29 Sep 2015

Is there any future for local media?

1:59 pm on 29 September 2015

As internet giants Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Google increasingly dominate online news distribution, is it the death knell for local news?

social media apps - Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn

Photo: 123RF

The way we consume news is changing rapidly - all over the world, newspapers are laying off staff all as more people get their news online and, increasingly, on their smartphones.

At the moment, Google and Facebook account take nearly three quarters of the more than $10 billion of mobile advertising spending in the world each year.

And Apple is making aggressive moves into the online advertising market too.

Director of the Nieman Journalism lab at Harvard University, Joshua Benton said that consolidation of advertising revenue and readership by the online giants could signal the end for local news.

He told Nine to Noon the original utopian, pluralist dream of the internet was fast fading as it became dominated by a few large media companies who, in turn, were dominated by a few large technology platforms.

"When it comes to the web, there was a dream... that distribution costs dropped so much to essentially free, or close to free, that would mean there would be this new flowering of voices, and a new diversity of perspectives in the media."

For a while that happened, he said.

"Just as an accordion can expand out, it can also come crunching back in and, increasingly, a few small companies - Facebook, Apple, Google, Twitter - are dominating a large share of the final path to the consumer."

That market domination by a few has been driven by consumer behaviour shifting from desktop, or laptop browsing, to mobile technology.

Mr Benton said on a desktop each website was largely equal but with smarphones that was not so.

"On phones people tend to rely on a few apps; not everyone is on the same level. In the US, Facebook is a dominant source now.

"There are many American publishers that get the majority of their digital traffic from people following links on Facebook."

He said that resulted in users concentrating their behaviour into a few social platforms, or into a few devices, meaning they had the power to send traffic or not send traffic to a site.

This in turn, he said, had seen publisher behaviour shift from search engine optimisation (SEO) to social media optimisation - producing content designed to be shared widely on social media with a viral component.

And while this might drive traffic, publishers were essentially outsourcing distribution - and that had consequences for revenue.

Joshua Benton

Joshua Benton Photo: Supplied

"They're training their readers, and some of their best customers, to rely on this outside platform for their news," Mr Benton said.

He told Nine to Noon the Washington Post recently announced it would put all of its articles on Facebook.

And although this potentially greatly increased the reach of traditional media companies, or established mastheads, it was very difficult, he said for them to "monetise" this audience.

Media businesses were turning to companies like Facebook and Google, handing over their content, and taking a share of the online advertising revenue that was consequently generated.

This left local media in a vulnerable position, he said, as its ability to benefit from the increased reach social media offered international media companies was limited.

He predicted an information elite would emerge.

"If you got the local newspaper, generally speaking the richest guy in town and the poorest guy in town were reading the same newspaper or watching the same television broadcast."

In the future an elite would have more access to a higher quality of information than ever before, while a large mass audience would "scrape by on what comes in on their social feeds and what they run into," he said.

"Increasingly they're gong to live in different information worlds," he said.