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The doomsayers of Australian journalism will have to hold their tongues this week as the Huffington Post breathes some fresh life into the local media scene.
Launched in Australia today, HuffPo, as it’s affectionately called by journalists, joins a growing number of international news organisations which have found a new audience – and it hopes advertisers – in Australia.
The opening of HuffPo Australia’s doors (temporarily in the old Fox offices at Darling Harbour) is indeed welcome news for the 28 or so local staff who have been hired by the global journalism player which has already extended its reach to 13 countries.
The global takeover isn’t a bad effort from the team behind editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington who only established the online site in 2005 as an alternative left wing (Americans would say “liberal”) outlet and alternative to news aggregators.
The Huffington Post deal in Australia is interesting, with a 49% stake in the venture held by Fairfax Media. The commercial details of the arrangement haven’t been publicised, but some have suggested Fairfax fought hard for the deal as a way of “keeping its friends close and its enemies even closer”.
There are however fears from a few media watchers that HuffPo will cut Fairfax’s audiences which are already feeling the pinch from locally grown digital sites such as Crikey, The Conversation, New Matilda and Mumbrella as well as the relatively new international players, The Guardian, the Daily Mail, and BuzzFeed.
The Huffington Post’s chief executive in the US Jimmy Maymann however is buoyant about the deal, which mirrors that in other international ventures.
He told the Australian Financial Review earlier in the year:
“Our ability to partner with established local players has been critical to the success of our rapid international expansion over the past two years. We have created a very effective repeatable model that has enabled us to enter new markets and establish strong positions very quickly.”
HuffPo can credibly claim to be an international news organisation, having won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. It boasts 214 million unique visitors each month, and there is no reason to believe it will not achieve its stated target of becoming a top-five publisher in Australia in three to five years.
HuffPo Australia boasts a strong team with good local connections. The chief executive Chris Janz comes lately from blog publisher Allure Media, which was bought by Fairfax in 2012, and the editor-in-chief Tory Maguire brings a long News Corp pedigree.
Also in the news crew is Canberra-based political editor Karen Barlow, one of the many talented journalists axed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in its cull of international services, a former executive producer of video at AAP Tom Compagnoni, and a former assistant Daily Mail editor Chris Paine. The list of highly regarded journalism hires goes on, but features many who have either jumped or been pushed out by the seismic change in the country’s newspaper landscape.
So while the local industry is no doubt delighted that high calibre journalists are finding work with the Australian edition of HuffPo – the one question readers should be asking is will the Huffington Post bring them anything different to the already established media outlets.
Point of difference?
Certainly HuffPo gains much by linking its brand to the high standard of journalism that many Fairfax reporters demonstrate. Look for example at the coverage of tax avoidance by multinationals operating in Australia, or the revelations and reporting of Australia’s scandal ridden financial services sector.
If HuffPo Australia champions more of this reporting, and helps grow advertising revenue for both it and Fairfax, then that will auger well for all. But The Huffington Post has built much of its reputation on providing a space for bloggers, for insiders, to write about their passions.
HuffPo does not restrict itself to the normal crew of footy commentators, political analysts and think tank spruikers. HuffPo asks everyone to write. And it is this network of real-time bloggers in Australia that could be the making of the site, even if it is the use of such unpaid writers that has caused the organisation the most criticism at home and abroad. Although to be truthful, there are many sites in Australia and internationally who do not pay writers, however good they maybe, including The Conversation.
What really matters is whether or not HuffPo can attract new and emerging thinkers who can write, or if they will lean on the same-old crew who pop up on QandA on a Monday night.
It’s a now a truism that the internet provides us with what it thinks we want to know, not what we need to know. As readers, we hope the paid Australian curators at HuffPo can help change that adage. If they can, it might be enough to save Fairfax.
The past few years have been positively revolutionary for the Australian news landscape. From a static and highly concentrated media market, dominated by News Corporation, Fairfax, and the ABC, new players have gradually entered the market, and the next new entry lumbering up to the starting blocks is the Australian version of The Huffington Post.
Emerging from founder Arianna Huffington’s earlier forays into political blogging in the mid-2000s, HuffPo has become a major political voice in the United States, and has recently expanded into a number of global markets, with over a dozen localised editions now available. Huffington Post Australia, in partnership with Fairfax Media, is slated to launch on Wednesday, August 19.
Does Huffington Post Australia stand a chance of gaining a foothold in the increasingly crowded Australian news and commentary market? The fate of some of the other recent additions to the media mix may provide a useful guide here.
Comprehensive data on site visits collected by Experian Hitwise shows a range of crucial trends: first, with the general shift towards online news consumption, the total number of site visits to the leading news sites has been trending strongly upwards – from an average of just under 6 million visits per week during 2013, leader news.com.au has grown to over 13 million weekly visits since June 2015, for example.
Second, while the shape of the market has long remained stable, with news.com.au, the Sydney Morning Herald, and nineMSN (now 9 News) fairly evenly matched, since early 2014 the fortunes of the market leaders have diverged. Having embraced a more populist, tabloid content strategy, news.com.au has established itself as the clear market leader, while the SMH’s growth has merely followed the overall trend, and 9 News has stagnated both before and after its rebranding.
Meanwhile, the entrance of two UK-based news organisations into the local market has affected the status quo considerably. The Guardian and the Daily Mail had already been reasonably popular with Australian audiences well before their local spin-offs were announced and launched, but their dedicated domestic coverage has been able to boost their appeal considerably.
Growth in visits to Daily Mail Australia has been especially pronounced, from a weekly average of just over 2 million in 2013 to nearly 8 million visits per week since June 2015 – well above the average growth trend. The trajectory shows a clear bump in readership since the transition to dedicated Australian content in May 2014, and since the start of 2015 Daily Mail Australia has been clearly established as the third most popular Australian news site.
Even before its Australian launch, in fact, Daily Mail was easily more popular with Australian internet users than local tabloids Herald-Sun or Daily Telegraph.
Guardian Australia’s progress has been somewhat slower, building from a lower base. Even after its official launch in May 2013, the site struggled to break through the barrier of 1 million visits per week, until the 2013 federal election campaign provided it with the opportunity to establish a stronger profile as a new space for quality political coverage; since June 2015, the site has averaged some 3.7 million visits per week, and sits comfortably in the top ten of Australian news sites.
Buzzfeed’s official launch on 31 January 2014 did cause at least a momentary spike in visits, and marks the point at which the site becomes more strongly competitive in the Australian media landscape. Long running neck-and-neck with Guardian Australia and the international edition of Huffington Post, during the remainder of 2014 Buzzfeed Australia gradually pulls ahead of both sites. It is now established as a popular site in Australia, rivalling 9 News, The Age, and ABC News: it has attracted an average of nearly 5 million visits per week since June 2015.
Ahead of its Australian launch, the international edition of the Huffington Post remains a considerably more niche publication – yet still ranking ahead of more established Australian titles such as The Australian (whose partial paywall may affect visitor numbers, however) or the Canberra Times. Notably, HuffPo’s Australian visitor numbers have been trending downwards over the past year, averaging some 1.7 million visits per week since June 2015.
It will be interesting to see whether the launch of an Australian edition of the Huffington Post can arrest or even reverse this decline. The performance of other recent entrants into the Australian online news and commentary market has clearly shown that such sites can establish themselves as viable and even leading players in the media landscape. However, the greatest successes have been reserved for comparatively populist and tabloid outlets like Daily Mail Australia and Buzzfeed Australia.
By contrast, Guardian Australia’s achievements to date have been more limited. Its parent organisation is recognised as a globally leading, quality news brand, whose closest Australian equivalents are perhaps the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. However, in spite of its undoubted contributions to Australian political journalism, Guardian Australia has yet to even come close to rivalling the visitor numbers attracted by these Fairfax titles’ sites.
Huffington Post, in turn, caters to a considerably more narrow audience. By boosting its coverage of Australian politics and current affairs, it should be able to at least maintain the established Australian audience for its international edition, which would leave it placed above titles such as The Australian in total weekly visits.
It seems unlikely, though, that it could catch up again with a site like Guardian Australia – whose numbers it matched, one year ago – in the immediate future.
The most recent ABC circulation figures for Australia’s newspapers show a continuing decline in print sales across the board. That isn’t surprising, given global and national trends over the last few years. Australia was slow to join the global march downwards for newspaper sales in comparable markets such as the USA and the UK, showing some resilience until 2012 or so. But now, annual falls of up to 10 per cent are routine.
More surprising, and more worrying for the press as an industry, are the figures for digital subscriptions, which appear to be slowing down. Some are doing better than others, and no doubt news consumers are responsive to the functionality and aesthetics of the competing digital offerings. Some organisations have learnt the rules of the interactive media age better than others.
On the other hand, those same consumers have access to what is by now a rather luxurious range of free sites and apps producing journalism, factuality, and ‘truthiness’ of high quality. In that context, the slowdown in Australian paid-for digital becomes explicable. It’s not that online users are moving away from online news – simply that they have more options than ever before to access it free, and at a quality comparable with anything in the paid-for sector.
We have, for example, two world class overseas outlets now editionising in Australia. The Daily Mail Online, long one of the world’s leading digital sites, born of the iconic Daily Mail in the UK and popular for its celebrity content, has a substantial editorial presence in Sydney, under the leadership of Luke McIlveen. A mix of global and local stories has proven successful in embedding Daily Mail Australia.
The Guardian Online’s Australia edition also invests in the local scene, with the staff and resources required to cover Australian politics and public affairs with authority and depth. At the same time, it provides global coverage of Pulitzer Prize winning quality, all of it free to the Australian consumer. The Guardian Australia is a major addition to the news ecology in this country, and you can access it entirely free of charge.
This is what makes these new entrants to the Australian media marketplace so threatening to the established providers. They take the local market seriously, at the same time as integrating that coverage with the international scene. Australians need and want both, and all credit to the Mail and Guardian for delivering it.
The US-based Gawker also delivers Australian content, also free at the point of access, as does Buzzfeed. Neither of these outlets are as invested in Oz as the Guardian and Mail, but even before the ‘Johnny Depp’s dogs must die’ frenzy, ran a lot of content relevant to the Great South Land. Their focus is on humor, satire and ‘listicles’ , and there is a huge market for that in Australia as elsewhere.
And then, of course, there is The Conversation, which produces content of a particular type, but often of more general interest to a growing market interested in authoritative expert commentary.
None of these titles can, or ever could, compete with the Australian print media. But in an environment where news consumption is evermore mobile, evermore digital, they represent a major new segment of an already competitive information marketplace.
How should the established providers respond? That is the $2 billion question – the amount of advertising revenue which has migrated from print in recent years – and if I could answer it, Rupert Murdoch himself would be knocking on my door.
What I can say, as someone who both subscribes to paid-for news sites, and enjoys the free outlets, is that it’s all about quality. Distinctiveness. Respect for the consumer. People do pay for news online, and will continue to do so, but only if they feel that they are paying for something which matters to them.
That ‘something’ includes ‘quality journalism’ in general. Most of us understand that news worth reading doesn’t spring from the ether as if by magic. It needs skill, and resources, and the employment of committed human beings who must pay their bills like everyone else. We will pay for that, many of us, because we know we should. Our democracy and quality of life require it, just as much as the taxes we pay for public services.
That particular something may be quality investigative journalism, or provocative and engaging commentary, or top notch celebrity gossip, or fabulous website functionality. But there must be, somewhere in the package, something unique in the selling proposition.
It can be done, and the winners in this digital race for survival will be those organisations which identify and invest in whatever kind of ‘quality’ their particular market segment demands. The digital era, in that sense, is not so very different from the age of analogue and newsprint.
If there’s one word that sums up where most media entities are focused for the future, it’s “mobile” — almost every news service and website is looking to mobile because that’s where the younger users are, and therefore that’s where the growth is. In fact, NowThis just finished getting rid of its website altogether because it said there was no purpose in having one.
Flipboard, however, is doing the exact opposite: On Tuesday, the company said it is finally embracing the web by launching a full-featured site that not only reproduces what the app offers, but builds on top of it.
So why is Flipboard going in the opposite direction to everyone else? Co-founder and CEO Mike McCue said there’s a simple answer, which is that Flipboard was mobile before almost anyone else — in fact, the app was one of the first to show the real possibilities of the…
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