’ frenzy, ran a lot of content relevant to the Great South Land. Their focus is on humor, satire and ‘listicles’ , and there is a huge market for that in Australia as elsewhere.

And then, of course, there is The Conversation, which produces content of a particular type, but often of more general interest to a growing market interested in authoritative expert commentary.

None of these titles can, or ever could, compete with the Australian print media. But in an environment where news consumption is evermore mobile, evermore digital, they represent a major new segment of an already competitive information marketplace.

How should the established providers respond? That is the $2 billion question – the amount of advertising revenue which has migrated from print in recent years – and if I could answer it, Rupert Murdoch himself would be knocking on my door.

What I can say, as someone who both subscribes to paid-for news sites, and enjoys the free outlets, is that it’s all about quality. Distinctiveness. Respect for the consumer. People do pay for news online, and will continue to do so, but only if they feel that they are paying for something which matters to them.

That ‘something’ includes ‘quality journalism’ in general. Most of us understand that news worth reading doesn’t spring from the ether as if by magic. It needs skill, and resources, and the employment of committed human beings who must pay their bills like everyone else. We will pay for that, many of us, because we know we should. Our democracy and quality of life require it, just as much as the taxes we pay for public services.

That particular something may be quality investigative journalism, or provocative and engaging commentary, or top notch celebrity gossip, or fabulous website functionality. But there must be, somewhere in the package, something unique in the selling proposition.

It can be done, and the winners in this digital race for survival will be those organisations which identify and invest in whatever kind of ‘quality’ their particular market segment demands. The digital era, in that sense, is not so very different from the age of analogue and newsprint.

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