I have spent considerable time over the past few months in Australia, enabling me to read Australian print media, watch television news and meet local journalists.
I do realise that comparing journalism and media between the two countries is difficult: economies are different, so is the history and, of course, the target audiences. But they are businesses nevertheless, both in a tough market that fights for an audience that has considerably higher expectations from the media than a decade ago. To say that the Australian media, particularly print, is bleeding, is an understatement. Journalists who have not already been retrenched are being offered generous packages to leave and are joining a growing number of ‘media consultants’. To get a job in media for graduates is virtually impossible. Internships are scarce and largely unpaid.
Fairfax and Murdoch’s News Limited own most of the print market. On the TV front, there is a definite trend towards tabloidisation of television news. The public broadcaster ABC has an excellent evening news programme which is not matched by other privately-owned broadcasters who seem to compete on crime, accidents, celebrities and owner-bites-dog coverage. Naturally, they have higher ratings than the public broadcaster.
There are a few current affairs programmes, but one that stands out is the informative ‘Q&A Mondays’ on ABC, a panel talk show with audience questions moderated by award-winning journalist Tony Jones. I’d like to see a similar format, with selected politicians, business representatives, senior journalists and civil society debating issues here in South Africa. I think there is a fat chance of that happening on SABC, and I just can’t see Deborah Patta doing a similar job as Jones.
And if you think that South Africa is the only country where press freedom is under threat by the government, Australia has its own version. Among the proposals currently debated by Julia Gillard’s government is a ‘public interest test’, which would allow the government to prohibit certain companies from investing in media organisations. Also touted is the idea of a new regulator, largely driven by government, which would look into the issues of ‘balance and fairness’.
It is based on an ‘independent’ inquiry into the media by retired judge Raymond Finkelstein, which recommended that the regulator could have the power to remove certain coverage from print, online and even blogs. It does sound familiar, and for those South Africans preparing the fight against the Protection of State Information Bill, here is the link to the inquiry.
In 2012, the country fell 12 places on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, even behind the United Kingdom after the Murdoch scandal.
Print media circulation figures are plummeting, with many publications moving to the digital sphere. It remains to be seen whether the new paywalls and digital subscriptions will stop the financial decline of the industry. Award-winning and respected Australian journalist Leon Gettler told me that in advertising revenue, a digital copy receives 10c for every Australian dollar, slightly higher for business publications with about 20c. That’s a tough market, if you have to continue producing high-quality content with a tenth of advertising revenue.
News junkies in Australia bemoan the resulting quality decline in the media. So what does the future hold? Further consolidation, with more and more syndication of content. You can already see it in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne-based The Age. Basically, 70% of content is the same, but for the accident or the crime that takes place in either New South Wales or Victoria. The top journalists have all established their own niche publications and individual radio programmes are largely driven by these few experts, such as Alan Kohler’s ‘Business Spectator’ or ‘Inside Business’, reminiscent of South Africa’s Alec Hogg and Moneyweb. It’s just not the same without Hogg.
Looking up from Down Under to home in South Africa, it is clear that media organisations globally fight the same challenges: commercial survival, fighting for press freedom and taxpayer justice have been the common features for decades, and continue to be in the digital era.