Harsh, loud, and full of conflict: The chaotic reality of the Australian media landscape
Updated: May 22, 2020
Published March 14, 2020, The Spin Off
I have a strange relationship with Australian media. In some ways I’m an insider: I’ve worked in the industry for 25 years, I know people from most major companies, and I have a lot of affection for the sorts of characters I’ve come across and their belief in the mission of journalism. On the other hand, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the scene. Maybe because I never worked for Fairfax or News Corp, and I specialised in digital media, which for so many years was the poor cousin of serious reporting.
All that’s changed. While I was out taking a breather in the pure air of New Zealand media – that’s a joke for those unfamiliar with the industry – someone moved the furniture. I came back into the room after three and a half years and it’s all out of whack. There are some massive forces at work, and just like New Zealand, Australia is going to see a continuation of change that will lead to strange places.
When I first showed up in New Zealand, summoned by a CEO who disappeared before my arrival, I was amazed by how much what happened at Mediaworks was covered by other outlets. In general news, rather than niche industry titles. I was to learn that this was a feature, not a bug, of the New Zealand media scene. People are going to talk about what you do, and after a while you get used to it and you can make use of it. The same isn’t the case in Australia. There are just so many more outlets, so many more people, and people care less. With five big cities, media is less concentrated and while the industry is still pretty small it’s not as cosy as in New Zealand.
You can make an argument that that cosy New Zealand industry is over-servicing its audience: multiple video-on-demand services, two commercial TV broadcasters, scores of radio stations, two big publishers running hundreds of newspapers, apps and sites, and a big pay TV service – all for an audience smaller than the population of Sydney. This analysis is comparative, and an alternate possibility is that Australian media is underdone. Regardless of where you end up, in both countries the same basic forces are at work and they are heading the same way: in future there will be less local media money spent per head of population.
This is what is happening in Australian media now:
There are behavioural changes in audiences, enabled by new technologies, that are driving most change in the industry.
There is a move to consolidate to bigger and fewer companies in order to survive the competitive challenge resulting from the audience change.
There are serious attempts to find new ways of making money that move away from selling attention: paywalls, donation models, events.
There is an anti-platform reaction among industry and regulators. As with the rest of the world, most of that is directed at Facebook and Google.
Finally, there is a struggle between legislators and media over the freedom to report on matters of public interest.
You will notice these are very similar to what’s happening in New Zealand.
The last issue shows the biggest divergence. In Australia, the issue of the freedom to report has moved beyond academia or the subject of an enthusiastically outraged editorial. Several Australian journalists were raided by the federal police last year, in line with federal laws that criminalise obtaining information about military matters. It is one thing to criminalise releasing information, but criminalising possession of information actively targets journalists, and there appears to be no room for the public interest in these laws.
At the same time these laws make it harder to report, Australia is facing a market failure in commodity news. The recent demise of AAP, the Australian Associated Press, was dramatic proof that there is no longer any money in the “vegetables” of news reporting: local politics, police, courts, and sport stories. AAP was founded by a collection of newspapers 85 years ago in order to share costs on this commodity news. The fact that it is no longer commercially viable is significant. As a long-time user of a service that underpinned my old site, ninemsn, and is used extensively by Newshub, hearing the news was like hearing of a death. I was shocked.
Aside from the AAP bombshell, the thing I have been trying to get my head around is the absence of Fairfax, which has been bought by Nine, a media conglomerate that is now all-pervasive. People I know who left Nine and went to work at Fairfax have been sucked back into what is now a monster media company. Naturally there are multiple dynamics happening inside this company, as it digests the old Fairfax, and it promises to be a fascinating time as “old Nine” undergoes the inevitable contraction associated with declining free-to-air TV audiences, while new capabilities brought in from Fairfax come to the fore.
While I was in New Zealand, competition watchdog the ACCC concluded that Facebook and Google had “substantial market power”, a finding that could have big implications for the way that both companies operate in the Australian market. There are ongoing ACCC investigations into digital business practices, and the scrutiny extends to the way that news content appears on both platforms. While ACCC boss Rod Sims is currently directing the tech giants to listen to the concerns of the industry, it is unclear where this might lead even in theory. A clear proposition, such as the creation of a reporting fund paid for by tech companies, would be a great starting point no matter how wacky it might appear at first.
This is part of a wider struggle between the platforms and the news media, who for the most part have decided that Facebook and to a lesser extent Google are responsible for the demise of the industry. While there is no doubt these two tech companies dominate the market for generating and selling audience attention, there is something of a “weavers’ riot” mentality about the animosity – by that I refer to a doomed uprising against an irresistible technological change. Pointing at the tech companies and snarling seems beside the point: what we need to do is ensure that accurate information about recent events – that is, news – is still available.
I was commissioned me to write this piece as a look at Australian media with fresh eyes, and I am bound to mention a difference in what you might call editorial aesthetic. There is a harsh forthrightness in Australian media that I am only aware of after my years in New Zealand. Like so much about the country, the volume is turned up: in the colour grading, the story choice, the voices of presenters and radio announcers, the acceptable level of conflict. You don’t have to go looking too deep into culture or psychology for the reasons behind the intensity. Here around me in my old home home south of Sydney the natural world is full volume, all the time. The cockatoos screech, the sun burns, the rain comes down hard for days on end. It’s beautiful, but it’s a long way from Mount Eden.