Aunty looms too large
Two of Australia's three major media organisations are cutting costs and jobs dramatically and are being changed fundamentally. Those two organisations, Fairfax Media and News Limited, are public companies trying to make a profit.
There is of course another big media organisation. It's the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It's owned by the government, it's funded by the government, and it's operated by people picked by the government.
The business challenge for Fairfax and News executives is to get paying customers to buy their product. The business challenge for ABC executives is to keep on getting $1 billion a year from the federal cabinet.
There's not much doubt who's got the easier task. The Coalition is scared of the ABC, and Labor is satisfied with it. Admittedly, extracting money from ministers takes skill, but the ABC has 80 years of practice.
Every Coalition politician knows, as the refrain goes, "the ABC is our enemy talking to our friends". The ABC's huge reach outside of the capital cities ensures that at the slightest change to its budget, the cry of "cuts to rural and regional communities" goes up.
Labor may be annoyed to be invariably criticised from the left, but it would definitely prefer to have the national broadcaster maintain it's broad liberal/left perspective to any alternative.
Any discussion about the media in Australia must take account of the fact that of the three most significant players, two are privately owned, and one is government owned. While the organisations have different market shares and operate across a range of the four different platforms of print, radio, television, and online, taken together they are the three dominant media voices in Australia.
Right now, on many measures, the healthiest media outlet in Australia is the ABC. As the privately owned companies go through the turmoil of their restructures, the prospect is for the position of the ABC to keep growing relative to Fairfax and News.
The emerging dominance of a government-owned media company with its distinct political slant must surely be as important an issue in any debate about a free and independent press as any question about whether the proprietors of Fairfax are entitled to determine the editorial position of the company's publications.
Communications minister Stephen Conroy and his government are preoccupied with the second question but quite unconcerned about the first.
The problem with the ABC is not just its bias. Just as big a concern is the way it is using its privileged, government-funded position to crowd out the market against its commercial rivals.
For example, the ABC recently started a 24-hour news channel. It operates in direct competition to Sky News. The ABC's online opinion website, The Drum, operates in direct competition with the online opinion pages of the Fairfax and News newspapers and myriad other privately run commercial websites and blogs.
The ABC's rapidly expanding online presence duplicates what Fairfax and News already provide, but with one vital difference - the Fairfax and News sites are, or soon will be, behind a paywall. In the not-too-distant future, consumers will have a choice: pay to get stories and commentary from Fairfax and News, or get them free from the ABC.
While Fairfax and News will inevitably attempt to compete with each other and against the ABC on the basis of quality, the difficulty they have is that the quality of much of what the ABC produces is very high. As it should be, given all the money it gets.
The ABC is cutting up and eating Fairfax and News's lunch. It's not Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch that journalists should be worried about. It's Mark Scott, the boss of the ABC, they should fear.
Critics of Murdoch like to prove their point about his power by quoting that 70 per cent of newspapers bought by Australians are from News.
Indeed, the ABC's Jonathan Green repeated this figure just last week on The Drum site as he lamented the decline of media diversity in Australia. Nowhere in the article was there any mention of the ABC. On the ABC's website is its own proud boast that "74 per cent of all Australians use ABC services each week via television, radio and online . . .". Then there's the threat of any government that wants to change this - "87 per cent of Australians believe the ABC provides a valuable service to the community".
Media concentration in Australia is all going one way - and it's in the direction of the ABC.