Collaboration hopes to save Australia’s regional news media
When was the last time you picked up a newspaper from the local newsstand? Where do you consume your news these days?
Wherever you ask these questions today, you can expect responses that paint you the picture of a media industry in a state of flux. Newspaper print advertising expenditure has plunged–up to 50 percent in some regions–against a rise in digital ad expenditure.
The rise of digital has affected newspaper bottom lines everywhere, forcing traditional and legacy media outlets to explore online models, even if the latter option isn’t exactly a cure-all to declining revenues.
In addition, shifting consumption patterns and the corresponding proliferation of digital native media titles have lent credence to predictions spelling doom and gloom for traditional print outlets. That print media is dead or dying is a claim that has graced many a headline and industry forecast, even if there are those who say the reverse is true.
But given how hard technologies like artificial intelligence have hit or are hitting sectors everywhere, it’s not unreasonable to assume the writing’s on the wall for print. From staff downsizing to total newsroom closures, the same fate seems to be befalling print operations everywhere.
This is especially the case for the smaller, regional print outfits that simply don’t have the financial bandwidth to explore an online transition.
‘A sharp and worrying decline’ in Australia
One might suggest simply allowing the demise of print media to run its course. There’s no stopping technology, after all.
But a study in Australia suggests this could be to the detriment of the very objective of the Fourth Estate, ie. to serve as a check and balance to the three pillars of government (judiciary, executive and legislative).
The study released last month by the Public Interest Journalism Initiative and the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) sought to understand how, beyond bleeding balance sheets, a disrupted regional media industry has been impacting wider society.
It found that a “sharp and worrying decline” in the amount of local news available to Australians has left gaping holes in crucial coverage of local government news, ultimately impacting institutional accountability.
It said the effect can be observed across the board, with 68 percent of metropolitan suburbs and 45 percent of regional areas reporting a very sharp decline. The decline isn’t just in the number of journalists or media outlets, but also in the frequency of reports on local issues. More than a third of local councils said there was no reporting of local courts and council meetings.
“This means people in the area aren’t informed, which has a big impact on institutional accountability and citizens’ power of voice in our democracy.”
“This is important because research worldwide shows a close relationship between journalism and the broader civic health of communities, so it has serious implications for the agency, power and health of citizens in Australia’s regions,” said Margaret Simons, Monash University Associate Professor of Journalism and PIJI board member, in a release on the study.
“You can’t really substitute local and regional news. It fills a special role in communities that metropolitan media doesn’t. It’s closer to local people and advocates for them.”
The problem, Simons added, isn’t in the demand for news. It comes back again to the financial returns of regional media reporting, or rather, the lack of it.
“People are accessing news, it’s just that the organisations providing the content aren’t reaping the financial reward and those organisations have responded with ever-increasing journalist redundancies – on best estimates, at least 3000 in Australia in the last five years.”
Collaboration to the rescue
To help reverse the fates of the country’s regional media outlets, Country Press Australia and Deakin University have teamed up to conduct the largest study of country newspapers ever undertaken in Australia.
Insights from the study will go toward informing communications policy and add to efforts by the federal government to help regional mastheads transition to digital platforms.
The government had last year committed more than AU$45 million to the Small and Regional Publishers Innovation Fund, a programme designed for regional and small publishers. The three-year competitive grants programme aims to help publishers make the transition online, allowing them to compete more successfully in a constantly evolving media landscape.
Deakin and Country Press researchers will look at the effectiveness of the programme and develop sustainable models to help regional media outlets survive a digital-first future.
According to Deakin University project leader Associate Professor Kristy Hess, the study will first focus on regional publishers before expanding to include other national news media.
“Local newspapers have been one of the most reliable sources of local news, so we feel it’s important to start an assessment there,” Hess was quoted saying in ABC News.
“We know local news has been facing major difficulties here in Australia, but also overseas, and yet we really require some more robust evidence and analysis of what’s going on.
“We’ll be engaging quite intensively with proprietors and editors across Australia to look at what’s working, and what can be successfully integrated into a more innovative media practice and policy.”
Commenting, McPherson Media Group (MMG) Executive chairman Ross Mcpherson said the industry was in desperate need of such a study.
“Globally the model for supporting local news is under considerable pressure,” McPherson said in the same ABC report.
“There are probably half the number of reporters operating globally than there were ten years ago. It has been a massive change and I think that trend is continuing.
“The bleeding,” McPherson added, “… hasn’t stopped.”