Newspaper Nine Queensland
(Image: Unsplash/Bank Phrom)

There’s a hard rule in newspapers: no ads, no paper. With yesterday’s announced closure of the independently-owned Sunraysia Daily we can see what this means amid the spread of COVID-19 — the end of print.

The Mildura paper is the first daily paper to close in 30 years. It won’t be the last. It’s all but impossible to see many of Australia’s print newspapers surviving the great disruption being wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and by the concurrent jackpot of advertising collapse, social closing, restrictions on travel and government vandalising of public broadcasting that threatens the infrastructure of Australia’s media.

If papers aren’t closed outright, expect both of the media duopolies to follow Sunraysia and “suspend” some or all of their print operations, sooner rather than later — perhaps starting with a pause on the announced plans for internal news services to replace AAP.

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People still want news. All the evidence — mainly out of the US — is that the community is turning to trusted sources, eager for information.

But Australia’s ad-dependent commercial media is, well, short of trust. Yesterday’s Essential poll couldn’t have been starker: only 35% agree that they “trust the media to provide honest and objective information about the COVID-19 outbreak”.

That’s 21 points behind trust in the government that the media is supposed to be holding to account. 

But print closure isn’t due to loss of trust in its journalism. As the industry’s in-joke went, the journalism was there to keep the ads apart. Now with few ads to separate, the business model has vanished. 

We’ve been here before. When Sydney’s two afternoon newspapers closed in 1988 and 1990, they were the city’s two largest circulating papers. But without ads, that circulation was worthless.

Advertisements for cruise ships — along with other boomer-focused discretionary travel — have been keeping print newspapers afloat for the past five years. Now that the cruise industry has hit the iceberg of COVID-19, print papers have run out of lifeboats.

This past weekend, ads in Nine’s once bulky Traveller section were down to the equivalent of just over four pages (not counting house ads). The Australian’s Travel + Indulgence supplement had none. The only travel-related ads in the front of the books made it worse. They were from the Tasmanian government’s warning: don’t come!

Based on the most recent half-yearly figures from Nine, that looks like close to a quarter of all the revenues from Nine’s mastheads across print and digital combined has been lost at sea with all hands from just this one category. 

It looks just as stark across other markets. News Corp was already reporting last month “weakness in the print advertising market, primarily in Australia”. That will be much worse now, particularly with the dead-weight of Foxtel holding down the business. On top, distribution through cafes, schools and airports has effectively ended.

It’s the same in the US. Buzzfeed News has described the virus as “a media-extinction event”. Like here, the first to fall are the local independents.

As Crikey reported last week, the ad-dependent free-to-air broadcasters are suffering under pressure from streaming competitors such as Netflix and the advertising collapse. It’s worse for Seven — it’s carrying debt, and its premium sport, AFL, has been suspended. Nine is relatively debt-free and has Stan to compete with Netflix. 

It’s no better in film and television production. With commercial broadcasting struggling, ABC funding cut, cinemas closed and effective bans on foreign productions, it’s unlikely to have much of a pulse for the rest of the year. 

The smaller and newer start-up news players dependent on advertising are also under pressure. SEN radio parent Pacific Star Network, which has been banking on sport to build audience, has called a halt to trading on its shares. So has radio and regional TV owner Southern Cross Austereo.

The majority shareholder of leading millennial news site Junkee and  outdoor advertiser oOh! Media has suspended trading and sent many of its staff on leave. Other ad-dependent start ups have seen their ads disappear.

The extinction event isn’t playing favourites. On the other side lies a much diminished news media.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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