The impact of digital disruption on traditional media is well acknowledged, but the devastating knock-on for journalism at a grassroots level is only finally registering on the political and social radar.
In barely a decade, more than 100 local and regional newspapers have closed in Australia and hundreds of journalists have been retrenched. The consequence is that we have become a country of untold stories, and the crisis threatens to tip into catastrophe.
One hope is that the Federal Government can stem the haemorraghing by adopting the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s recommendations from its Digital Platforms Inquiry. Most of the attention has been on the big media companies’ calls for greater regulation of the tech titans, Facebook and Google, who have raided revenue streams.
But one of the most dramatic consequences of media disruption has occurred right around us with little apparent community concern.
Life in the ol' girl yet as Australian regional titles sold for $115m to Antony Catalano, private equity
The sale of Australian Community Media, with 160-plus regional and rural titles, to real estate marketing guru Antony Catalano is likely to usher in more promising times for newspapers across the expansive continent.
Despite everyone writing off newspapers, including the very bosses who have run some of them, there’s life in the ol’ girl yet.
Catalano, backed by Aussie billionaire Alex Waislitz's Thorney Investments, picked up the massive regional stable for the bargain basement price of $115 million.
Among the titles bringing home the bacon are the Newcastle Herald, The Canberra Times and the often ignored agriculture bible, The Land. These titles with a handful of other daily titles rake in most of the revenue for ACM, formerly Fairfax Regional Media.
Thereafter is a very long tail of lesser titles, many weeklies and bi-weeklies, that seek to serve their disparate communities the best they can with minimal resources.
Not too long ago, some of those big titles alone could have reaped as much as the sum total for the entire regional empire now to be transacted.
The sale tells us quite a bit about the state of print in this country, but let me zone on three insights.
When someone signs up to your email newsletter regard it as one of the biggest compliments you will receive in business.
But watch out, winning people’s trust and business via email is getting harder.
Greater regulation, concerns about privacy and our frenetic Attention Economy means you will need to deploy all your communications nous to cut through the media noise.
Year of reckoning for Facebook, Zuckerberg and social media: 4 insights for communication professionals
Have you noticed the world spinning a tad slower since the Facebook algorithm changes?
My feed has more personally relevant posts now and less noise from those outside my inner circle.
That was the intention when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that users’ posts and engagement would gain greater prominence at the expense of “public posts from businesses, brands and media”.
Facebook wants to favour content that prompts conversation and users’ active participation rather than stuff that just gets liked for the heck of it, including previously popular video. Sounds like less cats and more discussion touchpoints.
Already, time on Facebook has dropped marginally - and Zuck seems fine about that.
At times, my news feed resembled more an eclectic mish-mash of news and product information than a space for personal interactions with buddies.
But these changes have challenged the approach of many content marketers who had crafted strategies for clients around social media, especially Facebook, as well as media players who embraced distributing news via the platform. To be fair, though, users will be asked to indicate media they trust, which may improve the ranking of those outlets.
The stodgy stuff of reinventing business models and how best to use data is consuming the world’s top media executives in 2017.
The new shiny toys of immersive reality and 360-video are receiving plenty of attention and funding, but for the most part big media is focused on getting its house in order.
That is about returning to purpose and applying a traditional sales funnel approach to convert window shoppers into fully-fledged subscribers and then maximising revenue per user. Joining the dots between data and customer conversion is critical.
Funnels? Data? Boring, huh? But for media today these are the smarts, along with amazing tech, helping companies emerge from a fog of uncertainty.
I got up close and personal with the latest global thinking by spending two weeks in New York, the self-appointed epicentre of media today.
I took a study tour of iconic media organisations, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and Google, along with lesser-known but impactful start-ups PlayBuzz, Navito and Lotame.
The tour was a prelude to the International News Media Association world congress held at the New York Times Centre, attended by media executives from 40 countries, and book-ended by a workshop that built a playbook for print.
The message from New York: start spreading the news, media is fighting back. And I will address that in more detail in another blog.
For those of us in the business of communications, I identified nine themes to absorb and which will help you better understand the landscape as is stands.
With another round of editorial job losses imminent at Fairfax Media in Australia, the continuing contraction in the industry supports the argument that if you want to get your message out you might need to go DIY.
An increasing number of corporate and community organisations are setting up newsrooms to fill the void left by retreating traditional media - or to compete with what is left.
Fairfax has announced $30 million in cost cutting for FY18. Most of that is likely to come from axing staff in the newsrooms of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. This is my journo maths, but at the upper limit that represents about 200 staff, although expect it to be between 100 and 150 after some argy-bargy.
Some media competitors report this almost gleefully. However, staff across News Corporation in Australia can expect to see new rounds of redundancies too, according to my mail.
Meantime, given the fragmentation of the media and audiences, companies are investing large chunks of their marketing and communications budgets to better leverage digital and social media channels.
The declining fortunes of local media represents an unprecedented opportunity for local governments to step into the breach, set up a DIY Newsroom approach and go direct to residents with their message.
Today I learned of another “restructure” at one of Australia’s largest media chains, which is code for more staff redundancies and the lay-off of more journalists.
This spells another grim chapter for an already distressed traditional media.
In the regions, newspapers have greatly reduced the number of editorial staff, their circulation has plummeted and that has meant they have had to try to do more with less. The regional TV landscape is not pretty either.
When I was editor of a large regional daily newspaper several years ago, I had a staff of 80 full-time editorial employees. Today, there are less than 30 editorial staff.
Council insiders tell me that shrinking local media is making it harder for council messages to be heard.
Or, is it actually councils’ best-ever opportunity to engage with residents and ratepayers in new and profound ways by setting up a true DIY Newsroom?
That is right: if they were SMART, councils would see themselves as the primary destination and distributor of compelling, useful and relevant content for their local government constituents.
Stuart Howie is a Canberra-based communications consultant. He has worked with organisations, private and public, in Australia and New Zealand, helping them to discover, shape and tell their stories. He is the author of The DIY Newsroom, which won Social Media Book of the Year at the Australian Business Book Awards. Stuart has worked in media, publishing and communications for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.