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Pluralism, Australian newspaper diversity and the promise of the Internet

Lewis, Kieran Joseph (2004) Pluralism, Australian newspaper diversity and the promise of the Internet. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.

Abstract

In this thesis I address the research question: 'How has the Internet delivered pluralism by promoting structural diversity and/or content diversity in Australia's newspaper industry?' Structural diversity is defined here as diversity in newspaper ownership and content diversity as the diversity of views published by individual newspapers. Central to the thesis is the notion of pluralism, the belief that the news media should provide a range of views and opinions, contradictory as well as complementary, to allow informed citizens to effectively take part in the democratic process.

The newspaper industry in this country, however, is controlled by a powerful press oligopoly across a range of markets, a situation believed to greatly limit pluralism. A review of newspaper ownership and circulation from 1986 to 2002 shows that, as at 2002, four newspaper owners are the sole occupants of Australia's national and capital city newspaper market. Seven owners are predominant in Australia's regional daily newspaper market, although just three owners controlled 69 per cent of the market's circulation in 2002. Two owners controlled 69 per cent of Australia's suburban newspaper market in 2002. Similar trends were seen in the country's Saturday newspaper and Sunday newspaper markets. In all markets except the regional daily newspaper market, News Limited is the dominant newspaper owner. Australian Provincial News and Media is the dominant owner in the regional daily newspaper market with a 27 per cent share of circulation in 2002.

Australia's concentrated newspaper ownership structure has led to a number of formal inquiries into diversity in the industry since 1980. In this thesis I review two of these inquiries, the 1991-92 House of Representatives Select Committee on the Print Media (the Print Media Inquiry) and the 2000 Productivity Commission Inquiry into Broadcasting, to determine (among other things) the nature of and the relationship between structural and content diversity as they apply to Australia's newspapers. (By virtue of major media groups' involvement in the Productivity Commission's inquiry - particularly News Limited, Publishing and Broadcasting Limited and, to a lesser extent, Rural Press - this inquiry, although broadcast-oriented, considered Australia's newspaper industry at length.) This review shows both inquiries were clear on how they saw this relationship - structural diversity is necessary for content diversity. However, the Print Media Inquiry suggested it was almost impossible to guarantee structural diversity in the nation's newspaper industry. The Productivity Commission, meanwhile, said that while it accepted content diversity was not inconsistent with media ownership concentration, it was more likely to be achieved where there was diverse ownership. With the relationship between structural and content diversity in mind, and the Print Media Inquiry's and the Productivity Commission's beliefs that new entrants in the newspaper industry were unlikely in the short term, I examine the suggestion that the Internet has the potential to increase structural diversity in Australia's newspaper industry by allowing new players to efficiently enter the industry via the World Wide Web.

The extent to which this might occur is determined by a study of 18 Australian newspaper websites with one argument being that if established newspapers find the transition online relatively easy, then independent online-only news sites might be similarly established. Mings and White's four online news business models - a subscription model, advertising model, e commerce-based transactional model and partnership-based model - are used as a framework to examine the study's results.

The study shows Australia's experience mirrors international experience in terms of the growth of newspapers online and in terms of their lack of profitability. It shows that 28 per cent of the newspapers surveyed maintained their circulation while offering free online news content, while a further 33 per cent registered circulation increases. Advertising revenue increased for seven of the nine newspaper websites containing advertising, suggesting that, for some Australian newspapers at least, gaining online advertising (as opposed to gaining overall profitability) has proved successful. And while the survey shows little evidence of Australian newspapers using the transactional model in any real sense, it does show that Australian newspapers are forming local online partnerships with other media and non-media businesses to facilitate their online activities.

The study's key finding is that of the 18 newspapers surveyed, just two websites were profitable. This finding is consistent with literature that highlights a lack of commercially viable independent online news ventures both in Australia and internationally. While considerable hopes were held that the Internet would introduce more structural diversity into Australia's newspaper industry, I argue that the Internet's commercial imperatives, as they apply to newspapers, have to a large extent precluded it from adding structural diversity in the industry. In these circumstances, it may be that the only viable way of increasing content diversity in the nation's newspaper industry is to increase the availability of diverse information sources to journalists. I propose that one way to do this is via the Internet.

The extent to which this is occurring is determined by a survey of Australian journalists' Internet use, the survey results showing that 97.4 per cent of the journalists who responded now use the Internet regularly, including 97.5 per cent of newspaper journalists. But most journalists who responded use the Internet as a preliminary research tool and as a way to check facts rather than as a means of accessing diverse news sources. The respondents' top five Internet uses, for example, are to e-mail work colleagues, to undertake preliminary research, to access media releases from websites, to verify facts and to search other news organisations' websites. They access major news organisation websites most frequently, followed by government websites, university/research institution websites and corporate/company websites. The least frequently accessed websites are those that could conceivably provide the alternate views demanded by pluralism: online news and current affairs discussion groups and websites set up by private individuals.

The survey shows the types of websites Australian journalists most frequently access are linked to the credibility they give to information contained on those websites. Major news organisation websites are seen as providing the most credible information, followed by university/research institution websites and government websites. Websites perceived as providing the least credible information were those that host online news and current affairs discussion groups and websites set up by private individuals. The survey also shows Australian journalists have not embraced online reader interaction to any extent, lessening the likelihood that readers will be able to provide journalists with more diverse news sources. Less than 20 per cent of journalists interact with readers via the Internet and less than 10 per cent use this interaction to create or follow up news stories.

The survey does provide results that support source diversity, however. It shows that almost a third of Australian journalists have obtained additional news sources via the Internet. The Internet has also allowed more than 40 per cent of journalists to access individuals or groups that they would not otherwise have accessed. The survey also shows that journalists who have had experience working in the online media environment consistently use the Internet more productively, in terms of diversity, than other journalists. It is these journalists that interact online with readers more, that participate in online discussion groups more and that appear more willing to seek online information from non-traditional sources such as independent news websites and the websites of private individuals or groups. Journalists with online media experience also represent the group that has most sought training in online journalism and online media practice and that most believes the Internet will play an increasingly important role for journalists and news consumers in the future. At present, the survey suggests, journalists with this online media experience comprise just 19 per cent of Australian journalists. But as the number of journalists with online media experience increases in the workforce, these journalists' greater acceptance of the Internet may then assist in greater source diversity leading to greater content diversity in Australia's news media.

The studies of newspaper websites and journalists' Internet use suggest and support differing diversity models. In this thesis I propose two models for diversity, the first drawn from views espoused by the Print Media Inquiry and the Productivity Commission's Inquiry into Broadcasting. This model (below) sees a one-to-one correspondence between structural and content diversity and assumes that to increase the diversity of views available to the public, the number of media outlets must similarly be increased.

The argument that the Internet can provide media pluralism by permitting new players to enter the media market relatively easily, an argument tested by my study of Australian newspaper websites, is commensurate with this model.

The second model is based on my inquiries into journalists' Internet use and proposes a method of increasing content diversity within a fixed media ownership structure. This model (below) acknowledges that journalists produce content mostly via traditional news sources, but proposes this content can be increased and/or changed, with an emphasis on more diverse information, via non-traditional news sources obtained via the Internet.

The success of this model, however, is predicated on journalists' acceptance of online information as a viable news source. The implication for journalism is that established journalistic norms and practices, which can limit online-supported content diversity, need to be overcome.

Overall, the results of my inquiries suggest the answer to the research question is that the Internet has so far delivered little in terms of structural and content diversity in Australia's newspaper industry. However, the Internet's potential to do so remains, particularly if independent online-based media ventures find ways to become commercially viable and if journalists adopt the technology as a means of finding more diverse news sources.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 15933
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Romano, Angela& Cunningham, Stuart
Keywords: House of Representatives Select Committee on the Print Media, Print Media Inquiry, Productivity Commission Inquiry into Broadcasting, Australian newspaper circulation, Australian Provincial News and Media, Convergence, Globalism, The Internet, Media diversity, Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Murdoch, Rupert, New media, News Limited, Online journalism, Online newspapers, Packer, Kerry, Pluralism, Productivity Commission, Publishing and Broadcasting Limited, Rural Press
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Creative Industries Faculty
Department: Creative Industries Faculty
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Copyright Owner: Copyright Kieran Joseph Lewis
Deposited On: 03 Dec 2008 13:53
Last Modified: 29 Oct 2011 05:40

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