How is Australian Journalism operating today?

This would seem to be a simple enough question with a simple enough answer, but the current journalism landscape in Australia, as we have found, is more complex, and more dense, than it appears on the surface.

It is no great secret of course, that the commercial news sector in Australia is largely owned and operated by two major players, Fairfax and News Limited. Australian media ownership is among the most concentrated in the world. Fairfax operates major Australian publications including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Canberra  Times, and the Australian Financial Review. News Limited’s titles include The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, The Herald Sun, and The Mercury. Both companies also control news websites that operate alongside their print publications, and some websites that even run independently, as ‘online-only’ news (for example, Fairfax’s brisbanetimes.com.au). Together, these two corporations dominate the news market. For many years they operated on the traditional journalism model; that is, professionally trained journalists writing the stories, professional news organisations publishing them, with reader input and opinions coming from ‘Letters to the editor’, or in the case of broadcast media, ‘phone-ins’ to radio shows. When newspapers made the shift and began publishing their content online as well as in print, reader input came in a similar fashion, with leaving comments on stories or opinion pieces becoming the digital equivalent to a ‘letter to the editor’. The online world however, opened up brand new opportunities for accessing, and publishing news. As Karthika Muthukumaraswamy notes,

No longer reliant on journalists to function as their representatives, people chime in with their own voices, whether on an online forum, a blog, or the websites of newspapers. (2010)

Muthukumaraswamy is quite optimistic in her article about the what she refers to as crowd-sourced or citizen journalism, and believes that while initially wary, news organisations are embracing a more open model of journalism. However, she does not refer specifically to the Australian journalism landscape and it appears that here, there is far less to be optimistic about.

Print circulation has been steadily dropping. This is because, quite obviously, readers are increasingly accessing their news online. Advertisers are also distancing themselves from newspapers, in line with the drop in revenue. Some newspapers have even shut down their print editions and are only available online (which is cheaper to produce, although whether they make up the same revenue of print newspapers is another matter). It is clear that News Limited and Fairfax are increasingly looking to subsidise the industry online. Fairfax, for example, is cutting down on unprofitable print circulation, printing less copies of newspapers such as The Age. However, even though print circulation may be dropping,  overall readership has increased, with a 7% rise in readers of The Age and theage.com.au as reported by thebrisbanetimes.com.auIt is clear that, as best they can, Fairfax and News Limited intend to use the online market to their full advantage. Indeed, digital revenue is forecast to rise 11% of what it was in 2012, and Australian newspapers generally perform much better than other global markets in terms of revenue (Newspaper Works, 2011 report). Revenue and readership is not the main issue here. With the rise of the digital age, and online journalism, the question that remains is ‘Is the Australian journalistic landscape moving towards a more open environment?’ If we take the idea of ‘Open Journalism’ as a philosophy, is this gap between the more traditional journalists and the bloggers being bridged? Are we moving towards a more dialectical, collaborative approach?

Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Limited, in a piece written in 2009 expressed his views on the direction that online journalism was taking very emphatically.

Quality content is not free. In the future, good journalism will depend on the ability of a news organization to attract customers by providing news and information they are willing to pay for.

In outlining his vision for a new business model, it is Murdoch’s idea to have people pay to subscribe to news online, a model which has begun to take effect very recently, with The Australian beginning to implement a subscription based service (though at the time of writing this, it is still possible to freely access most articles, although for ‘exclusive’ content, you must sign up. A free, 28 day trial is currently on offer). There is nothing new, or open, about the model that Murdoch is here proposing. It is his view that bloggers and citizens who take it upon themselves to write about news or give their own views are merely re-writing the content that his corporations are putting out. He even goes so far as to refer to it as stealing.

Taking a step back for a minute, let’s look at what ‘open journalism’ entails, as we have defined it. It is an ecosystem – a form of organisation, in which different forms of journalism (be they professional or citizen) are curated and shared. It is a philosophy, an environment that aims to bridge the gap between the journalists and the bloggers and the citizen journalists. Whereas a traditional news article/publication is closed, fixed or static, a publication that adheres to the open philosophy is just that – open. It is never ‘finished’, as it is commented upon, transformed, and a process that is continually built upon. There is dialogue between the journalists and the bloggers. Establishing this, are Australian news publications following this open philosophy?

The short answer is no. Mr. Murdoch has made it very clear the attitude that his vision for News. Limited is to keep the role of the journalist, and the role of the ‘reader’ as close to what it has been as possible. The introduction of pay walls around online news websites is not only another source of revenue to supplement online advertising, but another example of news corporations attempt to claim the news as their own content – to stop bloggers ‘stealing’ it, or re-appropriating it. According to data journalist, Lisa Cornish (2012),

…we definitely come from a more closed society that thinks ‘This is our information, we’re holding on to it’, which is completely different in Europe and America. This may be impacting the journalism aspect as well.

Unfortunately, evidence points to this idea that a lot of journalists and news organisations today have this very attitude. Moving news online doesn’t necessarily guarantee a more open model of journalism.  Indeed, Alan Knight (2007) summarised Fairfax’s strategy in the face of the rise of online journalism as this:

Fairfax Media had engaged on a three pronged strategy; defend and grow its existing newspapers and magazines, aggressively expand its online portfolio, and build a digital media company using broadband as a driver for growth. (p. 4)

Part of this strategy seems to have been not to try and connect with the bloggers or the citizen journalists. According to Knight, they are seen as ‘amateurs’, and the major extent of the interactions with them comes primarily from comments on left on published stories, or the opportunity to ‘suggest’ a story available on most news websites. The continuing flow of dialogue that is so often craved is simply not there.

This isn’t to say that journalism in Australia is completely closed off, but it is certainly moving forward a lot slower than we would like it to be. Data Journalism is emerging as a launching pad for a more dialectical approach to journalism. The whole concept of data journalism is that the story itself comes from the data and an analysis of the data – but the information itself is on display, and open for the readers to interpret in the way they wish. The journalists interpretation of it is just one possible interpretation of many. It is, unfortunately, still a very young development here in Australia compared to overseas. One news service that has begun to incorporate this form of journalism is the ABC. The ABC, a government funded organisation, seems to be embracing the digital age and the concept of a more open approach to journalism than it’s commercial news counterparts. With sites such as ABC Open, ABC Pool, and the Drum, the ABC are facilitating discussion and dialogue around it’s news, and allowing the consumers (who are increasingly becoming producers) to contribute and interact, to create their own stories. Admittedly, ABC Open in particular is more about creating stories that are specific and of interest to local rural communities, rather than hard-hitting political stories that seem to be the focus of the issues of trust and authority that plague journalism today. The idea and the method, however, are still valid and perhaps a model to consider.

Returning once more, and finally, to Knight:

The Internet overwhelmed journalists’ monopolies on international news distribution. It challenges their presumptions to the truth. It may replace professional reporters with citizen journalists and traditional editors with an interactive online community.

An open model of journalism is not necessarily about replacing journalists completely, but about redefining their role and the way journalism operates in an online space. Change in the landscape of Australian Journalism however, is happening very slowly, and certainly not fast enough to dispel the growing mistrust of our major media corporations.

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Is open journalism commercially viable?

There are one important question that remains unanswered in our research: is open journalism commercially viable?

As readers, advertisers, and the revenue that they bring leave newspapers for the internet, many news outlets are cutting back on reporters. The reporters that remain are constantly being asked to do more with less. With less reporters on the ground, and less money flowing into news rooms, what can be done to ensure that quality reporting is being produced. This is one of the great problems facing journalism today and, along with the issues of trust and authority that I have already mentioned, is what leads us to discussing new models for journalism.

In conceptualising a new model for journalism, the new model needs to satisfactorily address these two problems: does the new model of journalism solve the fading public trust in journalism and is it financial viable?

Our research is concerned with open journalism; so is open journalism as we have identified it commercially viable?

In 2009 Media Watch discussed News Limited’s plan to build a “paywall” for their online content, which only now in 2012 is being implemented in Australia. Rupert Murdoch’s view was that quality journalism costs money to produces and that consumers who wanted access to quality journalism would need to pay. Murdoch also leaves little doubt about his views on bloggers and news aggregation services:

The Philistine phase of the digital age is almost over. The aggregators and the plagiarists will soon have to pay a price for the co-opting of our content.

In Murdoch’s view bloggers are not content creators on a equal footing as journalists, they are plagiarists who copy and comment on stories that “real” journalists uncover. This signifies a broader adversarial relationship between bloggers and journalists that, I believe, runs right though Murdoch’s newspapers. The relationship between bloggers and journalists warrants a post of its own, but Mark Scott, Managing Director of the ABC noted:

It strikes me as a classic play of old empire, of empire in decline. Believing that because you once controlled the world you can continue to do so, because you once set the rules, you can do so again.

I think Scott has identified one of the major problems that newspapers face in attempting to build a paywall around their content; news organisation (or journalists) no longer have control over the dissemination of information, and they are never getting it back. I don’t think there was any way that they would have been able to hold on to control in this environment. In a follow up interview with Jonathan Holmes, Scott goes on to say:

the reality of the circumstance that we all find ourselves in as media organisations: the audience has the power now. And in a sense you have to engage with those audiences on the audiences’ terms. Now for 15 years people have got their content online free of charge. You have younger people who have never paid for anything online. And you can’t just say snap your fingers and expect that they will pay – particularly if there’s going to be so much content out there that is available free of charge.

If news is free elsewhere, what would motivate a user to pay for it from a news organisation, especially when the research tells us that they don’t trust news organisations? If news and information is being provided for free is there any model for news that can be commercially viable? James Murdoch argues that the biggest threat for comercial news is state sponsored news from organisations such as the ABC in Australia and the BBC in the UK. Public broadcasters are increasingly operating in the same space as comercial outlets, but I think James Murdoch is underselling the complexity of the online environment and placing undue blame for his company’s commercial worries at the feet of publicly funded news.

If news and information can be shared for free on the internet, do we even need professional journalists? Can citizen journalism adequately inform the public without professional journalism on the scale that we have come to expect? This may seem a silly question, but unless an model that makes news profitable can be found, the answers to that question may be more than a mere hypothetical. If we are going to look at a new model of journalism, I believe that we need to first aim for self sufficiency: that is, it can pay for itself and survive in the current marketplace. Public broadcasters have an obligation to be open with their audience and transparent in the way that they produce their news. In Australia the ABC is making great strides to leading the way in audience engagement with projects such as The Drum, ABC Open and Pool. (As an aside here, it is worth nothing that since the real innovation in this space is coming from public broadcasters, we should challenge the generally accepted economic orthodoxy that competition leads to greater innovation and efficiency, but I digress). It is generally accepted that more diversity in the media space will lead to greater outcomes in terms of democratic representation and public discourse; but what constitutes diversity of media voices? Is it multiple commercial news organisations, or would one publicly funded news organisation that facilitates a platform open to many individual voices fulfil the requirement for a diversity of voices? Can comercial open platforms be profitable?

The Guardian, who are moving towards adopting a form of open journalism, are facing commercial troubles of their own. Guardian Media Group (GMG) Chair, Dame Amelia Fawcett, wrote in the 2010/11 Annual Report that GMG relied on revenue that was coming from outside of the core news media assets. Fawcett is optimistic about The Guardian’s prospects, while realistic about the challenges that face them.

The Guardian – like other parts of GMG – has demonstrated great ingenuity and vision in adapting to the digital age and attracting a new, global readership. Its current initiative to develop its US operation, building on an already sizeable audience in the States, is a prime example of this. However, digital revenues, while growing steadily, do not fully offset declining print revenues. This is the challenge facing GNM and news organisations across the world.

CEO of operations, Andrew Miller, wrote in the anual report of the “aim of ensuring the Guardian’s long-term economic sustainability,” and that “During the year under review, GMG continued to provide GNM with a stable financial foundation, allowing the Guardian and Observer to focus on producing outstanding journalism” suggesting that the financial sustainability of GNM’s news media asests are still in doubt, even if there is much optimism and pride in the quality of the journalism that is being produced.

Chair of the Scott Trust, owners of GNM, Dame Liz Forgan, reiterates the problems facing The Guardian and their new open media model.

Along with every other media organisation we face enormous challenges in the coming years as advertising and readers move ever faster from print on paper to the web, resulting in the destabilisation of traditional business models. In the new war of the worlds between open and closed information systems, the Guardian has championed the former with passion. Open is in our DNA, in our liberalism, in our journalism and in our relationship with readers. Our model therefore conforms in a profound sense with our values and our culture. But the challenge to find new sources of revenue in new markets across the world is a tough one to which the whole Company is dedicated.

Of course, there is a large part of The Guardian’s operation that is based on traditional journalistic models; a large part of The Guardian’s income comes from print and subscriptions. How they will monetize open journalism in the online environment will be a huge litmus test for open journalism.

If open journalism is a method of organising, engaging and aggregating the knowledge and reporting that exists in online communities, the cost of producing content must be lower than it was before, and this will work in favour of open journalism. Identifying whether open journalism can be profitable is still difficult and will remain an open question for quite some time. We’re not even sure what open journalism is; our own definition is still quite ambiguous.

But I would love to hear you reaction to this question on the comments.

Moving online – not necessarily ‘open’….

Katie recently wrote a post, looking at defining open journalism based on the principles developed by The Guardian – which includes the encouragement of participation, being transparent and open to challenge, and facilitating the formation of communities around joint interests. Whether Fairfax and News Limited, Australia’s two major news providers, are moving to follow this model of journalism is another matter.

In Fairfax’s 2011 Annual Report, Fairfax outlines their position on a number of issues facing news journalism in Australia in the current climate. On working with communities, the company has to say:

The Company operates in partnership with a diverse range of charities and not-for-profit organisations to create shared value. These relationships exist both nationally and within the hundreds of local communities in which the Company operates. The satisfaction of simultaneously delivering corporate and social value through hard work is important to the company’s employees.

This is only a small excerpt, but in the report, available on the Fairfax website, there is no mention of the kind of community formation encouraged and facilitated by the Guardian. Working in partnership with charities and non-profit organisations will always be an admirable goal; one that Fairfax has accomplished (sponsoring the City2Surf fun run, raising millions for charities took pride of place in the report). In terms of forming communities of joint interest however, it seems that it only goes so far as that newspapers, and news websites, publish news in relation to a specific geographical locale. For instance, The Age is specific to Melbourne, and The Sydney Morning Herald is specific to Sydney. Fairfax also retains a strong regional presence, publishing several weekly papers for regions across Australia.

Fairfax do make mention of a model that does address much of what we would consider to be open journalism:

It is open to the web and is part of it. It links to, and collaborates with, other material (including services) on the web

Fairfax and News Limited of course, publish their news online, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a more open model of journalism. Indeed, it seems that rather than adopting a new model, these media companies are simply shifting all their content from one platform to another. Indeed, some online newspapers, such as The Australian are asking the user to pay for a subscription online (though the Australian currently offers a 28 day free trial and it is still possible to access some articles for free). These online papers, like their print counterparts, are also specific to a certain locale. In his article, ‘ Democracy, participation and convergent media; Case studies in contemporary online news journalism in Australia’, Terry Flew examines the case of News Limited’s Courier Mail vs. Fairfax’s online only newspaperbrisbanetimes.com.auFairfax launched the online only site in order to compete with the Courier, as both were aiming to cover the south-east Queensland market.

In both the of the sites ‘About Us’ sections, they claim to be dedicated to local news, affecting and of interest to Queenslanders of the region. They both claim to be intent on supplying quality journalism. The Courier even claims to include ‘controversial bloggers’ when reporting the latest breaking news around the nation (although they are not specific about what constitutes a ‘controversial’ blogger).

While at first successful, the brisbanetimes.com.au has lost market share to the Courier Mail over time. Flew identifies the reason for this as one of the problems facing online only newspapers in the current climate – extra resources must be invested into news production in order to build up a long term relationship with potential readers, in order to compete with counterparts that are both print and online. Despite the fact that the nearly all newspapers are moving into an online environment, print circulation still continues, and there seems to be greater opportunity for that relationship to be established. However, Flew also identifies an interesting alternative:

An alternative path would be for sites such as brisbanetimes.com.au to make more use of user-created content and citizen journalism to enable it to develop a lower-cost strategy for embedding ‘hyperlocal’ content into its news site than is the case for a more established competitor, which has a considerably larger staff of paid journalists.

This would seem to be talking about the same kind of journalistic model purported by The Guardian – a model that works with the community, with bloggers and citizen journalists. A model that curates and collects rather than simply uses their own journalists. The problem seems to be, in the Australian journalism landscape, is finding a model that is financially viable, or perhaps, an inability to let go of the old business models.

Interestingly, and as a final note, the Courier Mail has a link down the bottom of their homepage that simply says ‘Send Stories’. Once a user follows the link however, they are taken to this page, asking for story tips rather than pre-written articles.

Print circulation is still dropping…

…and this isn’t all that surprising. With internet access cheaper and easier than ever before, and the public can access the same articles that they would read in the newspaper, online. As Crikey reported, in 2011:

The improvement for some titles (The Australian and The Daily Telegraph, Sunday to Saturday) will provide little other than temporary relief as restructuring costs and falling advertising revenues continue. News Corp revealed this week in its second quarter results that it took a $US36 million restructuring charge against its Australian papers (and some in Britain).

There are a lot of statistics and percentages to report, but what it boils down to is simply this – newspapers are losing money (Fairfax and News Limited alike). Less comes in from advertisers, and less people are buying newspapers, with just over a ten percent fall between 2007 and 2011.

Another Crikey article reported in November of last year that two daily newspapers, the Tweed Daily News and The Coffs Coast Advocate were to have their paid editions closed (the free editions, free on Saturday for the Tweed and Wednesday and Saturday for Coffs Coast, were to be continued). Further evidence to the fact that newspapers are fast losing their cost-effectiveness.

While it remains unclear as to whether the printed newspaper will survive (and if so, for how long?) it seems clear that the trend is, and has been for a very long time, towards accessing our news online.

I certainly can’t remember the last time I held a printed newspaper.

While Fairfax and News. Limited publications all have their articles available online, they have yet to solve the problem of how to provide an alternative revenue stream that won’t alienate customers. People don’t want to pay to access news online.

All this talk of ‘restructuring costs’ makes me ask another question – are these news corporations simply trying to renew interest in the more traditional models of journalism, instead of trying to evolve and work with some alternative ones? The digital age has opened up a wide range of possibilities, and simply moving the content from one platform, to another, isn’t a viable solution.

Why are we here?

This year, when The Finkelstein Report into journalism in Australia was released, it confirmed what many of us already knew: people no longer trusted journalists.

A basic criterion of media performance is accuracy. Public perceptions of the performance of Australia’s media on this criterion are not flattering. These are the findings of several surveys.

  • Only 35 per cent of respondents to a 2011 survey by Essential Media agreed that ‘the media usually report the news accurately’. As with trust, however, perceptions varied for different media.
  • A 1976 survey by Saulwick found 66 per cent of respondents believed ABC television presented political news accurately; 51 per cent believed commercial television did so. Only 39 per cent believed newspapers presented political news accurately. In a subsequent survey in 1990 by Saulwick 76 per cent of respondents said television (undifferentiated between ABC and commercial) presented news accurately, but only 50 per cent said the same of newspapers.

In fact the Finkelstein Report confirmed a lot of what we already knew but is worth repeating.

New technology, particularly the internet, has revolutionised access to the news. The result has been a reduction in the circulation of newspapers and a reduction in revenue from classified advertising. The advertising expenditure is now spread across platforms. Main news organisations are recovering only a small proportion of these revenues by moving to online publishing

Much has already been written about the role of the internet in the declining readership and profitability of Newspapers and journalism. Research in the US from Pew Research Centre tells us that newspapers are losing $7 of print revenue for every $1 of digital revenue they gain. There is nothing to suggest that a similar trend is not occurring in Australia. It is easy to see why newspapers have been slow to adapt to online when a majority of their income is still coming from print. But the trend shows that print revenues are fading and show no sign of slowing down, while online revenue is rising but not fast enough to replace income lost in print.

Journalism is Australia is suffering two seemingly unrelated crises. One of trust and credibility among audiences and one of financial viability. Exasperating this situation is the growth of “Web 2.0” and the growth of participatory culture. The barrier of entry for publishing is lower than ever and “the people formally known as the audience” are interacting with their news like never before. Blogging platforms are allowing people to self publish, and even newspapers are integrating blogging into their newspaper websites with many prominent columnists also blogging on a daily basis.

Journalists have long viewed bloggers and the internet with suspicion and have news organisations have been dragging their feet when it comes to adopting true participatory conversations with their audience. While suspicion between old media journalists and the new media are easing, it is still mostly an uncomfortable relationship.

But while the internet age threatens the dominance of previously dominant news organisations, it also presents a great opportunity for journalism to explore new models of participation, news gathering and publication. What forms these new models might take are the subject of much discussion, research and experimentation. Open Journalism is one model that is being explored by The Guardian in the UK.

Open Journalism is a model of journalism that places journalism at the centre of an open eco-system of information and news gathering. Rather than treat bloggers and readers with suspicion it seeks to engage them in the process of news gathering. Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, has this to say about the Guardian’s Open Journalism project:

We are developing an idea of a newspaper that is very different, Our approach recognises the importance of putting a newspaper at the heart of the open eco-structure of information so that you can then harness different voices and link to an array of other sources.

“We are reaping the rewards for breaking out of the old mindset of journalism and understanding that we can harness, aggregate, curate and report, which is a distributive model of journalism that has a richness and diversity of content.

Over the course of our research we will build a workable definition of Open Journalism and how it relates to other related concepts such as “citizen journalsim” while exploring the forms that Open Journalism currently take and how they might be improved. is it financially viable and will it address the issues of trust that currently exist in Australian journalism?