“I think it would be a pity if I grew any bigger in Australia,” Rupert Murdoch remarked in an interview with the US magazine More in November 1977. “There are now basically three groups in Australia and that’s too few already … the fewer there are the worse it is.”

Really? At this week’s eagerly awaited inquiry into the future of the Australian media, Murdoch’s local minions will be forced to reverse the argument — suggestions of News’ dominance are greatly exaggerated, they’ll say.

They’ll vigorously dispute the widely reported “70%” of the Australian newspaper market the company controls, claiming instead it owns “48%” of print revenue, “32%” of total newspaper titles or “60%” of newspapers sold in Australia.

In a piece published by in-house organ The Australian in August, media editor Stephen Brook said the 70% figure “doesn’t” and “never has” existed. Meanwhile commentators such as Mark Day prefer the other metrics — even if the 70% thing was true, they argue, it doesn’t matter given the “infinite diversity” of the internet.

The usual tropes trotted out by defenders such as Day is that the power of the web has democratised news and expanded readership. But a breakdown of circulation and readership figures shows that with the spread of online, News’ squirrel grip has been tightened, rather than prised free.

In the metropolitan capital city market that drives Australia’s serious news agenda, 12.3 million, or 70.5%, of the 17.5 million newspapers produced each week (including about 200,000 MX free sheets) are sourced from the house of Murdoch. That’s News Limited’s share of the audited paid sales of all daily and Sunday newspapers in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, Canberra and Darwin, plus the national market comprising The Australian and The Australian Financial Review.

Seven of Australia’s 12 major metro dailies have News’ name on them. Of the 20 million total newspapers sold in Australia each week, including community and regional titles, at least 12 million are Rupert’s. The others are controlled by Australia’s second media giant Fairfax, except one —  The West Australian — which is overseen by Kerry Stokes.

But wait … there’s more. News’ domination now extends well beyond the printing press. In Australia it is also a major player on the web, especially in cities and states where it already holds the biggest newspaper position. These days, it is highly unlikely an Australian adult could go more than a few days without getting some kind of news from News.

In addition to its 167 separate mastheads, News also runs 15 of the country’s top 22 metropolitan news journalism websites. Overall, 41.2% of news-seeking unique browsers end up on a News-owned website, compared to Fairfax’s 40.1%.

According to fresh Nielsen Online Ratings data released yesterday, four News “brands” — more than any other single proprietor — were ranked in the top 10 sites visited by Australians, with News.com.au (2.52 million), the Herald Sun (2.07 million), The Australian (1.38 million) and The Daily Telegraph (1.19 million) leading the pack. Australia’s total online audience is 16.6 million.

A state-by-state breakdown entrenches the picture.

In South Australia, News owns the only daily newspaper The Advertiser (daily average circulation 184,000) the only Sunday newspaper, The Sunday Mail (circulation 284,000) almost all the suburban newspapers through subsidiary Messenger, and the only general-interest national newspaper. Adelaide Now dominates the local market for online news with a unique online audience of 803,000 each month.

In Victoria, News owns the dominant weekday, Saturday and Sunday mastheads. It hosts the second most popular online news site, Heraldsun.com.au, with a unique online audience of 2.067 million each month (also the third most popular news website in the country) and controls about 45% of the community newspaper market. In Melbourne, News also owns the 93,000-strong, 315,000 readership, commuter throwaway MX.

In New South Wales, News produces the dominant daily newspaper on six out of seven mornings with The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Daily Telegraph smashing Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald  by 150,000 copies with an average circulation of 354,893 on weekdays and a colossal 621,982 on Sundays. Through NewsLocal — its community arm — it controls well over half of the Harbour city’s community titles including big-footprint Manly Daily. More than 100,000 copies of MX hit the streets each weekday afternoon.

In Queensland — like South Australia — News controls the only state-based daily, The Courier-Mail, with that title and only scant copies of The Australian regularly available in milk bars. Online, couriermail.com.au with a unique online audience of 1,182,000 each month, tops main Fairfax rival brisbanetimes.com.au by more than 40% in terms of reach, and 300% in terms of pages viewed. Up north, MX shifts 46,000 copies.

In Perth, where News doesn’t have a daily newspaper presence, it’s still competitive. The firm owns the state’s second-highest selling masthead behind The West Australian (and the only Sunday) The Sunday Times (circulation 283,524) and controls the state’s second most popular website PerthNow (695,000 monthly unique online audience) in addition to sales of The Australian. The News-controlled Community Newspaper Group distributes 742,961 papers to Perth homes and businesses each week (Kerry Stokes’ Seven West has a 49.9% stake) — more than twice the reach of its nearest competitor.

The only place where News lags slightly is in the influence hub of Canberra with no daily or weekend masthead. Making up for that slightly is the centrality of The Australian to the national capital, which shifts more copies per-capita there than in any other state or territory thanks to its readership of public servants and political insiders.

It’s close to comparing apples with pineapples, but it’s also worth looking at News’ dominance compared to other outlets on a particular day.

Last night, 1.263 million Australians watched the ABC 7pm news, with about 3.7 million viewing a commercial or SBS 6.30pm (or 9.30pm) bulletin. Stripping out double-ups, you could safely estimate that 2.8 million Australians watched one of the nightly bulletins.

Compare that with an aggregate of the total Roy Morgan newspaper readership numbers. On the metro capital city readership data alone, about 3,783,000 Australians would have read a News Limited title and, at a conservative estimate, a further 1 million people (with some overlap) would have browsed a News Limited website.

The other readily available metric — radio — shows that on a given morning at peak news time about 1 million Australians in capital cities would be gleaning news from the major commercial talk stations and the ABC.

On weekends the picture is even grimmer — with the News tabloids utterly dominant as radios switch off. And over the dead days of summer, the broadcast media vacates the space completely, leaving News Limited papers to clean-up the holiday market.

If  TV and radio news constitute two pillars of Australia’s daily news cycle, then the third is represented not by newspapers or the internet, but by News Limited.

The company is hardly mute in the broadcast area either, with indirect interests in four networks.

News Corporation director Lachlan Murdoch holds a strategic 9% stake and is interim CEO of the Ten Network, a similar stake in Seven regional affiliate Prime and 50% of Australia’s fourth-largest radio network DMG.

News’ UK arm also controls about 13% of the influential Sky News through BSkyB. News Limited CEO John Hartigan is Sky’s chairman and James Murdoch chairs BSkyB.

Last year, Hartigan mused on the future of journalism in the digital age. The decline of newspapers didn’t spell the end for News’ dominance — in fact, the opposite was true. This was an opportunity to extend the company’s reach into every nook and cranny of daily life.

“We have the opportunity to move from setting the agenda each morning … to actually owning the agenda. All day. Every day,” he said.

On the latest evidence, it seems Hartigan’s panopticon is close to fully formed.

Peter Fray

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