Australian newspapers: fudging the figures?

With the dramatic announcement of 1900 jobs to be lost at Fairfax, and a pending announcement of job cuts at News Limited, the question has been asked about how bad have been the print newspaper circulation figures and for how long?

Jason Wilson has pointed out that the Finkelstein Review as presented with a quite rosy medium-term scenario for Australian newspapers, by both News and Fairfax. The Terms of Reference of the Independent Media Inquiry asked it to look into:

The impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment.

As Wilson has noted, the Finkelstein Review was relatively relaxed about the medium-term prospects for the major news mastheads:

In considering the current state of the press in Australia, the Inquiry has given considerations to not only the submissions received but also to an extensive range of other local and international evidence. From this information the Inquiry has concluded that, despite the intense pressures facing it, the Australian press is in no immediate danger of collapsing. The main media companies appear to be reasonably capable of dealing with the pressures facing them at least over the medium term. Nonetheless, some potential pressure points are becoming evident.

It suggested that the Productivity Commission have a look at the issue in 1-2 years if they are wrong. But they were strongly assured by both News and Fairfax that Australian newspapers did not face the perfect storm of problems facing their peers in the US and the UK. Wilson proposes that the Finkelstein Review wanted to believe this, since “the Independent Media Inquiry bent over backwards to demonstrate the persistence of media power in order to build a case for regulating it further.”

in considering these figures, I am reminded of the OECD study into News and the Internet, and the very rosy figures it had for Australia as compared to other OECD nations:

The OECD made the observation that:

Not all national statistical offices from OECD countries offer official turnover, value-added and employment data concerning the newspaper publishing industry. In particular, the available data from Australia, Korea and Japan concerns the much broader category of “Publishing of newspapers, journals, periodicals” which includes scientific journals and magazines and cannot be compared directly to other OECD countries.

I remember finding it odd at the time that the decline in circulation figures were so low for Australia as compared to the US and the UK. Sure, the global financial crisis hit those countries harder than Australia. But I can’t help wondering about the extent to which print newspaper circulation figures may have been artificially inflated to present these assets as more valuable than they appear to have turned out to be.

Or was it simply the case that the decline in print newspaper sales largely happened after 2009?