Before the drought, before the bushfires, before Coronavirus – regional media was in trouble.
Following decades of contraction, newsroom closures are now occurring at an accelerated rate. In June last year, WIN News shut its bureaus in Orange, Wagga Wagga, Albury and Bundaberg. At the start of March, it was announced the Australian Associated Press will soon cease with the loss of 180 jobs. More recently we lost a number of small Victorian regional newspapers and News Corp announced an end to printing of 60 regional papers across the country.
These closures cannot be measured in raw dollars terms, they impact entire communities and cost us culturally, economically, even democratically.
Rural media places journalists in our courtrooms and council chambers. These journalists follow state and federal politics and hold local state and federal politicians, such as myself, to account.
But I am not just the occasional subject of the local news, I am also an avid consumer. As a member of my community, I am connected to and saddened by the loss of each and every local journalist.
Regional journalists cover more than politics and courts, they cover community. They follow sports and venture into our schools and aged-care facilities, our churches and our clubs. They attend our local festivals and events, our plays and our musicals. These journalists cover our culture – explain it, curate it, disseminate and store it.
These journalists also guard against corruption.
Studies out of the UK, the US and Australia indicate where local media closes, communities suffer a commensurate rise in corruption, political disengagement and a heightened distrust in public institutions.
The author of a 2016 King’s College London study, Dr Martin Moore, observed, “We can all have our own social media account, but when local papers are depleted or in some cases simply don’t exist, people lose a communal voice. They feel angry, not listened to and more likely to believe malicious rumour.”
In 2019, Australia’s Public Interest Journalism Initiative found that a third of Local Government Areas reported no journalists attended local government meetings. That year’s Australian Local Government Association annual report lamented “a large part of local government business goes entirely unscrutinised and unreported.”
In the United States, the term “news desert” has been coined. A recent Harvard Business Review claimed, “the demise of local newspapers (is) linked to a rise in local corruption and an increase in polarisation, as news consumers rely more on partisan-influenced national outlets for their information.”
So, what is going wrong?
Ask any editor or advertising manager and you will receive a different answer which amounts to the same answer. The editor will tell you the online media giants, primarily Google and Facebook, are stealing their content. The ad manager will tell you the same entities are taking the revenue. This is particularly concerning when considering Google and Facebook do not create content, they merely collate and serve someone else’s in one form or another.
For two decades local media have been struggling with how to transform themselves onto digital platforms to varying degrees of success. Many have been extremely innovative. They have experimented with paywalls of various types, paywalls that most have cast down during the Coronavirus Crisis to give their communities free access to the latest vital information.
Online news traffic has reportedly surged by more than 100 per cent in recent months as rural and regional Australians flock to dedicated, reliable local news services. Simultaneously sources of advertising are plummeting as regional businesses stand-down or close.
The Victorian State and Federal Governments have recently made welcomed moves to assist regional media with millions of dollars in relief packages. Last week the ACCC pledged a new framework to force Google and Facebook to pay for regional news content. And yet, despite all of these important measures we are still seeing closures, our local media is still under threat.
If we wish to maintain a healthy and vibrant media now and when we emerge on the other side of this crisis regional media needs this government support, but it also needs the support of local communities. The alternative is a future without regional media which is a bleak future indeed.