Blurred lines: Australian news media is becoming unrecognisable

Image: pressfreedom.org.au

The Australian news media landscape is changing dramatically and fast.

In the decade since the end of the familiar Fairfax/Newscorp duopoly, the way Australian consumers access and interpret news is almost unrecognisable.

Further change is afoot, some technological, some cultural and some dynastic.

The lack of conversation is deeply alarming.

Last weekend, News Corp executive Michael Miller denied speculation the company was in talks to merge with Seven West Media and sell it’s stake in Foxtel.

His language was specific enough to need a second glance, especially since prodigal son Lachlan Murdoch had been seen at Seven West’s Martin Place headquarters on Friday.

“I’ve been on record in the past about that statement, so I’m not going to give the rumours any momentum and there have been no meetings by myself or directors with Seven,” he said.

No meetings with Michael Miller. As for Lachlan Murdoch’s visit, only time will tell.

With nonagenarian Rupert Murdoch’s role and influence unpredictable at best, rumours about News Corp and Seven West have been around for years.

The companies share content across a vast spread of suburban and rural titles.

This incestuous news coverage between the major Australian news corporations has only thickened in the last five years.

Nine Entertainment Co, Seven West, News Corp, Australian Community Media and Prime Group regularly share word for word news articles and headlines.

Metropolitan titles and major online editions get individual headlines and subtle language shifts.

But the difference is so minor, some Australian news is closer to a media release in distribution than rival hard copy.

ACM and Prime have both also recently expressed a desire to merge, calling on the ACCC to adjust old media ownership regulations to allow it.

Their content is already so frequently homogenous, they’re arguably already merged in everything but name.

“News” is now firmly entrenched as a synonym for “content”, a side effect of social media and apps as primary access platforms.

It’s a cultural shift that’s revived failing titles, especially with a Trumpian political landscape eager to feed this new and thickening infrastructure.

Old guard news institutions and tech platforms are unlikely to survive the shift. Already the cracks are beginning to show.

On Monday, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher announced two relatively insignificant pieces of federal budget funding.

The worlds oldest newswire Australian Associated Press (AAP) would receive $15 million in federal funding.

And the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) would receive an extra $4 million to oversee the newly minted news media bargaining code.

Facebook also announced it would distribute $15 million through the Walkley Foundation for rural newsrooms and media organisations.

These three announcements speak to a shift in news media apt to shape its operation for decades.

Old newswire services reliant on local journalists are fast being outmoded by space age communication infrastructure and AI.

Nine Entertainment Co, Seven West and ACM have stopped subscribing to AAP, whose already tumbling revenue saw it slated for scrap by shareholders last year.

An impact consortium saved the company at the eleventh hour.

The federal budget bailout a year later is a further sign of the times.

AAP sits outside the news media bargaining code, leaving it a service founded on the bush telegraph facing dark obsolescence in a world of 5G, bots and satellites.

Facebook and Google did their work transforming news access while their unknowing rivals puzzled over the death of broadsheets and print media.

Having at first resisted Australia’s revolutionary media bargaining code, they’ve since pivoted in true Silicon Valley form and are now leading the charge.

Without further government intervention or a shift in the cultural paradigm, the already blurred lines between social and news media will likely grow indistinguishable in the years ahead.

Australia is yet to face the same “fake news” reckoning as Europe or the US, but the infrastructural groundwork is being laid.

The very 90’s Australian problem of Fairfax vs. News Corp may yet transition to Google vs. Facebook .

The speed with which once cherished and respected institutions can be reduced to content creators reliant on the global tech giants distributing them is of deep concern.

More social and news media reform is inevitable.

But the conversation around it must be louder and better informed.

The current generation of Australian journalists need to step up to the plate.

Nothing short of the future of their industry is at stake.