Emerging from one of the worst years in media history, Australia saw signs of recovery in 2021. The advertising market grew, numbers paying for news online increased, and support systems for regional journalism are being developed. At the same time, a new regulatory framework has eased the power imbalance between news publishers and tech giants.
After months of tense negotiation between the government and the major platforms, including Facebook withdrawing from the Australian news market for a few days, the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code came into effect in March 2021. This mandatory code of conduct governs commercial relationships between news businesses and designated digital platforms where there is a significant bargaining power imbalance. The threat alone of such designation by government has led the major platforms – Meta and Google – to strike commercial deals with news outlets through three- to five-year voluntary content agreements, with funds flowing into the news sector. The Chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has hailed a successful outcome citing ‘over AU$200m per annum going into journalism’ and ‘just about every major media organisation’ having a deal with Meta and Google.1 Many companies, including Nine Entertainment Co., News Corp. Australia, Australian Community Media, the Guardian, and the ABC, have benefited, but others have missed out, including public broadcaster SBS. The Code has been criticised for not including small media companies, and lacking transparency. But there are some promising signs of extra funds being spent on public interest journalism, with the ABC for example recruiting 55 new regional-based journalists.
The second major media policy initiative sought to modernise television regulation. After a year-long consultation in March 2022, the Australian government released a Media Policy Statement outlining a range of reforms to the sector. They include support for Australian content faced with competition from global streaming services, where service providers will be forced to spend up to 5% of their gross local revenues on Australian content. The government also promised an AU$10 million regional journalism fund to support new recruits in the region and to reskill the workforce.
Australia has a highly concentrated media market. News Corp Australia (59%) and Nine Entertainment Co. (23%) own more than 80% of the metropolitan and national print media markets. The top four media companies control 95% of revenue among daily newspapers, over 75% of total revenue in free-to-air television, and about 70% of radio revenue (Brevini and Ward 2021; Stanford 2021).
Advertising revenues are slowly bouncing back from the COVID-19 downturn. Lockdowns and working from home have created record levels of audience reach and advertising for traditional free-to-air broadcasters and streaming services. Australian subscription VOD penetration increased from 43% of households in 2018 to 70% in 20212 and Netflix, with over 5 million subscribers in Australia, reported revenues up by 17% in 2021.
Australian audiences, as elsewhere, prioritise streaming services and music over news subscriptions, but our 2021 data do show a five percentage point (pp) increase in those paying for news online to 18%. Other developments suggest an uneven recovery. Newspaper revenues have declined by 37% between 2014 (AU$3.90bn) and 2020 (AU$2.46bn) and are projected to decline even further.
According to the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, more than 230 Australian newsrooms have downsized since January 2019, of which 70% were in the regions. A major regional newspaper company, Australian Community Media closed over 20 regional newspaper titles in 2021 while overall, in the regions, 37 newspapers closed or contracted and 30 emerged.
The Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation was launched in February 2021. Signatories committed to measures to reduce the spread of online dis- and misinformation, notably labelling or demoting content deemed to be false. In March the Australian Communications and Media Authority reported to government on the adequacy of the platforms’ actions, suggesting more could be done and agreeing to oversee the self-regulatory scheme. The 2022 federal election is likely to test whether these measures help news audiences navigate the flow of political information on social media.
News and Media Research Centre, University of Canberra
News access continue to decline with a slight recovery in newspaper consumption (+2pp), which was hit hard in 2021. News access on smartphones remains stable (61%), but computer access to news continues to decline at a rapid pace (-5pp).
Pay for online news
Listen to podcast in the last month
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Trust in news (41%) is slightly down, placing Australia in the mid-range among the 46 countries. Trust in news brands has also declined across the board with commercial broadcasters suffering most. Amidst crises such as COVID-19 and major flooding, accurate, up-to-date local news is critical to audiences’ trust. Local or regional newspapers are ranked third, after the two public broadcasters.