The dominant narrative surrounding the media, and especially journalism, is that it is under threat from wars that are ongoing on multiple fronts.
The ABC is under pressure in Australia, and in the United States President Trump has called the media the enemy of the people, despite the press enjoying protection under the constitution.
The business model that has supported journalism, meanwhile, has been crippled by the internet and social media, and there is an ongoing struggle to find a way to sustainably monetise quality journalism.
Finally, the public just doesn’t trust it. According to the latest edition of the prestigious Edelman trust report – now in its 18th year – the media is the least trusted of the four institutions it follows across the 28 nations: government, business, media and NGOs.
Taking these headline figures, you could be forgiven for thinking journalism and the wider media are in an existential struggle, and that they are losing. That may be true in many other areas, but in Australia that’s not the case.
There is a more nuanced read on the issue available by taking deeper look at the local version of the Edelman survey, as well as surveys conducted by respected Australian market research agency Roy Morgan.
They reveal that Australians trust journalism more than they have in years, they are flocking to trusted news sources, and that journalism continues to be a valuable commodity.
This is well illustrated in the following excerpt from the 2018 Australia edition of the Edelman report, which shows that ‘journalism’ (traditional and online media) enjoyed an enormous rebound in trust over the past year, while media ‘platforms’ (search engines and social media platforms) suffered the opposite.
There remains work to do for all traditional media to continue to build trust. According to the Edelman study, as only 26 per cent of people believe the media is doing its job well or very well on one of its most important mandates, to guard information quality.
Head of Edelman Australia, Steve Spurr, told the Guardian in February that, “We are starting to see this year for the first time, very clearly from my point of view, that the public sees the difference between the different types of media they consume.”
Roy Morgan, in its recent Net Trust Score report, revealed the same duality between trust in social and traditional media.
While the ‘media’ was the fifth most distrusted institution – ahead of mining and petroleum, utilities, telecommunications, and banks – the category was dragged down by distrust in social media, “particularly the strong level of distrust for Facebook”.
Individual media brands and mastheads fared much better. Fairfax, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne Age and the Australian Financial Review scored a positive net trust score, and readership at two of its major newspapers is up according to Roy Morgan’s latest readership figures. The Age, in particular, reported strong growth of 10 per cent year on year.
Overall, weekly readership of Australian mastheads (across print and online) of Australians aged 14 years and older increased 3.3 per cent to more than 16 million people, or 79.3% of that demographic, for the 12 months to June 2018.
Roy Morgan CEO Michele Levine said, “The take out from today’s readership figures is that the edge of trust and reliability carried by Australia’s leading newspaper mastheads represents valuable marketing territory in a world of diverse and sometimes questionable content.
“By building on their existing reputations for trustworthiness there is definitely room to grow audiences for Australian media companies despite the challenges posed by cashed-up international competitors.”
So, onto the final problem afflicting journalism: its business model. Given that Channel Nine has lobbed a $4 billion takeover bid for Fairfax, the most trusted commercial media brand, these ‘legacy’ media brands obviously still have some value.
Much of the value was largely attributable to real estate asset Domain and video streaming service Stan, but the company’s digital subscriber list for its mastheads has grown 9 per cent over the past year.
And, it’s doubtful Domain and Stan would have proven so successful without leverage of the trusted mastheads? Doubtful.
In today’s era of distrust, owning assets that attract millions of trusting eyeballs each week is a highly undervalued commodity. It’s important that Channel Nine works to maintain the level of trust the mastheads have earned over 150 years.
The rebound of trust in journalism and the growing readership of established print and online news outlets in Australia highlights how valuable it is for brands and businesses to gain favourable coverage through these mediums.
Their readers trust them, and that trust can be conferred onto the brands and companies that feature in those traditional media channels. And that is an invaluable commodity in Australia today.