Image for Comment: Is Bigger Media really a good option for Tasmania’s democracy?

Most people in Tasmania could be forgiven for not realising that the local media landscape may be about to go through a dramatic shake-up if the Senate bows to pressure from the big private media companies and allows much greater media consolidation.

While News Corporation Australia – which publishes the Mercury – and Fairfax Media – which publishes the Examiner and the Advocate – have been leading proponents of the changes, the news reports they have published on the issue have all but ignored the implications of the changes for Tasmanians.

Fairfax Media’s Examiner contributions to public debate on the topic in 2016 have hardly been subtle: “Local content at risk without reform: media bosses,” screamed one headline. “Two out of three rule needs reviewing, says ACCC boss Rod Sims,” “Canberra 10 years behind on media, says Fairfax’s Greg Hywood,” and “WIN-Nine streaming decision puts spotlight on old-world media rules,” yelled others.

The Mercury, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation Australia, on the other hand has been somewhat more restrained. While its mainland stablemates routinely package agenda-driven articles up as news, the Mercury – to its credit – has been a little more sensitive to the more progressive bent of its southern audience.
“Media ownership reforms pass lower house,” was the rather straight headline from late November. “Media reforms all but off the 2016 table,” was another rather forlorn headline. “Labor only backing half media reforms,” was about as aggressive as it got down at the Mercury.

Perhaps the contrast between the two reflects the different audiences or perhaps Fairfax Media’s desperation for a legal change that will give it the option to break free from some of the loss-making newspaper mastheads dragging the company down.

Ultimately though, the difference between the ranty headlines in the Examiner and the more demure Mercury, was not that much when it came to the content of the articles.

Indeed, the articles cited above perfectly illustrate a fundamental part of the problem of media centralisation. All of the articles from the Examiner were first published in the Sydney Morning Herald and were either single-source articles or were heavily skewed to reflect the agenda of the major media companies and the Turnbull Government. Dissenting voices were either non-existent in the articles or relegated to a bare passing mention.

The articles in the Mercury were only marginally better, comprising short AAP reports and in one case a report on a Sky News interview with the Labor’s Party’s communications spokeswoman, Michelle Rowland, expressing concerns about the proposed axing of the ‘2 out of 3’ rule. All these reports in the Mercury though were less than 140 words each. Short, shallow reports provide no space for addressing in any detail the implications of what is proposed.

Neither publication flagged to the readers in the articles they published in 2016 what the likely consequences are for Tasmanians of axing of the reach rule and the ‘2 out of 3’ rule, which both their parent companies are lobbying for and the Turnbull Government is backing.

How the media ownership rules are applied in local media markets is not easy to understand. However, the bulk of the current debate boils down to whether media companies should be limited to owning two out of newspapers, radio and television outlets in a local radio licence area or not.

It is possible – even likely – the legal change both Fairfax Media and News Corporation Australia are demanding could lead to both the Examiner  and the Advocate  being sold.

Nor has the Mercury flagged to readers that its demand – not yet acceded to by the Turnbull Government – that the 5/4 rule and other restrictions on greater media concentration News Corporation want scrapped, could open the doors for even greater media concentration. One possibility is that Murdoch’s News Corporation Australia could end up owning all the major newspapers in Tasmania if Fairfax was required to offload them as a result of a merger with Nine and Southern Cross Austereo.

What Tasmanians would benefit from in the debate over greater media deregulation are stories that address the local implications. Instead, what was served up were stories republished from mainland outlets which totally ignored any Tasmanian context at all.

It is one of the great ironies that the very Tasmanian mastheads threatened by digital disruption but with huge publishing capability have done such a poor job in reporting to their own readers about both the significant challenges they face and the implications of the measures their parent companies are lobbying for.

Better times ahead for spin doctors?

The motivation of the major media companies in demanding changes to allow greater media concentration is simple: money.

On current trends Fairfax Media and News Corporation Australia’s Tasmanian newspapers are facing grim financial futures. (See “Can Spiderman save the Mercury from oblivion?” and “The growing financial crisis in Tasmania’s newspaper industry” for more details.)

The Chief Executive Officer of Fairfax Media, Greg Hywood, was asked at a recent Senate committee hearing into the proposed changes about a comment he made that the current laws restricted the ability of the companies to “monetise” journalists’ work across multiple platforms:

CHAIR: I do not want to overly simplify it, but an example might be that, if you employ a journalist, they can do a story which might then go on TV, radio and also be written up for the paper.

Mr Hywood : Absolutely.

CHAIR: So you can have one journalist that manages to cost-effectively cover all three markets.

Mr Hywood : Exactly.

For the publishers it is cheaper to have one person produce a story for use across three platforms than having two or three doing the same job, even if across different companies. It is a formula which might boost the profitability of the media companies in the short-term, but what does it mean for Tasmanian citizens?

Aside from the obvious downside of ever thinner ranks of journalists, Hywood’s comment signals that with consolidation will come greater homogeneity of the news across all the company’s news platforms.

The risk is that greater media concentration will not lead to better quality journalism. If anything, Tasmanian stories risk being downgraded, especially for topic areas which in-house website data indicates are not widely read or shared. Increasingly editors are under pressure to focus on stories which garner the most traffic.

At the recent Storyology conference on digital journalism organised by the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance, which represents journalists, Judith Whelan, the then editor of the Sydney Morning Herald stated stories which didn’t get over a thousand views would be viewed unfavourably when it came to reviewing the performance of both the section editor and journalists.
In Tasmania the story performance threshold may be lower but the pressure is similar.

The demise of newspaper journalism has two other big knock-on effects.

The first is that the retreat of newspapers has a big impact on the entire local news ecosystem. Traditionally, the daily news agenda was set by newspapers with morning radio – and to a lesser extent television news – following the lead of print. Indeed, the business model of radio, television and many digital outlets has been to cut costs to the minimum and leave the heavy lifting to newspapers.  As newspapers publish less quality local stories other media outlets find themselves being dragged down too without the capacity to invest in more of their own original journalism.

Another effect is that the demise of newspapers emboldens those who already wield significant influence behind the scenes – government spin doctors, lobbyists, political donors and powerful lobby groups – to believe that they can get away with far more with little risk of being publicly exposed. One Tasmanian spin doctor recently confided that it was easy to “run rings around the increasingly junior reporters … they just don’t stand a chance.”

The hollowing out of Tasmanian newspapers has potentially profound implications for the quality of our democracy. Big Media’s preferred solution of increased consolidation will in all likelihood serve only to make Tasmania’s fourth estate even feebler than it already is.

*Bob Burton is a Hobart-based Contributing Editor of Tasmanian Times. His earlier articles on Tasmanian Times are here.

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