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Independent media on the rise

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It is worth highlighting the growth of independent media in Australia. With elections looming, trust in politicians at an all-time low and the MSM focused on headlines instead of substance, voters are seeking answers elsewhere.

There are two kinds of media consumers in Australia — those that dislike the Murdoch empire and those that don't care or understand the role it plays. The former predominantly believe that Rupert Murdoch is the evil puppet-master behind the current (and previous) Coalition Government and its recalcitrance.

It is a narrative that has its roots in the lead-up to the 1975 Federal Election — "the dismissal" and all. It was a particularly nasty period of Australian politics and some would say the beginning of the rot that led us to today, where it is hard to believe trust in our politicians and the mainstream media can stoop any lower.

Time will tell on that score.

But while the fundamentals of party politics have changed little, the media landscape is vastly different from the days of former prime ministers, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser.

Rupert Murdoch is the last of the media proprietors still standing. The Packer media empire has been transformed into casinos, luxury yachts and other investments; and the once mighty Fairfax is now a mere subsidiary of Nine Entertainment — an ASX listed company with no controlling shareholder.

Channel Ten – never a real "player" – is now owned by U.S. CBS. Channel Seven is still majority owned by wannabe media tycoon Kerry Stokes, but he makes A lot more money from selling machinery to miners, energy investments and from his pastoral interests than from Seven West Media.

And above all, media has gone online and online is dominated by multinationals led by a whole new breed of proprietors. There may be no "Rosebud" in Murdoch's past, but like Citizen Kane, he may soon face his enemies all alone as the FANGs – Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google – are all too big for him to devour.

"Everyone" is on social media and according to a recent Roy Morgan poll (in May 2018), 78% of Australians aged 14-plus also access online news sites.

News.com.au is the largest (5.8 million monthly readers), followed closely by the Sydney Morning Herald (5.3 million) and the ABC (5 million). Of the top 20 news sites in Australia, News Corp's sites represent 31.9% and Nine/Fairfax 28.7%. Counting Kerry Stokes' paltry 4.5% (Yahoo!7 and The West Australian), it leaves the independents with just under 35% of the top 20.

After the ABC, the Daily Mail comes in at 3.9 million readers of other outlets' stories; and of the other independents, The Guardian (3 million) are just ahead of the BBC (2.9 million) — a surprising inclusion on the list. The online reading habits of Generation Z ensures that Buzzfeed (2.2 million) and Huffington Post (1.2 million) are included in the top 20.

Second-bottom is The New Daily just shy of one million readers and although not yet included in the Roy Morgan surveys, there is also a plethora of online sites that provide news coverage and extensive political and current affairs commentary and analysis.

These sites are not only all independent but according to the online visitor statistics as provided by SimilarWeb (an online web measurement service), they are also growing at a rapid rate, whereas "traditional" online media growth is mostly offset by the steady decline in print readership.

According to SimilarWeb, Independent Australia grew its month-on-month visitors by 38% in November 2018, Pearls & Irritations by 52%. The Saturday Paper recorded 9% growth and Crikey 5% — just to name a few.

And while Murdoch may lament the increasing dominance that Google, Facebook and Twitter have over the world's virtual eyeballs, search and social media is an important source of web traffic. The latter in particular for independent media, which relies on social media for more of its visitor numbers.

Based on SimilarWeb's data, News.com.au gets 5.5% of its visitor traffic from social media, in contrast to The Guardian's 12.2% and Independent Australia, which gets almost 20% of its traffic from social media. Overall, independent media gets three to four times more of its visitors referred by social media (mainly Facebook, Twitter and Reddit), than the mainstream news media sites do.

This is significant, as social media is also the platform where the conversations are happening — as exemplified by the #auspol hashtag on Twitter. Contrary to the belief of some ill-informed parliamentarians, these are vibrant conversations between engaged people, the bots are few and far between, and easily spotted (when you know how, which Senator Fierravanti-Wells' staff clearly did not).

In reality, if we look beyond the entertainment-dominated mainstream media, the Australian media landscape is increasingly diverse. Murdoch and Nine Entertainment may well have the numbers for now, but for debate and influence among voters, there are many more options than most people know.

As an example, Murdoch's flagship purveyor of politicised opinion, The Australian, has close to a million fewer readers online than The Guardian, and less than half that of the ABC. Based on online visitor stats, the top five politically focused independent media outlets combined (of those not in the top 20) have about the same readership as The Australian online.

The ABC and The Guardian are the leaders of a diverse pack of fast-growing online media sites that challenge the status quo — including this publication. And like Randolph Hearst (on whom Citizen Kane was supposedly based), Robert Maxwell, Kerry Packer and others before them, Murdoch's market power will not last forever, it is already on the wane.

Kim Wingerei is a former businessman turned writer and commentator, and author of ‘Why Democracy is Broken: A Blueprint for Change’. You can follow Kim on Twitter @kwingerei or on his website, kimwingerei.com.

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