The state of the media

Australian news media is in a paradoxical situation – news consumption is increasing slightly while at the same time trust falls.

Moreover, the situation might be as good as it gets as younger Australians give up on the mainstream media and distrust levels grow.

The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022, according to Sora Park of University of Canberra – one of the Reuters supporting partners – shows the media: “Emerging from one of the worst years in media history, Australia saw signs of recovery in 2021. The advertising market grew, numbers paying for news online increased, and support systems for regional journalism are being developed. At the same time, a new regulatory framework has eased the power imbalance between news publishers and tech giants.”

But behind the Reuters headline there is rather more complexity.

Reuters finds that news access continues to decline with a slight (2%) recovery in newspaper consumption; access on smart phones staying stable and computer access to news declining at a rapid rate (falling 5%) although this might simply reflect what devices most people use most frequently.

Online is still the most popular source of news but the figure has been declining since 2016 as has TV news consumption and social media although print, while well down on 2016, has seen a slight uptick this year.

In 2016 overall trust in news was at 43% but has now fallen to 41% with the biggest component of that fall being trust in commercial broadcasters.

As for the most trusted news providers ABC News is well on top with 66% trusting it and only 17% not trusting. ABC News is followed, in order, by SBS News, Regional or local newspaper, BBC News, Channel 7 News, Australian Financial Review, Channel Nine news and The Australian – all of them with ratings of 50% or above.

In declining order: The Age, SMH, Guardian online, News, Sky News, Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph come below the 50% mark with Sky News boasting the highest don’t trust rating. Would someone please remind us who owns the four at the bottom of the trust scale?

And if you think the market is being gobbled up by social media only Facebook gets news sharing rates of more than 20%.

The newspaper industry’s promotional body, ThinkNewsBrands, said in August 2022 that total news and print digital and print readership is up 0.8%; digital readership is up 5.1%; and print readership down 11.8%. However, the demographic data they report is pretty depressing. Monthly average readership is 20.5 million which they say is 97% of the population aged 14+ but readership figures for those between 14-24 and 25-34 are much lower both numerically and as a percentage of the 14+ population and the biggest reading cohorts are those who are going to be dying off in the near-ish future.

And to top it all the number of media outlets is declining. According to the Public Interest Journalism Initiative newspaper revenues have declined by 37% between 2014 and 2020 and are projected to decline even further; more than 230 Australian newsrooms have downsized since 2019 with 70% of them in the regions; and 37 regional newspapers have closed.

It’s not hard to see why this is so. Indeed, more than 20 years ago the legendary journalist and political advisor, Richard Farmer, was speaking at a conference and remarked that one morning he went out of his Canberra house to collect the many morning newspapers he subscribed to. When he got inside and started to look at them he realised that the news they offered was not new to him at all but rather stuff he had gleaned from other sources.

But that problem is now even more acute and print media is reacting in ways which make it even less trustworthy or credible than it has been.

In this respect the Murdoch media is in a class of its own with news being replaced by propaganda.

The most recent example being the way it constantly heralded the Morrison Government’s unemployment numbers as miraculous only to doubt them this week, with a Labor Government in power, when it presented its readers with a massive front page headline and story saying the job numbers were wrong and that hundreds of thousands of the unemployed weren’t being counted.

Although for once it was sort of right and not only because the definition of who is unemployed is currently ridiculous.

But it’s not only Murdoch. Much of the print media in the Nine stable depend on ‘analysis’ and articles speculating on what might happen in the future.

Ironically, the media didn’t speculate on the 2022 election outcome too much – despite some compelling indicators – because they were still shell-shocked by their dismal record on the 2019 election.

Before the election the data on Morrison’s level of distrust and his position with women were amply demonstrated by a variety of studies including the Roy Morgan Research Trust and Distrust surveys which showed that eight of the 10 most distrusted politicians in Australia were LNP and the top two were Morrison and Dutton. But this was largely ignored by much media until after the election when retrospective pieces suggested they had understood it all along.

Roy Morgan and aggregation of gender-based preferences also showed that the Liberal Party support among women was the lowest in its history – dramatically less than in the Menzies era – and that Penny Wong was Australia’s most trusted politician followed by Albanese.

Then the election coverage got hung up on ‘gotcha’ moments until Adam Bandt’s ‘Google it mate’ at the Press Club put the kybosh on that approach.

Most journalists are also captives of their sources. There are some exceptions among finance journalists but frequently their analysis is also helped by some discreet briefings by senior company executives.

The Morrison Government was exceptionally selective in briefings to journalists happy to be supportive in return for hooking themselves up to the drip or advancing their proprietor’s interests.

Of course, Premiers, PMs and Ministerial staff have always bestowed their news goodies on journalists. For years, for instance, Victorian Premier Dick Hamer’s Press Secretary quietly briefed Bruce Baskett, then Herald’s State Political Reporter, with juicy news bits to ensure there was a front-page Herald story in the next day’s first edition.

But things have dramatically changed since then – and Scott Morrison and his media supporters – have ensured that news consumers have noticed it.