Former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s petition to establish a royal commission into media diversity in Australia attracted more than half a million signatures and took aim at Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire Mr Rudd labelled a “cancer on democracy”.
Another ex-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull also weighed in, branding it “an absolute threat to our democracy” and “the most powerful political actor in Australia”.
So, just what is his reach?
In this fact file, RMIT ABC Fact Check takes a look at the breadth and popularity of Mr Murdoch’s Australian media outlets, relative to their competitors.
Given the focus by Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull on Australian democracy, this analysis is limited to the coverage of news and current affairs in Australia.
Murdoch’s reach: the big picture
For the purpose of this fact file, “reach” refers to the number of unique individuals who, for example, visited a website, watched a television channel or read a newspaper during a given period.
Fact Check sourced viewer and readership data for print, digital (including social media), television and radio from various sources, including reputable survey organisations Roy Morgan and Nielsen.
The available data slices up and measures different parts of the media landscape, so assessing the combined audience share of Mr Murdoch’s Australian news outlets is not straightforward.
So what can we say?
Certainly, News Corp’s newspapers dominate the national market for physical newspapers.
At the last count, in 2016, its share of circulation among national and capital city dailies was 65 per cent, and likely similar for regional papers.
More recent data for December 2020 shows that print papers owned by News Corp commanded more than twice the total audience of those owned by Nine Entertainment.
What does Rupert Murdoch own?
Mr Murdoch’s portfolio of Australian news media brands stretches from print, radio and pay television to online news, including:
- Print and Online: roughly 100 physical and digital newspaper mastheads in Australia (at the start of 2021), along with the news website news.com.au.
- Television: 24-hour news service Sky News Australia.
- Radio: a minority shareholding in Here, There & Everywhere, formerly APN News & Media.
These investments fall under the banner of News Corp Australia, whose ultimate owner is the US-based News Corporation, of which Mr Murdoch is executive chairman.
The Murdoch Family Trust controls around 40 per cent of the parent company’s voting shares (and a smaller proportion of the total shares on issue).
But that says nothing of the internet, where far more people get their news.
Here, Nine’s biggest traditional mastheads are individually more popular than those of News Corp.
Measured by monthly readers, the combined reach of News Corp’s hardcopy and digital newspapers is only around 7 per cent larger than Nine’s, despite owning twice the number of titles.
And among news websites more broadly, News Corp is not the only big fish.
Its website news.com.au ranks second to the ABC for monthly visitors, and its traditional newspaper brands are outperformed by digital-only offerings such as nine.com.au and Daily Mail online.
In December 2020, News Corp’s news websites collectively reached 1.2 million fewer readers than those owned by Nine Entertainment.
There is little to suggest that News Corp dominates when it comes to broadcast news audiences.
Its radio investments are comparatively small compared to those in print, for example, in a market where ownership is relativelymore diverse.
News Corp’s sole television news outlet, Sky News Australia, attracts a significantly smaller audience than ABC News, the nation’s only other 24-hour news channel. And, according to one survey, the number of people who got their news from Sky was roughly a third that of either Channel Seven or Channel Nine.
On social media, however, Sky has an outsized audience.
In the second half of 2020, its Facebook posts were shared more often than any of the 65 accounts analysed by Fact Check, while news.com.au placed third, behind Daily Mail.
On YouTube, its subscriber base far exceeds that of Channel 7 and Channel 9 and by March 2021 had surpassed ABC News, while its videos receive millions more views per month.
Importantly, it is likely that a significant chunk of Sky’s YouTube traffic comes from overseas, given reports that nearly a third of its website traffic comes from outside Australia.
Below, Fact Check has collated and presented the data summarised above, along with necessary caveats for interpreting it.
Is all reach equal?
Mr Rudd’s campaign took particular issue with Mr Murdoch’s print newspapers.
But how important are they?
Various surveys shed light on this question by asking where Australians get their news. Often the results add to more than 100 per cent as participants can select multiple sources.
In 2019, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which regulates commercial broadcasting, found just 11 per cent of people read hardcopy newspapers daily. Meanwhile, more than half got their daily news from television (52 per cent) or online news and social media (51 per cent).
The same survey found 36 per cent of people never read newspapers at all.
In 2020, the University of Canberra’s News & Media Research Centre reported that just 25 per cent of news consumers got their news from a newspaper.
More than twice as many got their news from either online sources (52 per cent) or social media (53 per cent). Asked about their one “main” source of news, just 6 per cent of people chose print.
Importantly, though, online sources include the websites and apps of traditional newspapers.
Roy Morgan also asked Australians about their multiple “main” sources of news in 2020.
It found digital sources overall, including social media, were now more popular (61 per cent) than television (60 per cent), radio (42 per cent) or print newspapers (25 cent).
However, it’s worth highlighting the company’s 2018 research that said most digital-platform users “considered online news to be a good adjunct, rather than replacement for ‘offline’ news”.
It found that the most popular online sources – particularly for news about local affairs, crime, and politics – were the websites and apps of traditional newspapers and broadcasters.
The limits of reach
One thing to consider when measuring reach is that people who consume news from multiple sources will often be counted twice, even in the same dataset.
Most datasets also do not specify whether audiences are accessing news, entertainment or other content, which is often published side by side.
And when it comes to social media, the publicly available data does not show whether users are located overseas. This is particularly relevant given Mr Rudd’s focus on Australian democracy.
Finally, there is the issue, beyond the scope of this fact file, of how reach within a particular geography might translate to political power at the local or national level.
Mr Rudd has argued that News Corp papers dominate in Queensland, a state that has tipped the balance to the Coalition in multiple federal elections.
News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller told the inquiry this overstated the company’s power, noting that Labor won Queensland’s last state election, despite News Corp’s Courier Mail pushing for a change of government.
Diversity and dominance
Mr Rudd highlighted the need to “maximise media diversity ownership”.
Ownership has been the traditional measure for media diversity in Australia, but it is not the only one. Diversity can, for example, be assessed as a share of audience or industry revenue.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission argued in its 2019 Digital Platforms Inquiry report that factors other than ownership were also important, and interpreted “choice” for news consumers in terms of “what is available in the market; what is distributed or made accessible to consumers; and what is consumed”.
In a 2020 issues paper, ACMA concluded that ownership was “no longer a suitable standalone metric of diversity”.
“[In] a news environment defined by an abundance of information and potential news sources,” it said, “there is a divergent view that the influence of outlets should not be defined purely by an examination of what is available and who owns them, but also by what audiences are actually consuming”.
Quoted in the same report, the UK’s communication regulator argued that to prevent any media owner from gaining too much influence, it was important to ensure nobody amassed “a share of consumption that is so high that there is a risk that people are exposed to a narrow set of viewpoints”.
With that in mind, Fact Check has paid particular attention to the number of Australians who get their news from News Corp, relative to other sources.
Given the concern of Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull about News Corp’s impact on Australian democracy, as opposed to its commercial success, this analysis has also focused on audiences rather than revenue.
The ‘market’ for news
Audience share depends on which sources are being compared, and there are many ways to define the field.
A narrowly defined field might include only television stations or only hardcopy newspapers, for example.
More broadly, it could include all producers of a particular news medium, such as text, audio or video.
And then there is arguably one big “news” market where all media formats, including online and offline sources, compete for attention.
Yet another approach is to consider geography, and assess competition in terms of local, regional, national and international news.
These definitions are a critical point on which Mr Rudd and News Corp differ, with Mr Miller telling the Senate inquiry that the Australian media “has never been more diverse”.
Indeed, the ACCC report found the internet had increased “the plurality of journalism available online” and this had “reduc[ed] the impact of the high concentration in the traditional print (now print/online) sector”.
“Overall, the available evidence suggests that the entrance of digital natives has affected the sources of news that consumers access online,” the report said.
Mr Rudd, however, says this matters little if Mr Murdoch dominates in print.
At the inquiry, he claimed that each story published online or broadcast over the airwaves “finds its point of origin in a print story, often a Murdoch print story”.
Mr Turnbull also told the inquiry he thought that while print set the agenda less than it once did, this point was “largely correct”.
However, he noted, “the influence of this very political media organisation is vastly greater on the Coalition than it is on the community at large”.
In one submission, Sydney University Emeritus Professor Rodney Tiffen argued that News Corp’s power arose from the combined effect of its outlets, including those in television and radio, functioning as an “echo chamber” of opinions and themes. He also suggested this power had its “most direct effect” over politicians.
However, assessing the combined reach of these sources is not straightforward, as the available data typically offers only partial glimpses of the media landscape – generally adopting different measures for print, broadcast and digital media, and often treating online and offline audiences separately.
The ACMA paper found the existing data was limited to “individual measures of consumption for each platform”, which not only varied in reliability but were also produced using different methods. This meant the data “cannot be appropriately combined to provide a comprehensive and accurate view of news consumption across all platforms”.
The paper recommended developing “a large, bespoke, nationally representative consumer survey” to allow for a direct comparison of the popularity of news outlets across print, radio, TV and online.
“To our knowledge, this information is not currently available in Australia,” it said.
After deciding to turn many of its local papers into digital-only publications or cut them entirely, News Corp was publishing fewer than 20 hardcopy newspapers in early 2021 (and roughly 85 digital-only titles).
The company owns seven of Australia’s 12 national or capital city dailies (58 per cent), a figure which, for simplicity’s sake, excludes weekend papers.
In four capitals – Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin and Hobart – News Corp’s papers face no local print rival.
Outside the capital cities, daily publications provide competition in some regional cities.
But in many regions, major titles are all that are available, with the ACCC reporting that 21 local government areas had no local print or digital newspaper coverage at all in 2017-18.
Local and community print titles newspapers still operate in many other places but tend to be published weekly.
In Queensland, for example, no daily papers other than News Corp titles appear in the membership list of the Australian Press Council, which the council says accounts for 95 per cent of print circulation.
So, how dominant are News Corp newspapers?
In 2016, a major international study found that News Corp papers accounted for 65 per cent of circulation among ten of the major dailies (excluding NT and Tasmania).
Across all major and regional dailies the picture would have likely been similar, with the Finkelstein review into media regulation reporting that News Corp accounted for 58 per cent of the nation’s daily newspaper circulation in 2011. A further five per cent went to APN News & Media, which News Corp acquired in late 2016.
What the readership data says
Roy Morgan and emma, a Nielsen-Ipsos joint venture, both survey Australians to ask what they are reading.
While they adopt different methodologies and cover only a selection of titles, each estimates how many people, on average, read a particular print publication – a measure referred to as “average issue readership”.
(Its five regional dailies add an extra 150,000 to 290,000 readers per weekday issue.)
Nine Entertainment’s combined print-only readership was a much smaller 0.8 million to 1.2 million.
Importantly, people who read multiple papers will be counted more than once in these totals.
Roy Morgan supplied Fact Check with 2020 data for the “net readership” of each company across the 12 capital city and national dailies.
In this data, readers are counted only once against each company – even if they read multiple papers from the same company, or multiple issues.
It shows that News Corp reached more than twice as many people each week than Nine Entertainment did through its print newspapers, and around six times more than Seven West.
Print goes digital
Roy Morgan and emma also estimate the combined print/digital audiences of selected print newspapers.
The data provides a fuller picture of the audiences of traditional mastheads, though it does not include data for digital-only titles such as Nine’s The Brisbane Times.
Roy Morgan has supplied Fact Check with totals covering the 12 major dailies and their weekend editions for the year to December 2020, split according to newspaper owner.
This data counts people who read multiple newspapers owned by the same company only once during each four-week period.
It shows that News Corp’s seven titles attracted a monthly combined print/digital audience of 13 million people. That compares with 12.1 million across Nine Entertainment’s three mastheads.
Notably, News Corp’s audience will be slightly understated as the figures do not include digital audiences for NT News.
Readers have a still greater range of choices when it comes to online news.
The Canberra University survey suggests News Corp owned five of the 10 most popular Australian digital news brands in 2020, based on the number of people who accessed news sources over a one-week period.
Those brands include news.com.au, which ranked equal first with ABC News and was accessed by 23 per cent of Australian news consumers surveyed.
Behind News Corp and the ABC came the websites of Nine Entertainment’s and Seven West’s television networks.
Guardian Australia was the sole “digital native” to make the top ten other than News Corp and ABC brands, though the data does not include “offline” audiences for other television or newspaper brands.
It’s also worth noting that the survey found several of News Corp’s most popular brands (The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun and Sky News Australia) were among the least trusted sources for news.
Separately, audience analytics company Nielsen collects data on the number of Australians who access domestic news websites and apps each month.
It supplied Fact Check with figures showing the total “unduplicated unique audience” for the various news websites owned by each of the four big players.
This means people who visit multiple websites owned by the same company, or visit them multiple times, will only be counted once.
The data shows News Corp websites collectively reached 12.1 million individual people in December 2020, which was lower than Nine Entertainment’s 13.3 million people.
Nielsen also publishes monthly audience data for these companies’ individual news websites.
Its December 2020 data shows that news.com.au was News Corp’s most popular site, which reached a little over 10 million people.
Coming in behind ABC News (11.4 million) and nine.com.au (10.7 million), this was one of only two News Corp sites to make the top 10.
For completeness, Fact Check has also analysed the published data as averages over the six months to January 2021 inclusive.
This put news.com.au slightly higher, in second place, while the Herald Sun dropped out of the top ten.
Sky News Australia broadcasts multiple channels through the subscription television service Foxtel, which is also majority owned by News Corp.
At the time of publishing, its main news channel was available in regional areas through the WIN Network. However, there is speculation the agreement between Sky and WIN will not be renewed when it expires in August 2021, after the regional network signed a new deal to broadcast content from Nine Entertainment.
Sky News’ offerings represent Australia’s only 24-hour news channels outside ABC News, though the station also competes with news-producing free-to-air stations.
The Canberra University survey results show that Australians in 2020 were far more likely to get their news from free-to-air broadcasters such as ABC, Channel 7 or Channel 9 than from Sky.
So, how many viewers does Sky News Australia reach?
The ACMA issues paper explains that ratings data has to-date been “primarily platform specific” but that total ratings across online and broadcast video will soon be available from Virtual Australia (VOZ), a new partnership between Nielsen and the ratings agencies OzTAM and Regional TAM.
According to its website, VOZ began producing test data in 2020 which is not yet publicly available.
In the meantime, Fact Check has relied on cumulative 5-minute audience data (consolidated 28, weeks 1-52, 2020) from OzTAM (5 City Metro) and Regional TAM (Combined Aggregate Markets).
This measures the number of unique viewers who watched at least five consecutive minutes of a given channel each week. Figures for separate channels cannot be combined to produce an overall figure.
The data shows that Sky News Live was watched by an average of 577,000 viewers per week in 2020, among all households in five capital cities.
Sky News Extra reached 146,000 metro weekly viewers.
In regional areas, Sky News on WIN reached an average of 480,000 viewers per week.
To put all this data in context, the ABC News channel reached an average of 3.9 million Australians per week (all households), including 1.1 million regional viewers and 2.8 million metro viewers.
Nationally, Sky News Live reached an average of 791,000 viewers per week, in households with pay TV.
This figure (for pay TV households) cannot be compared directly to ABC News’s national audience (all households), but it suggests Mr Murdoch’s influence over the airwaves is far smaller than its most direct competitor.
News Corp brands are increasing their reach on social media as more Australians are using these platforms for news.
Fact Check has analysed audience data for media accounts on what Canberra University found were the two most popular platforms: Facebook (used by 39 per cent of news consumers ) and YouTube (21 per cent).
This analysis considers direct reach, measured by account followers or subscribers, but also YouTube video views and Facebook shares.
Axel Bruns, a Queensland University of Technology professor of digital media research, told Fact Check that indirect reach such as shares “might be as or more significant” than direct reach, as “research shows that users pay more attention to the content shared by their friends”.
Importantly, the data analysed does not show whether audiences were in Australia or overseas.
What’s happening on Facebook?
Fact Check has analysed 65 Australian media accounts using data from CrowdTangle, a public insights tool owned and operated by Facebook.
The data covers the period before Facebook’s temporary ban on Australian news content.
The results show that on this platform three official News Corp accounts had amassed more than one million followers by January 2021.
Together, nine of its accounts had accrued roughly 7.5 million followers. The most popular among them was news.com.au, with 1.9 million.
Passing the million mark is a notable but by no means unique achievement, with Daily Mail Australia commanding nearly five million followers, and ABC News roughly 4.3 million.
Illustrating the appeal of video content on social media, the bulk of accounts with more than 1 million followers belonged to television networks, especially those of Seven West and Nine Entertainment.
Fact Check has also considered Facebook shares over the six months to January 2021.
In total, the data shows, posts by official News Corp accounts were shared more than 4.4 million times during this period.
Topping the list was Sky News Australia, whose posts were shared 2.3 million times.
News.com.au was also near the top, with 1.5 million shares over the same period.
The majority of accounts with more than 100,000 shares over the previous half year were ABC and Seven West accounts with a local news focus.
What’s happening on YouTube?
Fact Check has limited its analysis of Australian YouTube accounts to major digital-only and television news producers, due to the platform’s focus on video.
Here, ABC News and Sky News Australia dominate.
Data from the analytics site Social Blade shows that Sky News Australia’s YouTube channel had more than a million subscribers at the start of 2021, having doubled its following in just six months.
Its subscriber base began to pull ahead of Channel 7 and Channel 9 from mid-2020, and by March 2021 Sky had overtaken ABC News.
Sky News Australia has also seen a dizzying rise in the number of views received by its videos, a fact first revealed by Business Insider.
The channel recorded 762 million views in March 2021 alone – or 257 million more than ABC News.
It’s worth reiterating that the data does not show whether it is Australians watching, and therefore whether this has any bearing on Australian democracy.
However, News Corp has likely benefitted from YouTube’s decision to boost content from mainstream news channels in a bid to combat misinformation.
QUT Professor Jean Burgess told Fact Check that the policy “means that simply by virtue of owning a large number of media outlets, it is possible that Murdoch outlets will have an outsized influence on an Australian consumer’s access to media on controversial topics via YouTube”.
When it comes to radio, Mr Murdoch is a minority company shareholder in a market where ownership is somewhat more diverse than in print.
Separately, Mr Murdoch’s eldest son Lachlan Murdoch owns Nova Entertainment, whose operations include the Nova, smoothfm, FIVEaa and Star FM networks.
In addition, Australian Radio Network and Nova have a 50-50 joint venture which owns one station in Brisbane and one in Perth.
Fact Check has analysed data from the Australian Media and Communications Authority’s media control database, which covers all commercial radio stations that broadcast over radio spectrum.
After accounting for the two joint venture stations, this shows that HT&E’s Australian Radio Network (ARN) owned roughly 14 per cent of the commercial and ABC stations operating across five capital cities.
Lachlan Murdoch’s Nova Entertainment accounted for a further 12 per cent.
But Southern Cross Austereo had the largest footprint among the commercial operators, with 15 per cent of stations.
The ABC, meanwhile, operated 38 per cent, broadcasting local radio, Radio National, NewsRadio, Classic FM and triple j in each city.
Market research company GfK supplied Fact Check with audience data from its recent Radio Alive metropolitan surveys in the same five cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.
Fact Check has examined its results for cumulative listeners, or the number of different listeners reached by each station.
The data shows that ARN (owned by HT&E) stations attracted some of the nation’s largest audiences in 2020.
Among its wholly-owned stations, ARN’s top performer in each city reached between 22 per cent and 29 per cent of people aged 10+, which equated to more than 1 million unique listeners in both Melbourne and Sydney.
ARN’s stations also cracked the top three for cumulative reach in four of the five cities, although the same could be said of its rival Southern Cross Austereo.
ARN stations topped the rankings in Adelaide and Melbourne, while Nova took out first place in Sydney and Brisbane and the Nova-ARN joint venture ranked first in Perth.
But it’s important to note that the subject of Mr Rudd’s petition was news media, and the data does not specifically show whether people were listening to news.
Radio has also moved to digital broadcasting, which opens up the space for more news outlets to compete.
However, the GfK data shows digital audiences remain relatively small, with all but seven of the stations surveyed attracting a commercial audience share of less than 2 per cent.
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