Australia’s newspapers have an election problem. Over the last three decades there’s been a marked decline in front-page coverage of federal elections, according to research released yesterday at the Walkley Foundation’s Public Affairs conference in Canberra. Media and political consultant Michael Gillies and a team of PR and journalism students collected and analysed every front page of the major dailies for every day of the last 13 federal campaigns. That’s 2,403 pages from the Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Telegraph, The Age, Herald Sun and The Australian. Political coverage peaked during change-of government elections, when “the swing is on”, and lowest at the very next election when a change of government was least likely. Gillies’ team then examined coverage during the four change-of-government elections of the last 32 years: 1975 (Whitlam to Fraser), 1983 (Fraser to Hawke), 1996 (Keating to Howard) and 2007 (Howard to Rudd). The decline in election coverage is biggest in the Melbourne papers. The number of front-page leads -- that is, the biggest, main story on the front page -- in the Herald Sun declined from 62.5% in 1975 to just 31.7% in 2007. Over the same period, The Age dropped from 79% to 59%. As the graph shows, coverage in Sydney dailies also declined, though less markedly than Melbourne.

“Governments cannot be relied upon to tell the truth. And they cannot be relied upon to put the community and the nation first,” Gillies told the conference. “They need watchdogs. The most important daily watchdog is the media. If the media watchdog is falling asleep or turning the other way (perhaps increasingly distracted by celebrity ‘noise’) then governments are likely to resort to type.” The exception was The Australian, which actually increased front-page election coverage from 86% of editions in 1975 to 92% in 2007. Indeed, in the 1975 campaign it had only two front pages where neither the lead story nor the main picture were election-related. In the 2007 campaign, only one. Responding to the results, Daily Telegraph national political editor Malcolm Farr identified three potential reasons for the decline. First, there’s an increasing variety of election coverage online, including blogs where people can “analyse and discuss polls” -- clearly a reference to sites like The Poll Bludger and Pollytics, both now in the Crikey stable, and Antony Green’s site at the ABC. There’s also increasing pressure on editors to lead with stories that boost sales, such as celebrity news. A third reason is the increasingly stage-managed campaigns of party leaders. Newspapers avoid clichéd photo-ops in favour of local campaigning in key electorates -- such as Jackie Kelly’s in Lindsay (encompassing Penrith), or Maxine McKew’s in Bennelong. Local coverage can’t run on the front page without alienating readers in other electorates, so the story runs further back in the book. Farr said one reason for the Herald Sun’s greater decline is that it was dropping from its heyday of political coverage under the redoubtable Laurie Oakes. Conversely, as a national paper The Australian must lead with national issues like federal politics and sport. By defying the trend to reduce election coverage, however, Farr said The Australian has become “one of the most boring newspapers in the world”. Yesterday’s release is the first of three phases of analysis. The rest are expected to follow over the next six to twelve months.