12 March, 2022
Newspaper inquiry highlights challenges and opportunities
Last week in Canberra, public hearings took place for the inquiry into the provision of newspapers (print and digital) in regional and remote Australia.
The minister for communications, Paul Fletcher, announced the
inquiry on December 22, 2021.
The government said the public hearings will inquire into the adequacy of regional and local news, how the pandemic has affected the delivery news services, and suggestions on how to strengthen connections with and coverage of issues affecting regional Australia.
While Gilgandra Newspapers expanded its local newspapers during the pandemic, with the launch of both The Nyngan Weekly and the Narromine Star in 2020 and 2021 respectively, other local and regional newspapers have not fared as well.
Many closed after their advertising budgets shrunk during the pandemic, and others moved to digital-only editions to cut costs.
Mr Andrew Manuel, president of Country Press Australia told the Inquiry that “the major publishers have in many cases abandoned the bush”.
“They have scaled back coverage in major regional centres and completely closed print editions in others, leaving token online coverage.”
The Public Interest Journalism Institute’s Newspaper Mapping Project showed the closure of 74 mastheads, broadcasting news stations or individual newsrooms from March 2020 to August 2021.
At the same time, research also indicates that local newspapers maintain a vital role in communities. A study from the Australian Research Council found last year that Australians living in regional communities are far more likely to go to their local news or newspaper website for information than other accessible online sources like search engines, social media sites or local council websites.
Mr Manuel also told the Inquiry that “the demise of large corporate publishers in regional Australia has led to a significant resurgence of independent small-busi- ness publishers in all mainland states. Country Press Australia, which has members in all states and the ACT,
has grown its base substantially in the past three years,” said Mr Manuel.
“This resurgence has not been easy, but the genuine belief among existing independent publishers of the importance of public interest journalism and how this relates to communities outside of large cities has been vital in bringing these new publications to life.”
However, Mr Manuel highlighted that changes to the advertising market for both local and national advertisers, exacerbated by COVID-19, place the sustainability of these new entrants at risk, without appropriate sup- port and policy settings.
The inquiry also comes at the time of change in the industry and will examine the impact for regional and remote newspapers of new developments such as News Media Bargaining Code.
Mr Manuel said that the digital platforms legislation “may well save some publishers from closure,” but that the full impacts of the news media bargaining code are yet to be fully appreciated.
The Gilgandra Weekly masthead has been part of deals struck by Country Press Australia with big tech companies after the introduction of News Media Bargaining Code, which requires Gilgandra Newspapers to provide a certain daily number of articles for online. However, as Lucie Peart, the managing edi- tor of Gilgandra Newspapers and president of Country Press NSW wrote in her submission to the inquiry “in our experience digital uptake in advertising is not a full second income stream, print editions are still much stronger in regional areas”.
“We do need to be financially supported for the service we provide and not just casually recognised as important.”
Mrs Peart further wrote in her submission “you don’t print out a webpage and put it on your fridge, but people still cut out the newspaper with their photo on it”.
“Local newspapers are family-run, small to medium enterprises with brilliant and passionate people looking to tell and record the stories of their town.
“They don’t do it for a big pay cheque, they do it for the love of the industry.”
By Natasha May