Kevin Rudd

There has been a lot said about Kevin Rudd’s petition for a Royal Commission to ensure a strong, diverse Australian news media’. There was Rod Tiffen’s comment that Mr Rudd then responded to, and a host of other reports including this piece from Margaret Simons on the thinking behind the petition.  And Zoe Samios ran this piece about the difficulty of pinpoint the reach of News Corp in Australia.

There is certainly a lot of history between Mr Rudd and the main targets of his petition – Rupert Murdoch and News Corp – but maybe we can accept that, regardless of Mr Rudd’s views on News’ reporting on the ALP, there are some legitimate questions here about concentration of ownership and media responsibility.

Philip Napoli’s recent book, ‘Social Media and the Public Interest’ asks whether public interest objectives that traditionally attach to news media can be applied to social media and digital platforms. Napoli observes that, just as oligopolistic markets tend to undermine the rationale for a ‘marketplace of ideas’, the idea that ‘counter speech’ is the answer to false news is looking more shaky in a global, digital environment. While there are other reasons for rejecting the marketplace of ideas approach (as our colleague, Kari Karpinnen explained so well in Rethinking Media Pluralism) it still has influence in Australia, particularly in our fragmented approach to media standards.

But while Napoli has asked about applying public interest principles to social media, in Australia it seems we have enough problems applying it to traditional media. The ‘Save our Voices’ campaign, launched by the three regional broadcasting networks with Australian Community Media and fronted by Ray Martin, wants the removal of the one-to-a-market cap on commercial television licences. With the repeal of the cross-media rules and the national audience reach rule, the licence cap is the cornerstone of structural diversity in Australian commercial media. It means that in most licence areas, there will be at least three commercial media operations. Broadcasting law no longer stops mergers between local newspapers, television and radio, and neither does it regulate ownership of online news sites or other digital media, pay TV or national newspapers.  In the concentrated Australian media market, there must be an alternative to further concentration in regional Australia.

It was good, then, to see Michelle Rowland, the shadow communications spokesperson, speak of the need to rethink regulation in a way that ‘takes account of algorithms as much as ownership’ and that considers both media plurality and industry sustainability. She also referred to the research the ACCC commissioned from the Centre for Media Transition – which drew on the work we’ve been pursuing in the Media Pluralism Project – showing the need for ways of measuring media plurality that take account of aspects such as consumption and impact. While the one-licence for TV and two-licence for Radio caps on ownership are important, these shouldn’t be the only two tools (the other being the local area points test) that we have available for assessing plurality. That, of course, is what we’ve been working on at the Media Pluralism Project, and we hope to have a new tool for demonstration very soon.

As we’ve argued before (and as has Des Freedman et al. at the Media Reform Coalition in the UK), in order to maintain and ‘future proof’ a media ecology that is capable of sustaining a range of diverse and conflicting voices and perspectives some genuine media reform is urgently required. At a minimum this would include:

  • A plurality/diversity measurement framework that takes into account cross-market audience share in traditional (TV, Radio, Newspaper) and online news markets. This framework needs to include various methodologies that uses quantitative measures of reach and consumption, and qualitative data on the wider media agenda impact;
  • Regular reviews by an independent regulator to evaluate relevant thresholds based on these cross-media market audience shares. These thresholds would be actively monitored to guide intervention and remedies aimed at promoting a diverse media ecology at the national and local level including in relation to public service media provision;
  • News distribution on digital platforms/intermediaries should be taken into account in assessments of diversity including the impact of algorithms on news brand availability (and the public affairs content of those brands). This kind of monitoring by an independent regulator would, using appropriate metrics, assess whether or not platform algorithms are favouring particular news providers and voices over others; and, very importantly,
  • In the event of mergers between media organisations an independent regulator should be able to apply a public interest test to assess whether the particular combination of media groups will benefit audiences in terms of the provision of public affairs content in the markets if the transaction were to proceed.

Original image available here.

PA/NPA Distribution by publishers

Using Big Data Analysis for Visualisations of Public Affairs Content in Online News

One of the main aims of Media Pluralism and Online News project is to discover methods of computationally evaluating media pluralism in ways that are relevant for multi-platform news ecosystems. In brief, the concept of ‘public affairs’ allows us to separate and identify the kind of content that contributes to media pluralism. We think this term is useful in showing the news content that should be valued (and receive funding) — that is, the aspect of news media which constitutes a public good and for which the business model is in a state of crisis.

Classifying content as ‘public affairs’ is therefore a mechanism for identifying material that might be the subject of public subsidy, philanthropy or some form of regulatory intervention. It avoids the traditional distinction between ‘hard news’ and ‘soft news’, which can be useful when material that is usually seen as soft news has a public affairs angle. For example, a sports article might be about the need for public funding, health or corruption in sport. Even articles apparently about celebrities can have some kind of social function. It also avoids the need to distinguish between ‘news’ on the one hand and comment/analysis/current affairs on the other: all such content is covered by the code provided it has a public affairs angle.

Making a distinction between public affairs and non-public affairs content is not meant to suggest non-public affairs has no value – it might, for example, be important in maintaining a sense of community – but it does allow us to identify material that is part of news media’s role in contributing to government, public administration and civic society in a democratic society. Again, media more broadly contributes to other areas of life – for example, Australian drama programs contribute to Australia’s cultural life, while children’s programs contribute to childhood learning – but the target of subsidies and other interventions in relation to news is this public affairs purpose. Importantly, this content must be provided by a news media organisations that employ professional journalists, with some established presence (for example, at least 12 months operation), and possibly some qualifying threshold level of public affairs content. Book publishers, bloggers and others create content that deals with public affairs. This project seeks to support news media which demonstrates additional features such as immediacy, verification of sources and trained journalists working to professional standards.

We define public affairs (relative to non-public affairs) in the following way:

Public affairs reporting conveys timely factual and opinion based information about events and issues in government, politics, business, and public administration. This will include education, health, science and other matters that have broad social significance. Examples are items that cover contentious public debates on climate change, immigration, and land use.

Non-public affairs reporting conveys timely factual and opinion based information about topics of entertainment, art and culture, leisure and lifestyle. This will include sport, well-being, fashion, and music. A sports article that just gives sports results or commentary, for example, will be non-public affairs, unless it has a public affairs angle such as government funding or health concerns.

It should also be noted that PA content is different from ‘public interest journalism’, although the two often overlap. We think ‘public interest journalism’ is a very useful term to describe a certain activity and the content that results; however, sometimes it is seen as a narrow concept (in the sense of investigative reporting) while other times it is seen as expansive (for example, as all hard and soft news provided this is produced by journalists). ‘Public affairs content’ might be seen as sitting in the middle, but in essence it is any content, produced by a news media organisation, that has some public affairs angle. In the example given above, it would cover an article that is largely about sports results if the article also dealt with the lack of suitable facilities at a sports ground. While such a report is included in some definitions of ‘public interest journalism’, it is excluded from others. We recognise that these definitions are still in development and over time they may coalesce further. It may be that a definition produced by the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, for example, is the best fit for regulatory settings, and that our tool could be adapted in order to identify PIJI’s formulation of ‘public interest journalism’.

So these terms ‘public affairs’, ‘public interest’ or some other formulation, remain useful for various applications of public policy and regulation. At its edges, it would include some commercial content, as well as other forms of content which are likely to be commercially viable or do not otherwise deserve regulatory intervention and financial support.

Identifying ‘public affairs content’

Our ARC Media Pluralism and Online News Discovery Project team has been working with data scientists from Sydney Informatics Hub at the University of Sydney to develop a computational tool that allows us to collect the content from the homepages of news websites and to analyse it for its public affairs content. We are working on other functions for the tool in order to provide a richer picture of media diversity as well.

The dataset we are working with for the prototype version of the tool is the entire data scrape of the homepages of the top 20 news sources as identified by Roy Morgan Single Source News data.[1] The time frame was across three months in 2019, and the Australian Federal Election was underway. We currently have four cross sections of the data: six-hourly, daily, weekly and monthly. The tool classifies the content into public affairs and non-public affairs. It provides a proportion of the total number of articles that are considered public affairs for each publication.

The SIH data scientists in consultation with project investigators have built a basic text classifier for Public Affairs (PA) vs Non-Public Affairs (NPA) classification of media articles. The current project has made iterative improvements on the performance of previous project classifiers in terms of robustness of a PA/NPA classifier to changes in time of publication. This means that results in the predictions of a PA/NPA classifier can be transferred to future articles. In addition, the project also evaluates inter-annotator reliability to gauge how well the notion of PA/NPA converges among experts in the field. Finally, the approaches were also tested on the Primary topic category to explore the potential for including Primary topic prediction to an operational news articles classification system.

Figure 1 below is a de-identified modelled representation of one of the outputs of the tool, allowing us to visualise relative public affairs content using one of the timeframes (e.g. daily, weekly) averaged across the three month span of the source data. Figure 2 shows the variation in public affairs content of all sources across an eight week period.

As noted above, we have designed this tool in order to provide one measure of media diversity in digital multi-platform news ecosystems.

The following screenshots illustrate the functionality of the Media Pluralism Dashboard tool in terms of the percentage of PA-NPA news article content across multiple single publishers; the percentage of PA-NPA comparisons between media publisher groups; and then, using a feature we are calling ‘Search analysis’ between publishers which enables us to zoom in on the articles themselves using specific search terms. We have not examined the broader significance of these analyses here – their purpose is indicative of the developing uses or the dashboard tool – but we certainly welcome any feedback (using the Contact Us page).

[1] See, for example:

[zotpress items=”{2165585:RNJTIT5S}” style=”apa”]

Figure 1, Weekly Representation of Online News Public Affairs Proportions – Model Only

Figure 2, Representation of Online News Public Affairs Over Time – Model Only

Public Affairs Content (PA) v Non Public Affairs (NPA) Distribution by % in Major Online News Media Publishers

PA/NPA Distribution by publishers

Public Affairs Content (PA) v Non Public Affairs (NPA) Distribution by % in Major Online News Media Publisher Groups

PA/NPA by a group of Publishers
PA/NPA by a group of Publishers

Search analysis: Universities and &

Search analysis: Climate & Change & Morrison_News Corp & Nine Ent Titles

Media and Australian Democracy

AS in any democracy, a diverse and pluralistic media has been seen by governments around the world as a vital means to the end of having a healthy democracy. The fewer the voices expressing their viewpoints, the less healthy a society becomes, and the watchdog role of the media to hold politicians and large and powerful business interest to account, is diminished. Obviously, in an election focused period, this is even more important. People require a diverse and pluralistic range of opinions in order to make informed decisions, not only on a daily basis as citizens and consumers, but also for key democratic moments such as voting.

There is a long running historical trend in media internationally, not just Australia, to media becoming more concentrated. Media ownership became more concentrated throughout the 20th century, and that trend continues in the 21st century. It is a predictable consequence of deregulated media markets which have been on the rise for several decades. At the same time that Australia removed its cross-media ownership rule in 2017, the Federal Communications Commission in the US eliminated its rules on radio/television and newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership. The 2017 order and notice are subject to an appeal filed in 2019 by the Prometheus Radio Project petitioners in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (Prometheus Radio v. FCC, 2019).

Australia’s media is among the most concentrated in the world according to a study undertaken by researchers in New Zealand in 2016, and only two countries — China and Egypt — have a media system where one owner holds more than 50% of the daily newspaper market – and those owners are the government!

Recent Developments

The removal of the cross-media rules in 2017 facilitated the take-over of Fairfax Media by Nine Entertainment in a 3 billion dollar deal which subsumed the separate identities of the famous independent news mastheads, The SMH, The Age, the AFR.

We can expect further concentration: We might see a tie up between the Seven TV network, and News Corp, for example.

The concentration in legacy media is duplicated offline. The most popular online news sites are mainly run by the legacy brands, News Corp Australia and now, Nine Entertainment.

It was announced in early May that Nine Entertainment have sold their regional media arm, Australian Community Media (ACM), to a Private Equity group lead by Anthony Catalano, the former head of the Fairfax Media lifestyle division, that included the Domain real estate brand.

ACM includes around 170 titles such as The Newcastle Herald, the Illawarra Mercury, The Canberra Times, The Examiner.

On the face of this deal, it’s a new owner, so we might expect some welcome diversification in the newspaper sector. However, ACM is part of the highly commercialised news media sector in Australia. In the last few years this regional arm of Fairfax Media has been cut right back in terms of journalistic resources, in an attempt to assist in their survival. It’s reasonable to assume even more of this kind of cost-cutting at a time when local journalism is in a very precarious situation from the challenges of a reconfigured global media, including from social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Experimentation with alternative revenue models, such as subscription is expected.

What Impact have these Mergers had on the Media Industry?

In 1903 there were 21 daily newspapers across Australia’s 8 capital cities, and 17 different owners. By the 1950s, there had been a gradual consolidation to 15 daily newspapers and 10 owners. By 2016 there were 10 metro or state-wide newspapers. News Corp Australia and Nine Entertainment own the bulk of these with some notable exceptions, including The West Australian, owned by Seven West Media.

When Nine Entertainment took control of Fairfax Media as part of that deal they left their charter of editorial independence in place. Will that survive with the renewed focus on commercialism at ACM? In effect, in the commercial media sector, two large companies now dominate the Australian media. The former Liberal party treasurer and conservative stalwart, Peter Costello is chair of Nine Entertainment. How will that board handle journalism that is damaging to the coalition Government? We expect that our current large-scale data collection of online news stories will provide some interesting insights in this regard.

Have these Mergers Affected the Media’s Role in Australia’s Democracy?

With Australia’s media being dominated by two large commercial media corporations there are no longer any larger scale independent media voices as a result of the impact of deregulation.

You might argue that with fewer people reading newspapers anyway, and especially younger cohorts being less interested in these legacy mastheads, so why does that matter?

Several points can be made which question that line of argument.

First, the brands that dominate legacy media in Australia also dominate online news media. News Corp Australia and Nine Entertainment own many of the most visited online sites.

Second, with the removal of cross media laws, which prevented co-ownership of TV, radio and newspapers, this dominance will only continue and intensify. The convergence of digital media has resulted in news media being re-used across platforms.

And third, these major brands tend to set the news agenda for the rest of the media because they control the bulk of the journalistic resources.

The ABC is of course an important part of the media ecosystem in Australia, but its funding has been slashed year after year, reducing its ability to constantly undertake the best quality investigative journalism. If it is in a position where is it less likely to be critical of the Government for fear of further budget reductions, there’s a chilling effect, and it is then less likely to play a watchdog role that holds politicians to account for their actions.

Social media platforms, in large measure, distribute and amplify existing news stories amongst like-minded networked groups. And of course, these platforms are often responsible for amplifying the worst kinds of speech, and providing a means for algorithmic news manipulation as witnessed in the Cambridge Analytica and other incidents by extremist groups.

What role does law and regulation play?

In Australia, mergers that might affect media concentration are only considered by our media regulator (the Australian Communications and Media Authority, or ACMA) if they will breach one of the three remaining media ownership rules:

  • The limit of one commercial TV licence per local area
  • The limit of two commercial radio licences per local area
  • The diversity points test which applies where there are only five or fewer independently owned media groups in a metropolitan area or four such groups in a regional area.

And while our competition regulator, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) will look at all media mergers, it applies a general, cross-industry test based on ‘a substantial lessening of competition in a market’.

As the ACCC explained when it sought comment on the Nine-Fairfax merger, this test focuses on the effect that removal of a competitor within the market will have on prices, quality and choice. The ACCC said:

‘It is not the same as a diversity (range of views) or plurality (number of voices) test and is not a public interest test. However, the potential impact on diversity and plurality can be relevant to assessing whether there is a lessening of competition.’

This means that in Australia we have no effective test for assessing the broader public interest in media mergers – and because our media regulation only takes account of legacy media platforms, we have no means of even assessing the level of media pluralism in this country.

What can be done in terms of Governance and Policy Responses?

Our European field research has provided some potentially interesting policy response models for Australia to investigate. In the UK, for example, they have a public interest test process that is triggered when media mergers arise that threaten media plurality. The test is one of ‘sufficient plurality’ and, importantly, it is applied by both the media regulator (Ofcom) and the competition regulator (the Competition and Markets Authority). It involves a serious assessment of the level of media plurality at the time of a transaction.  In addition, the Media Plurality Framework developed by Ofcom could, at least in principle, be applied outside of a merger situation as a gauge of media plurality overall.

Our research is also looking at initiatives such as the Media Pluralism Monitor developed by the Centre for Media Freedom and Pluralism at the European University Institute. CMFP has been commissioned by the European Union to apply the Monitor to assess pluralism in 31 countries. Its latest report is available here. CMFP is now working on its 2020 report which will take more account of digital media.

All of this seems to suggest that we need two distinct tools for media pluralism in Australia: a ‘thermometer’ to measure media pluralism via an initial, benchmark study and then periodic reviews; and a public interest test that will be applied in merger environments. As our research progresses, we’ll start to consult locally on how some of these ideas might be applied in Australia.

In the media pluralism policies of liberal nation states, access to diverse news sources is widely regarded as key to the maintenance of an informed citizenry and healthy democracy. This assumption, and its relation to the risks of concentrated media power, underpins media diversity and media pluralism – or anti-concentration – laws and policy across the world.

Yet the evolving mix of curated (human or machine edited) and algorithmic (computer generated) news is stretching our understanding of media pluralism, and in this project, we are seeking to understand these changes.

In our view the implications of these shifts are having a profound impact on our news diets.

A combination of factors including network infrastructure, recommendation algorithms and personalisation, strong and weak ties in social networks (and related ideas of ‘filter bubbles and echo chambers’) all may have an impact on how people discover or access news, how deeply they engage with it, and then how it shapes knowledge.