Paul Murray (Image: Sky News)

The COVID-19 shock has generated a welcome boom for Australian journalism, with audiences up about 30% in both traditional and online outlets. Around the country journalists are whispering hopefully to each other: “They like us! They really like us!”

Media have rewarded this attention with an all-COVID, all the time, news product, shaping the dominant stories across the spectrum from politics to finance, to lifestyle and even on to sport. As these new audiences see what a great job the media does, surely they’ll stick around!

Yeah. Nah. Looks like the boom may already be fading. According to the Essential poll, trust in the media “to provide honest and objective information about the COVID-19 outbreak” rose from 35% in mid March to 51% by the end of the month when audience attention seems to have peaked, before sliding back down to 41% two weeks later.

Audience data this week shows that free-to-air television news programs are holding up across both commercial and ABC networks. (Over on Foxtel, in the absence of sport, Morrison’s interviewer of choice, Paul Murray, has broken through the 80,000 mark, second only to the network’s historical drama Outlander.)

However, Google trends data suggests that COVID-19 news may be losing its bite. Searches around the topic are down to about a quarter of where they were a month ago. Many searches are profoundly practical: “How does the tracking app work?” “How to access superannuation?” And the eager: “When does isolation end?” Looks like they’re ending up in government departments and research sites. 

Meanwhile, social media is giving audiences direct access to epidemiological and public health experts and a forum for debate (both informed and otherwise) over the questions that matter: when should schools open? Should the app be trusted? Should beaches be open?

This matches early April data out of the US which suggests the virus-driven March surge to news sites has largely washed away. Audiences are back where they were before the focus on the pandemic started. 

The news about the news in Australia is better for some than others. The March Nielsen ratings showed both a 29% increase in online audience numbers and a flight to quality. The ABC has entrenched its dominance at the top and The Guardian has jumped over the traditional Australian mastheads into fourth place.

News Corp will, no doubt, be delighted that its campaign to force the tech platforms to share revenues with news providers will end up rewarding its competitors.

The News Corp tabloids — after a month of restlessly tolerating national unity — now seem to be reverting to type. They’ve toyed with following the lead of their US counterpart, Fox News, with contrarian takes about opening up (first: golf courses, next: the economy). Lacking a Trump to drive them politically, they’ve struggled for traction. 

They’ve generally backed Morrison against the states over school opening. They’ve marginally softened their long-term campaign against the Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, although the impending state election is likely to end that moderation.

Fortunately, there’s China:  BAT MAN yelled the Tele on Tuesday over a report that scientists at the Wuhan lab at the centre of popular conspiracy theories had once studied bats in Australia. And, in Queensland and NSW, at least, there’s always rugby league players. 

Looks like the traditional news media have struggled to cash in by embedding news habits that will outlast the time audiences are stuck at home. Media need to both keep these audiences and monetise them, either through advertising or subscriptions.

The collapse of advertising dollars shows little sign of reversing itself. Even if the economy bounces back in the hoped-for V-shaped recovery, advertising is more likely to reset, at best, marginally above this current lower level.

Analysts will expect some News Corp bragging about increased digital subscription numbers in its quarterly report to the US authorities next week (based on the reports of increased readership). Over the past couple of years, these reports have claimed subscriptions were up by about 4-5% a quarter. Nine reports subscription revenues, rather than numbers. We might have to wait until its annual report in August to see how they’re travelling. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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