Over the last 20 years, Australian media has had to deal with the realities of digitisation and the rise of social media. These closely related events have undermined the advertising business model that most media had depended on, and the effect of that has been devastating for journalism.
But the digital revolution has had another impact on the media, too. Once, the mainstream media was the only place most of us could find out the sort of information that we broadly call ‘news’ – everything from what was happening internationally to the performance of our local football team.
That virtual monopoly no longer exists.
Journalists are no longer the only game in town, and their authority is constantly challenged by alternative sources of (often expert) information, and by an audience no longer consigned to passive readership.
We have entered a period which, in my book, The Future of Everything, I call ‘fusion media’, a situation in which new media platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter coexist with the old media of television, radio and newspapers.
This new space brings together amateurs and professionals in a way that wasn’t previously possible and creates new and different relationships of power between the media and its audience and, most importantly, between the media and politics.
Even before digitisation, Australia had just about the most concentrated media ownership in the democratic world, with News Corp controlling a massive slice of our print media (around 70 per cent).
But since digitisation and the weakening of traditional media outlets we have seen even greater consolidation. Most recently Fairfax was consumed whole by the Nine Entertainment Company, an organisation that also owns the Macquarie radio network and Pedestrian and basically operates as a media investment fund.
In a small market like Australia, this sort of ownership model tends, almost inevitably, towards conservative news coverage and we are increasingly seeing this happen with Fairfax, once a news organisation that you could rely on to be relatively centrist in its reporting.
The fusion media phenomenon also encourages media companies to deliver niche news offerings: it’s easier and more profitable to target and build a niche audience that is animated by a handful of issues, than it is to attract a smaller percentage of a general audience.
That’s why many News Corp mastheads, particularly The Australian, have positioned themselves as unabashedly – and often laughably – right wing, eschewing any attempt to appeal to a broader audience.
It’s not all bad, of course. The entry of The Guardian into the Australian market in 2013 provided some much-needed diversity. Its editorial position is broadly progressive, providing singular coverage of topics such as climate change, asylum seekers, and domestic violence issues.
Australia is also home to The Conversation, one of the most innovative and successful media start-ups of the last 20 years anywhere in the world. Funded by a combination of government grants and contributions from universities and readers, it draws on the expertise of university academics who work with journalists to produce in-depth content.
But the ABC, under constant threat of revenue cuts by successive conservative governments, now tends to offer up bland, populist offerings like Q&A, and remains wedded to outdated techniques of ‘balance’ and ‘gotcha’ (see 7.30) that are simply untenable in the fusion environment.
Overall, it’s hard to be satisfied with Australia’s news media. There are some undeniable bright spots, such as the Fairfax investigative unit and the ABC’s Four Corners which continue, by and large, to hold the powerful to account.
Yet in general, Australia’s media is tepid and unadventurous, if not outright conservative or right wing.
What is needed is a complete rethink, not just of the business model, but of the basic craft of interviewing and reporting, as well as a willingness to make journalism more transparent to an audience increasingly being asked to directly fund their work via subscriptions and memberships.
What does all of this mean for Australian democracy? Well, if a functioning democracy requires a diverse and fearless media, and we no longer have a diverse and fearless media…
Do the math.
Tim Dunlop is an author, speaker and analyst specialising in media, politics and the future of work. He’s the author of three books, including Why the Future is Workless and The Future of Everything. You can follow him on Twitter and support his work on Patreon.