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.