AAP australian associated press
(Image: AAP/Danny Casey)

News Corp is just four months away from launching its internal newswire service into the open market. But is there space in Australian media for this and an independent straight news agency (as the new AAP hopes to be)?

That’s the latest media policy challenge for Communications Minister Paul Fletcher. There are growing calls from former Labor PM Kevin Rudd, un-named Liberal backbenchers and Senate crossbenchers for the government to keep the independent wire service alive, perhaps through the Public Interest News Gathering fund.

The new organisation that emerged from the closure of the old AAP by its majority owners, News Corp and Nine, has christened itself Acta Diurna AAP after the Roman public notices (literally, “daily deeds”). The challenge? Their market wants daily deeds done dirt cheap. 

There’s more at stake than the 90-odd jobs in the slimmed-down AAP newswire. There’s a threat to the survival of a particular concept of a journalism: a journalism of record that monitors and reports the activities of Australian institutions from parliaments to courts with a comprehensiveness that individual organisations can’t — or won’t — do.

This includes speeches by state and federal backbenchers, deemed only relevant to their own communities and niche wonks. Policy released by junior ministers that falls outside the dominant narrative of the press gallery’s day. The round of court cases. Sports results. Financial announcements.

It ensures the institutions of power are always under scrutiny. It provides the bulk weight of information that a democratic (and social) society needs. It keeps the bastards honest.

It also acts as quality control, ensuring that stories that might otherwise slip through get caught. Saturday morning magistrates’ court DUIs? How dull. Except for that day when, hang on, isn’t that an MP? Or, even, a newspaper editor!

By design, AAP removed competition out of this sort of commodified news. In more congenial time: papers would share copy across the wire and then, increasingly, simply leave large slabs of news coverage to AAP reporters, holding back exclusives and value-added colour pieces.

Its ownership was always divided between the major newspaper companies, preventing anyone controlling interest. When companies merged, they would be required to wind back their AAP shareholding to under 50%. This was formalised in a Trade Practices Commission mandate when News Corp merged with The Herald & Weekly Times in 1986.

Then, as with all things media, the internet happened. Journalism diversified — both in style and in new media voices. As mastheads pivoted from being ad-supported to relying on digital subscriptions, commodified news lost its value.

Worse still: AAP was feeding new voices that were in competition with its owners (like The New Daily), providing a breadth of copy to get them off the ground.

It’s still not clear who decided to pull the plug in March this year. Privately, Nine says News Corp. News says Nine. Whoever. Nine’s mastheads, talk radio and TV network had evolved past relying on the content AAP provided. News Corp was confident it could generate what it needed internally. Even better, it gave News an opportunity to consolidate reporting resources across mastheads, relying on its outrage content (front-page headlines, shared columnists, cartoons) to build its market.

News Corp has christened this 30-person reporting team “NCA News Wire”. It’s agreed to keep it to themselves for the time being, reserving the right to compete with the new AAP from January. News already shares copy with Seven West Media. Expect the wire to be bundled into that arrangement.

The other major client could be Australian Community Newspapers (ACM), spun out of Fairfax when the latter merged with Nine last year. With News Corp closing most of its regional papers, ACM is not a direct competitor to News — while AAP will be. And competition has never been News Corp’s preferred market structure.

The now-independent Acta Diurna AAP was bought out using philanthropic funds and some direct investment. This week it’s launched a crowdfunding appeal. Historically a business-to-business play, the appeal is a bold pivot to reach directly to their readers.

Largely locked out of the old media, the newswire’s market looks likely to be limited to emerging digital media, the public broadcasters, Ten and the handful of independent media. It’s looking to new markets that want news content to build out their social media and websites.

So is there enough in all that to survive without government help? Hmm…