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News media consumption habits are increasingly fragmenting with News Corp, Seven and Nine mainly appealing to the right, and Nine’s mastheads, Ten and digital native players mainly appealing to the left.

The take away from the 2020 Digital News Report suggests that Australia’s media, which has historically clustered tightly around the centre, is now looking more like, say, the UK’s, with news brands readily identifiable by their politics.

It’s partly a function of age (and education), as older audiences both skew right and lean to traditional media for news. But is right-wing content shaping the views of its audience? Or is the audience looking for information they agree with?

It looks like the News Corp positioning is working: using a polarisation score, the study by the University of Canberra released last week, places the audience of all News Corp mastheads (bar one) and Sky (surprising, yeah?) on the right for both offline and digital audiences. The audiences range from The Australian in print audience closest to the polarisation mid-point, stretching way out to Sky.

Nine’s free-to-air offering has the most right-wing identifying audience (other than Sky and Fox News), followed closely by the Seven network. The audience for Nine’s digital offering, nine.com.au, also falls on the right. This likely reflects the ageing audience for free-to-air television

The Ten network, and the digital offerings of Seven, The Daily Telegraph online and news.com.au cluster around the centre. This centrist positioning of news.com.au has been a deliberate strategy to maximise reach and has contributed to it being traditionally the leading source of online news, until it was run down by the ABC during the successive bushfire and COVID-19 crises.

The News Corp outlier is The Advertiser, with its audiences both in print and online falling on the left, out near the audience for The Saturday Paper, perhaps revealing more about the city’s R-Adelaide! brag than it does about the masthead’s content.

Nine’s different audiences in television and in its mastheads explains some of the internal tensions in the Nine-Fairfax merger which blew up at The Age last week. The audiences of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review are apparently rich enough to be socialists. The Age audience thinks itself the most left wing of any of the traditional media.

The increasingly stark political divide between young and old plays out online: young, digital audiences skew left. Even the Mail Online (the Daily Mail’s online news brand) audience leans left. The only online audiences that lean right are News Corp mastheads and nine.com.au. At the other end, with the most left-identifying audience, is millennial site Junkee.

The report tells us where the audiences fall, not the content. Here, the report tries to get at just what audiences want by looking at a big issue — climate change. The report concludes: “There is a strong connection between the brands people use and whether they think climate change is serious or not”.  The result? People who listen to commercial AM radio like 2GB or 3AW or watch Sky are least likely to think climate change is (“extremely”, “very”, or “somewhat”) serious.

Most concerned? The AFR, SMH and Age readers, all over 90%.

About two-thirds say they value (“extremely” or “very”) the importance of “independent journalism” — that is, journalism that is free from commercial and political interests in the making of editorial decisions. That’s less good news for, say, News Corp, which is under criticism (from Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd, among others) as being more a political player than a news organisation.

Over half (54%) say they want “news from sources that don’t have a particular point of view”, rising to almost two-thirds among people who identify as right-wing. The report characterises this as a yearning for “impartial” news, but perhaps this tells more about what people think they want (or are getting). It may also be tautological: news by definition is factual and facts, of course,  don’t have a bias — although the selection of them does.

Oh, and Crikey readers? They fall on the left with a cluster of other online news such as Vice, The Conversation and The Guardian. Surprised?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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