As we increasingly spend our days combing through the latest coronavirus announcements trying to stave off catastrophe for our business and families, traffic on news sites has gone through the stratosphere. Unfortunately, the same crisis that is boosting demand for news content is putting hard brakes on print news revenue. What we are seeing as a result is the end game for many local print publications that have long been losing out to the digital revolution.
The latest casualties have been a swag of rural newspapers that folded across Australia in the past month. The ABC has reported that the two big regional publishers Newscorp and the Australian Community Media Company ACM —which between them own over 250 regional newspapers and magazines, including the Farm Weekly—have started the cull.
First to go were 60 NewsCorp titles, with ACM following with an announcement that they were shutting all their eastern states regional printing sites and walking away from 30 country town offices.
Regional newspapers have been rising and falling for as long as the printing press has been around- at least 150 newspapers have folded in the Wheatbelt since 1900—but this is something different.
The relentless expansion of farm sizes, the growing bright lights of the city, and the compulsive light of the digital appliance we all carry in our pockets have supercharged the decline of advertising revenues for print media across rural Australia.
As a result of global digital, viral, and economic forces coming together, we are now facing the potential loss of the last of our smaller regional newspapers. The Avon Advocate, Narrogin Observer, and Esperance Express are all struggling with even the bigger Albany Advertiser and Geraldton Guardian just hanging on.
With the loss of country papers, we lose the reporters and editors who understand our towns and the gap between the city and the regions widens. If you care about the loss of a country town doctor and whether your rates are being used to fund a road to the local Shire President’s front gate, then you’re going to need a nosy reporter to dig it up. Without them, the eyes and ears of the fourth estate vanish and small country towns begin to lose one of their shields against corruption and neglect.
We can’t just hope that larger newspapers will pick up the slack. The West have enough of their own problems with their print circulation halving in the last 20 years. With the huge cuts in journalist numbers they have made, they’ve moved towards tabloid sensationalism—a far cry from the local interests of country people.
Even if the state wide papers could be persuaded to cover regional level politics, a journo working from Perth who has likely never been to towns like Pingrup, or Pingelly, or Perenjori simply won’t understand the importance of a county town water stand pipe or backpackers to keep the pub running.
The brutal fact is this virus crisis is just another of a long list of ailments that has inflicted the media over decades, slowly and steadily picking off the weak and the young. A few old mast heads like the Farm Weekly will survive but their model is unique. They are compulsory reading to almost every farming family, but they are not the local community newspaper that pursues failed country shire governments or chases minsters over hairbrained hemp schemes.
For some in government the funding of the ABC is their answer. Though we are lucky to have ABC regional radio with the likes of Belinda Varischetti from the Country Hour or Daniel Mercer from ABC Great Southern, electronic is not print and local does not mean Landline.
One light on the hill is the fact that the Federal government has recently moved to stop the likes of Google from reprinting news stories for free. That may be in time to save The West Australian but it won’t be enough to for most of what’s left of the rural press.
In response to these new rural print suspensions and closures, the Federal Communications Minister has brought forward the release of a $5 million dollar regional and small publishers Innovation fund. But it’s already too late for many small regional newspapers, and when the money is spread across all the remaining rural and regional publications across the nation, it’s nothing but a Panadol for a terminal cancer patient.
It’s time to reset and rethink what’s important and offer up a longer term solution. But unfortunately to the horror of the economic dries who would prefer a drought of newsprint to reading the word subsidy, what is needed is probably some form of subsidised community media.
We subsidise a lot of what happens in rural and regional Australia, from patient assistant transfer and the royal flying doctor to country school hostels. They are all key parts of the equation to square up life in the bush with the city, and, let’s face it, we generate the revenue that keeps the whole state moving so why not?
If the government can afford to spend over a billion dollars a year on the ABC, we can do more to fund cadet journalists to develop content for rural focused online platforms. We do it with trainee teachers and nurses and doctors, and we’ve done it before. The two year Regional and Small Publishers Cadetships Program subsidised 200 cadet journos across the country in 2018 and 2019. It’s a great start, but two years of new journos won’t provide the ongoing support needed to keep our communities communicating. The program infrastructure is already in the Department of Communications; all that’s needed is the political will to keep it going.
Successful publications like the Farm Weekly or the Countryman with strong existing online platforms would make a natural partner to publish local community news where there is now none, a cadre of cadets contracted to country media and funded by a google levy on stolen news might be just what we need to keep our towns talking and reading.