Matter of Public Importance – proposed and led by Suzanna Sheed MP
Before the drought, before the bushfires, before coronavirus, regional media was in trouble. As evidenced by many media reports—and that is somewhat of an irony—the closure of Victorian and Australian regional media outlets has been accelerating. Following decades of contraction, we are now witnessing takeovers, consolidations and closures like never before.
In just June last year WIN Television station closed its WIN News bureaus in Orange, Wagga Wagga, Albury and Bundaberg. Just this year we lost our Channel 9 reporter from Shepparton. At the start of March it was announced that AAP would soon cease, with the loss of 180 media jobs. This was shocking news in the media industry. At the eleventh hour it was bought by a philanthropic group of investors and will continue to produce but with a much smaller staff.
Earlier in the year it looked like here in Victoria we would lose Mildura’s Sunraysia Daily, the Swan Hill Guardian, the Gannawarra Times from Kerang and the Loddon Times in Loddon Mallee. Most of these have been able to continue again by reducing their capacity and publication dates. This year News Corp announced the suspension of printing of 60 regional newspapers across the country, with only three of them resuming print. This is part of the News Corp digital-only strategy, where a reporter is locally embedded in a region that a digital masthead covers. Presently they have trialled 16 of these sorts of publications with only one reporter in each community.
It is not clear whether this strategy will continue and roll out for some 76 other print publications, but if so, there will be a massive loss of journalists in our regions.
It can be difficult to identify how many newspapers and television and radio outlets have been closed down in regional areas, or left, in recent years. The Australian newsroom mapping project, which is conducted by the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, suggests that there have been contractions of about 192 newsrooms and 54 expansions and a net loss therefore of 138 newsrooms. This may or may not be accurate because we hear anecdotally of many others.
These closures cannot be measured in raw dollar terms. They impact our entire communities. These closures come at tremendous cost culturally, economically and even democratically. The ABC performs a vital role in regional and rural communities, and that is evidenced by their bushfire crisis coverage and by an ongoing dedicated presence in the bush via television, radio and online. But the ABC is a stretched service. It has nowhere near the media resources of our combined country and other media organisations that currently employ journalists in the hundreds across our state.
Rural and regional media place journalists in the courtrooms, they place them in council chambers, they follow state and federal politics and they hold local, state and federal politicians to account. Regional journalists hold me to account, and so they should. Rarely a day goes by when my office is not fielding questions from a local media organisation—television, radio, print and online—on the policies held by me, my peers, the state government and local leaders and on the happenings in my community and the direction we are travelling.
They publicise public campaigns. I dare say that without the fantastic media coverage we had, our 2015 All Aboard campaign, when hundreds of members of our community jumped on the train to Melbourne to protest for better rail services from Shepparton to Melbourne, would not have been successful—had it not been for the extraordinary media coverage that we were able to harness. That campaign amounted to stages 1 and 2 being fully funded, with a further $320 million recently announced by the federal government, an investment that will produce nine VLocity trains from Shepparton to Melbourne—over $600 million worth of investment out of a community campaign.
Local newspapers, television and radio gave both proponents and opponents of the new Greater Shepparton Secondary College a forum to express their views loudly and clearly. This is a valuable form of communication between me and my constituents, because I do not get to dictate the terms. I am challenged, I am required to explain myself and my thoughts and politics, and my words are weighed up against those of others in the game along with those of experts who hold their own opinions. The audience is truly enriched by this process and the function of journalists as they present the multiple views across so many audiences. This coverage allows the reader, watcher or listener to judge the merits of whatever argument is being made in context rather than someone like myself just dictating the terms of it.
But I am not just a 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 journalist. Previously that loss was felt when one of ours went off to expand their career from the regions to the cities—people like Barrie Cassidy, who started writing for a small weekly newspaper in his home town of Chiltern and later went on to the Border Mail, then to the Shepparton News before going on to the Herald Sun and the ABC and having a very distinguished career, before his retirement. Annika Smethurst started her regional reporting career at the Bendigo Weekly. So many others—Tony Wright, Zoe Daniel, Ben Knight; I could go on at length—all started in regional newsrooms, where they learned their professions, crafted their skills and learned how to present the news.
We want people to succeed in the country and we want them to go off and do great things, but their loss is felt greatly. When they leave, when they lose their jobs and they have nowhere else to go, we lose them from the profession. Many are now looking for work in fields other than their chosen profession. This devalues their education, their training and the experience they have built up over years. Country journalists, however, do not just serve up politics and court and cover the local community. They do cover those things. They cover netball, sport, cricket. They cover BMX and motocross and fishing and equestrian—all part of the local mix of our communities.
They venture into our schools and our aged-care facilities, our churches and our clubs. They attend our local festivals and events, our plays and our musicals. Our local Shepparton Theatre Arts Group often has the talent of local journalists, such as ABC’s Matt Dowling, strut the stage in many performances. They participate. They do not just report on sporting events; they participate in that local sport. These journalists cover our culture. They explain it, they curate it, they disseminate it and they store it. These journalists also form a guard against corruption.
Studies out of the UK, the US and Australia indicate that 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, observes:
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.
And haven’t we seen that.
In 2019 Australia’s Public Interest Journalism Initiative found that a third of local government areas reported no journalists attending local government meetings. Last year’s Australian Local Government Association annual report lamented that 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 report by Harvard Business Review claims:
The demise of local newspapers … is also linked to a rise in local corruption and an increase in polarization, as news consumers rely more on partisan-inflected national outlets for their information.
The academic evidence has been building for decades and supports the notion that local media is both vital and in crisis.
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 that the media giants, primarily Google and Facebook, are stealing their content, while the ad manager will tell you that the same entities are taking their revenue. It amounts to a serious attack on our vulnerable newsrooms that they cannot fend off and becomes particularly concerning when considering Google and Facebook do not even create content but merely collate it and serve it up in one form or another. Google and Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram and all the other social media giants will never replace the local knowledge, the curiosity and the dedication to journalistic ethics of those employed in the media within our communities. We are now coming to see that they craft and manipulate information to suit their long-term needs. For those of you who have not yet watched The Social Dilemma, a documentary exploring the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm at their own work, you should do so straightaway.
For about two decades local media have been struggling with how to transform themselves into digital platforms to varying degrees. Many have tried. They are trying to be innovative. They are branching out into data journalism, into blogs and into podcasts and are creating content to try and please the broader audience. They have experimented with paywalls, and many during the COVID crisis have taken down their paywalls just so that their communities can access information freely. And yet now with the coronavirus they are facing their very own crisis—just when we need them the most. Simultaneously, sources of advertising—the precious revenue that keeps journalists, photographers, camera operators, editors, subeditors and producers paid and the news flowing—have plummeted as local businesses shut down or close or simply minimise their expenditure during COVID.
Governments can help, and in this regard I think it is important to note that at a local government level we have seen the significant removal of local government advertising from our local newspapers. Things like annual business plans and budgets, rates declarations and variations, service charges—I could go on—all the sorts of things that you would normally see in the classifieds section of a local newspaper have now been removed and put over on the local government website.
That is not where people go to see those sorts of things. It is a much more random exposure than people in the community want and demand. If it is not in that scanning of a newspaper, it is often entirely missed, and again that is that notion of lack of scrutiny generally.
Local government can play a significant part in all of this by resuming advertising, but I am very concerned to see that our current Local Government Act 2020 actually removes any obligation that used to be there on local government to advertise in newspapers, and I think that must be rectified. You might wonder what governments have been doing about all of this. The very existence of Save Our Voices, the website advocating for change to preserve regional media, points to a lack of government engagement on this topic.
There are things that can be done. Firstly, we could all subscribe to our local newspapers, print and online, and support our local radio stations and news media rooms. Secondly, local government could do as I have said—publicly advertise. The state government can continue its support through advertising. But the one thing that is very clear is that we have an extraordinarily outdated Australian broadcasting act. It has been there for a very long time, with only a small bit of reform along the way. I am hearing from many people of the need for an absolute revamp of that legislation. It barely takes into account the fact that the internet is here, and it has been here for a long time. Organisations like Southern Cross Austereo, Prime, WIN and ACM have banded together to form this Save Our Voices website, but they are really struggling to get governments to come to the party to talk to them, to talk about the one-to-a-market rule and some of these really important initiatives. Lowering the threshold for public interest journalism grants is an important feature of what could be done. There is an opportunity for tax rebates. There are all sorts of things that governments could do, particularly at a federal level.
In closing, I would just like to say that the result of the ongoing contraction of media diversity in our regional areas means that there will be less transparency, less access to information for those who are not deliberately going in search of it and ultimately a lot less accountability. This denigrates our democratic processes. To be able to participate you must first be informed and you must be educated. If we wish to maintain a healthy and vibrant media now and when we emerge on the other side of this health crisis, regional media need the support of government and the support of their communities. The alternative is a future without regional media, and that is a future I do not want and neither should you.