News Corp has called on the Morrison government to urgently force digital platforms Google and Facebook to pay for journalism after the Rupert Murdoch-controlled company suspended printing of 60 community newspapers around the country.
The company’s local chairman, Michael Miller, told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age a lack of action by government against the technology giants would lead to more consolidation and closures of news outlets.
“Australian media is passing its tipping point,” Mr Miller said. “When you look at the financial positions of Ten, Seven, Southern Cross, oOh! Media, Nine’s broadcasting unit … potentially you will have less voices in the market and that’s inconsistent with what ACCC chair Rod Sims said two days ago, that we need to ensure there is healthy competition that comes out of COVID-19. My fear would be that there could be less voices.”
On Wednesday, Mr Miller announced he would turn 60 community newspaper mastheads, including the Wentworth Courier and Manly Daily, to digital-only products because of rapid declines in advertising revenues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Local real estate advertising had been hit particularly hard, he said.
Community title readers will be given a free 28-day digital subscription to access the titles and News Corp’s metropolitan papers.
But Mr Miller said he was not confident all community titles would return to print editions and would take the next few weeks to review all options. At this stage, News Corp’s community newspaper staff will continue in their roles. The suspension of print production was the latest in a series of measures put in place by News Corp to help the business through the pandemic.
“I don’t have a number [of titles to stop print production altogether], we’ll do as much as we can to limit the impact,” Mr Miller said. “But these mastheads have got to be a viable business, they can’t just be a community service which in some cases, sadly, they’ve become.”
Acknowledging News Corp’s printing suspensions, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the COVID-19 crisis had put “enormous pressure” on the already challenged media sector and “significantly impacted” the advertising revenue of local newspapers. Asked about government support available to regional media businesses and workers, a spokesman pointed to the $130 billion “JobKeeper” wage subsidy package.
Mr Miller said no decisions had been made on whether to halt the print production of News Corp’s regional mastheads, which include The Geelong Advertiser and The Sunshine Coast Daily, but he argued they were more sustainable because they had a cover price. “It’s not a contemplation at the moment but we don’t know how long this will last and we don’t know what the future lockdowns may mean,” he added.
However, he said the dire situation could be helped if the government could take action against the tech giants and tackle issues of privacy, piracy and paying for content immediately.
Last year, the government said it was committed to addressing concerns about the bargaining power imbalance between tech giants and media businesses, directing the ACCC to lead development of a code of conduct to ensure fair dealings between the companies. The government will step in with a mandatory intervention if it is not satisfied with progress by December, a time frame which Mr Miller wants brought forward.
“We have little confidence that a government-requested voluntary code of conduct will address the imbalance in the bargaining power that the platforms enjoy today,” Mr Miller said. “We haven’t asked for government subsidy support. We are asking them to do the things we’ve asked of them already and to not delay any further.”
Mr Fletcher said the government agreed digital platforms needed to improve transparency but remained adamant it would follow steps to create a voluntary code.
“Rod Sims and his team are due to provide the Treasurer with a progress report in May,” he said. “The Government has also made it clear that if the media companies and digital platforms cannot reach agreement by November 2020, it stands ready to step in.”
News Corp is not the only media company to come under significant financial pressure during the pandemic. Nine Entertainment Co, publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, recently outlined plans to strip up to $266 million from its cost base this year.
Regional publishers and broadcasters are also been hurt financially by reduced advertising spend. A number of independent regional papers, including The Bunyip, Sunraysia Daily, and Barrier Daily Truth, were forced to stand down staff and shut doors indefinitely.
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source: The Sydney Morning Herald