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Report calls for more Federal Government advertising in local newspapers

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A national report into local news sustainability is challenging the perception that print newspapers are dead and is calling on governments to revise their advertising rules to help local news providers and better target regional and rural communities.

The Media Innovation and the Civic Future of Australia’s Country Press includes 22 recommendations, which provide a blueprint to preserve and grow rural and regional news for future generations.

The report was the first of its kind in Australia and was a culmination of a three-year Australian Research Council project, led by Deakin University, in partnership with Country Press Australia and RMIT University.

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Project lead Professor Kristy Hess, of Deakin’s School of Communications and Creative Arts, said the project’s aim was to examine the local media landscape to identify challenges and opportunities for sustainability and innovation.

The study began at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in the temporary or permanent closure of dozens of local mastheads across Australia and a shift among some to digital-only platforms.

The research team conducted two main national surveys – one with local news audiences and one with those who do not engage with local news; 35 interviews with Australian news editors and proprietors; and seven focus groups with editors, journalists and advertising managers within the Country Press Australia network.

One key finding was the strain on local mastheads hit with lost revenue from local, state and federal government advertising, which in recent years had prioritised social media and metropolitan news outlets with a larger digital reach.

Victoria is the only state to receive a significant commitment of placing paid advertisements in all members of the Victorian Country Press Association.

“Our research found there is this obsession with digital reach. That’s all well and good, but a local masthead, whether in print or online, isn’t designed to reach 1 million people. If we use the digital reach metric as an indicator as to which news outlets should get government advertising, these independent regional and rural outlets are going to lose out every time,” Professor Hess said.

The report supports a recent Parliamentary Inquiry recommendation that stipulates 20 per cent of all Federal Government advertising expenditure be directed to regional and rural news organisations.

Data from the study also showed government funding schemes for local news outlets were often tied to digital innovation, for instance to buy drones and other technologies, when what local news providers needed was financial support to upgrade print infrastructure or to hire more staff.             

“Print is not dead for many regional and rural communities. We need to remember there is a digital divide in Australia that means some communities still struggle with poor-quality and unreliable internet connections. Some segments of the community, including older citizens, find it difficult to use newer technologies. Younger audiences also like the look of a printed newspaper,” Professor Hess said.

The report also recommends better incentives, including pay, to attract seasoned reporters to the regions. Governments are also urged to provide seed funding for journalist-led news start-ups to counteract local ‘news deserts’ developing in some parts of Australia.

“Our research shows people in these communities want more local news content, including stories on locals’ achievements, successes and milestones. They also want news on local events and more investigative-type pieces,” Professor Hess said.

Country Press Australia president Andrew Manuel said the report should be seen as a beginning and not an end, and highlighted the essential role local papers play in serving their communities and delivering civic journalism.

“The report stands as a beacon for government, for policy makers and for the community to take the appropriate and necessary actions to ensure newspapers can continue to play such a vital role,” he said.

“The study was done across the most tumultuous time the media industry has experienced, and local papers remain such an integral cog in regional and rural Australia, despite the hardships we’ve all endured.

“The report defines regional and rural papers as essential services to the community, and better support from government, and a better understanding from government around this is an important next step.”

Mr Manuel said people living in country areas remain passionate and engaged with their local mastheads, and the report highlights the need to better support local news, and equally, the pivotal role and responsibility of country papers to communities scattered across the continent.

“We urgently need government to recognise the importance of our members in the local community and for government to adapt the way they seek to engage our readerships, just as we have adapted our businesses during particularly the past few years,” he said.

“Acting on the recommendation for 20 per cent of the Federal Government’s advertising expenditure to be allocated to regional and rural news organisations, but in a way that reflects the Deakin University led research findings, would be a welcome first step.”

The report suggests government policies and advertising spend remains the most influential factor in providing baseline surety to the long-term sustainability of small, independently-owned news outlets across Australia, but questions whether taxpayer funds to support media might have been misdirected.

It claims the shift away from traditional media and towards social media and larger metropolitan news outlets with greater digital reach has led to a decline in engagement with regional and rural audiences, as well as a financial strain upon publishers in these areas.

The report describes a ‘digital shiny things bias’ towards digital innovation at the expense of supporting initiatives that may be most beneficial to regional audiences.

A greater appreciation for place-based public interest journalism and the need for collaboration among publishers were other key findings.

The report also calls for a national campaign to recruit more journalists and address perceptions about careers outside of metropolitan areas.

“Newsrooms in regional and rural areas can offer some of the most varied, fulfilling and interesting work to journalists, and it should never just be about country papers being seen as merely a stepping stone to a job elsewhere in the city,” Mr Manuel said.

Mr Manuel said Country Press Australia members would continue to innovate and adapt their businesses, and to seek ways to work together for a better media industry, but the need for more effective government support and understanding would be crucial to the long-term sustainability of country papers.

The full report can be found at www.localnewsinnovation.org.

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