Fairfax Media accuses ABC of threatening the sustainability of commercial news journalism

The ABC is a threat to the survival of commercial news journalism, limits advertising revenue and affects commercial news subscriptions, Fairfax Media has argued.

The publisher’s submission to the inquiry into the competitive neutrality of government-funded broadcasters said despite the importance and vitality of the national broadcaster in the Australian media landscape, online news platform ABC Online must ‘refocus’ its content towards that which adds to the national identity and addresses areas where the wider market has failed.

Audiences that might pay for subscriptions are less inclined to do so with the free content available on the ABC website, the submissions says

The publisher, which prints The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review, added national broadcasters, namely ABC and SBS, were distorting the market.

It said the ABC’s decision to compete in online news journalism heightened challenges the commercial sector was already facing.

According to Fairfax Media, the ABC not only limits the industry’s ability to generate revenue, but has attracted prospective paying subscribers to its free platform.

As a result, it said, advertising revenues to fund professional journalism “are reduced”.

For the Australian publisher, which claims to have shed more than $500m in advertising revenue since 1999, said the ABC’s decision to go head to head with the commercial news journalism sector is “not in keeping with the spirit” of its original charter, which was to provide ‘broadcasting services’ and develop content which reflects the national identity.

“It celebrates its contents’ high quality and distinctiveness and emphasises that its content decisions are not ratings driven. ‘The ABC provides audiences with choice, is independent, and is not driven by ratings or profit.’ Yet much of their content is either commoditised or reproduced from the commercial sector and does not reflect these values,” Fairfax Media wrote.

It added ABC’s participation in the online news environment from 1995 has distorted the market, and given ABC and SBS are not under an obligation for commercial returns, they are “not on a level playing field”.

The publisher explained the specific effect the ABC was having on its own customers, subscription base and advertising revenue. Fairfax Media said that in providing free online news content, the ABC is “substantially hampering” efforts to encourage new subscriptions to its news content, as well as limiting its advertising revenue potential by taking a portion of total news audience page views away from the commercial sector.

Other issues tackled in the submission include using government funds to develop “clickbait”, paying to promote articles via Google and Facebook, and in SBS’ case, generating advertising revenue.

While Fairfax Media has its own strategy in place to ensure commercial opportunities continue to exist alongside quality journalism, the publisher remains concerned of the impact of the ABC on the commercial news sector.

“We recognise the importance of the publicly funded ABC as an integral part of the Australian community. We value the ABC’s commitment to reflecting Australia’s diverse viewpoints.

“We think the ABC has a strong role to play to ensure that marginal voices are heard, where it is not commercially viable to do so. We respect the high quality, journalistic principles that the ABC adheres to.

“But in order to maintain the diversity of media required for a functioning democracy, we believe that the government funded ABC Online needs to refocus its content on distinctive, high quality content, that is not ratings driven, but that contributes to the national identity and addresses market failure, for example in regional areas that lack scale. This would bring its activities back in line with the spirit of the original charter.”

The competitive neutrality inquiry was announced by Communications Minister Mitch Fifield last year, and will look at whether the ABC and SBS have an unfair advantage over commercial media companies.


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