The two opposing cases in the debate over ownership deregulation of the media can be quickly summed up. The first group argues that the case for deregulation is buttressed by the explosion of choice available on the Internet, and the second group counters that the influence of online media is exaggerated.
This second group commonly cites a series of polls indicating that the most commonly trafficked sites for domestic news are owned and operated by the proprietors of existing media businesses. Fairfax, News Limited, Channel 9 (in its ninemsn partnership with Microsoft) and the ABC top the list, with ‘new media’ sites such as crikey.com.au and Yahoo! News struggling to compete. Not only this, but fewer people than it is often assumed gather their news online—in one such survey, 75 per cent of people were either unable to name an online news source they visited, or did not do so.
The news revolution and the deregulation it inspires, is, argue the critics of reform, a myth. Of course, none of the data is surprising. In 2006, established media organisations can far easier produce news content, with their network of in-house journalists and associations with news services such as Reuters and Associated Press. Obviously not everybody is comfortable yet with browsing the Internet for their news; established patterns are hard to break.
But there are problems with these one-dimensional measurements of news site popularity. It is arguably more interesting that, in the 2005/2006 poll displayed on this page, in fifth and sixth position are Yahoo! and Crikey, archetypal Web start-ups. Bigpond comes in seventh—before the Internet, how many people could say they primarily sourced their news from Telstra?
Drawn from a series of interviews and extrapolated to the population at large, the polls also appear to underestimate the traffic at these sites. The 2005 poll reports 190,000 visitors to the Crikey Website per month. Crikey itself claims double that — 355,000 unique visitors to their Website, with 41,000 readers of the daily e-mail.
Internet statistics are an amazingly problematic enterprise. The differences between hits, page views, visits and unique visitors are arcane and technical, but can dramatically raise or lower sites in the rankings. Whether the user is on a home computer directly connected to the internet, or through a corporate network — which could mean that a couple of thousand employees only register as a single visitor—adds to the challenge. Whether you identify unique users by tracking their IP address, with a cookie, or by imposing a registration system on the site itself, further complicates the issue. Unfortunately, trying to ascertain traffic by interviewing consumers doesn’t really cut it.
The diffusion of knowledge about current affairs is not as linear as these surveys imply. As these metrics measure ‘news only’ sites, they ignore a large number of sources of news and opinion available both on and offline. Outlets which are not classified ‘news only’ are often rich with references to current events. Online services run by traditional proprietors are richer with content and opinion than their print or broadcast counterparts, and in many cases, by linking to other sources, encourage consumers to explore alternative outlets.
News consumption is shifting from a hit-driven culture to a niche culture, as consumers spread out across a suddenly massive array of media outlets available online.
By leaning on surveys such as these as a crutch, opponents of media deregulation miss the point. Media use has rapidly and irreversibly changed. Whether consumers visit Fairfax Digital or an obscure blog — or more likely, both — they have not just shifted format, but shifted their approach to news gathering.
The media is now more than ever intensely competitive — the ABC, ninemsn, News Limited and Fairfax aren’t resting, confident in their status as most popular news sites, but are instead being chased by hungry start-ups and competitors eating away at their bottom lines. Media regulation has to change to suit.