The coming of the Internet was the media world’s first real game-changer.  Profits enjoyed from the 1970s to 2000s were gone and anyone could start an online news site for little cost. Independent digital media sites not only flourished but did something novel:  they engaged with their readers — especially via social media. Today, these sites attract three to four times more visitors via social media than mainstream media. Kim Wingerei reports.

MUCH HAS been said about the power that Rupert Murdoch wields in our concentrated media landscape. But it is a landscape that continues to change and although Murdoch’s News Corp Australia remains a dominant force together with the remnants of Fairfax, his influence is on the wane. Local independent media – somewhat inadvertently supported by the global social media behemoths – is where not just growth but influence is increasingly found.

John Menadue

A few days after Labor won the federal election in December 1972, Rupert Murdoch asked his then general manager of The Australian – John Menadue – to convey to Gough Whitlam that he would like to be appointed Australia’s High Commissioner to London. Murdoch regarded it as a suitable thank you for the support his papers had provided for the “It’s time” campaign.

Whitlam scoffed at the suggestion and Murdoch denies it but others corroborated Menadue’s version. It illustrates what mattered most to Murdoch — recognition by the establishment. He craved what his father had that he didn’t and where better to display it than in the halls of power and influence in the Empire’s capital?

A few years later, Murdoch and his paper had switched their allegiance to Malcolm Fraser, including working behind the scenes leading up to the infamous dismissal.

In his autobiography, John Menadue – who knew all three men well and eulogises none of them – asserts that apart from craving recognition, Murdoch is driven by a need to be seen as a winner and is adept at picking one — as displayed when he swung behind the Kevin07 campaign albeit somewhat tentatively. It may well be a pattern repeated this year with Bill Shorten and Labor looking increasingly like the winners in the upcoming federal election.

In Australia, News Corp’s market reach has been augmented by its superior ability to adapt to new technologies. They too, underestimated the power of the Internet in the early days, but unlike Fairfax they took their losses early (remember MySpace?) and led the way in changing subscriber and content distribution models, adapting to changes in how people consume media.

Newspapers once ruled the world of news and was the focal point for informed public debate. Radio came along and got a place at the same table, albeit never as glamorous and rewarding for its proprietors. TV had much more of an impact as a provider of entertainment — immersing itself into the living rooms of the world.

Both radio and TV heralded the end of the newspaper, predictions that never quite came through. People still liked to read the paper and the daily broadsheet carried a gravitas that radio and TV could never match — except maybe for Walter Cronkite.

The Internet changed everything. Not straight away and not in the ways originally foreseen, but it removed forever the traditional gatekeepers of information. Some would say replacing them by Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the plethora of lesser social media and search engine platforms.

The Internet was the catalyst for change and social media was the real game changer for traditional media companies.

When all we had was broadcast media (papers, magazines, radio and TV) the only alternative was people conversing and arguing — around the fireplace and the dinner table, at the pub, community halls or on a soapbox in the public square. Social media has taken those conversations beyond its physical limitations to the world square — for better or for worse.

But unlike the established trust of local communities, unregulated and borderless communication is a place of fear and distrust. Social media – despite its proliferation – has a Net Trust Score (NTS) of minus 42 per cent in the recent Roy Morgan Media Net Trust Survey (the number of respondents that trust less than those that don’t). Television (-16 per cent) and Newspapers (-13 per cent) fare much better but still significantly less than the Internet (-7 per cent), Magazines (-4 per cent) and Radio (-2 per cent).

The only major media brands in Australia with a positive NTS score are the ABC, SBS and (by a whisker) Fairfax — a brand that won’t be around for the next survey.

Overall, the trust in the mainstream media (MSM) is at an all-time low. Many in the media are blamed for the political malaise Australia finds itself in, especially Rupert Murdoch.

Contrary to popular belief, Murdoch does not exercise his power through direct instruction or demands for a particular outcome. There may have been a time when he instructed his editors what to write as he did in 1975 when journalists rebelled. But those days are gone, his empire too large, his interests too diverse, the (financial) risks of being seen as directly interfering too severe (cf. the News of the World phone-tapping scandal).

Murdoch wields his influence through hiring and firing, through appointing like-minded people in key positions, through promotions within the ranks and the occasional nod and a wink. But above all, he exerts influence through the expectations of those that allow themselves to be influenced.

And it works both ways.

In his memoir (Making Headlines), former editor of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, reveals in much detail his close but at times fractious relationship with Kevin Rudd. Mitchell tells of a clandestine dinner for two in the sauna of a five-star hotel with Rudd dishing dirt on Wayne Swan in September 2010, following Rudd’s ousting by Gillard. It shows how Rudd was happy to use Murdoch’s power when it suited him. No doubt like every Prime Minister has before and after.

Chris Mitchell’s book is also instructive in exposing how Murdoch editors not only see their role as reporters but become influencers. The temptation of power looms large — backed by their powerful proprietor (who also happens to be rich as Croesus, knowing how and when to cajole and entice his acolytes through lavishing pricey trinkets, trips and the spoils of privilege.)

But as the recent Senate hearing into the ABC showed, politicians are also not shying away from trying to influence the national broadcaster in much the same way as media proprietors do — through appointments, intimidation, hiring and firing. The day the ABC is not feared by the government is the day the ABC stops doing its job.

Albeit somewhat cowed at the moment, the ABC remains a stalwart of independent media. And with its high trust rating, it would also benefit from being much more active on social media than it is.

Despite the low trust in social media, it is an important driver of traffic for the fast growing independent media sector. There is a reason some senators went out of their way to attack the #auspol Twitter community recently — and it was not to protect democracy as it pretended.

“Everyone” is on social media and according to a recent Roy Morgan poll (May 2018) and 78 per cent of Australians aged 14+ also access online news-sites.

News.com.au is the largest (5.8 million monthly readers), followed closely by The Sydney Morning Herald (5.3) and the ABC (5.0). Of the top 20 news-sites in Australia, News Corp’s sites represent 31.9 per cent and Nine/Fairfax 28.7 per cent. Counting Kerry Stokes’ modest 4.5 per cent (Yahoo!7 and The West Australian), it leaves the independents with just under 35 per cent of the top 20.

After the ABC, the Daily Mail comes in at 3.9 million readers of other outlet’s stories; and of the other independents, The Guardian (3.0) are just ahead of the BBC (2.9) – a surprising inclusion on the list – I am guessing driven by Anglo-Saxon baby-boomers and their parents. The online reading habits of Gen Z ensures that Buzzfeed (2.2) and Huffington Post (1.2) are included in the top 20.

Second bottom of the top 20 is The New Daily just shy of one million readers and, although not included in the Roy Morgan surveys (yet), there is also a plethora of online sites that provide news coverage and extensive political and current affairs commentary and analysis.

These sites are not only all independent but according to the online visitor statistics as provided by SimilarWeb (an online web measurement service) they are also growing at a rapid rate, whereas “traditional” media growth online is mostly offset by the steady decline in print readership.

And while Murdoch may lament the increasing dominance that Google, Facebook and Twitter have over the worlds’ virtual eyeballs, search and social media is an important source of web traffic and the latter, in particular, for the independent media which relies on social media for much of its visitor numbers.

Based on SimilarWeb’s data, News.com.au gets 5.5 per cent of its visitor traffic from social media, in contrast to The Guardian’s 12.2 per cent and Independent Australia’s almost 20 per cent. Overall, independent media gets three to four times more of its visitors referred by social media (mainly Facebook, Twitter and Reddit) than the mainstream news media sites do.

This is significant as social media is also the platform where the conversations are happening — as exemplified by the #auspol hashtag on Twitter. Contrary to the belief by some ill-informed politicians, these are vibrant conversations between engaged people, the bots are few and far between and easily spotted (when you know how, which Senator Fierravanti-Wells’ staff clearly did not).

In reality, if we look beyond the entertainment dominated mainstream media, the Australian media landscape is increasingly diverse. Murdoch and Nine Entertainment may well have the numbers of overall visitors for now but for debate and influencing voters, there are many more options.

As an example, Murdoch’s flagship purveyor of politicised opinion – The Australian – has close to a million fewer readers online than The Guardian and less than half of the ABC. Based on online visitor stats,  the top five politically-focused independent media outlets combined (of those NOT in the top 20) has about the same readership as The Australian online.

The ABC and The Guardian are the leaders of a diverse pack of fast growing online media sites that challenge the status quo — including this publication. They play an increasingly important role in keeping our politicians honest. Politicians for their part need to stand up to the vested interest of the media proprietors or suffer the consequences.

It is all well and good to lament the power of the media. Strong politicians must withstand it through transparency and focus on policies instead of politics and not succumb to their fear of missing out.

Independent media is here to stay and to keep the politicians honest. It’s time they took heed.

——————

Kim Wingerei

Kim Wingerei is a former business-man, turned writer and commentator. Passionate about free speech, human rights, democracy and the politics of change. Originally from Norway, Kim has lived in Australia for 30 years. Author of ‘Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change’. 

You can follow Kim’s blog or on Twitter @kwingerei

MW’s solution to safeguard public interest investigative journalism

Public support is vital so this website can continue to fund investigations and publish stories which speak truth to power. Please subscribe for the free newsletter, share stories on social media and, if you can afford it, tip in $5 a month.