Communication Minister Mitch Fifield. Photo: Facebook

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By Lawrence Gibbons

Australia has long had one of the most concentrated levels of media ownership in the world. Following recent changes to cross-media ownership laws, further consolidation has resulted in two corporations, Nine and News, now maintaining an outright duopoly over the majority of commercial news coverage in Australia.

When the law was changed to allow for the $3 billion merger of Nine and Fairfax to proceed, the Parliament established a special grant to support independent publishers. In an agreement struck with Nick Xenophon’s Centre Alliance Party, $48 million was set aside for a Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund to be awarded over three years. $16 million was available to be disbursed in 2018. While 186 applications were lodged, only 29 grants were awarded to just 25 companies. Thus 85% of all applications were refused funding.

85% of applications refused funding

Of the $16 million designated to support and sustain independent journalism, only $3.6 million was actually allocated. More than three quarters of the fund was not spent. By comparison, in 2017, the Federal government awarded a $30 million non-competitive grant to News Corp to assist with sports broadcasting.

Of the 25 successful innovation grant recipients, 72% of the companies were based in the Minister for Communication and the Arts’ home state of Victoria. Two Victorian-based companies – the Saturday Paper and Private Media / Crikey – received five grants. The Saturday Paper is owned by a wealthy real estate developer, Morry Schwartz, and Private Media’s multi-million dollar news site Crikey has been at the forefront of journalistic digital innovation. Private Media’s Chairman Eric Beecher is also the Chairman of Adelaide-based Solstice Media, the only media company in South Australia to receive an innovation grant. By comparison, only five grants were awarded to media companies in the whole of NSW and three to publishers in Queensland.

On Friday December 21, Minister Mitch Fifield announced the lucky innovation grant recipients. Four grants were awarded to newspapers published in the Victorian seat of Mallee. Four days earlier on December 17, the MP for Mallee Andrew Broad resigned from the Ministry over what was dubbed the “sugar daddy” scandal. Broad announced he would not seek re-election, putting the Coalition-held seat at risk.

In total, 60% of all grants went to media outlets in Liberal or National held seats.

The Lithgow Village Voice was one of only five grant recipients in NSW. Published in the National-held seat of Calare, the electorate takes in Orange, which was lost to the Shooters and Fishers in a State by-election in 2016. On December 18, three days before grant recipients were officially announced, the paper posted a video on its Facebook page in which the local National MP Andrew Gee congratulated the Voice for receiving a grant. ACMA denied releasing recipients’ names prior to December 21.

The Innovation Grant was established to ensure that civic journalism continues to flourish in Australia. Globally, journalism is facing an unprecedented crisis. In the face of new media platforms which do not support local news content, and an Australian media duopoly which has consolidated news coverage, shuttered outlets and cut back staff, Australian journalism is in peril. The establishment of a $48 million fund to assist local publishers was promising, but the implementation and delivery of the fund has been fraught with difficulties. The fund was tied up in parliament until after the start of the financial year. Grant guidelines were changed after applications opened and the round stayed open until mid-August. Successful recipients were due to be announced in early November, but were not revealed by the Minister for Communications until the Friday before Christmas.

ACMA must provide clear guidelines

Local and regional newspaper publishers believe ACMA was not forthcoming in providing clear guidelines for applicants. While successful publishers lodged multiple grant applications, unsuccessful applicants were not advised that this was an option. Publishers whose applications were not approved believe that they have not received adequate feedback from ACMA so that they can alter their applications in the next round.

The second round is due to open in the first quarter of 2019, but ACMA still has not advised publishers when they can apply for the next round. ACMA must work with local newspaper publishers to ensure that the criteria and requirements of the fund are obvious, accessible and easily fulfilled. Funds that were not allocated must be included in future rounds. Funds set aside to support local newspapers must be distributed fairly and in full.

Robust and diverse media coverage are essential bedrocks to Australian democracy. ACMA and the Minister for Communication must do everything possible to ensure that local and regional newspapers receive the funds that were intended to support civic journalism in Australia.

Disclosure: this newspaper unsuccessfully applied for an Innovation Grant in 2018.