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Michael Pascoe: Married At First Sight – and other public interest journalism

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There’s a big hint in the name, Nine Entertainment – not “Nine Public Interest Journalism”.

It’s Nine Entertainment that is reportedly copping $30 million a year from Google after the government, primarily on behalf of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Nine Entertainment, pressured the tech giant into subsidising media companies for their inability to compete in the advertising business.

There’s another hint in that description, “media companies” – not “public interest journalism companies”.

There are further hints about the political media mates’ game in the latest Nine Entertainment annual report and the final annual report of Fairfax, before it was taken over by Nine.

Unless the Nine house committee (if there still is one – Nine hasn’t bothered to sign the old Fairfax charter of editorial independence) has something in writing that the Google millions will all go to increase the journalism budget, journalism will have to take its place in the queue behind stuff that is more important to Nine, like Married At First Sight and increasing the dividends paid to shareholders.

There’s innocent optimism among Nine journalists who bought into the management story that the government strongarming Google was about the public interest.

I suspect they don’t spend much time reading their employer’s annual reports.

In the last Fairfax report just before the takeover in 2018, the then CEO boasted about the Metro business – the key Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Australian Financial Review newspapers.

“Our journalism is stronger than ever. We are investing heavily in quality editorial. It is a key competitive point of difference and at the heart of our premium brands and audiences,” the CEO said.

“A new advertising model underpins the Metro business. Our industry-leading sales and technology partnership with Google is maximising the value of our brands, audiences and advertising for programmatic buyers. We are seeing signs of print revenue mitigation as a result of a new industry-aligned vertical sales structure driving deeper, direct and more valuable partnerships with advertisers, and leveraging our rick data, audience expertise and insights.”

Yes, a great partnership with Google, maximising value. Funny how things change when there is the chance to grab of a dubious pot of money.

The 2017 Fairfax results showed Metro costs fell 12 per cent and EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) soared 26 per cent to $49 million.

The final 2018 results for Metro had costs down another 8 per cent and EBITDA up 8 per cent to $53.1 million.

How the key newspapers are faring is more opaque within the much bigger Nine Entertainment operation, but two messages come through: It was COVID that really hurt the newspapers last year, not Google; and chairman Peter Costello wasn’t focused on public interest journalism in his cash grab.

Nine Entertainment said that in the year to June, the SMH, The Age and AFR were going gangbusters in readership, “all clear leaders in their respective sectors”, leading to increased subscription revenue. Digital subscriber growth was more than 20 per cent June on June for all three titles.

“In a difficult broader advertising market, Nine grew its digital advertising revenues by 4 per cent,” reported the report. “This was offset, however, by a 19 per cent decline in print.”

Key print advertising revenue used to be travel and luxury goods – COVID whacked them, not Google. Anyone remember all the ads for cruises?

“Digital advertising outperformed the broader ad market, driven both by the benefits of consolidation within the Nine Group as well as the advertising sales agreement with Google which resulted in an increased share of digital revenues.”

What? Google boosted Nine’s advertising as well driving readers to its websites? Well I never …

For Nine Entertainment overall, even with the pandemic’s impact on the second half of the financial year, revenue rose 17 per cent to $2.17 billion.

Source: Nine Entertainment 2020 annual report

Nine chairman Peter Costello wasn’t bothering with anything as vague as “public interest journalism” in his contribution to the annual report. He was too busy complaining about the market power of Facebook and Google and how they weren’t subject to local content rules, as Nine television is.

“Nonetheless, they are able to use the premium content we produce to attract audiences in the Australian market,” Mr Costello wrote.

Nine chairman Peter Costello.

“We have consistently invested in premium content – in FY20 as much as $1 billion across our business.”

The chairman keeps talking “content”, not journalism. He’s on about TV  shows, quality stuff like Married At First Sight, not the work of Kate McClymont and Adele Ferguson.

“If we are not adequately compensated we will, regrettably, reduce our investment in this content. Simply, it will become uncommercial to make all the premium content we now make.

“This outcome would not worry Facebook or Google since it would not affect their global businesses in any significant way. But it will affect Australian creators, Australian consumers and Australian culture.”

Well we’ve already lost The Footy Show – why go on?

Sam Newman
Sam Newman with The Footy Show‘s most popular host, Eddie McGuire.

Mr Costello, a former federal Treasurer, dared mention Google and Facebook’s “tax advantages that Australian companies do not have” while trying to cover himself in the fig leaf of the “news content” excuse.

He would have more credibility and integrity if he had directly complained about the government’s inability or unwillingness to tax Google appropriately, but that would not be seemly while in the running for a cash drop from the politicians via the ACCC – the same ACCC that has rubber-stamped wave after wave of media concentration in Australia.

What does Mr Costello think the outcome will be of forcing Google and Facebook to subsidise traditional media not being sufficiently competitive in the advertising business?

“Local Australian production will benefit, but we believe the ultimate beneficiaries from this will be Australian consumers.”

Note it is “production”, not “public interest journalism”. It is Nine Entertainment. Yes, there will be more episodes of The Block.

As previously suggested here, Google and Facebook came up with a better advertising mousetrap. Nine and News Corp are pretending it’s all about dairy farmers making cheese.

Disclosure: The New Daily also is one of the publishers that will receive money from being part of Google Showcase

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‘Mountain of equity’: Millions of home owners could save thousands

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If you’ve become a home owner in the past five years it might be worth getting an appraisal – you’re probably sitting on a “mountain of equity”.

As we’re all aware, house prices have soared lately. And while that’s bad news for rapidly worsening inequality, it also means those that do own a home could save money on their mortgages, upgrade their properties or even borrow to finance that renovation they’ve been wanting to get done.

Refinancing could save you thousands in interest repayments a year.

You’ll be in a particularly strong position if you’ve also been able to keep up with your mortgage repayments during COVID, because you now own a larger proportion of a house that has rapidly increased in value lately.

It’s a virtuous cycle that’s making the gap between the haves and have-nots much larger in Australia by pushing up property prices even faster.

Owner occupiers have been the keystone of the latest property boom, with most being existing owners upgrading their homes.

Who could blame them? RateCity research published this week finds an owner occupier in Sydney who bought at the median price in 2019 with a 20 per cent deposit has now seen their wealth increase by $402,000.

Apply the same conditions to Melbourne and wealth has risen $192,000.

This assumes property owners kept up with their mortgage repayments, which the majority of home owners have done while working from home and taking part in a $300 billion government cash splash during COVID.

“Millions of homeowners are sitting on a growing mountain of equity, some without even realising it,” RateCity research director Sally Tindall said.

How to benefit

If you’re in this situation, getting the value of your home appraised could be the first step to a better home loan or moving up the property ladder.

“If you’ve owned your own home for at least a couple of years, and have been diligent about paying down your debt, you could refinance to a lower rate,” Ms Tindall said.

“Lots of lenders offer interest rate discounts to new customers with loan-to-value ratios below 70 per cent, including ‘big four’ banks CBA and Westpac.”

What’s a loan-to-value ratio? Put simply, it’s the difference between the size of your home loan and the value of your property.

So, as an example, if your home is worth $1 million and your mortgage is $100,000 you have a loan-to-value ratio (LVR) of 10 per cent.

The lower your LVR the easier it will be to refinance your loan at a lower interest rate or borrow more to purchase a higher-value property.

First home buyers might also be able to remove the guarantor on their loan sooner than they thought because of rapidly increasing prices.

About 58 per cent of the lowest variable interest rates available are open only to those with deposits of 30 per cent or more, RateCity said.

In other words, rising property prices may have moved you into the club of home owners that can achieve lower interest rates on their mortgages.

A median Sydney property purchased on an 80 per cent LVR in 2019 could now be refinanced on an LVR as low as 55 per cent.

If those conditions are applied in Melbourne, LVR falls to 63 per cent.

 

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Here’s why Australians won’t be hit by the soaring gas prices we’re seeing overseas

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Australians have dodged the bullet of skyrocketing gas prices currently hitting consumers in Europe and Asia.

While prices in the major gas hubs of those regions have spiralled up by a factor of five, in Australia a brief spike eased in September.

That means local consumers won’t be facing big jumps in household bills into next year.

Australian gas prices jumped in June and July after outages at coal-fired power plants in Victoria and Queensland boosted demand for gas generation.

That spike was short lived due to warm weather in some states and lockdowns in Victoria and NSW eroding demand, according to research by EnergyQuest.

“You’ve had warmer weather though the major capitals, the effects of the lockdowns and increased renewables, which reduced the demand for gas generation,” EnergyQuest CEO Graeme Bethune said.

Power prices fell

Those factors have also fed into power prices, with electricity costs falling in September in comparison with a year earlier.

What is interesting about the table above is that not only did average power prices drop, but the peak price charged by generators when power is in short supply also dropped.

That was despite the ongoing problems at the Victorian and Queensland power generators.

Part of the explanation is that there is increased output from renewables as rooftop solar grew, and new wind and solar generation came online.

That meant that gas power was called on less often to meet peak demand, which in turn held down power prices.

The inverse was true in Europe, where a 20 per cent fall in wind output over recent months helped run down gas supplies, contributing to the price spike, Mr Bethune said.

The future of power prices in part will depend on renewable output.

“If the wind blows strongly and there is plenty of sunshine across eastern Australia then it will keep pressure off gas prices,” Mr Bethune said.

The influence of renewables across the system in the last year is evident in this chart on power supplies.

Although wind has been stable in terms of its contribution to the power equation, outputs from hydro, solar farms and rooftop solar have risen.

The result is that coal has been pushed down from 65 per cent of power production to a record low of 60 per cent and that should help hold down both gas and electricity costs.

Even if offshore gas prices continue to spike Australian gas producers would not be in a position to push up local prices to match it.

“A lot of the export contracts for LNG [liquified natural gas] out of Queensland are set against the oil price and that has not risen by anywhere near the amount gas had,” Mr Bethune said.

“Then you have the federal government which has made clear to LNG exporters that they need to make enough gas available to the local market.

“They’re doing that regardless of the fact that they could make more money in the export market.”

Domestic users are supplied from long term contracts that cannot be easily changed when gas prices rise, so that would be another brake on prices.

However, while it is comforting to know local gas prices won’t spike to offshore levels, Australian consumers are still not getting as good a deal on prices as they should be, according to Bruce Mountain, Director of Victoria Energy Policy Centre at Victoria University.

“For small customers the gas price is not the big deal. The biggest things are the operation of the retail market and the costs levied by the owners of the gas-distribution pipes,” Professor Mountain said.

“Gas supply has been very profitable for the big gas companies.”

That was in part because consumers don’t bargain-hunt for retailers, and the charges levied to use the pipes and wires of the energy distributors are too high.

Regulators set these charges and could crack down on them but don’t, Professor Mountain said.

Since privatisation margins earned in energy distribution have increased dramatically.

Power distributor AusNet Services, under takeover offers from two groups, “is currently making a margin of 19 per cent – they’re far too profitable,” Professor Mountain said.

When power was distributed by [the state-owned] SECV there was a margin of 3 per cent on sales, Professor Mountain said.

Household power bills could be 15 per cent cheaper if the distribution businesses were less profitable, he said, with the situation similar for the gas sector.

But the move away from gas as a household fuel, necessary to reduce greenhouse emissions, will help deliver cheaper energy.

“Devices that use gas [for household tasks] are much less efficient that those using electricity,” Professor Mountain said.

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Scott Morrison talked Glasgow, China with News Corp boss over ‘after-dinner drinks’

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison discussed the Glasgow climate summit, China and the Biden administration with News Corp executives in New York last month, the company’s global boss has told a Senate inquiry.

Appearing before a Senate probe into media diversity via video link on Friday, News Corp’s global chief executive Robert Thomson revealed he spoke with the PM about international affairs over “after-dinner drinks”.

Mr Morrison was in New York to represent Australia at United Nations’ talks.

Mr Thomson told the inquiry on Friday he presumed the PM wanted to meet because he knew “many” world leaders attending the UN summit.

“I had presumed he wanted some insight about some foreign policy matters,” Mr Thomson said.

Mr Thomson confirmed Mr Morrison didn’t meet News chairman Rupert Murdoch while in New York. He also claimed there was no discussion of the looming federal election.

Mr Thomson said the Glasgow summit came up “in passing” between the pair, but they didn’t talk about News Corp’s planned 16-page net-zero spread across its Australian publications, which has ignited a firestorm of criticism Down Under.

The main topics of discussion were Japan, China, Afghanistan and the “contours” of the Biden administration, Mr Thomson told the inquiry.

“The Prime Minister and I don’t necessarily agree on China,” he said.

Mr Thomson (on TV) said he presumed the PM wanted foreign policy insights. Photo: AAP

Mr Thomson was also asked by Labor senator Kim Carr about whether News Corp directed local editors to take positions on political issues.

Mr Thomson said News Corp’s New York executives had no involvement in recent features on net-zero carbon emissions and that its Australian editors weren’t told from the US what to write.

But he said the company did expect editors to operate within a certain philosophical framework.

“As a company, we have a philosophy about certain issues,” he said.

“We have a philosophy about individual freedom, about the role of the market, about the size of government.”

Mr Thomson said that – as a former editor – he had “discussions” with News Corp’s editors, but that they had a “large amount of local autonomy”.

Senator Carr and the inquiry’s chair, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, grilled the News Corp executive on the publisher’s track record on climate, accusing its Australian papers of platforming climate deniers for more than a decade.

But Mr Thomson said News Corp has been consistent on climate dating as far back as 2004, citing Mr Murdoch’s 2006 statement that the “planet deserves the benefit of the doubt”.

News Corp Australia has just finished a two-week campaign of climate coverage that included its major Australian mastheads running 16-page spreads about net-zero emissions.

The series had many critics, who argued News Corp had a long-held editorial hostility on climate action, including attacks on past Labor government policies targeting emission reduction efforts.

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