Sadly, some of our region’s communities lost their local newspaper this year: either permanently or they’ve been forced into a Covid-19 induced hiatus.
These papers weren’t peddling ramshackle reporting either. They were heritage publications, running for over 130 years. As has been suggested, these newspapers had survived radical changes to the industry and numerous economic downturns, including the Great Depression.
The Australian Newspaper Mapping Project, managed by the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, has been tracking newsroom closures. In a May 30 article published by The Guardian, they state that in 2020, so far:
Nine mastheads have merged into other properties. Ninety-one papers have ended print editions. One newsroom has closed entirely and 20 mastheads have closed.
Later in June, News Corporation will cease print production at a staggering 112 Australian regional and suburban news outlets.
For many media outlets, the crux of the problem lies in the fact that the process required to produce news is still as rigorous as ever, but the traditional, advertisement-reliant business model has fallen in a heap — a collapse accelerated by Covid-19.
Bass Coast Post Publisher, Catherine Watson explains the situation, “These days, the media bear all the costs, while Facebook and Google get the advertising revenue that used to pay the journalists’ wages”.
It’s tough being in the media business right now, especially if you’re printed and based in a regional area. But are we willing to let our local rags disappear in the night and have news fed to us from metropolitan Melbourne (or beyond), or can we support our local newsrooms, even if they need to evolve?
Maria Reed of Coast Magazine offered an insight that was shared by many as we chatted — her passion for storytelling appeared when she was young.
“Always creative as a child, I loved telling a story through pictures and words.”
Early in her career, Maria studied photography and worked as a darkroom technician and weekend sports photographer at the Herald and The Weekly Times in Melbourne. She shifted to the News Limited team as a photographer, before starting her own freelance business.
Catherine “fell in love with newspapers” in her early teens as she’d lie on the floor with the wide broadsheet spread around her.
She then watched a Disney film about a reporter and “that was it”.
“My first job after university was as a feature writer on the morning newspaper in Wellington, New Zealand.
“I started at the top and have been working my way downwards ever since! But… you have just as much fun at the bottom.”
ABC Radio Gippsland’s chief of staff Laura Poole’s first front-page rush, “came from the Mirboo North Times, who published a first-person account I wrote of being a student at the Alpine School in Dinner Plain”.
Laura studied journalism at RMIT and interned at a newspaper in western Victoria before landing a rural reporter gig in radio with the ABC in Horsham.
Eventually, Laura was presented with the opportunity to return to the region in which she grew up:
“It’s an honour to have been able to move home to Gippsland to lead a team of journalists reporting on the communities I love.”
Greg Allen-Pretty, a radio news writer and presenter at TRFM and Gippsland’s Gold, as well as being creating stories for Gippsland Goodness, also enjoyed a winding career path, radio announcing around Victoria and Sydney before returning to Gippsland.
“I grew up in Drouin listening to the local radio station at Warragul and from Melbourne, loving some of the hit songs and wanting to be one of those announcers that played them.”
Therefore, it appears key that Gippsland maintains a visible media industry into the future, as its contraction, or even disappearance, severely stifles the opportunities for our next generation of storytellers.
A common thread through Gippslandia’s past editions has highlighted the importance of the concept ‘if you can see it, you can be it’, especially for our youth and minority communities. If being involved in the media is seen as a career that only occurs in the metropolises, the battle will be lost.
As they began to fall into their career of media, several of the region’s media gurus alluded to the ritual or habitual nature associated with their introduction. For instance, Catherine spreading her fresh broadsheet around her on the floor.
Recall your own upbringing. Did the radio come on in the house at the same time each morning? Would you catch familiar voices listening to the news broadcast on your commute every day? Did you build a relationship with those presenters?
In West Gippsland, if you’re not seeing the Warragul and Drouin Gazette somewhere on Tuesday, something’s amiss, and there’ll be hell to pay.
Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, you name the social platform, they’re scarily effective in forming habits. For instance, studies have found that one in four adults check their phone within one minute of waking up, and 80% of us have looked over our phone within 15 minutes of waking.
Traditional media formed a valued place in the ebb and flow of our community and our family rituals. A smartphone is much more insular.
Yes, we can ‘share’ things, but it’s a far different inclusivity to sharing laughs to a prank call on the radio as you carpool or the crossword in the office newspaper that gets completed smoko by smoko break.
As Jaap Biemans of Coverjunkie implores, “we need to make our magazines feel like home”. (Jaap also says that ‘a cover has to hit you in the face or make you want to lick it’ to be successful — we’ll discuss that another day).
Can our local media still conjure the sensations that previously lured so many of us to become regular listeners or subscribers?
What’s still strong.
Not everything is doom and gloom for local media.
As Maria is quick to add, “Our regional voice is so different from the mainstream media.
“People still value the tactile nature of a physical magazine. We are still amazed to see 15 years of Coast editions sitting in a holiday home — people seem to love collecting them… [and] watching people reading Coast in cafés and waiting rooms always gives me a little thrill.”
When it’s well-curated, print media often gains collectability for readers, it’s not as ephemeral as many digital media mediums. Do you have a list of URLs from 15 years ago that you’re looking forward to getting lost in again?
Maria also alludes to the fact that print media has visibility. Everyone walking into that bustling Phillip Island café for brekky can spot the Coast masthead and another one of Warren Reed’s gorgeous photographs.
While print may have longevity, Laura says that “The strength of radio is its immediacy. Stories often unravel while you’re on the air. [As it is based on conversations] it’s also a very personal medium”.
Then there are the communities that emerge around all media: traditional and digital.
Yet, as Catherine believes, “Facebook groups are all slivers of the community, [but] none has the reach that the ‘local’ has”.
In sharing the evolution of the Yallourn North Connection, Anthony Wasiukiewicz offers much about the hierarchy of the media totem, in relation to community building, when storytelling is executed well.
“This last decade, I started with improving community consultation, and as a by-product of that, I got heavily involved in the social media side of things — with the development of the Yallourn North Facebook page and other online content. That morphed into ongoing email dialogue, as networks and community discussions continued. It then evolved into a regular community email update, which morphed into the Yallourn North Connection publication”.
One obvious strength is the prevalence of quality tales, as Greg concurs:
“There is no shortage of stories to tell in Gippsland. Content is not the problem!”
To reinforce this, Catherine outlines the wonderful diversity of media in Gippsland:
Ten weekly newspapers;
Coast magazine, filled with beautiful photos and stories about local people;
Bass Coast Post, an online magazine in its eighth year, covering environmental issues, arts, local history and civic affairs;
Gippslandia, a regional newspaper in its fourth year; plus
Countless community newsletters and Facebook pages.
Yet, considerable difficulties for traditional media remain.
“Local media outlets are challenged by resourcing regional newsrooms.” Laura continues, “We want to see strong competition in regional journalism, as this produces the best results for the audience”.
Greg believes that the ABC is a valuable service, “[it’s] because taxpayers, including me, pay their journos… For the rest of us, the content needs to be either user-pays or supported by advertising or sponsorship.
“These days there are more ways for local businesses to spend their promotional budgets than on traditional radio, TV and newspapers.”
Maria supports that this transition isn’t easy. “The changing environment, analogue to digital, would be our biggest challenge. Advertising, readers and reaching your audience are all quite different in a digital marketplace”.
With their operations frequently running on the smell of an oily rag, regional media doesn’t have the resources to test a swathe of digital strategies, and they also can’t mistime their shift either. Gambling in the digital realm for many local outlets can be high risk, sometimes it means pushing the chips to the centre of the table and going ‘all in’.
Currently, our media needs advertising to produce their product so that it has sufficient reach to readers; advertisers need readers, but if the advertising revenue drops, the readership can drop, and so potentially begins the death spiral. Which may be halted by an effective transition to digital, or, you guessed it, swiftly accelerated if the tens of thousands of dollars devoted to a new website doesn’t attract an increase in readership or revenue.
Anthony is clear in his goal, “Providing content that local people actually want to read. It surprises me how many get this wrong. The rest is easy. People will read printed press, and will continue to do so for a long time yet, but only if the content is captivating.
“So, the hardest part for every publication is to provide unique, worthwhile content that can’t be found anywhere else.”
Researching and creating exclusive stories from a reducing budget? It’s almost a Sisyphean task.
Support those who support you.
Anthony provides clear reasoning as to why Gippsland needs a healthy media industry, “If there are no local media, there are no local voices.
No local voices mean there is no debating of ideas.
“There is, of course, the economic contribution that each publication promotes and stimulates, but that pales into insignificance if we lose our individual expression.”
“Regional media is part of the glue that holds communities together,” says Maria. “We promote and support local business, and highlight the beauty and diversity of our area, both in regards to the natural environment and our people.”
Greg adds that local media outlets, “support community organisations like service and sporting clubs. They provide a great deal of free advertising for the local community, not-for-profits, charity events and organisations too.”
“The key to more local content is for businesses to keep those local outlets high in their advertising budgets.”
“It is also up to the readers and listeners. The more they consume local journalism, the more informed they are, and the more attractive those media outlets are for advertisers.”
Radio is an excellent example of the importance of community feedback, as Laura explains, “ABC Gippsland’s Radio programs are only ever as strong as the engagement we have from listeners. We love it when people comment on our Facebook page, call up or send us a text.”
“Gippsland’s media outlets celebrate and inform the region. Our most important role is to contribute to a nuanced debate about the region’s future.
“Subscribing is important, as is being engaged… Staff know the intricacies of reporting on their towns… If you enjoy the coverage of a story or issue, let the outlet know. Same goes if you think the conversation falls short.”
Feedback can help fuel Gippsland’s print media too, says Anthony.
“When there’s feedback about an edition, article or a collection, it’s a reassurance that the publication is being digested by the community and that the work has been worthwhile.
“The community could make a greater effort to take time to read and support printed press. And that is a fair call. But in the end, people go where they are treated best. So it’s up to the media to shape itself to suit the people.”
Light at the end of the tunnel?
Is there a path out of this predicament? Greg believes that advertisers should return, “Local media provides the best opportunity for businesses to promote themselves, and many will testify to the effectiveness of a well-executed promotional campaign. The value of that to the local economy can’t be overstated.”
Catherine feels that “newspapers will die a natural death, like buggies and jinkers. Most of the Gippsland newspapers began publication well over a century ago, so this is cause for great sadness. But the end of newspapers doesn’t spell the end of journalism. It will be reinvented.
Somewhere, people are going to have to start paying for it. If you value a publication — digital or printed — donate to it and/or subscribe”.
But Catherine also believes “regional newspapers are in a better position than the metro papers because they can target a local audience with their reporting and advertising… Gippslanders are generally passionate about their beautiful environment and are interested in what’s happening around them. This isn’t the case in the outer suburbs of Melbourne.”
Greg shared some heartening research that found “that radio listening has increased [through the Covid-19 period], as people seek to stay informed or look for lockdown distractions.
It’s the same for written journalism.
“As we bounce back [from the bushfires and Covid-19], I hope our renewed taste for localism will be the catalyst for the emergence of more local storytelling.”
Anthony concurs that the hunger for regional commentary is still here.
“There’s room for increased content in investigative journalism, locally tailored general news, human interest pieces, as well as quality and contrary opinions to the mainstream narrative.”
Hopefully, you’ve got an insight into the plight of Australia’s regional media outlets, and you’re more aware of the impact you can have on the future of Gippsland’s storytelling, but what comes next?
The stories aren’t disappearing, but Gippsland’s media needs to evolve to ensure it is local voices that are sharing them.
As Anthony highlighted, quality content is key, but equally so is the type of content that you release on different platforms. Aligning the correct medium for the message is more applicable than ever.
In the short-term, it’s possible that Covid-19–related travel restrictions will limit Australians to adventures in their backyard, which may provide a boost to regional tourism and increased demand for unique stories of that region — possibly encouraging local pride.
Undoubtedly, new technologies will have an influence — virtual reality storytelling is rapidly growing in popularity.
Communication is a two-way process; our news outlets are skilled at projecting outwards, so maybe now is the period to listen more. Radio has demonstrated the effectiveness of continually improving your delivery through community feedback.
We also know that local journalism and print media still have some formidable strengths. Let’s help them adapt to best serve our changing communities, so Gippsland’s voices can continue to be heard.