The people’s press
Why are some rural and regional newspapers bucking trends away from print? Independent ownership doesn’t hurt.
Almost three years ago, Alison Andrews moved back to her home town of Longford, in northern Tasmania. After decades of working in the media, she cashed in her super and bought the town’s tiny newspaper — the Northern Midlands Courier.
She sells the ads, takes the photos, writes the stories and organises distribution.
And it sounds like she’s having the time of her life.
“It’s going brilliantly,” she says. “The circulation has gone up — people love that it’s a paper about them and their area. We’re proving that people still want newspapers in country areas.”
Similarly, Jane O’Connor had a big career heading bureaus at AAP, and working for News Limited and Fairfax. She’s now running the Mountain Monthly in Kinglake, north of Melbourne, and says, “I started out on hyper-local news and now I’m full circle. It’s ethical, wholistic and about understanding your community and catering for it.”
Further north-west, in Central Victoria’s Castlemaine, acting newspaper editor Angela Crawford is also upbeat. The Castlemaine Mail may have been around for 160 years, she says, but it is going from “strength to strength”.
So how’s it really going in the bush?
It’s impossible to make a neat diagnosis of the health of regional newspapers. It’s a mixed bag across Australia, with newspaper fortunes often fluctuating in sync with the communities they serve.
Papers in once-thriving mining towns, for instance, close when the mines do, while tree- and sea-changers have helped revitalise community newspapers outside capital cities.
It’s an area ripe for further study. There is no-one in Australia currently keeping statistics on job losses in regional papers or tracking which papers are folding and which are opening. Yet examining the boom and bust cycles of local papers might well help us better understand the communities they serve.
In November 2017, UTS’s Centre for Media Transition (CMT) went some way towards assessing the health of regional media in Australia, crunching the readership numbers and interviewing people in regional communities in NSW.
Their report found that there was “no point sugar-coating…. a 20 per cent decline in regional print newspaper sales between 2014 and 2016 and a 10 per cent decline in regional TV revenues since 2011. Newsroom numbers have been cut, services curtailed and in an effort to cut costs, products dropped and services aggregated.”
Last year the Federal Government announced a $60m rescue package for local media publishers, by funding cadetships, grants and journalism scholarships for students from remote and regional areas. But it’s likely many regional newspapers will continue to struggle, says CMT co-director Peter Fray, as the rescue package can’t stop social media giants such as Facebook from cutting into advertising revenue. “If you are a business in Tamworth, on Facebook you can now target everyone aged 25–45 in Tamworth. There’s more competition,” says Fray.
Meanwhile cost-cutting at regional newspapers isn’t helping. “There’s a real concern that the dynamics we see in the cities are playing out harder in the country,” says Fray. “If you have a newsroom with three people and there’s a 30 per cent cut, then you really have to make some decisions about what you cover.”
The independently owned Castlemaine Mail maintains a shop-front in the heart of town, with locals dropping in to share news tips or place ads.
“Castlemaine Mail is in a really strong position as a news provider because it doesn’t really have any competition. It’s the sole newspaper for Castlemaine,” says Angela Crawford.
Mail readers tend to be younger than (print) readers of the metro newspapers, whose median age is about 60, says Crawford.
She quotes statistics from market research gathered by the Victorian Country Press Association in 2016. “They gathered data about country newspapers like ours and found our strongest age group in terms of readership was the 31 to 39 and 40 to 54 bracket.”
The newspaper — together with its sister paper the Midland Express (which covers a greater swathe of the region) is owned by the Ellen family.
“We are fully independent with a circulation of 22,000 plus per week for the Midland Express (a free paper distributed to letterboxes) and 3,000 for the Castlemaine Mail (which sells for $1.50),” says Crawford.
Although independent media ownership can be a precarious proposition — take the premature demise of independent broadsheet start-ups such as inner Sydney’s Neighbourhood and Newcastle Sunday — there are also risks when a small paper is managed out of Melbourne or Sydney, as part of a larger media group.
In July 2016, News Corp closed seven small Victorian newspapers, most of them covering Melbourne’s outer suburbs. Later that same year (surely an annus horribilis for Australia’s small papers), News Corp acquired APN News & Media’s newspaper stable, comprising twelve daily papers and 60 community titles covering northern NSW and Queensland. Meanwhile Fairfax was cutting jobs at The Border Mail, The Courier (in Ballarat) and the Illawarra Mercury, having already done so at regional titles in South Australia and suburban Sydney.
The Nine/ Fairfax merger in July of this year has also thrown into doubt the future of Fairfax Media’s 160 community and regional newspapers.
According to a report in The New Daily; ”Australian Community Media, the branch of Fairfax that owns and operates the regional newspapers, is by far the worst performing arm of Fairfax’s six main sub-groups.
“Last year, ACM’s revenue dropped by 11 per cent and profit before tax fell by a massive 19 per cent. The regional papers’ profitability has consistently plummeted in recent years, from $169 million in 2012, to $67.5 million.”
The deal is now before the ACCC, with the MEAA saying the merger was against the public interest.
MEAA chief executive, Paul Murphy said, “We also hold concerns about what it will mean for independent journalism, for the future of Fairfax’s metropolitan and 160 community, regional and rural publications around Australia, and for the jobs and conditions of thousands of Fairfax employees.”
Alison Andrews, editor of the Northern Midlands Courier, says of the situation in Tasmania: “What I have come to believe is that if you are a country newspaper owned by Fairfax, you are doomed — and you will be shut down eventually. Fairfax have chopped and their staff are gone and now it’s just juniors. Murdoch has done their restructure differently. They have also made a lot of cuts but have hung onto their senior people and they (News Corp) might last a bit a bit longer — in this state especially.”
The Northern Midlands Courier services a broad but sparsely populated area in northern Tasmania that previously relied on the Launceston Examiner for its news. “My main source of revenue is advertising and I make a living. It’s well received in the community because it’s their local newspaper — that’s the key,” says Andrews.
But for every journalist/entrepreneur like Andrews, there are papers folding or being run by people who are neither trained nor equipped to cover the news.
Peter Fray says, “I have a concern about news ‘deserts’ in this country — where you lose reporters or a paper shuts and the news from that town simply doesn’t get reported anymore.”
More and more local papers, for instance, have resorted to cutting costs by taking content from other papers in their stable.
“There’s a real danger if you’re in Warrnambool and your news in the paper is all about Ballarat. People are not stupid. There’s this idea that the regions are all the same — and they’re not,” says Fray.
Jane O’Connor believes one of the reasons for the success of Kinglake’s Mountain Monthly is its ownership structure. The newspaper was set up in 1981 as a community cooperative with a board and paid staff.
“I’m the reporter — myself and the whole community are reporters,” says O’Connor. “It’s that hyperlocality. It sounds like ratty old socialism but if the people have a sense they own it — that it’s not this remote thing that people impose (on them) — then they would pick up the pitchforks if anyone threatened it.”
The paper covers council matters but doesn’t cover court cases.
“When you look at a community — what makes it up? Law and order, education, health services — we would also look at subjects like ‘how can we address mental health in the community’.” O’Connor has also written features on domestic violence. “It’s just very straight. People reject the tabloid scandal stuff.”
The Northern Midlands Courier covers everything from local council to the big news story in the region — the Anglican church’s sale of properties across the state. The social pages are also a popular feature, says Alison Andrews.
In Castlemaine, says Angela Crawford, local council “is scrutinised” but council issues “are covered even-handedly and we don’t cover every little thing council does.”
“No subject is taboo,” says Crawford. But like many local papers, where reporters are essentially embedded in the community, there is a sensitivity around distressing stories that is not necessarily found in coverage by metropolitan outlets. “We would respect the privacy of victims’ family,” says Crawford.
O’Connor, whose community of Kinglake was devastated by the Black Saturday fires, is also sensitive with her reporting.
“We lived it (Black Saturday) ourselves. We would not go up to people who just had their houses burned down and be intrusive,” she says.
“One of the worst impacts of the fires was the intrusive, bad media and I watched it all from my own pile of rubble. They (the metro media) swarmed in, particularly with Kinglake — we are only an hour away from the CBD so they could get footage back to the newsrooms for deadline. We didn’t want the circus.”
As in the metropolitan press, social media poses a threat to regional newspapers.
Community Facebook pages administered by local volunteers have been springing up in towns and suburbs across Australia, and whet an appetite for hyperlocal news.
According to the CMT report, “almost two in five regional news consumers say they gain local news from social media at least once a day. For more than two thirds, it’s at least once a week. Even if the primary source of that news is legacy media, the greatest financial beneficiary is the digital platform.”
Castlemaine, in the central Victorian goldfields region, is a thriving town with a highly engaged population (of about 8000) and a very active community Facebook page called Castlemania. The page updates group members on everything from upcoming events to car park redevelopment at the train station, to debate over whether the local council will fly the rainbow flag ahead of last year’s marriage equality vote.
But Crawford believes that despite the emergence and popularity of social media sites like Castlemania, the local paper is not being supplanted.
“We follow Castlemania too. We use it as a source of news tips as well. There is some crazy talk, but we can look into stuff.”
But ultimately, she says, “there really can’t be a comparison. Sites like Castlemainia are not a trusted news source in the way that a local news source is. They are a popular forum for people to share gripes. Everyone who is on there as a member knows to take it all with a grain of salt.”
Says Jane O’Connor, “Generally with the community Facebook pages, what we find over and over again is that it turns into the trolls — people don’t engage with it after a while. A lot of (Facebook) sites are set up by well-meaning people but (the effort required) to administer and resource them is immense. They don’t have the most basic understanding of defo law and there seems to be a growing backlash against … the inaccuracies and assumptions.”
Still, high speed internet has been a game changer in the regions, says Peter Fray.
“There’s a flow-on from people in the regions getting high speed internet — the world has gotten a lot bigger for people.”
That also means that people are going beyond their local newspapers to access the news.
Fray, talking about a visit to Barnaby Joyce’s home town of Tamworth, says, “We were there about six weeks after the Barnaby Joyce story broke and people told us ‘we knew everything going on with Barnaby and we weren’t being told about it in our local paper’. There was a vibe in Tamworth: ‘why didn’t our local paper tell us?”’
Crawford, however, maintains that you can find most trusted, local news in the local paper. “People can get news online about Donald Trump but where else can you get local news?” Seeing friends and family featured in the sports pages is reason enough for many people to buy the paper, says Crawford.
“We are stronger than ever,” she says. “If you had asked me (about the paper) six years ago, when (media) forecasting was so dire about what would happen once NBN was here, I was not sure about survival. (But) regional press has been less impacted than other media. The people in our communities are very engaged. Our communities have got a high percentage of people who live and work here.”
Conversely, suburban papers are more vulnerable to closing because commuters tend to be less engaged in their communities, says Crawford.
“Being made up of staff members who live and work here — we are also part of these communities. We have physical office space. There is access, trust, familiarity and respect. We are not the kind of reporters who try and find the person whose house was burnt out in a bushfire.”
Brigid Delaney is a journalist at Guardian Australia, who lives in regional Victoria.
This reporting was supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund through the Walkley Journalism Explored Essay Series.