Bundaberg Now

Transforming local government communications

Bundaberg Now

Here’s the text from my speech to the national local government IT conference in Coffs Harbour regarding Bundaberg Now as an example of digital disruption.

I’m very pleased that one Council has contacted me already and plans to start something similar …

Today I’ll be talking about digital disruption and how local government can transform the way in which we communicate.

The case study is Bundaberg Now – a Council owned and operated online news platform.

Christensen defined disruption in 1997 as a relatively narrow concept whereby technology evolves through quality improvements to inferior but low-priced products.

In 2016 the Productivity Commission adopted a broader definition that’s more relevant for policy makers – disruptive technologies are developments that drive substantial change.

They noted that new technologies offer opportunities for the creation of innovative businesses, a greater range of products, and new ways for governments to address policy problems.

I’ll explain how Bundaberg Now has provided the community with a news and information product that addresses the problem of media fragmentation.

Firstly, some background:

Bundaberg is about four hours’ drive north of Brisbane. Several Councils were amalgamated in 2008 to form Bundaberg Regional Council.

The population is just under 100,000 people. Major industries include agriculture, health services and tourism.

There’s a high rate of welfare dependency.

The Council employs 900 people and has multiple service areas including water and sewerage, recycling and waste management. We operate an entertainment centre, art galleries, conference facility, neighbourhood centres, respite care and museums. We also organise festivals and events.

In late 2017 the Council recognised the need to improve communications with the community.

My position was created as a member of the Executive Leadership Team reporting to the CEO and I was able to recruit the skills needed to develop and implement an improvement strategy.

We filled positions for marketing, graphic design, social media and video production.

I learnt over a period of several months it doesn’t matter how many people you employ, how much resources there are, if you don’t have the tools you can’t build anything. It’s like the ancient pharaohs trying to build pyramids without being able to cut the rock.

Towards the end of last year, it was frustrating to realise that we weren’t making significant progress.

We were producing great content, but it wasn’t reaching the people it was intended for. It was disappearing into a void.

We were victims of slow-burn digital disruption through ongoing media fragmentation. I will talk more about this; the incremental decline of traditional media and how governments have generally failed to adapt.

The recognition of failure coincided with some catalytic developments.

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Bundaberg is relatively well served by traditional media. There’s a daily newspaper, the News Mail, an ABC studio and two television news services. There used to be three TV news programs, but WIN closed earlier this year.

The catalyst for Bundaberg Regional Council to rethink our communications strategy was a change at the local newspaper.

They closed their weekly free paper and established a strict paywall for their online news. From October last year, nearly every story went behind the paywall, including weather reports and Council media releases. Why should we give our content away for free for someone else to profit from?

We were writing seven or eight media releases each week and could have written more given the breadth of services we provide. It was frustrating and disheartening to see these stories effectively disappear into a black hole of nothing.

In January this year we decided to take responsibility for our own communications by establishing an online news channel, Bundaberg Now. I call it a channel because it uses video as well as articles.

We are now reaching the people we want to reach, unfiltered through our own platforms.

From a standing start we had nearly 70,000 visitors to the site in October and 17,000 likes on our Facebook page. We rival the local ABC for audience size and volume of online content, despite having fewer staff.

I will comment on the slow burn I mentioned earlier, the gradual decline of traditional media.

If someone fell asleep 30 years ago and woke up today, they’d be shocked at how much the world has changed. Over 30 years it’s been a slow and steady change, barely noticeable from day to day, week to week and month to month.

Looking back, I started my career as a cadet journalist in 1987 at a country newspaper in Victoria.

It was a broadsheet (there’s only one left as far as I know, The Australian) and there was no colour printing. In my first six months I wrote articles on a manual typewriter before the first computers were introduced. Photos were developed in a dark room.

Michael Gorey as a young journalist

There was no fax machine. Press releases were rare, hand delivered by the local MP’s office or coming in the post from PR firms.

For those of us who grew up in the 1970s, in regional Australia most towns had only two television services, the ABC and one commercial. There were one or two commercial radio stations and no FM services except the ABC and community radio.

I remember seeing the Internet for the first time in 1995 and owning my first computer in 1996.

Most of us in the newspaper industry knew the Internet would change things but none of us were smart enough to foresee how it would change.

I recall a futurist talking about how newspapers would be delivered on electronic slates and everyone laughed.

Publishers today still haven’t figured out how to make money from producing news on the Internet and they blame Google and Facebook for their problems.

Newspapers were once incredibly powerful and influential. The Melbourne Sun sold more than 600,000 copies per day in the 1970s. You almost needed a wheelbarrow to take home the Saturday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald or The Age.

Those “rivers of gold” classifieds have all migrated online. Publishers today don’t even disclose audited circulation data like they used to; they talk about audience reach across platforms using a rubbery metric.

Their focus is on growing online readership, as it should be.

Television news used to be the nirvana for communications professionals. Everybody watched it.

Think about how television and radio have been diluted and fragmented. From one or two commercial stations without competition there are now dozens of TV channels and thousands of radio stations to choose from. Streaming media draws a bigger audience than television.

A 2018 report by the UTS Centre for Media Transition found there has been a 20 per cent decline in regional print newspaper sales between 2014 and 2016. They talk about the implosion of the business model that underpinned journalism for the past century, how it continues to create havoc in the news media industry, in city and country alike.

Print newspaper circulation fell 45 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

There is no end in sight to the decline of traditional media. The UTS survey found that almost two in five regional news consumers say they gain local news from social media at least once a day. For more than two thirds, it was at least once a week.

I suspect the real number is much higher. Consumers may not have a clear definition of news when it comes to what they see on social media. New forms of social media are also evolving to capture market share, such as Snapchat and Tik Tok.

The only certainty in the media landscape today is continued uncertainty.

To quote again from UTS: For today’s producers, distributors and consumers of news, uncertainty is a given, disruption is the norm and change is a constant.

The ACCC has noted that publishers are at the mercy of sudden algorithmic changes which can severely disrupt conditions under which online news is produced; and the potential devaluation of journalism through extractive summaries.

The way in which Facebook and Google rank articles in feeds and search results is done according to a complicated and changing formula which outsiders can never fully comprehend.

Local Government using Facebook to communicate

How has local government reacted to these changes?

We evolved our communications to the extent we recognised social media is important. Most bigger Councils now have dedicated resources for social media and video production.

It’s my observation however, and personal experience, that we didn’t recognise our own potential to be content producers or publishers on a broader scale.

Social media is no longer cutting edge, but it’s the space most of us operate in. Some Councils still produce hard-copy newsletters which are expensive and out of date before they’re read.

And while traditional media flounders and dies in front of our eyes, what are we doing to ensure our communities are connected and cohesive? Not much. We’re all victims of media decline but it’s time to fight back.

Bundaberg Now doesn’t just publish Council news. We write stories about our communities. We accept contributions from community organisations, businesses and other agencies. We are a fully-fledged authentic news service, now recognised as such by Google and Microsoft.

Our mission is to promote a positive image of the Bundaberg Region.

Twelve months ago, if you searched Google News for Bundaberg you would have seen a list of crime and court reports.

Search today and you’ll have a blend of mainly positive stories with Bundaberg Now prominent in the results.

As a former newspaper journalist, editor and manager I know what draws eyeballs and clicks. It isn’t a story about the local CWA, it’s a car crash, fire or scandal in the local court.

Even when I worked at the comparatively high-brow Canberra Times, it was disheartening to see a network story (from a wire service) about a celebrity get more views online than something I worked half a day to research and write.

That’s why there’s a role for local government in being a publisher.

As media has declined and retreated or disappeared altogether, our communities have lost their voice. It’s ironic that as media choices have proliferated, communities have become less cohesive and people are less connected.

It’s beneficial to us and to our communities for local government to fill the void and tell the stories which media choose to no longer report or don’t have the resources to cover.

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Several weeks after we launched Bundaberg Now the local media began to react.

They started firing questions about how much did it cost, how many extra people were we employing?

They found an academic who accused us of publishing propaganda, despite never speaking to us about our philosophy and values. A News Corp executive accused us of publishing “fake news”.

I was interviewed by Media Watch.

I told the local newspaper editor he wouldn’t like the answer to his questions about cost. Last year we spent almost $10,000 per month on advertising with the News Mail. That’s been reduced to around $2000 a month for compulsory statutory notices.

Bundaberg Now uses WordPress, which is free. We’ve spent about $4000 on development including a commercial theme, plugins and hosting. We spent about $20,000 on marketing in the first six months to build brand awareness. We employed a part-time journalist to cover community events on weekends.

We possibly would have employed the additional journalist regardless of Bundaberg Now. If you include her wages, the cost is about $60,000 per year and we’ve reduced our newspaper advertising by $90,000 per year.

The team working on Bundaberg Now comprises myself, two full-time communications officers, the part-time journalist, a video producer and a multimedia trainee.

Our Mayor, Jack Dempsey, serves on the policy executive for the Local Government Association of Queensland. He observed that collectively Councils employ more journalists than the ABC.

He has been a passionate advocate for the change we are implementing.

None of my team are full time on Bundaberg Now but we manage to publish around seven or eight stories per day, 50 stories per week. Around half of these are council news or quote a Councillor.

The community response has been overwhelmingly positive.

We compare our engagement levels on Facebook with traditional media outlets and it’s generally higher on Bundaberg Now if we both publish a similar story at the same time.

The technical side of producing the news service is straightforward.

We chose WordPress because it’s ubiquitous, many of us are familiar with it, it’s easy to customise and maintain. There are thousands of themes and plugins to choose from.

We use the aptly named Newspaper theme, which cost about $80. We did the customisation ourselves.

We have several commercial plugins, ranging in price from $20 to $100 for features such as: security (Wordfence), URL shortener, maps and automatic image compression.

If you propose something like Bundaberg Now at your own Council, there will be objections internally and externally if you make it that far. Let’s take a look at some of those.

Local government shouldn’t compete with commercial media

Bundaberg Now fills a gap in the media market. As publications have closed and media has contracted, fewer stories are being published and broadcast. It’s important for community cohesion and connectivity to share information and promote a positive image of where we live.

Just use Council’s website to promote Council news

Analytics show that people visit the Council website seeking information, not news. And a marketing campaign is unlikely to change this. Our most visited pages on the corporate website are employment and mapping, followed by rate payments, animal registration and waste management opening hours. The corporate website gets about 24,000 visitors per month, less than half of Bundaberg Now. By aggregating our Council news with community news we’re building relationships, gaining third-party endorsement, promoting engagement and developing trust.

Some will say that Councils should invest in local media to keep them afloat

My response is that Councils have an obligation to do what’s best for residents and ratepayers. A news website is more cost efficient and more effective than spending large amounts of money on advertising.

It’s just propaganda

We’re committed to being timely, accurate and relevant in all our communications.

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Future goals

  • Build a network of Councils providing similar services, currently just Bundaberg and Ipswich.
  • Develop a common charter that clearly defines the purpose, mission and values.
  • Decide if advertising should be allowed.
  • Add community publishing for such things as notices and employment.

Tips to succeed

  • The Mayor and CEO need to be supportive and committed (there will be objections).
  • The communications team should operate like a newsroom: publish content that people want to read; be agile.
  • Roster a staff member to work on weekends and some evenings. The Beast is hungry and never sleeps.
  • Be prepared to take risks (IT managers should enable rather than impede).
  • Relax approval processes.
  • Accept there will be criticism of Council through comments on stories; this builds trust.

Conclusion

One of our goals with Bundaberg Now is to future proof our community against ongoing changes in the media industry.

So far, the rewards justify the risk and the effort. Media criticism has abated, our region’s online image has been improved and our community appreciates the service we’re providing.

Community engagement and communications have been enhanced.

Having our own online news platform overcomes the problem of media decline. It provides a service our community is grateful for, building trust, creating goodwill and filling a need.

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