The decision by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp to transition dozens of regional newspapers to digital only was saddening but came as no surprise.
Among them are the NewsMail in Bundaberg and the Centralian Advocate in Alice Springs.
I was managing editor of the Centralian Advocate from 2014-16 in my second stint at the newspaper after going there as a young reporter in 1988.
It was still profitable in 2016. We were meeting all our targets for advertising revenue and circulation when bean counters from the east came wielding an axe.
They wanted to reduce staffing levels and proposed changing the distribution arrangements as part of nationwide cost-cutting measures.
Several times over the past 10 years I thought the bottom had been reached in terms of media decline but now I believe there’s still some way to go.
There’s nobody in particular to blame for this; society has transformed how we consume news and information, however publishers haven’t helped themselves.
There’s been no clear strategy to embrace digital publishing since the Internet arrived in the 1990s. There’s been very little investment in print since the early 2000s.
For example, in the 1990s we used to budget for growth. As a newspaper manager I looked to develop the resources and capability to increase revenue and circulation.
The industry then was conscious to nurture the next generation of readers by engaging schools and covering junior sport. I haven’t seen much evidence of investment in print for more than a decade.
With a more visionary approach 10-15 years ago I believe that print and digital could have co-existed. Perhaps regional daily newspapers should have become weekly and had a greater focus on community news and events. Leave the hard news and breaking news online.
In January 2019, Bundaberg Regional Council started Bundaberg Now to future proof the area against further media decline. That’s now looking like a prescient move.
There’s a role for local government to provide a publishing platform to share news from community organisations and businesses in addition to Council news.
At Bundaberg we’ve delivered this without incurring significant costs.
There’s still a need for external scrutiny of local governments but arguably there’s more scrutiny of public officials today than ever before. Open data is real and everybody has easy access to huge volumes of information. Social media provides a free avenue for people to discuss local issues, criticise and complain.
The future of local news
I hope the online subscription model works for News Corp because local journalism needs to be supported.
I think there will be increased public funding of journalism through local and federal governments. Philanthropists are venturing into news and the ABC continues to have an important role.
Hopefully there will be a revival of newspapers in local communities, owned by local people, like what’s happened in Naracoorte. I see this being similar to the establishment of small breweries in regional areas after their antecedents were swallowed up decades ago by giant companies.
The demise of regional newspapers is not all doom and gloom. With ingenuity, innovation and resolve we can embrace change, adapt and flourish.