News Technology

Is there a future for local and regional news? Going digital amid a changing media landscape post-COVID

Source: ABCnews

For Gary, who lives out of town, the local paper means more than just the articles.

It is his connection to Gunnedah, in north-eastern New South Wales.

“I just get all the newspapers from here, I’m not a computer person,” he says. 

It’s a chance for him to keep up with community news, see what’s going on around the town and check in on the latest gossip.

But this simple routine was nearly lost when the town’s paper, the Namoi Valley Independent, switched to digital during the pandemic. 

It was one of more than 100 publications from the big media players, News Corp and Australian Community Media, that went through changes during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While some mastheads went online, or were suspended for a time, and still others stopped for good. 

COVID-19 may have just accelerated a process that was already well underway. 

Pandemic speeds up push to adopt digital 

A federal parliamentary committee — called by Communications Minister Paul Fletcher — is currently looking at the state of Australia’s regional newspapers. 

A submission from The University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre paints a grim picture.

“Regional newspaper consumption has halved since 2017, escalating from 2019 [onwards],following many closures,” it reads. 

Back in 2019, the consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), found closures of papers left some local council areas without any coverage. 

It reported that 21 local government areas had no print or online newspaper, 16 of those were in regional Australia. 

The Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI) has been monitoring changes to the media landscape since 2019, focusing on print and digital outlets. 

PIJI’s analysis, given to The Drum, showed 360 changes to news production by the end of last year.

When it came to the net loss of publications, most were recorded in regional Australia. 

The not-for-profit found Queensland was “arguably” the worst-affected state, with considerably fewer new outlets than have emerged during the pandemic. 

While New South Wales has seen more outlets return, they are disproportionately based in Sydney. 

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) told The Drum that it estimates that the pandemic saw up to 1,000 editorial jobs lost, mostly as a result of closures or downsizing of regional and community newspapers as well as commercial broadcasting changes. 

Pressures are being felt on those producing the news, too.

A recent MEAA survey of nearly 200 regional journalists found many felt their community engagement was good, but that two thirds felt their resourcing was poor to very poor. 

It also found 90 per cent of journalists who responded felt the health of their industry was not going very well. 

‘Every community deserves its own voice’

Wanda and Ian Dunnet are owners of The Courier, which has run in Narrabri for more than 100 years. 

It made business sense to expand their footprint into the neighbouring town of Gunnedah.

Gunnedah Times owner Wanda Dunnet discusses coverage
Newspaper owner Wanda Dunnet has expanded her business to Gunnedah, NSW, during the pandemic.(ABC: Jennifer Ingall)

“Gunnedah is a newspaper town. It always has been,” Ms Dunnet said. 

“Every community deserves its own paper, its own voice.”

But that voice has been changing. 

The digital transformation has also led to the syndication of state and national stories, meaning stories unrelated to the region are in the mix too.

That’s raised questions about the breadth — and quality — of relevant regional news being offered. 

Local newsagent John Sturgess told The Drum local publications played a vital role in regional Australia. 

“The local newspaper in rural communities is the lifeblood of the dissemination of information in the town,” Mr Sturgess said. 

The MEAA wrote in a parliamentary submission that, while regional news consumers prefer to read their local paper in print, how they consume news is changing: “Consumers have had no choice but to change the way in which they read the news.” 

While readers appear to be turning to social media, which is becoming a more popular source of “news”. 

The move to digital meant some Gunnedah residents such as Lurline Wilson miss out on their local news.

“It’s very important to me, because I have no other way of finding out the news,” she said.

“When it wasn’t printed, I was desperate,” Ms Wilson said.

She said she was “from the old school — I haven’t got all this newfangled stuff”.

Newspapers on a bench with a box for people to put money in
Locals in Gunnedah, NSW, are able to get a copy of their local paper through an honesty system. (ABC: Jennifer Ingall)

Ms Dunnet said big media organisations were, in part, to blame by pushing consumers to digital. 

“There was talk, mainly from corporate metropolitan papers, saying: ‘Look us up on Facebook. Go to our website’.

“They really downplayed the importance of the printed paper.” 

Independents filling the gaps

With gaps in the market, independent and community papers have sprung up, or combined titles to create regional rather than local news. 

When Susana Freymark lost her job as the editor at News Corp’s Richmond River Express Examiner in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, she joined locals to set up another free weekly paper.

“We were just making it work but, when COVID hit, we lost half of our income in advertising because people were either closed or they didn’t have the money or they were feeling very uncertain,” she said. 

Susanna Freymark sits at her laptop computer in her home office. A screen shows the content on her website.
Susanna Freymark writes a story for her website, which covers Kyogle and Richmond Valley, NSW.(ABC: Emma Rennie)

“I guessed that we had five years that we would keep doing the paper and I had every intention of doing it as long as we could make it viable and people wanted it.” 

When the Namoi Valley Independent, Gary’s local paper, went digital-only, it left the town without a local printed paper.

That is when the Dunnets stepped in. 

“People really missed it. We kept hearing things like, ‘Oh I wish we had a paper. Can you start a paper. We really miss it. We loved our paper’,” Ms Dunnet said. 

So they began publishing The Gunnedah Times at the end of 2020, and now employ 22 people across four publications. 

“The stories, the copy, the photos in our papers are unique to those communities,” Ms Dunnet said. 

But the Dunnets are among other independent owners who say they need more government support, including a commitment to increasing advertising in their papers. 

“The government tends to use digital for a lot of its advertising and our papers survive on advertising,” Ms Dunnet said

Another way to address the costs of running a local or regional paper is through negotiating payments with digital platforms, such as Google, who then share their content. 

That has been possible through the bargaining code established by the federal government last year

Country Press Australia — an organisation that represents more than 180 mastheads and online platforms — said it has been negotiating some deals but that the ACCC, which developed the code, believed about 30 agreements had been reached. 

Where to from here? 

The future of regional media in Australia is today being explored by those on the ground in an online Walkley Regional Journalism Summit. 

Walkley Foundation chief executive Shona Martyn said that, during the summit, people “are going to learn a lot and find inspiration from other journalists — and practical ideas that can transcend distance to convert to increased effectiveness in your own newsrooms”.

Ms Martyn noted that regional, community and local news played an important democratic role.

“Regional journalism, with an ear to the ground, can challenge the powerful and entrenched, and pick up stories at a grassroots level,” Ms Martyn said. 

Submissions to the federal government’s parliamentary inquiry are due to close this week. So far, just 42 public submissions have been received. 

Australian Community Media — which owns the Namoi Valley Independent — noted its print revenue fell by almost 45 per cent between 2016 and 2021. 

It wrote that federal government funding helped to continue to employ 600 regional journalists on its payroll — but, still, some 20 to 30 per cent of its titles were under threat without urgent support. 

It said that emergency government funding had enabled it to return more than 100 mastheads to print or digital publishing. 

“Unlike News Corporation, we did not take a decision to simply walk away from printing the vast majority of our regional mastheads,” managing director Tony Kendall said. 

“Instead, we have been fighting to keep as many of our titles open as possible.”

While, for its part, News Corp did not make a public submission, last year it announced investment into local news

Newpapers stacked over each other on a table.
The community-run Richmond River Independent closed during COVID-19 after losing advertising dollars.  (ABC: Emma Rennie)

Out of necessity, and to continue providing local news, Ms Freymark is now editing her own news website. 

Her site, — which covers Kyogle and Richmond Valley — has 18,000 readers, and she is able to respond quicker to news than she had been able to in the print world.

While she would have liked to see local print media continue, she was realistic about the future. 

“I think the way to go is digital. I just would have liked to have seen the two together in a natural transition.”