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.
Life in the ol' girl yet as Australian regional titles sold for $115m to Antony Catalano, private equity
The sale of Australian Community Media, with 160-plus regional and rural titles, to real estate marketing guru Antony Catalano is likely to usher in more promising times for newspapers across the expansive continent.
Despite everyone writing off newspapers, including the very bosses who have run some of them, there’s life in the ol’ girl yet.
Catalano, backed by Aussie billionaire Alex Waislitz's Thorney Investments, picked up the massive regional stable for the bargain basement price of $115 million.
Among the titles bringing home the bacon are the Newcastle Herald, The Canberra Times and the often ignored agriculture bible, The Land. These titles with a handful of other daily titles rake in most of the revenue for ACM, formerly Fairfax Regional Media.
Thereafter is a very long tail of lesser titles, many weeklies and bi-weeklies, that seek to serve their disparate communities the best they can with minimal resources.
Not too long ago, some of those big titles alone could have reaped as much as the sum total for the entire regional empire now to be transacted.
The sale tells us quite a bit about the state of print in this country, but let me zone on three insights.
It was a bold enough statement for me to take note - and to recount now more than 20 years on.
While on a study tour of the US in 1996, I was talking to a senior media executive in Chicago who emphatically declared, without a hint of self doubt: “In 10 to 15 years, people will look at a newspaper and laugh”.
Sure enough it’s been a rollercoaster ride, but print still matters - not just to news folk but also to those in the communications business finessing their media ecosystems.
Big media has defined the public impression about print - closures, sell-outs, layoffs and dwindling profitability.
But in the world of small publishers it is actually a far more positive scene.
Community newspapers, which comprise the overwhelming number of newspapers across the world, tell a different story to the big media’s narrative of How Digital Killed Print.
The small newspaper market faces similar challenges from media fragmentation, but the strong appetite for hyperlocal news means the local paper continues to provide a great sales and marketing environment.
Take New Zealand.
When quarterly circulation figures next ping the email boxes of newspaper publishers, it is likely to be another sea of red.
I am old enough that I recall those days as an editor when you could experience the adrenalin rush of a circulation spike. No such thing today. In the past five years, moderate decline, say negative one to three per cent, is as good as it gets.
The romantic in us wants to believe newspaper decline will plateau. There is no evidence of this.
However, there are seven big mistakes that newspapers regularly make that are killing them. Avoid them, and you can make print stronger for longer.
Traditional media keeps getting a pounding - and entering the fray at a sensitive time in New Zealand is the Flat Earth Society disguised as the country’s regulator, the Commerce Commission.
ComCom has rejected the proposed merger of Fairfax New Zealand and NZME, citing the likelihood of greatly reduced competition in the market. The argument: less outlets, less views, poorer society.
It beggars belief, of course.
Almost all new digital revenue goes to Facebook and Google - ComCom among the advertisers with the former.
Under a merger, the businesses would have been rationalised. Old jobs would have been axed but new jobs would have been created in what represented a chance for big but struggling media there to respawn.
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.