Over the falls in a barrell – smooth-talking Corbett doesn’t let facts get in the way at Fairfax AGM

October 24, 2012

The Fairfax Media AGM took place in Melbourne today against a backdrop of financial meltdown in the company’s fortunes. The share price — currently at 38 cents — has halved since the beginning of the year.

That’s not such bad news if the stock is actually worth something. But when the fall is from 80 cents to less than 40 cents, it’s a calamity piled onto a disaster.

However, you wouldn’t necessarily get that impression from the soothing opening remarks by chairman Roger Corbett, who told the small Melbourne audience of shareholders that despite the ravages of an “annus horribilis”, Fairfax Media is in good shape and in good hands.

That’s like Monty Python’s black knight claiming “it’s only a flesh wound” as he bleeds out, limbless on the forest floor.

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Scooped: The politics and power of journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand

February 7, 2012

Hot off the press

Scooped is finally available. You can order online from Exisle Books

This book is the first new text on New Zealand journalism in ten years. Scooped is an edited collection of essays canvassing the politics and power of journalism and the news media in New Zealand today.

Scooped: The Politics and Power of Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand critically examines some of the most pressing economic, political, social and cultural issues facing journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Approaching journalism as a field of cultural production, the book brings together contributions from a diverse list of academics and journalists, and interrogates the commonsense assumptions that typically structure public discussion of journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Rather than simply treating power as something others have, and politics as something that the media simply covers, the book situates journalism itself as a site of power and cultural politics. Lamenting the often antagonistic relationship between journalism and academia, the book offers a vision of a critically engaged journalism studies that should be of interest to academics, students, journalists and general readers.

 

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A changing of the guard: Gina Rinehart mogul-in-the-making or corporate raider?

February 4, 2012

James Packer, Lachlan Murdoch, Kerry Stokes, John Singleton and Gina Rinehart. While Stokes and Singleton have been around media traps for a few years now, the return of a Packer, a Murdoch and the addition of Rinehart represents a changing of the guard for Australian media dynasties.

But this will not necessarily mean a return to a past where empires and family fortunes are entirely entwined. Perhaps, ironically, it signals the end of the dynastic age and the emergence of new corporate battles for control of media assets.

Gina Rinehart

Why buy?

Much attention has been focused this week on Australia’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart. Her play for Fairfax Media assets and her well-known disdain for “communist” journalists are a potent mix in these post-NOTW days.

There has been speculation and rumour about her motives, none of it substantiated, but all interesting.

I particularly like Stephen Maynes’ theory that Rinehart’s decision to raid into Fairfax was an act of hubris and rage at the unsympathetic portrait by Jane Cadzow in Good Weekend (published by Fairfax). From published accounts this seems a typical Rinehart approach to solving a problem.

Others raise the possibility that Rinehart and Singleton will now join forces to create a super network of right wing shock-jockery to campaign against Labor in the 2013 election. This is an attractive theory that aligns well with the suggestion Rinehart is a fierce warrior for conservative forces in Australia. It would be easy to do as Fairfax radio assets have been in play and Singleton’s Macquarie Network is a keen buyer.

Then there’s my favourite theory: Rinehart will grab the Fairfax papers, leaving the rest of the company behind. She will gut the current communistic news staff and hire a bunch of young Liberal communications majors; thus turning the SMH and the Age into simulacra of The Australian’s right-wing bile factory.

All equally attractive propositions to Rinehart’s lovers and haters alike. There’s no doubt her actions have polarized the media landscape and created turmoil in the already fragile media asset market.

[Published 4 Feb 2012 on The Conversation]

Update 4 Feb 6pm:

This disturbing footage was released by Get Up Australia. It clearly shows climate change denier and libertarian organiser Lord Monkton urging the establishment of a Fox-like media outlet in Australia funded by one of the super-rich.

It puts a new slant on the Rinehart putsch on Fairfax Media shares this week.

The story was reported on The Drum a couple of days ago by Graham Readfearn.

Read the rest of this entry »


Rinehart’s Fairfax gamble…a long play game

February 2, 2012

Published 2 Feb 2012 in The National Times

There’s been some excitement on the bourse and in media boardrooms this week over Gina Rinehart’s move on Fairfax Media. It seems the West Australian iron ore magnate is angling for a seat on the Fairfax board to add to her $165 million berth at the Ten Network.

Rinehart is keen to take her original 4 per cent stake of Fairfax to about 15 per cent. She bought the first shares for $100 million and is likely to spend close to $200 million on this raid.

But what are the real implications in this venture?

There’s been speculation that the Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, might move to block Rinehart’s attempted takeover of Fairfax – if indeed that’s what it is. The grounds for such a move would perhaps be that she’s not a fit and proper person to own media assets because of her alleged political bias. Rinehart is a vocal opponent of the Labor government and its resource rent tax scheme. The timing of Rinehart’s grab has created talk about the blocking move by Canberra. She’s made the play as the final report of the Convergence Review on media and communications is due to be handed down, and in the knowledge that the current convoluted and unworkable media ownership rules will be changing.

Blocking any takeover is open to the regulators under provisions of the Trade Practices Act dealing with matters of public interest. A strong case would have to be made that Rinehart’s control would lessen media competition. There is no “media” law that prevents her actions now and even less under the proposed new regulator.

But, for me, the timing is coincidental. Rinehart is buying Fairfax shares under the existing rules, which limit audience share across platforms and across markets. She is therefore entitled to increase her stake in Fairfax – while holding significant shares in Ten – as long as she does not control the companies and her combined media assets do not constitute a breach of the “three-and-two” rule (where companies are allowed to own up to two media outlets — TV, radio and newspaper — in a single area).

There’s also the issue of the government’s legislative and political timetables to consider. Filling in the substantial missing detail in the Convergence Review’s recommendations is going to take months, if not years. The timeline could stretch well beyond the next election cycle. We will be playing by the old rules for a while yet.

Rinehart’s decision to move now can be explained without recourse to conspiracy theories or invoking the “evil witch of the West” stereotype. She is cashed up; the Fairfax share price is ridiculously low (down from about $5 five years ago to less than 90 cents today) and by taking a chunk of stock she gains leverage over the company at a time when it needs to transition from being primarily about ink on paper to being truly converged and multimedia.

Rinehart may well be thinking long-term and looking for business synergies, cost-savings and profit-taking by joining up her investments in Ten and Fairfax. She would effectively then be able to either harmonise these business units to create a going concern, or sell-off strategic assets once the new ownership rules and content regulations are in place.

Whatever her motives, Gina Rinehart still has to play by the rules. She cannot easily move to positions of control of both Ten and Fairfax Media under the current cross-media ownership regulations without a fight. Under the mooted new rules she would also have to pass the public interest test.

Having said that, I don’t think it is useful to demonise Rinehart and suggest that she has an ulterior personal and political motivation for taking on Fairfax. She has strong and very conservative political views and she has been spending some of her inherited mining wealth on anti-government campaigns in recent months, but I am not sure that Gina Rinehart is another Kerry Packer or Rupert Murdoch waiting in the wings.

Rinehart is incredibly rich and she has seen an opportunity to buy a media asset while it is at or close to the bottom of its share price cycle.

What we should be concerned about is that this share market play makes a mockery of the idea that the news media and the press are somehow bastions of free speech and freedom of expression.

According to her own family, Rinehart is a tough woman and as hard as the ore her father dug out of the Pilbara to create her vast fortune.

She will have to be resolute if she is to take on Fairfax journalists who have fiercely defended their independence in the face of perceived corporate interference. Readers of Fairfax publications may also not take too kindly to Rinehart’s editorial line.

Her solution might be, as some have suggested, to wrestle control of the major Fairfax dailies and leave the rump to be sorted by the board. This scenario rests on Rinehart’s motivation being influence rather than profit.

Rinehart’s multimillion-dollar raid on the Fairfax share cupboard just goes to show that the adage “freedom of the press belongs to those who can afford to buy one”, still applies in convergent Australia.

Rinehart’s estimated wealth is staggering – she’s rumoured to be one of the richest people on the planet – so she can easily afford to buy Fairfax and whatever she damn well wants, but there are many hurdles to jump before she can claim the throne as Australia’s princess of print.


Convergence Review Interim Report – The Conversation

December 16, 2011

Republished from The Conversation

The Federal Government’s Convergence Review has released its interim report, recommending the scrapping of existing cross-media ownership rules and that commercial operators be given “certainty” around the activities of the ABC and SBS.

The report, which says new digital media operators should face the same regulatory framework as traditional media outlets, suggests introducing a new “super-regulator”, local content quotas, and the use of a “public interest test” for media company takeovers.

Deakin University Associate Professor in Journalism Martin Hirst examines what the recommendations could mean for Australia’s rapidly changing media industry.

[published as Q&A due to my hand issues]


Do you think the report adequately responds to the challenges arising from media convergence?

I think it’s quite empty of content, to be perfectly honest. The headline in it for me is that it’s an attempt to come to terms with what I call the “techno-legal time gap” – the dissonance between what technology can do and how it is regulated.

It’s an effort to bring the regulatory regime up to speed with the technological advances in the media industry.

This is why the report emphasises platform neutrality, which is the idea that we should treat all communications technology pretty much the same way. There is no real argument anymore for maintaining any difference in the way that we regulate print and broadcast.

Convergence means the overlap between different types of media is huge, particularly online. We now see television and radio networks producing blogs and other forms of written copy. You can go to the ABC News website and read transcripts of stories from ABC radio current affairs program AM, and you can go onto a newspaper’s website and watch video content that they have made.

This is one of the key things the review was set up to look at.

Some of the proposals, such as setting up a new regulator, will take a lot of work. Is the political climate right for these changes?

The devil is really in the detail, and it’s difficult to tell just from this interim report where exactly the entire review will head.

One of the most crucial issues seems to be the time frame. We are now probably 18 months out from the next federal election, and it’s going to take much longer to get that sorted out. So it looks like the review has created a political football to be kicked around until the election comes.

The issue of setting up a replacement for the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is quite complicated. Where does this leave the proposal put forward by head of the federal media inquiry, Ray Finkelstein QC to give more powers and money to the Press Council?

If you have one super-regulator that is at arm’s length from the government and deals with consumer complaints, then you don’t need a Press Council to deal specifically with print.

ACMA has done a good job in the past few years, particularly in reining in the worst excesses of the shock jocks. But the report is putting forward a light-touch approach to regulation here, and that is definitely what the industry wants.

The report talks about clarifying the charters of the ABC and SBS around their digital expansion. What are the implications of this?

There is a very important line in the report which is going to come back to haunt the ABC and SBS, but it is something that the Murdoch camp has been pushing for globally for some time. It says that the government must “give commercial operators certainty about the boundaries of public broadcaster activities”.

Over the past three or four years that have been various people in News Corporation, including Col Allan, John Hartigan, James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch, attacking the ABC and BBC, saying that they’re getting in the way of commercial networks expanding.

If there is a move to put strong boundaries around the ABC and SBS, that will certainly work in favour of the commercial operators.

The review calls for a “public interest test” for media takeovers and mergers. Would this work in practice?

This relies on a flawed idea of how the market operates. If you look at the public interest test as it currently exists in the ACMA legislation, the Broadcast Services Act and at the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission, it is all about the invisible hand of the market.

What this does is set up people as consumers rather than citizens. It says that as long as we are satisfied as consumers – rather than as citizens – the public interest is being met.

The report acknowledges the concept of public interest is not very well defined.

Could the loosening of ownership rules lead to a wave of consolidation, or change the make-up of the media industry?

The elephant in the room here is what is happening to the Nine Network. No amount of tinkering with the diversity and ownership rules is going to deal with the fact that Nine is on its last legs.

In the next two to three months, it will fall into the hands of the banks or the receivers. That is the biggest problem with this review – it cannot address issues of market failure.

Five years ago Nine was competing with the ABC to be known as Australia’s national broadcaster. Now it’s a basketcase.

The reason why Nine is in such mess is partly due to previous deregulation. The only thing that could be done to keep Nine going would be to nationalise it, and that’s not going to happen.

When all its debt comes due in February, I’d be surprised if it has anything in place to keep it afloat. The banks don’t want it – it’s toxic debt.


November 23, 2010

I am at the Journalism Education Association (Australia) conference for the rest of this week.

I’m doing a presentation about a postgraduate teaching and learning project called Values Exchange.

VX is the brainchild of my AUT Colleague Professor David Seedhouse. It is a multipurpose collective tool of critical analysis, discussion and reflection. It is eminently suited to a study of ethics and philosophy.

David and I have developed a journalism-friendly version of the tool – with some gentle tweaking of the back end. It now also has a robust reporting system built-in that allows users to examine each discussion in detail.

One of the VX journalism ethics case studies

This online case study-based analysis and blog site proved very popular and effective.

It ran for the first time is 2010 with 33 postgrad students in journalism, public relations and communication studies in the School of Communication Studies at AUT University.

I taught this paper with my colleague Dr Allison Oosterman in 1st semester.

Values Exchanged – JEAA presentation @slideshare

News 2.0 set to launch.

The other news is that News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Internet? is available in small numbers. The bulk order is now shipping from the publisher.

You can see the table of contents and order a copy from Allen & Unwin.

The launch will be at JEAA on Thursday 25 November at a 10.00am morning tea. If you are in Sydney, I’m sure you can find the venue at UTS.

Alan Knight, professor of journalism at UTS will do the honours at the launch and he has written the first review at his Online Journalism blog. We recorded a brief interview as well. I’m sure you can hear me sipping my way through a Sunday evening steady-reckoner,  nibbling on cocktail onions and olives.

Alan said very nice things about the book

Hirst’s new book, News 2.0, asks whether journalism can survive the internet? His brief is broad and his arguments impeccable. But ultimately he provides only qualified answers.

 

News 2.0 Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Convergence, journalism + News 2.0
Chapter 2: Why is journalism in crisis?
Chapter 3: Globalisation and the crisis in journalism
Chapter 4: The end of the mainstream?
Chapter 5: Is this the end of journalism?
Chapter 6: Journalism in the age of YouTube
Chapter 7: We’re all journalists now. Or are we?
Chapter 8: Never mind the quality, feel the rush!
Chapter 9: Networks, Indymedia and the journalism field
Chapter 10: Who pays the messenger(s)?
Chapter 11: Can journalism survive the Internet?


Dear Rupert, have you lost the plot? #paywalls

July 22, 2010

The Guardian is somewhat cheerily reporting this week that its arch-rival for British eyeballs, Murdoch’s The Times has suffered what appears to be a catastrophic drop in site traffic since ducking behind the paywall last month.

According to the Guardian‘s analysis (which you might discount on grounds of competitive one-upmanship)  traffic to the Times website has fallen as much as 90 per cent since the 15th of June this year.

The results also seem to confirm my analysis – soon to be published in News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Internet? – that the revenue streams from online subscriptions and daily paid visits are going to be a drop in the bucket compared to newspaper publishers’ overall income generating capacity:

There are approximately 150,000 Times print subscribers who get a free online registration, but if the estimated 15,000 daily online users who agreed to pay opt for the £2 a week deal, the paywall will generate £120,000 a month – £1.4m a year.

[Halliday, 20 July 2010]

That £1.4m a year is not going to cover the wages bill, let alone all the associated costs. It certainly is not a positive income stream.

I know that some commentators are suggesting that Rupert’s lost the plot – he is nearly 80 – and that the Internet has overtaken his usually sharp business brain because of its lightening speed; but I’m not so sure.

If you look at Murdoch’s strategy in New York, he has gone for a more traditional print-based newspaper war there; pitching the Wall Street Journal against the New York Times by upping its local coverage in a special section for the city that never sleeps.

To me this indicates a deeper game plan and a multiple strategy play that is yet to completely unfold. I’m not suggesting that Murdoch is going to be the ultimate winner here, but he is hedging his bets.

News International is also working on other aspects of the exclusivity of brand that the paywall might suggest. If you sign up and pay your 50 quid you get access to deals on executive travel, wine, books, etc. All aimed at the wealthier and older end of the scale. I’m shaking my head as I write this because not only is this approach nothing to do with the quality of the news on offer; but it also seems like a sinking lid strategy.

An older audience eventually gets smaller – it’s just the attrition of age and infirmity really. At the same time there’s nothing in the data to suggest that newspapers are generating interest in a younger audience – there is no long tail in this strategy.

The other clear observation is that no one has yet cracked the Holy Grail of the new business model for newspapers. It is obvious that in the short to medium term erecting a paywall means you take a hit; but it’s too soon to tell if there will be gains in the long run.

For readers, grazers and news surfers it means one less outlet, but in the crowded online market, the still-free alternatives are available to absorb the 90 per cent of Times‘ visitors who’ve given up on the once dominant masthead.

As one of my colleague remarked though, Times readers (at least those who have been loyal to the brand) tend to be conservative and may not like the more lefty tone of the Guardian or Independent.

It would be interesting to know where they’re going. Is it to The Sun, The Express or The Telegraph, or are they going off-shore for their news fix.

The next set of data on traffic, downloads and unique visitors to other news sites will be interesting, particularly if there’s a spike somewhere that might correlate with Rupert’s deserters.

I was on The Wire today discussing this issue.

Hirst_paywalls_the_wire_22_July


I’m going to be LATE for the museum

May 23, 2010

LATE 04
Innovate: Media
Thursday, 3 June 2010

This month LATE at the Museum asks what a rapidly-changing digital landscape means for broadcasters, policy makers and of course us as audiences?

The evening will ask what is happening, and what needs to happen, to ensure the independence and profitably of content creators in the age of ‘open source’ media.

Is the Internet the friend or enemy of today’s broadcasters and journalists, and how can we sustain quality programming and reporting at a time when newsrooms are shrinking and people expect to read, hear and watch content for free?

Smart Talk

The evening features a panel discussion with Associate Professor of Journalism at AUT University, Dr Martin Hirst and Brent Impey, ex CEO, Mediaworks NZ (TV3, TV4). The discussion will be moderated by former editor of the New Zealand Listener and award-winning columnist Finlay Macdonald.

Great Music

Entertainment on the evening includes Little Bushman who return to the Museum for an encore following their spellbinding performance at our inaugural LATE, plus Jeremy Toy (Opensouls) with special guests.


Murdoch’s parties launch circulation war in Gotham City

April 28, 2010

Rupert Murdoch threw two launch parties for his ambitious raid on the New York newspaper market this week.

The first was a breakfast of bagels, juice and coffee for the industry insiders and speeches talking up the advertising success of the Wall Street Journal‘s new New York supplement.

To be fair, the NYT blogger David Carr covered the breakfast and reported this extraordinary quote from WSJ CEO Robert Thomson:

“Unless journalism is sustainable, it will be inevitably diminished, regardless of the incoherent incantations and the superciliousness of the journalistic elite. That elite has all the ossification of the traditional bourgeoisie, and Baudelaire was definitely correct when he said ‘One must shock the bourgeois,’” said Robert Thomson, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, quoting both Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde to an audience munching on quiche and salmon-dappled bagels. He received the biggest laugh of the day by advising the audience, “If you really must read The New York Times, read it on the Web for free and then buy The Wall Street Journal.” [Media Decoder]

Thomson also hinted at further assaults across America as the business paper tries to compete with local broadsheets. At the same time the paper is offering discounts to advertisers – at least in the initial phase of the campaign to conquer America.

It’s a good job then that Murdoch has deep pockets and friendly (offshore) bankers behind him. It could get expensive.

The second launch party was an evening affair at Gotham Hall and, according to one guest, the food and drink were nothing much to get excited about. Significantly, perhaps. NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg was at Murdoch’s shoulder for this event.

Bloomberg was typical of the city’s elite who were celebrating with Murdoch (and at his expense – this type of bash doesn’t come cheap in Gotham, even if the catering does run to “pizza station”).

The power in the room last night was a very specific New York one, presumably the type of people Mr. Murdoch needs to win over with his new section. Henry Kravis and developer Bill Rudin were there, as was an outgoing deputy mayor, Ed Skyler, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and attorney general hopeful Kathleen Rice. It felt like a Real Estate Board of New York party. (In fact, the REBNY chairman, Steve Spinola, was on the tip sheet produced by Rubenstein Associates for reporters prior to the party.) The likes of Graydon Carter and Tina Brown were nowhere to be seen. [Media Mob]

Graydon Carter is the publisher of Vanity Fair. Tina Brown is an institution in New York media and now runs the internet news agregator The Daily Beast. No wonder Murdoch didn’t invite her, he hates agregators.

I can’t help wondering though if the irony in Robert Thomson’s breakfast speech would be lost on these well-heeled bourgeois.

Will Murdoch introduce Bingo and page 3 girls into the WSJ? It’s unlikely, but there may well be other gimmicks that might shock the bourgeois of Gotham.

However, I doubt very much that they’d be shocked by Murdoch’s business tactics. If he succeeds they all stand to benefit.

The real issue is what impact this fight between two old media heavyweights will have on the newspaper market in New York – arguably one of the most important on the planet – and whether it will spread to other American cities, or to global markets.

Murdoch’s presence in both the UK and Australia is well established. In London, Melbourne and Sydney he is in multi-paper markets (like NYC), but his market-share is strong.

What’s also not clear is whether the brawl between two aging print dinosaurs will hasten the death of newspapers, or breathe new life into them.


Buffett says “No”: Another nail in the newspaper coffin?

May 5, 2009

Investment guru Warren Buffett has made a damning pronouncement on the future of newspapers and, given the authority with which he speaks, it might trigger another downward spiral in the value of news stocks.

Speaking at the annual meeting of his Berkshire Hathaway group, Buffett responded to a question from New York Times business blogger Andrew Ross Sorkin on behalf of shareholders and readers of his DealBook blog.

I (somewhat selfishly) asked this question from Dennis Wallace:

“Given the current economic conditions in the newspaper and publishing business, can you please provide some of your thoughts on its impact on Berkshire. Given, that our investee, Washington Post Company has had a substantial decline in its stock value, is it still a good use of capital? And, given the ‘cheap’ trading prices of newspapers in the current climate, would Berkshire consider purchasing additional newspapers to add to its Buffalo News and Washington Post properties? At what price does it become compelling to invest in the newspaper business? Or is there no price where it becomes compelling in today environment?”

The answers from Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger were not very encouraging for those in the newspaper business.

“For most newspapers in the United States, we would not buy them at any price,” said Mr. Buffett, whose company owns a large stake in The Washington Post Company. He added that he sees the possibility of “nearly unending losses” for newspaper companies. Mr. Munger called the industry’s decline “a national tragedy” and said that “what replaces it will not be as desirable as what we are losing.”

That just about says it all really, but there’s a bit more. This from another American blog with the long and confusing name The end of elite liberal media empires and the rise of citizen journalism:

“As long as newspapers were essential to readers, they were essential to advertisers,” he said. “But news today is now available in many other venues,” [Buffett] said.
“….These monopoly daily newspapers have been an important sinew to our civilization…” said one of Buffett’s executives at the Berkshire investors meeting.

The blog with the long name appears to be some form of rightwing citizen journalism hybrid, but there’s not much info about it.


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