Address to the Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI) Roundtable: Future focus on local news

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet - the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation - and pay my respects to Elders past and present.

Thank you to Professor Fels, Anna Draffin and PIJI for the invitation to speak at this timely event and for your commitment to advancing public interest journalism in Australia.

It has been a pleasure to work with you on this issue, and I acknowledge your service to the field. We are privileged that people of your calibre are here to help in a highly strategic yet very practical way.
 
Future Focus on Local News

The theme of the Roundtable today is: Future Focus on Local News.

What appeals to me about this is the combination of the cutting edge with the enduring – which is a common theme in the Comms Portfolio.

It is indeed time to look forward, in order to promote the enduring objectives of media policy in the 21st century.

Even as the media industry deals with legacy issues, such as increases in the price of newsprint, or the need for battery backup for broadcast transmission towers in the event of a natural disaster, cutting edge issues, such as the use of generative AI in newsrooms, or the impact of algorithms on news access, demand attention.

Industry must not stand still, and nor can Government, when it comes to shoring up the sustainability of local news in Australia.

Because doing nothing, or too little, in the dynamic communications environment, is itself a decision with real consequences.

When it comes to supporting the news media sector in Australia, it is imperative we act, which is why I’m here with you today.

There have been multiple reviews and inquiries into public interest journalism and media diversity in Australia in the past decade or so.

Many of these have recommended the same or similar things.

We are all familiar with these recommendations and keen to see them put to work.

My focus, therefore, is on implementation and delivery.

Rather than working through a long and expensive Royal Commission or Judicial Inquiry or Parliamentary Inquiry to tell us that ‘water is wet’, when it comes to the state of media concentration in Australia, the approach I am taking is to spend the precious time and resources of Government making meaningful improvements to address this state of affairs.

After a decade of cuts, policy inaction and short-termism under the Coalition Government, there is no shortage of issues that need to be addressed.

The Albanese Government has wasted no time in getting to work on the critical task of fixing things – with policy, reform and support – to bolster the sustainability of the news media sector in Australia.

  • We have stabilised funding for the national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, with 5-year funding terms – and Government is now considering submissions to the public consultation on the Review of options to safeguard the independence of the national broadcasters.
  • We have stabilised funding for the Community Broadcasting Program, with additional $4 million per year, taking annual funding for the program to over $20 million per annum, and are undertaking the Community Broadcasting Sector Sustainability review in consultation with the sector.
  • And we have stabilised funding for the Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST) service for an additional seven years, the backbone infrastructure for the provision of commercial free-to-air television across regional and remote Australia, as the Future of Broadcasting Working Group considers complex questions of future television technologies and related market reforms in Australia.

On the reform front:

  • I have just introduced reforms into Parliament to modernise Australia’s analog-era broadcasting laws, with the Communications Legislation Amendment (Prominence and Anti-siphoning) Bill 2023 to support access to free local TV on connected devices and free sports coverage in the streaming era.
  • Anti-siphoning and prominence are priority reforms for the Government, and the bill commences a process of incremental reform that is well overdue in this country – both for consumers and for industry. The bill has been referred to Committee for inquiry and report by 26 March 2024, and submissions to the inquiry close on 22 January 2024.
  • Meanwhile, the Government is preparing to consult on radio prominence in the new year, because the principle that Australians should be able to easily access local services holds equally true for radio as it does for television.
  • And Minister Burke and I are now consulting with industry on models to inform the introduction of a legislated Australian content obligation for streaming services.

In terms of direct funding for the news media sector, the Government has already announced:

  • A $15 million lifeline for over 200 regional and local independent newspaper publishers across the country, including First Nations and multicultural publishers, under the Regional and Local Newspaper Publishers Program.
  • A Journalist Fund supporting public interest journalism by cadet journalists in the regions.
  • $1.5 million to the Local and Independent News Association (LINA) to underpin its work supporting digital, hyper-local and independent news publishers.
  • And $5 million to support Australian Associated Press, to enable AAP to continue to provide independent, fact-based newswire services to around 450 publications this year.

These measures are directed at sustaining a diverse and independent media landscape, which is crucial to a healthy democracy. 

And I am pleased today to have a series of further announcements to make, which demonstrate the progress the Government is making to realise its media reform agenda in a way that is principled, evidence-based and consultative.
 
ACMA’s Media Diversity Measurement Framework

One of the first things I did, as Communications Minister, last year, was to ask the ACMA to recommence work on the News measurement framework it produced in 2020 as part of the ACMA’s broader work program exploring Australia’s news environment.

This included the ACMA undertaking public consultation on the proposed scope and feasibility of the model, updating the framework to reflect stakeholder feedback and market developments, and providing me with advice on how the framework could be implemented.

Today, the ACMA has published its advice to government on the implementation of its new Media Diversity Measurement Framework.

This work is a key component of the Government’s broader News Media Assistance Program – or News MAP – helping to build a stronger, long-term evidence-base to support government decision-making around public interest journalism and media diversity.

The framework builds on a one-off research paper published by the ACMA, which outlined a series of indicators that could be used to monitor the health of the Australian news market over time, with a particular focus on diversity and localism outcomes.

Many of you contributed to the consultation process that the ACMA ran earlier in the year, and I thank you for your considered views.

The revised framework still seeks to understand the availability and consumption of news across the totality of Australia’s print, radio, TV, and online media landscape.

However, changes have been made to simplify the framework and provide greater clarity around its scope and purpose.

I also want to acknowledge the efforts of Australian researchers and NGOs – including PIJI – in helping fill many of the data gaps identified by the ACMA in its original 2020 paper.

The revised framework is designed to incorporate and continue to build existing third-party data and research, so as not to duplicate efforts, but with sufficient flexibility to grow and evolve over time along with the news market itself.

In its paper, the ACMA has made recommendations to government on how its framework could be implemented.

In addition to recommending that government publish its advice, the ACMA also proposed establishing a regular reporting series on the Australian news market, building or taking carriage of key datasets, and commissioning external researchers for work best undertaken at arms’ length from government, including in relation to analysis of news content.

I’m pleased to announce that the government has accepted the ACMA’s advice and is providing the ACMA with additional funding of $10.5* million over the next four years to implement the Media Diversity Measurement Framework.

This will be a new and substantial function for Australia’s media regulator, involving a broad range of research and data activities, including deeper engagement and collaboration with industry, academia and subject-matter experts.

The ACMA will publish its first report by the end of next year, along with a series of publicly available dashboards and a searchable database of Australian news sources.

The ACMA will then produce a regular report every two years, monitoring changes to the baseline, as well as providing new insights and case studies on different aspects of the Australian news market.

Potential study areas could include the use of generative AI in newsrooms, the impact of online intermediaries in news availability and consumption, understanding the consumption of news among culturally and linguistically diverse households, or assessing the suitability of tools to automate content analysis.

The Media Diversity Measurement Framework will not impact on the ACMA’s existing regulatory remit or compliance activities. The work is separate to the ACMA’s role in administering the current media ownership and control rules, as well as its broader research program.
 
Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI)

Now as I said, the Public Interest Journalism Initiative – PIJI – has made a significant contribution to the evidence base for News MAP.

Indeed, PIJI helped put the issue of data mapping on the national agenda, even as it addressed the issue, and its formation and impact is a credit to its founders and board members today.

I would like to thank PIJI for hosting this Roundtable today and bringing us together to discuss the challenges – and opportunities – facing public interest journalism in Australia.

PIJI’s data provides valuable information about the state of the news media landscape across the country.

That is why in 2023 the Australian Government provided $900,000 for PIJI. The funding supported PIJI to continue to collect, analyse, visualise and maintain data on the state of Australian public interest news and journalism.

And today I am pleased to announce the Government has set aside an additional $800,000 to support the continuation of PIJI’s work in 2024.

This funding will ensure PIJI can continue and expand their work, to build the evidence base for News MAP and inform future policy interventions, as the ACMA transitions into its new function.
 
News Media Assistance Program (News MAP)

Government measures to support public interest journalism and media diversity needs to be done within a principles-based and evidenced-informed policy framework.

The Australian Government is delivering the News MAP, which will guide and inform Government support for public interest journalism and media diversity.

Government intervention in the news media sector in any democracy should be done thoughtfully, efficiently and coherently, rather than in an ad-hoc, reactive or piecemeal manner.

To do otherwise risks failure, by not meeting the mark, or by undermining the independence of the news media sector, for example.
 
The News MAP represents a paradigm shift for how government will approach this task, as an ongoing, program of work that is well-informed on best-practice, and I seek your expert views on how this will be done.

Today, I am pleased to announce that we are launching a public consultation process for the News MAP.

The Consultation process will seek your views on three issues:

  • The draft policy objectives guiding the News MAP;
  • The factors to consider in the implementation of potential measures to support public interest journalism and media diversity; and
  • Establishing the evidence base, to inform future policy.

I have asked the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts to publish a Consultation Paper this week, which outlines the policy framework and seeks your views.

The Consultation Process will be open for written submissions until 22 February 2024.

The draft News MAP policy framework includes four key policy objectives:

  • The first principle is access, because everyone should have access to public interest journalism;
  • The second principle is quality. Audiences expect public-interest journalism to be accurate and impartial.
  • The third principle is diversity. We need to foster a media landscape where local news can thrive and where a diversity of voices are heard.
  • The final principle is engagement. Everyone needs the skills to critically engage with news and information. A key enabler is media literacy. Research shows that strong media literacy promotes meaningful participation, connection and mental wellbeing. Our Government is supporting a number of measures to promote media literacy, beginning at school.

The draft News MAP also includes a range of potential measures, including direct funding, tax incentives and government advertising, which have been recommended in past reviews and inquiries.

The consultation paper seeks feedback on what factors government should consider in deciding what measures to apply across the sector. For example:

  • Where should direct funding, or government advertising be applied, to what purpose, and why?
  • Are tax incentives more suitable than direct funding, and why?
  • What is the proper role of government and what should be left to industry?

The third part of News MAP is the evidence base. An evidence base that will inform when and where interventions are warranted, as well as their design, implementation and evaluation.

The consultation process is designed to lay out a framework for thinking upon which, I expect, industry and academia will layer expert insights to improve the policy framework as a whole.

The overriding questions in the consultation paper are: Do we have the objectives right? How should measures to support the sector be approached? And what evidence do we need to inform and evaluate support?

While the News MAP will not bind any future government, it will lift our collective understanding of news media assistance, and provide a best-practice framework for a more purposeful and effective approach overall.
 
Australian Associated Press (AAP) funding

Finally, while the News MAP evidence base is being established and the policy framework is being refined based on consultation, some interim funding is likely to be needed.

As you know, the Australian Associated Press (AAP) provides valuable newswire services, including to many outlets in regional Australia.

By providing these media outlines with a baseline of daily national and state news, AAP helps them focus their resources on regional and local news. Loss of this content would be a blow to regional news businesses that are already struggling.

I am pleased to announce that, as part of the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, an additional $6 million has been secured for the AAP to continue to deliver its newswire services.

This funding will be provided this financial year, and my department will work with the AAP to develop a transition plan towards longer-term sustainability.
 
Why we value public interest journalism and media diversity

In conclusion, the Australian Government understands that media diversity and public interest journalism play an important role in the functioning of Australian society and democracy.

Public interest journalism is essential for informed citizens, consumers and communities. People need access to accurate and relevant journalism on issues that matter.

A diverse media landscape enables Australians to access and consume a wide range of viewpoints. It is also an important countermeasure to the increasing proliferation of online misinformation and disinformation.

Smart phones, hyper-connectivity and social media have transformed the way news media is made, distributed and consumed.

This move to online news consumption has resulted in declining print and advertising revenues, forcing newsrooms around the county to contract or close, as other offerings have opened.

PIJI has been instrumental in helping Government understand these shifts, and this evidence now informs our next steps.

The Roundtable today is an opportunity for us to consider the future of local news, in the era of generative AI, and I look forward to the discussion.

And I also look forward to receiving your submissions on the News MAP in order to craft an approach, informed by experts in the news media sector, that will stand the test of time, to support public interest journalism - the democratic infrastructure in the Communications Portfolio.

Thank you.

 

*NOTE: A previous version included an incorrect funding figure. This has now been corrected.