Rupert Mudoch has owned Perth’s Sunday Times for longer than his new wife, Jerry Hall, has been alive. It was one of the first papers he ever purchased, in 1955. But after six decades, he’s about to divest, if media reports are to be believed.
According to a report in The Australian in late January, talks have been going on for over a year and intensified since January.
“Seven can reap more synergies in Western Australia, largely through its ownership of free-to-air television business the Seven Network, which is dominant in Perth.”
If the sale eventuates — and most Perth journalists Crikey spoke to are taking it as a real possibility — control of The Sunday Times would pass from the Murdochs to another mogul family, the Stokeses. The family, headed by patriarch Kerry, wields enormous power and diverse business interests in a city and a state already dominated by media produced by Seven West’s integrated print/television newsroom. Seven West already owns The West Australian newspaper, so the addition of The Sunday Times to the stable would give the group a complete print monopoly in the state, with the exception of a few community titles that are held through a joint venture with News Corp.
Questions about The West Australian‘s dominance, even without The Sunday Times, have come up before. During the Finkelstein inquiry, the West‘s editor-in-chief Bob Cronin was asked about media diversity in Perth. He referred to a “plethora of news and opinion offerings” available to his readers, who, he pointed out, weren’t stupid and would go elsewhere if the West were unreliable:
“In the mainstream print market, we at The West Australian compete daily with The Australian and the Australian Financial Review, and, to a lesser extent, the West competes with the 23 regional newspapers in our group, which have different reporters, different editors and different focus.”
But journalists Crikey spoke to said the concentration of print media had real impacts that would only grow worse should a merger go ahead.
“The reality is, it’s been a very narrow news feed for some time,” said a senior Western Australian journalist who declined to be named (Perth is a small town).
The journalists’ union is also concerned. “If you’re talking about daily newspapers, the West is the only show in town Monday to Saturday,” says Martin Turner, its local head. “Then The Sunday Times is the only Sunday newspaper.”
Perth’s media diversity is made greater by its relative isolation from the rest of the country. Reporters in Sydney and Melbourne find it harder to cover because of the three-hour time difference. Many of those Crikey spoke to pointed out that Perth gets less coverage than you’d expect in the national media for a city of its importance; it, and WA generally, have been central to Australia’s prosperity in recent years, courtesy of the mining boom.
Unlike Sydney and Melbourne, Perth hasn’t benefitted as much from the infusion of new digital players that have come to Australia’s shores in recent years (though The Guardian does have a WA correspondent). Sure, Perth residents can read news from all over the country online — but there’s less of a chance that news will be about them than there is in other one-paper towns like Adelaide or Brisbane, which are far closer to Sydney.
And within Perth, high concentration of media has impacts on the way news filters out to citizens. This is partly due to the increasing tie-up between Seven News and The West. If something is broken by Channel Nine in Perth, for example, it’s far less likely to get a wide airing than something broken on Channel Seven, where the close integration with The West means stories are followed up in the paper. Currently, Turner says, other media organisations like The Sunday Times can find gaps in taking different stances on issues to those of the Seven West megalith.
He points to the shark issue. There have been numerous reports of swimmers killed by sharks in Western Australia in recent years, and the question of what to do about the issue has divided the community. The West Australian editorialised in favour of shark culls. The Sunday Times took a more, well, pro-shark attitude. “It was a very grassroots issue in WA, and quite a strongly divisive one,” Turner said. “But you had some nuance in the discussion, because we had different news organisations giving different things prominence.”
Dr Joseph Fernandez, head of the journalism department at Curtin University, is less willing to decry a merger. He says there’s no doubt Perth is more concentrated than you’d expect for a city of 2 million people. But, he adds, while arguing for media diversity is well and good, “this goal will be undermined if it is not accompanied by economic viability”. Greater diversity could make it harder for anyone to make a quid in the news game. “Good quality journalism does not come cheap,” he noted.
The Sunday Times’ circulation fell 10.2% year-on-year in the December quarter, which is one of the worst results in the News Corp group. Commercially, it benefits from nationwide ad buys across the News Corp network, and from the dominance with News Corp’s associated PerthNow website (it’s unknown if this will or won’t be part of any sale). But if News no longer wants to own The Sunday Times, maybe a sale to a more interested buyer, like Seven West, could ensure its long-term survival.