COVID-19 has caused major upheaval for Australian regional and local newspapers. Leanne Elliott examines current challenges faced by the industry.
Despite the central role adopted by journalists during times of crisis, such as the current pandemic, many journalists are facing an uncertain future as news outlets continue to ‘economise’ and contract.
Many of the media outlets hit hardest by the latest disruption to Australian media are regional and local news and media outlets, particularly print media. Many long-standing local newspapers have been forced to close, downsize, or move to online platforms as advertising revenues dry up.
“There has been significant job losses within the regional news media landscape,” says Emily Wind, Cadet Journalist at the Tumut and Adelong Times. “I feel incredibly lucky to still have my job, knowing so many have lost theirs.”
“If the COVID-19 pandemic has made Australians value their media more, it is a small consolation in a difficult environment.” – Peter Greste,
This major disruption to local news poses a major threat to public interest news and democracy, with the voices of many smaller communities now being overlooked in favour of larger, more newsworthy stories.
Part of the flow on effect of the local newspaper closures includes hardships felt by local businesses which rely on local newspapers to advertise goods and services to a targeted local audience who will now have to advertise elsewhere.
Also, the impact on printing services and distribution points add to industry wide pressure. “The facility where our paper gets printed was closed due to COVID-19; we found another printing facility to use however our deadline is tighter now,” says Emily.
The Newcastle Herald and Port Stephens Examiner are the only local newspapers left standing after several local newspapers joined a mass exodus of Australian regional and local newspapers, many of which have halted printing as a result of the pandemic induced disruption.
“Classifieds have begun growing again already, and when social distancing restrictions allow for it, we should be back in the office into our old routines.” – Emily Wind, Tumut and Adelong Times.
Most of the local newspapers affected by the closures will maintain an online presence, however local content will be mostly sourced from regional news sources. “In regional areas there are lots of residents without reliable internet connections.
Older generations who rely on their local paper for accurate, relevant news, and so many towns have now lost this vital information source,” says Emily.
Australian Community Media, owner of 160 newspapers around Australia, will suspend printing of some unspecified number of non-daily newspapers and close four printing facilities until the end of June https://t.co/Lrj1WStndc
— Gary Dickson (@gzy_d) April 14, 2020
While the affected newspapers are planning to review the decision mid-year, there have been no guarantees as to if, or when these newspapers will be printing local news and information again.
“I think it is too soon to know how regional news outlets will be affected in the long term by either changes they had to make or temporary closures they endured,” says Emily. “I think it will vary depending on each organisation, and even each individual paper.”
The Government continues to support Australian regional and local media through strengthening various programs and grants, such as the Public Interest News Gathering program and Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund. However, these assistance programs have done little to prevent the ‘temporary’ closure of the many regional and local newspapers which remain in a state of uncertainty.
'If COVID-19 has made Australians value media more, it is a small consolation in a difficult environment.' – @PeterGreste responds to UNSW & @ProfGWilliams' great event last wk on #pressfreedom w Hugh Marks, Connie Carnabuci & @NicholasGray – https://t.co/pC4p5h9dDu
— Alliance for Journalists' Freedom (@4JournoFreedom) April 29, 2020
In addition to an uncertain future, Australian journalists have also taken a hit, with Australia dropping five points (to 26) on the RFS Freedom index. In a recent article, Peter Greste wrote: “UNSW Law School Dean, Professor George Williams, warned that this country is facing its own democratic crisis, with a raft of draconian legislation choking off legitimate public interest journalism.”
Excessive media laws impacting journalists and whistle-blowers, increased media concentration and media censorship, the disruption caused by technological change and diminishing industry revenue have undermined Australian journalists and media.
And now, the loss of so many regional and local newspapers which comes at time when Australian media is already suffering a myriad of challenges serves yet another huge blow to the industry and Australians.
Featured Image by Phoebe Metcalf, Yak Media Designer