How can we legislate a media regulation model that safeguards diversity and gives quality journalism a fighting chance to keep serving the public? Working in the media is like trying to stand up in surging whitewater. It can be very hard to keep your…
Working in the media is like trying to stand up in surging whitewater. It can be very hard to keep your feet.
Take my latest small conundrum. When print was quite clearly dying, I transformed myself into a digital journalist. I ran, full tilt, at the future. Now many smart media analysts are telling me that professional transformation might have been a mistake.
What on earth am I talking about?
Unless you follow the fortunes of the media business very closely, you probably won’t know that various smart people are now talking about digital being a “legacy” business – they are talking about the end of newspaper websites in the same way we lament the death of print.
Given this will be a new thought for many readers, a little background. When media companies began to shift away from print and develop their digital platforms as the core business, the collective wisdom was online advertising revenue would replace revenue from newspapers.
The trends at first were encouraging, but now the precious online advertising dollars are migrating, seemingly inexorably, to the great campfires of our internet age: Facebook and Google.
Combine that trend with ad blockers and you can see how the revenue stream for news websites ends up being less than hoped.
So here we are again, back on another cliff top, wondering again how to transform to protect the core mission, which is, of course, journalism.
Do traditional media companies abandon or scale back their websites and just push content out through social media sites? Do we lock down the content and watch our audiences shrink? Do we build our own highly interactive campfires, experiment with crowd-funding measures, and allow readers to literally buy into our ventures? Are there other options, completely new experiments?
Speaking at the National Press Club this week, the ABC’s managing director, Mark Scott, thought he had the answer. In such an uncertain media landscape – one that is reshaping itself before our eyes – the government could just opt for the safe bet and give more money to the ABC.
With all due respect to Scott, who I very much like, and to the ABC, which does a brilliant job and serves the Australian public incredibly well, the safe bet is not the only option open to the government.
After all, these are meant to be exciting times, where agility is the name of the game. A prime minister who deliberately styles himself as an innovation prime minister, and who is intrinsically interested in the media landscape, could perhaps think of other options: perhaps policies to support people prepared to come forward with their hard-earned money to fund public interest journalism, and experiment with commercially sustainable delivery models to ensure that journalism reaches the maximum number of eyeballs.
Are tax incentives an answer? Is modest seed funding for new media start-ups an answer?
I’m not actually sure if those two ideas are, actually, an answer, but I’m absolutely certain someone needs to be asking these questions – and a number of penetrating questions beyond them. We really do need to push out beyond the well-established, and let’s be honest, deeply boring parameters of “mogul v mogul” and, happily, the opportunity to frame this exercise is right in front of us.
Once again in this country, we are having a debate about media regulation. But it’s a very quiet debate. Australia’s media proprietors seem extremely hopeful the government will not actually think very deeply and just give them what they want. What they want is the ability to get bigger through mergers and acquisitions (all the while cutting their costs to the bare minimum), and less pesky regulation so they can try to compete with players who are not regulated.
Unlike media ownership debates of the past, this one is so low key most Australians wouldn’t even know it was happening, which is ever so slightly disturbing, given the legislative package being pursued by the government will have practical consequences, particularly if Labor allows the government to deregulate ownership restrictions.
A couple of those practical consequences could include News Corp grabbing the Ten Network (Fox News on free-to-air, anyone?), and Fairfax merging with the Nine Network.
Does this new round of concentration matter now the internet allows Australians to consume a smorgasbord of quality content from around the world, on demand? My view is it doesn’t matter as much as it once did, but it still matters, for two reasons.
The first is not everyone is a privileged media consumer with access to whatever content they desire with an elegant swipe on their smartphone. And the second is one of the upsides of this digital period has been the small proliferation of newer media voices to help balance the dominance of News Corp in Australia’s historically concentrated media landscape.
This is a good trend, and by good I mean good for readers and viewers. Nascent diversity is a trend worth encouraging in modest and prudent ways.
So here’s a media reform debate I’d like to see.
I’d like to see a debate where the Australian public genuinely buys in. I’d like to see just one media debate in my professional lifetime that is not owned by bullying media companies and their rampant rent seeking.
I’d also like to see evidence of governments and oppositions genuinely thinking about first principles, rather than how to construct a finely balanced trade-off between Rupert’s interests and Kerry’s interests that will ensure no major company comes gunning for us during an election season.
If you approach the task from first principles, here’s what it looks like.
It’s really quite a simple framework, with one framing question. How can we legislate a media regulation model, and a public policy framework sitting behind that regulatory model, that safeguards diversity and gives quality journalism a fighting chance to go on serving the public?
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