The digital news arena is like Jurassic World

bruce guthrie

Despite all the hype the news dinosaurs still dominate the plains of online news in Australia argues The New Daily editorial director Bruce Guthrie in an address to the Rural Press Club.   

One way or another, as a journalist and editor, I’ve had a front-row seat at the migration of news from print to online over the past 20 years. And whenever I reflect on that sometimes painful, often clumsy process I am reminded of the joke about the man who walks into a bar with a frog sitting on his head.

“Geez mate,” says the astonished barman as his new customer fronts the counter. “Where did you get that?”

Replies the frog: “I don’t know really know, it started as a pimple on my backside and just grew and grew.”

Nielsen-year-on year 2015 june

Nielsen online rankings year-on-year comparison June 2014 – June 2015 (click to enlarge)

The latest Nielsen online rankings emerged last week, prompting the usual chest-thumping and hand-wringing among various “winners and losers”. I was left thinking about the frog.

As is the custom with such rankings, most of the reporting focused on the Top 10 news sites and the inevitable jockeying for top spot.

While this is understandable, it’s also regrettable given there are more than 200 sites on the Nielsen list.

When you pull back and consider a slightly bigger sample – the Top 40 news sites rather than the Top Ten – a troubling picture emerges of a news landscape still dominated in this country by legacy media, those publishers who made great wads of cash out of print before the internet’s arrival.

I call it Jurassic World.

Apart from legacy offshoots, there are only one or two independent outlets on the list that weren’t around when print publishers started putting news online in the mid-nineties. One of them is The New Daily and we only launched 20 months ago. The other is The Conversation which, until recently, depended partly on government funding.

While that is extremely gratifying in our case, I was left wondering why the Top 40 list is so bereft of other new local publishers. After all, the internet was supposed to remove the barriers to entry for those wanting to get into the news business so we’d look up in ten or twenty years and there would be all these fresh Australian voices enriching the national conversation.

But a glance at the Top 40 proves that although new entrants have had 20 years to try, save for TND and a handful of others – including brave but ultimately short-lived attempts The Global Mail and Hoopla – it just hasn’t happened. Which raises an important question: have would-be Australian publishers missed the boat? Do they not understand that the ownership model has changed as much as the business model?

Fairfax and News made a lot of mistakes migrating from print to online, but the latest Top 40 list suggests they’ve stumbled their way to success.  They now provide, either directly or in joint ventures, five of the Top Ten news sites, nine of the Top 20 and 16 of the Top 40.

Foreign publishers are even more dominant. Whether through wholly-owned operations or joint efforts with, you guessed it, local legacy outlets, they account for 21 of the Top 40. (And that doesn’t include Buzzfeed which, for some reason, isn’t included in the news category by Nielsen.)

Given that not so long ago we blocked foreign publishers from owning more than 25 per cent of our newspapers because of national “sensitivity”, is this appropriate? (It’s the reason Conrad Black abandoned Fairfax in 1997.)

While I’m not suggesting regulation, shouldn’t we at least have had a conversation about the influx of foreign publishers and whether they’re a) crowding out potential local publishers and b) raising or lowering the level of public discourse?

While the success of many of the foreign sites is due to Australians reaching out to them, Britain’s Daily Mail and Guardian are well ensconced in the Top 10 with fully staffed local outlets.

huffington fairfax logosNext month The Huffington Post will launch its local offering in a joint venture with Fairfax. Already knocking on the door of the Top 10, it’s likely to move up and get bigger. The fact that it’s owned by U.S. communications giant, AOL, has barely been remarked upon.

Incredibly, when you remove local legacy publishers and foreign owned or operated sites, Australia is left with just four other sites in the Top 40 and three of them are (or were until recently) government funded: the ABC at number three, SBS at number 33, and The Conversation (until recently partly-funded by government) at 38. That leaves The New Daily, owned by not-for-profit Industry Super Funds, at 36.

So much for the internet providing opportunities for strong, new Australian voices. Sadly, in this country at least, when it comes to news dinosaurs still rule the earth.

  • Bruce Guthrie is a former editor of The Age, The Sunday Age and the Herald Sun who is now Editorial Director of The New Daily. This is an edited text of a speech he delivered last week to the Victorian Rural Press Club’s Young Journalists’ Forum

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