Australian publishers ahead of curve: Turnbull

When it comes to innovation and embracing new online business models, Australian publishers have been ahead of the curve, according to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

At the industry Future Forum in Sydney last week, Mr Turnbull praised the digital initiatives of publishers in a keynote address;“It is barely a year since our two major publishers, News Limited and Fairfax introduced metered paywalls for their sites, and the evidence is that our major mastheads now have around half a million paid, digital subscriptions,” he said.

“At Fairfax there are 140,000 digital-only subscribers to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald while those titles have around another 110,000 subscribers who have bundled physical and digital packages.

“Both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have more digital subscribers on Monday to Friday than they have subscribers to their physical paper (though less than their total sales).

“News Corp Australia has more than 200,000 digital subscribers to its titles and plans to re-launch its paywalls in the near future, making them simpler and easier to use. The Australian managed to increase the number of digital subscriptions, now boasting more than 64,000 digital subscribers, while doubling its weekly price to $6 – a sign that there is still an audience for quality journalism.”

Mr Turnbull said that compared to their international peers, Australian publishers had done well.

“This financial year, Fairfax has seen revenue from digital subscriptions rise to $24 million, which accounts for around 9 per cent of the digital revenues from its metro titles. By comparison, digital subscription revenues at the New York Times company saw digital subscription revenue of around US$41 million last quarter, which was slightly less than 11 per cent of total revenue. Digital subscriptions were $82 million at the New York Times out of $419 million in total circulation revenue over the last six months.”

He said PWC was forecasting industry-wide digital subscription revenue to grow ten-fold until 2018, with around 6.1 million Australians paying for a digital subscription.

“Of course each new digital subscriber will bring less revenue per user, but the forecast is that there will be almost double the number of total paying subscribers once digital is taken into account. Revenue from circulation should begin to plateau at around $1.2 billion, down from the $1.3 billion earned currently. In other words, if you can collect enough digital dimes you may well end up with close to a dollar after all.”

On media regulation, Mr Turnbull said consensus between major media companies would be a fundamental requirement before any reform could proceed. He restated the Australian government’s commitment to media reform but said it needed to carefully balance two competing concerns – the need for diversity and to ensure that there are enough economically viable media businesses to make that diversity possible.

Mr Turnbull said the government recognised that the industry wanted reform in a range of policy areas, including “the current media ownership and control rules, the anti-siphoning scheme, retransmission of commercial and national free-to-air services, and options for the use of unassigned broadcasting spectrum.”

“Many in the industry have asked me to look at whether we still need platform specific media ownership rules. At its March 2014 meeting the broadcasting and media representatives on my Ministerial Advisory Council were also in broad agreement that reform was necessary, particularly where it could improve the economic stability of the sector in an increasingly difficult environment.

“I believe in working with the industry not against it. I believe that given the massive increase in competition and diversity there should be less regulation of the media sector not more and I certainly do not intend to break with Australia’s peace time tradition and introduce government regulation of the content of your newspapers as the previous Labor Government attempted to do.”

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