Quick Post: Holmes uses the wrong framework to discuss @TheNewDaily_ #auspol

Over on the Sydney Morning Herald, Jonathan Holmes — former host of ABC’s Media Watch — has analysed the relationship between the new media service The New Daily and its financial backers, three Australian industry super funds.

In the past few days, critics and their own members have been asking the super funds how they can reconcile this risky investment with their duty to maximise their members’ assets. The New Daily’s co-owner, Eric Beecher, has responded that it’s no different from the funds investing in a TV advertising campaign: ”The funding is not from the investment fund itself, but out of overhead costs and marketing budgets.” And that’s been confirmed by Australian Super. ”This is not a private equity investment, but a marketing expense”, a spokesperson told The Australian. [Source]

The problem — according to Holmes — is that this blurs the line between news and advertising: ‘Either it’s an independent news website, or it’s a marketing exercise on behalf of its owners. It simply cannot be both.’

The problem with this dichotomy is that it isn’t accurate and relies questionable assumptions about the nature of journalism.

When you see a media conference with a politician or media figure, you invariably see lots of journalists from different companies asking mostly the same questions.  As a member of the public, you don’t get a lot of benefit from this ‘diversity’.  The story you see in the ABC will be run in a similar format by News Corp., Fairfax, and whomever else sent a journalist there.  You don’t need seven different companies to rock up to the same press conference just to be informed that Scott Morrison won’t be answering anybody’s questions.

We routinely hear complaints from media companies that the ABC is providing news content to the public for free.  ‘It isn’t fair,’ they whinge.  ‘We have to rely on advertising and subscriptions to provide content that the taxpayer-funded ABC is releasing for free.’

But the whinge does nothing but reveal that media companies don’t understand their audience.  We don’t want a media industry that gives us seven different iterations of the same words.  What we do want is good investigative journalism, good analysis, and good opinion writing.

If the Sydney Morning Herald breaks a story about political corruption, for example, audiences flock over to their website and buy their papers to pick it up.

If The Guardian has attracted an insightful piece of commentary from Sarah Burnside, for example, audiences flock over to their website to read it.

And so on and so forth.  By focusing on what makes their product different from the rest, news companies increase diversity.

But there’s another aspect to diversity: diversity in funding sources.

Although Murdoch-bashing is common sport in Australia, it’s true that Rupert Murdoch runs his Australian newspapers at a loss for the purpose of self-advertisement.  He bankrolls them for the purposes of his own reputation.  In the case of Fairfax — for whom Jonathan Holmes now works — the newspaper is bankrolled by shareholders, including Gina Rinehart.  The Guardian is financed by the UK parent company.  The ABC is financed by taxpayers.

We can see why this diversity is needed.  The Australian never runs articles that disagree with (what its editors perceive to be) Rupert Murdoch’s interests.  Fairfax remains in an uncomfortable relationship trying to prevent Rinehart from controlling the editorial position of its papers.  And so on and so forth.

An injection of funds from the super industry further increases this diversity of funding sources.  It is well known that The New Daily is funded by the super industry.  The New Daily has made no secret of it.  Thus, the reader can read the material produced and assess whether to what extent it is biased.  As all material produced by every media company is biased, there’s nothing new in this.

Holmes’ argument is that a company cannot be both an independent news organisation and a marketing exercise on behalf of its owners.  Given that traditional media outlets are already being used as marketing exercises of one kind or another, and that news stories are being used to attract readers to look at advertising, The New Daily is the natural telos of this environment.  It’s certainly not inconsistent.

If it produces the content that we want to read, then we are attracted to the site and end up thinking more favourably of the people who are funding the endeavour.  How is that anything but a win-win model?

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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