Australian journalism is facing unprecedented threats from the dominance of global digital platforms, says communications minister Paul Fletcher.
Speaking at the NewsMediaWorks INFORM Summit in Sydney yesterday, Fletcher addressed some of the concerns that arose from the ACCC’s digital platforms inquiry.
In July, the government released the 600-page ACCC report, which set out 23 recommendations to respond to the “substantial market power” that digital platforms like Facebook and Google now hold in Australia.
At the time, the government said Facebook and Google need to be “held to account” for their market dominance.
Speaking at the Summit, Fletcher said public policy importance of Google and Facebook and their impact on the media sector arises firstly because of the competition issues, but it’s then “amplified by
the fact that the businesses which are being affected, are also providers of public journalism.”
He said: “When Google has 19.2 million Australians who use it every month, Facebook
17.3 million, these companies are having a massive impact on the lives of Australians. When we think about what they do and what their competitors such as traditional Australia media businesses do, it clearly raises another important issue as well, which is questions of Australia’s cultural identity.”
He said that Australia’s cultural identity has been an important consideration of media policy over the years.
Fletcher noted that while the report highlighted digital platforms have fundamentally changed how we produce, distribute and consume media content, it also presented some “confronting news” that “Australia’s current media regulatory framework has struggled to keep pace with changes in technology,
consumer preferences and the way in which media businesses now operate.”
He added: “Traditional media businesses can face very detailed regulation while competing with digital platforms, which largely go unregulated in Australia.”
Fletcher said it is perhaps the “greatest paradox” that digital platforms are both rivals to, and increasingly essential business partners of, news media businesses in the supply of advertising.”
Fletcher also spoke about how declining advertising revenue has put newspapers in “significant distress” despite strenuous attempt to adapt to the digital environment,
“Since 2012, online subscriptions have only offset 53 per cent of the loss in print sales, while online advertising has only offset 13 per cent of the loss in print advertising.
“While the internet offered a better solution in classified advertising, what it did not offer was a better way to deliver journalism.”
He noted while there has been a rise in citizen journalism, he also said: “most quality print journalism still comes from people employed in traditional newsrooms.”
“What is very clear though is the number of traditional newsrooms, and the number of people employed in them is declining. And again, the statistics cited by the ACCC, there’s a 20 per cent decline in the number of journalists in traditional print media businesses between 2014 and 2018.
“The data also shows 106 local and regional newspaper titles close across Australia between 2008 and 2009, and 15 percent decrease in the number of these publications.
“Which brings me to the public policy implications of these changes. Of course, anytime an existing industry has falling profits and jobs being cut, that is a public policy issue. But the importance of journalism in our society and in our economy, goes well beyond simply profits and jobs.
“Again, as the ACCC notes the social benefits of journalism include holding the powerful to account, campaigning for social goals, keeping a journal of record, and providing a forum for ideas, if there’s less journalism, that’s a problem.”
Fletcher also acknowledged media concerns about the AFP raids on the ABC and the home of a News Corp journalist.
He said the government responded to these concerns, which included an inquiry into press freedom. However, he also stated the AFP’s actions were “not unprecedented”, adding there will always be a “healthy tension between competing objectives.”
Fletcher said there have been significant changes in media regulation over the last 30 years, including the abolition of “outdated rules concerning cross-media ownership,” stating the intention was to allow “existing players facing unprecedented competition from internet-based businesses to come together to build scale, improve their economics and in turn become better place to respond to such competition.”
That regulatory change allowed the acquisition of the Fairfax newspaper business by Nine, for example.
The minister concluded by saying the government accepts the ACCC’s conclusion there is a need for a reform to better protect consumers, improve transparency, recognize power imbalances and to ensure the substantial market power is not used to lessen competition in media and advertising services market.
He added: “We also accept that there is a need to develop a harmonized media regulatory framework as the ACCC recommended.”
Submissions to Treasury on the final report of the digital platforms inquiry closed September 12.
The government is set to hold consultations until the end of October before making a decision on its regulatory and legislative response to the ACCC’s report before the end of the year.