The impact of digital disruption on traditional media is well acknowledged, but the devastating knock-on for journalism at a grassroots level is only finally registering on the political and social radar.
In barely a decade, more than 100 local and regional newspapers have closed in Australia and hundreds of journalists have been retrenched. The consequence is that we have become a country of untold stories, and the crisis threatens to tip into catastrophe.
One hope is that the Federal Government can stem the haemorraghing by adopting the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s recommendations from its Digital Platforms Inquiry. Most of the attention has been on the big media companies’ calls for greater regulation of the tech titans, Facebook and Google, who have raided revenue streams.
But one of the most dramatic consequences of media disruption has occurred right around us with little apparent community concern.
We have fewer media outlets, fewer newsrooms, fewer journalists, fewer stories told. Indeed, entire patches across Australia are going unreported.
Only a generation ago, local journalism underpinned a business model that was a licence to print money.
My oh my, how the Community Times have changed. Today there are far fewer media outlets, fewer newsrooms and fewer journalists. That means fewer stories and, indeed, entire patches across the country that are going unreported.
Social media and try-hard digital news start-ups have been unable to replace in-depth and trustworthy local news coverage.
Councils, seen as a prime information source for local media, are setting up their own media operations to plug the information gap. Some councils have established news-style websites and even newspapers, and most are feeding multiple social media channels.
But this cannot by definition replace the role of local media as an independent civic watchdog. And we know where media isn’t present or isn’t doing its job that councils, as an example, escape scrutiny and citizens suffer the ill-effects of poor decision making, lack of accountability and, at its worst, corruption.
The demise - but not yet death - of the newspaper industry in Australia is the pointy-end of the problem.
While local television and radio have been important in giving audiences a voice, newspapers set the agenda in regional and rural communities and provide the most extensive coverage of local affairs. Newspapers have the biggest newsrooms and therefore support the bulk of journalist jobs and hence local journalism. Regional newspapers also play a central part in tying together the social fabric of community life.
Grassroots journalism is in drought and we have quickly become a country of untold stories.
Feel free to share my alarm at how journalist numbers have dropped like a stone and in such a short time.
When I was editorial director of Fairfax Regional Media, I was responsible for a nationwide newsforce of more than 800 staff across 160 titles. That behemoth, now Australian Community Media, was sold earlier this year for just $115 million to Thorney Investments. Today, I’d doubt if there were half the number of editorial staff when I was there.
In 2010, as editor of the Illawarra Mercury, south of Sydney, I had a newsroom of 80 people. Now there would be fewer than 20. When I was at The Canberra Times, a few years prior to that, we had a newsroom of more than 100 people. Again, it has been decimated, probably by half. And it would be a similar story at The Ballarat Courier, where I was editor in 2000.
In the 1990s, I was an editor at News Ltd’s Leader Newspaper Group in Melbourne. We produced chunky cash-cow suburbans, packed with advertising and news. On the bigger titles, I had four or five reporters each writing 15 to 20 stories a week. Today, these mastheads are emaciated versions of what they were, with generic content and many with only a token nod to the mix of what’s happening locally.
The impact for communities has been profound; a quantifiable loss in local news coverage. In many cases, content once generated by the council, cops and courts beat has been replaced by “UGC” - user generated content provided by self-interested external parties.
The ACCC’s final report from its Digital Platforms Inquiry released in June 2019 provides a sobering overview.
It quotes census numbers that show a 26 per cent decline in traditional print journalist numbers in 10 years (2006 to 20016). Data provided by the main media organisations shows a 20 per cent decline from 2014 to 2018.
In total, 106 local and regional papers closed in Australia between 2008 and 2018. Not a single media organisation now covers scores of local government areas, according to the ACCC. A study by the Public Interest Journalism Initiative for the Australian Local Government Association shows it’s not just a problem in the bush, but also in the ‘burbs, especially outer-suburban areas.
It’s clear and unequivocal. Grassroots journalism is in drought and we have quickly become a country of untold stories.
But is the situation reversible?
It will be fascinating how the Federal Government assesses the severity of the situation and how it responds to the ACCC’s modest recommendations.
The ACCC believes a more level-playing field is required when it comes to regulating Google and Facebook. They have few limits compared to traditional media, which is therefore at a distinct market disadvantage. The big media companies are gagging for regulatory reform.
The plight of the “local rag” may not evoke the same national heartfelt response as helping families survive drought. But it's just as important to the social fabric of Australian communities.
On the community journalism front, the new Communications Minister Paul Fletcher would do well to consider four actions:
1. Buy jobs back
In the UK, the BBC ‘s Local Democracy Reporting Service is paying for 150 journalists to provide news to 850 UK media titles and outlets. This constitutes a local news wire service, and by all reports is repairing the damage left by newsroom closures, especially around the reporting of local government. New Zealand has followed suit with a pilot of the same scheme. Across the Tasman, eight reporters are being funded by government and managed by the industry. That Australia should get onboard is a no-brainer. The model is a simple and sure-fire way to put local government back under journalistic scrutiny.
2. Share the ABC’s resources with those who need them
The ABC’s role could well expand beyond its charter as the “national broadcaster”. An argument exists that it could also be a national distributor, platform and protector of local journalism. Unencumbered by commercial interests, the ABC has a guaranteed public supply line of resources, training and infrastructure that it could share with its journalistic brethren in the bush. What such partnerships might look like at a local level remains to be explored, but surely public-led and public-fed journalism can be used to help complement and sustain local media enterprises.
3. Foster and incubate local media innovation
The Federal Government had a stab at this, setting up a $48 million innovation fund, but it was far from fully subscribed. In many cases, local media know they have to modernise. But making bold change may not be in their DNA. The ACCC’s final report reinforces the view that nothing has emerged to replace the “advertiser model” of traditional media. This is unacceptable because the only alternative is to stand by and watch the industry spiral into oblivion. I don’t believe we will see a newspaper resurgence in this country. But some companies are striking a blow, having cut costs, diversified their business model and leveraged their reach. That tells me there is still a case to support industry innovation.
4. Pull other tax and job levers
A $60 million pot of money was provided to assist regional and rural journalism under the cross-media laws trade-off. This covered scholarships, cadetships and the above-mentioned innovation fund. This shouldn’t be a one-off. Other industries, notably manufacturing, have enjoyed decades of protection and support. The fate of local media can be fairly blamed on the predatory practices of the tech titans. Local journalism also deserves special consideration for how it uniquely supports democracy. An obvious move the government can make is to provide deductible gift recipient status, and charity recognition, for public interest journalism and philanthropic-driven initiatives.
There’s reason to be optimistic that the government will take decisive action to shore up what remains of traditional media outside the big cities. Plenty of politicians, and aspiring ones, have skin in the game because local media still gives them the ultimate reach and influence.
Also, we know Joe and Jill Citizen value local news. Every industry survey tells us it is the most important category of information to them. It’s what’s relevant to us. It’s what connects us. It’s what binds communities together and gives social context.
Addressing the drought in community journalism will take no less resilience than what our farmers have shown many times before, and again now, in battling the whims of Mother Nature.
The plight of the “local rag” may not evoke the same national heartfelt response as helping families survive drought.
But, make no mistake, it’s just as important.
* Stuart Howie is a Canberra-based media consultant. He is a former editorial director of Fairfax Regional Media, and the author of The DIY Newsroom.
Stuart Howie is a communications and media consultant. He runs Flame Tree Media and is the author of The DIY Newsroom. Stuart has worked in media and publishing for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.