ACCC boss blames digital platforms and COVID-19 for suspension of News Corp community titles

Rod Sims, chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), has said the suspension of News Corp’s 60 community print titles this week was thanks to a “one-two blow”: the impact of Facebook and Google, followed by that of COVID-19.

The need for a code regulating the relationship between digital platforms and Australian media companies is even more pressing given the drastic impacts the pandemic has had on the industry, Sims added, and he’s confident it will take effect this year. But News Corp boss Michael Miller disagreed, claiming “we can’t show that we’ve even got to the first base” of negotiations.

Sims said platforms such as Facebook and Google have undoubtedly affected community titles such as News Corp’s

Speaking to the ABC’s Fran Kelly yesterday on RN Breakfast, Sims said the News Corp community titles “were very much weakened by the impact of the digital platforms … there’s no doubt about that”. The ACCC concluded its 18-month inquiry into the digital platforms in June last year, but has since commenced a further five-year inquiry that will put pressure on Facebook and Google until 2025.

In addition to the suspension of News Corp’s community titles, Nine has suspended print sections including Boss, Good Food Magazine and Domain magazine in response to the revenue effect of the COVID-19 outbreak. Multiple regional newspapers haven’t been able to weather the impact, shuttering as their advertising pools dry up.

Accordingly, “the bargaining code that we’re facilitating between the [digital] platforms and the media companies is just all that more urgent,” Sims said.

“We’re putting more resources into that, that’s got to get settled this year, I’m confident it will, and I’m confident it will help the media sector considerably.”

News Corp Australia’s executive chair, Michael Miller, appeared on the program after Sims, and disagreed with the ACCC boss on the likelihood of the code being pushed through.

“I’ve got very little confidence that we’re making progress. That review’s only a month away [in May, following the government’s response to the ACCC’s Digital Platforms Report] and, at this stage, we can’t show that we’ve even got to the first base,” he said.

Michael Miller_M360 2018

Miller doesn’t know whether the community titles will return

Miller said he isn’t sure whether the community titles will return, but he’d be “disappointed if [regional Australia] lost their local voice” after a “tough 12 months”.

“[The community titles] have seen their real estate advertising [evaporate], without open for inspections and auctions being able to be conducted, pub/club restaurant advertising, and now schools and local events. So their lifeline has unfortunately [been] unable to operate, and thus the reason that we have to suspend them,” he said.

“We don’t know how these businesses are going to fare in the longer term either.

“The future of these papers, we don’t know where they’re going to end up.”

Despite the suspension, News Corp has not resorted to redundancies yet, Miller said. However, when introducing nine-day fortnights until the end of the financial year and significant cuts to executives’ salaries, he conceded that job losses will ultimately be “inevitable”.

“We haven’t sacked anyone yet, we haven’t made any redundancies,” he said.

“Community journalists are some of the most versatile in the country. They cover court reports, they cover local sport, they cover schools, they cover councils. They also report on video, on audio, and also in print, but also digitally. These great journalists are very much committed to their communities and will continue to report on the digital versions of their mastheads.

“As this goes on, we will need to review staff numbers and whether they are sustainable or not. But, at this stage, we haven’t announced any redundancies.”

He maintained, however, that should AAP be unable to lock in a buyer and close as planned, its journalists will potentially be hired by News Corp, in addition to the aim of redeploying News Corp’s own journalists facing redundancy.

“Anyone at News Corp who unfortunately is facing redundancy goes into a redeployment period,” Miller said.

“We will look at employing quite a few dozen journalists at our own newswire to service our own publications. AAP, 85-years-old, started by Sir Keith Murdoch and a number of his contemporaries at the time. That business has changed a lot in those 85 years. The shareholding group has changed greatly as well, as has been the news requirements for breaking news, compared to 85 years ago.

“So AAP, probably a victim of the times, not so much coronavirus, and those journalists have opportunities to work in other parts of the company.”

Miller has repeatedly pointed to digital platforms as the culprit for the erosion of the local media landscape, claiming the industry and government “could have done a lot over the past decade”, but failed to.

“We’re competing with companies that do not create content, have no journalists, but continue to take our content and don’t pay for it,” he said.

“We want the government to require the digital platforms to pay for the content they take from other media and they profit from.”

The government has said that this is the year “platforms will pay for journalism”, but it needs to follow through, Miller urged.

“We’ve had a decade where both sides of [parliament], and government after government, have pushed down the road media reform. I look at regional media in particular. They have still not removed the remaining cross media ownership laws that regional media companies desperately need.

“Media ownership laws took 30 years to only get partial reform in 2018.

“And then there’s the digital platforms. For five years now, we have constantly been saying ‘This day is coming’. And I fear that day has arrived.”


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