Paywalls go up – Staff numbers go down: a tipping point for Australian news media?

Ownership concentration dominates Australia’s Mass Media

The past 12 months have been a pivotal time for Australia’s mainstream news media. Having seen off controversial regulatory reforms that would have relaxed some cross-ownership controls (but also introduced more onerous oversight of press standards), harsh business truths and painful economic reality have returned, in the form of cost-cutting, new digital subscription models, and foreign competition.

The failed regulatory reforms generated public, industry and political debate around ownership concentration and the lack of media diversity; cross-ownership and the impact of media convergence; the need for revised rules around mergers and acquisitions; and calls for more control over media standards.

What does Australia’s Fourth Estate currently look like?

There are two daily national newspapers, and 10 daily capital city newspapers; all but one of these 12 titles are owned by just two companies: News Limited, and Fairfax Media. Only Sydney and Melbourne have more than one daily local newspaper. Together, News and Fairfax account for about 88% of print media. Both companies have significant interests in broadcast media. The sole “independent” daily newspaper is owned by Seven West Media, itself a major TV broadcaster. As further evidence of Australia’s concentrated content ownership, Seven West has a joint digital venture with Yahoo!, while its rival network broadcaster, Nine Entertainment has a similar joint venture with Microsoft. Prominent in the ownership mix are the names of Rupert Murdoch (News Limited), James Packer (Consolidated Press Holdings) and Kerry Stokes (Seven West Media) – each of whose companies have various interests in Australian pay TV. Meanwhile mining magnate and Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart has been buying into both Fairfax (along with John Singleton, a key figure in Australia’s advertising and radio industries) and Network Ten (along with James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch).

Another layer of complex media cross-ownership comes in the form of Australia’s regional TV networks. The main regional networks (WIN, Southern Cross and Prime) each have content affiliation agreements with one or other of the three metropolitan networks (Seven, Nine and Ten), and each have separate interests in radio. Just to confuse things even further, the owner of WIN, Bruce Gordon is a major shareholder in Network Ten, and in the past week it has been reported that he is open to merging WIN with either Nine or Ten. Not only would such a merger lead to further concentration (subject to regulatory approval), it would also see a re-alignment of the metropolitan and regional content agreements; and given past criticism of of reduced local and regional TV news content (and the closure or consolidation of local TV news rooms), I would imagine that without suitable regulatory provisions, local news content will be even further reduced.

What are the news media doing in response to current market challenges?

First, both News and Fairfax have announced staff cuts in an effort to offset declining circulation and advertising revenues from their print editions. The overall results have seen: departures by high-profile journalists; centralized news-gathering operations; outsourced sub-editing; re-alignment of print and on-line assets; and the closure of some local and regional titles. Most recently, Australian Associated Press (AAP) announced that newswire staff numbers are being reduced by 10%. AAP (whose largest shareholders are News and Fairfax) is a major provider of news content and sub-editing services to the mainstream media. The staff reductions among in-house editors and journalists have raised concerns about quality and diversity in Australia’s highly concentrated news media. Partly in response to this perceived decline in editorial standards, The Conversation (a not-for-profit venture, backed by a consortium of universities) was launched in 2011 as a platform for in-depth, objective and authoritative news analysis and commentary.

Second, both News and Fairfax are in the process of building subscription paywalls around their digital content. Fairfax has operated a paywall around its business title, the  Financial Review, for several years; but like News it is introducing freemium models for broader on-line news content. In their latest investor briefings, News and Fairfax have outlined a renewed strategic focus on digital platforms, although neither have given definitive timelines for sun-setting their print editions. Personally, I am somewhat confused by the different subscription models on offer (print, on-line and tablet editions) and what I can access as a subscriber to one or other platform (and as a domestic or overseas reader).

Third, UK publisher Guardian News and Media has launched an Australian edition of its online newspaper. Free to readers, the site is funded by local advertising, and supported by a combined UK/Australia editorial, production and commercial team. As with News and Fairfax, I’m confused by the commercial model for digital content – is there a dedicated Australian subscription within the tablet edition? – and I doubt whether the Guardian Australia can compete effectively with domestic news coverage. The Guardian claims that Australia is one of its largest markets outside the UK, but I wonder if that readership mostly comprises British backpackers wanting to check the latest results from the English Premier League… The Guardian Australia, along with The Conversation has benefited from the staff downsizing at News and Fairfax to co-opt some leading journalists and editors to its cause. Meanwhile, The Conversation has launched a beta site for the UK.

And the rest?

Elsewhere, News, Fairfax and other smaller publishers are building specialist digital content, particularly in business, finance, politics, property, motoring, careers and sport. Most of these assets are funded by advertising and sponsorship, or underwritten by cross-media promotion. A number of these outlets appear to source their content from unpaid bloggers and commentators, as a way of offering free marketing and audience exposure to their writers.

Despite the latest failed attempts at regulatory reform, I expect to see plenty of activity within Australia’s news media (once we get past the forthcoming federal election), fuelled by renewed debates over ownership concentration; the realignment of cross-media interests (especially among Australia’s media barons and billionaires); and the re-positioning of print vs online vs mobile.

Disclosure: the author does not hold a financial interest in, or have a commercial arrangement with any of the publishers mentioned in this article..

Social Networks – All the News You Can Eat

The New York Times‘ motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was modified to “All the News That’s Fit to Click” when the newspaper went on-line. But based on the heated competition for on-line readership, as we move from dedicated news platforms to internet  megastores, and as news content pricing and business models are savaged by social media, the rallying cry is more like “All the News You Can Eat”.

It’s clear that social network sites are stepping up their efforts to attract more readers for on-line news content, if recent events are anything to go by:

1. Google rethinks its strategy for the Reader application, which will no doubt resurface in a new form within Google+.

2. Facebook announces changes to its news feed as it aims to create a highly personalized newspaper experience.

3. Twitter plans to introduce better contextual analysis around trending stories.

4. Yahoo! makes a splash with its purchase of Summly – a news aggregation app which has now been shut down prior to integration within the Yahoo! platform.

5. Even LinkedIn has been getting in on the act with its LinkedIn Today content aggregation tool.

Defining what constitutes news is no longer determined by the traditional business models for print and broadcast media. “Old-school” factual reporting (the “who, what, where, when and how”) combined with informed opinion and analysis (the “why”) is now something of a dying format. In its voracious appetite for content, social media is willing to slap the label “news” on anything that moves. So, one person’s news is another person’s gossip, trivia, PR, party political spin, advertorial or propaganda. All very post-modern and structuralist – the news is whatever you make it.

In response, established newspaper media are building pay walls around their on-line product, to offset the decline in print sales and classified advertising, even though most social media sites are offering “news” for free. This point is significant, because not only does this make it harder for newspapers to charge for content, the proliferation of free metro newspapers in many cities means that paying for a newspaper is something of an anathema to most people. Why on earth would they pay for on-line news content?

While it is understandable that newspapers want to charge for their content, they would be seriously misguided if they continue to see the content alone as the product. Of course, a reliable news service is expensive to produce, but the cost to the consumer should also be about quality, access and convenience. What we are paying for is the newspaper’s role as author, editor, curator, archivist, publisher, aggregator and distributor. In some cases, newspapers are recognized as a document of record – but we are probably some way off granting social media sites the same status.

What are the likely outcomes from this competition for news readership?

Initially, the traditional news media will continue to suffer declining print circulation, and will be challenged to make pay walls work. Stronger news brands with even deeper pockets will probably survive, but  they will need to think about upgrading their content syndication business models to remain relevant within an on-line and social media environment. There will be more apps and tools for personalized news aggregation, but only if these platforms can access or license enough content to be viable, and only if they can monetize the offering to be financially sustainable.

The great irony is that few of us want to rely on a single news source, but we want the convenience of getting all our news in one place.

My guess is that the we’ll see social media sites emerge as “news supermarkets”. They will source content from various suppliers, with whom they will engage in trading terms akin to practices commonly seen in the grocery industry: charging for shelf space and product placement, seeking bulk discounts, and adopting strict supply chain agreements. There will even be “own brand” and “house brand” content, plus a range of specialist and localized products to cater for individual tastes.

Alternatively, “news department stores” might emerge, hosted by a few of the major news brands, where they provide a marketplace for third-party content they have carefully selected and curated, along with a core range of content produced by their talented pool of in-house writers and journalists. Or, like IKEA and some up-scale department stores, the products will be store-branded, but designed by and commissioned from their business partners.

In both cases, these news department stores and news supermarkets could be the anchor tenants in large online news malls, where specialist and independent content providers (including bloggers) can set up shop to attract passing readers.

On a final note, the recent media legislation in the United Kingdom, and the attempted media reforms in Australia, have renewed debate around news regulation: who is to be regulated, what is to be regulated (especially on-line), and by whom will they be regulated? While much of this debate is concerned with news media standards and supervision, as well as issues of ownership and control, there is also a need to consider the impact that internet technology and on-line business models are having on the development, dissemination and consumption of news.

What’s in a business model???

Interesting speculation in the business media this week about whether Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters are in a potential bidding war for the Financial Times (which is not actually for sale?).

The New York Mayor seems to love the product, but hates the business model. Besides, Bloomberg is still playing around with Business Week.

For Lord Thomson of Fleet (the last remaining Press Baron?) it’s rather like deja vu – didn’t The Thomson Corporation (as was) offload all their newspapers in the ’90’s because print was so last century?

The FT was one of the first newspapers to construct a paywall around its content, and has created customer traction for a range of subscription, pay-as-you go and “freemium” sales models. It also remains a strong brand for global business news, and has a solid presence in Asia. But some commentators suggest that the pink’un is losing money, despite its on-line success, because of declining revenues from print advertising.

The main challenge for traditional business newspapers these days is not so much print vs digital (the FT has sort of got that worked out, and Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters are two of the largest online publishers for financial information). The real challenge is identifying and engaging the audience – who reads a business newspaper these days, and why, when there are so many on-line alternatives?

Despite current market challenges, Fairfax Media has always had a clear sense of its audience profile for the Australian Financial Review. As I understand it, the typical AFR reader is a C-Suite executive (current, former or aspirant), interested in what’s going on in the world and the impact of global events on their personal, corporate or sovereign wealth. In fact, unlike some other newspapers, there are no corporate or institutional customers of the AFR – all subscribers have to be individual readers, potentially making it easier to establish long-term relationships that survive career moves or other changes in personal circumstances.

However, the main difficulties for Fairfax are:

the cost of quality journalism and content in the face of declining revenues (hence the recent syndication deal with the FT in response to The Australian’s access to content from the Wall Street Journal?);

increased competition from numerous on-line entrants (most of which are free, the latest being Leading Company); and

the blurred boundary between the “personal” and the “professional” audience for informed news and commentary on a broad range of inter-connected topics – finance, politics, economics, business, technology, culture, sustainability, leadership….

All of which makes it rather difficult to see why anyone might want to acquire a newspaper business these days, unless for reasons of vanity – Baron Bloomberg of Southwark Bridge?