This week 2GB Radio in Sydney got knocked off its number one perch. This right-wing gabfest has been at number one in the Sydney marketplace since 2004. It lost its spot to KIISFM which is an entirely non-serious enterprise. This is an important milestone. It marks a shift in the reading/listening/watching habits of the Australian populace; a change that will become ever more notable in the coming months and years.
People in Aus are beginning to consume different sorts of media, in different quantities, in a manner that is entirely predictable. These changes accord with both communications’ theory and the observations of economists over the last decades.
In simple terms, when an economy is flush with cash, then people broaden their habits and attitudes and commonly buy a lot more media products, of a wider variety. Also, the international, national and economic news components of the media all seem to grow and expand during these periods of economic good fortune.
However, when liquidity in a society dries up the populace commonly respond by not only reducing the amount of media being consumed but by also becoming less tolerant of (what are commonly perceived of) as ‘non-mainstream’ ideas and propositions. (If anyone wants to look into this phenomenon further it is normally referred to as the ‘Overton Window’ Hypothesis.)
In simple terms, as people see their economic opportunities shrinking then they tend to not only move towards a greater consumption of ‘mainstream’ non-news narratives, they also become less tolerant of what are perceived as ‘marginal’ or ‘special interest’ propositions (especially those that are ideologically or politically based). Consequently, people start to change their ‘news’ consumption habits and begin to look more towards local and regional news and coverage of local events, and also commonly consume a lot less international and national news.
So, while other sectors of the economy only have to deal with economic factors, when times go bad, the big media owners also have to contend with a change in attitudes of the population. With Nine and News it will likely make for a perfect storm. How long will these owners (overseas owners in one instance) put up with the parts of their conglomerates that are bleeding money?
The slush of cash that had been sloshing around has suddenly dried up. And while low interest rates and high liquidity is a situation that is conducive to a highly concentrated media marketplace – vertical integration along with buying up all of your competition only works when there is enough money for the big, centralised parts of the business to support a host of smaller loss-making operations.
Regional and local papers will be sold off first. Plus, newsrooms across the country will further consolidate, with several major mastheads being edited from the one centralised location (which has been happening already, but which is a process that will be accelerated in the coming years). Yet these commercial realities will also be exacerbated by the change in media habits that was earlier discussed.
The vast majority of Aussies are (in colloquial terms) far to the ‘left’ of both the government and the press. This is of particular concern for the Nine and News group which publish a range of mastheads that are way out of step with the opinion of the vast majority of the populace. These papers will either have to shift to a more centrist editorial position or become less ideologically and politically focused. Moreover, at the same time, as ownership once again diversifies in the print and online spaces, then the power of these big media monopolies to dictate the content of the ‘news’ will also diminish.
The shift to regional and local consumption will also have implications for the big companies. In many cases the closure of a local paper that is owned by one of these big corporations will allow space for a locally owned enterprise to once again spring up. Thus, while the current financial downturn is not a good thing for individuals it will likely be of benefit to our regional media environment by forcing the divestiture of many failing titles, thus allowing these local and regional markets to once again be serviced by small (and far more agile) regional owners – who will likely include a diversity of news sources and opinions in the place of the relatively uniform product that is currently available.
For many of us who are quite exasperated by the incredible media ownership concentration in our country these are all welcome developments. Yet it also needs to be observed that the prospect of an easing in the obscene levels of media ownership concentration in Australia are unlikely to be the product of any government action. I seem to get the feeling that our political class are more worried about their careers than the health and wellbeing of the community in general (but perhaps I am just an old cynic).
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