Who owns your news? – news media app Headlinr to give audiences bird’s eye view

This story was written as part of a collaborative assessment for Journalism Technologies as part of a Bachelor of Communications at RMIT. Headlinr is a fictional app created as part of the exercise and Thom Mackalen is a fictional amalgam of the names of the authors involved: Thomas Monaghan, Mackenzie Heard and David Allen. All other data, sources and quotes are factual.

Image: Matthew Guay

Through the pandemic, Australian news media platforms found themselves under intense scrutiny.

Their readership had exploded thanks to a news cycle of rapid events and constantly updating information.

Where Australians get their news has become a politically charged question leading to growing concerns about media ownership and influence and an overall lack of transparency.

But an Australian start-up has developed an app to help readers identify who’s behind their news and track their narratives over time.

While Australia’s traditional media ownership skews heavily in favour of Nine Entertainment Co and News Corp, the industry is not wanting for available titles or diversity in readership.

Australians either picked up a newspaper or became unique visitors to an online news site over 120 million times every month over the course of the 2020-2021 financial year.

Major lockdowns saw entire populations stranded at home in front of a screen and in need of the latest updates for months at a time.

“News” has rarely been more important and in the age of the social media echo chamber, the division and debate it can manifest has rarely been more visible.

Headlinr, set to be launched across Apple and Samsung app stores next month, is aiming to crack open the echo chamber by giving Australians a bird’s eye view of the news industry.

App creator Thom Mackalen got the idea from watching headline notifications roll in one day on his smartphone.

“It occurred to me, I was just getting one set of news, tailored for where I was and there was no easy way for me to find out live what the different perspectives were,” said Mr Mackalen.

“Headlinr is just that, just the headlines, but users will be able to track stories on any subject, from any outlet around Australia, whether it was written today or last year.”

The arrival of the internet and social media saw the rapid rise of online news titles like ABC Online, The Conversation and The Daily Mail. But Nine Entertainment Co and News Corp still dominate the sector, retaining nearly 60 per cent of the monthly audience share between them.

Eleven companies own the lion’s share of titles and websites across Australia’s news media landscape, with some 300 print and digital titles between them.

The two largest companies, Nine Entertainment (formerly Fairfax) and News Corp, have dominated the local market for almost a century.

Combined, they’re responsible for just under 60 per cent of Australia’s news readership.

Nine Entertainment alone sees almost 40 million unique viewers a month across its seven major platforms, more than eight of its largest competitors combined.

NewsCorp controls over 100 titles with a flagship publication in every capital city except Perth and Canberra, and a raft of regional outlets across every state except Western Australian.

Despite their legacy as the duelling ideological titans of the news industry, changing ownership across the twenty-first century has narrowed the divide.

Daily Telegraph journalist Annette Sharp recently wrote the replacement of Sydney Morning Herald editor Lisa Davies was a move to force the title to “ditch old Labor party allegiances.”

Nine is chaired by former Liberal National deputy Prime Minister Peter Costello, while the company’s executive editor Tory Maguire is in a long-term relationship with coalition lobbyist David Miles.

Social media as a major news delivery platform has been the largest challenge to Australia’s news landscape; and the best opportunity in decades for the arrival of fresh competition.

App accessible digital news sites are now Australia’s dominant form of news media.

Online-only news titles like the Conversation, the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the New Daily have risen quickly to grab a formidable share of this market.

ABC News Online routinely tops the monthly audience share with just shy of 13 million unique viewers, a fact that frequently earns the ire of politicians and political commentators alike.

Realistically, its readership is a fragment of the 70 million Aussies accessing online news outside a paywall, and a mere 10.4 per cent of the overall audience share.

But like the presence of Australia’s traditional media duopoly, perceptions around readership have become rusted on.

Calling for balance from the ABC has become part of the media landscape.

Balance across the news industry has become a more pressing and complicated problem.

Australian news media retains an historical imbalance of ownership with some of the largest and most prestigious titles and websites split between just two companies. Nine Entertainment (formerly Fairfax) and News Corp have maintained a commanding influence over Australian news readership since 1923.

News industry union the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s spokesperson Stratos Pavlis says the organisation would “welcome more diversity of news media ownership”.

In recent years, the MEAA has led investigations into what journalists have described as a “chilling effect” on reporting, brought on by adversarial government security and defamation laws.

The Headlinr app has been created to demystify the ownership narrative and bring clarity, or at least, accessibility, to what stories the different news companies are telling.

“If you took a straw poll in Bourke Street mall, I think you’d find a lot of Melbournians believe The Age is still owned by Fairfax,” says Thom Mackalen.

The young CEO of the start-up app remains adamant the project isn’t designed to deliver the news.

He describes it as “more like a legend for the news media map”.

The app will identify news title ownership with basic colour coding and track their narratives through a rolling archive of headlines and cross-checkable search features.

Mr Mackalen admits Headlinr’s work is not likely to be easy or popular.

“If we can make it any easier for people to understand the Australian news cycle, who’s telling what stories and how, then we’ve won,” he said.

Headlinr will be launched across Apple, Android and desktop devices from December 6.