Surviving the decline of local papers

Suburban, regional and rural newspapers across the country are closing down or have faced major restructuring, leaving many without work and communities without news. Travis Medhurst reports.
Suburban, regional and rural newspapers across the country are closing down or have faced major restructuring, leaving many without work and communities without news. Travis Medhurst reports.

Professional news photographer Janine Eastgate has had a career spanning 30 years and has seen many changes in the industry. She saw photography change from film to digital and went from being the only female photographer in the newsroom to being one of many. For ten years she worked as a news photographer for the various eastern suburb branches of the Leader newspaper and then was made redundant in June 2016, 10 days off from receiving her Long Service Leave.

“You become full of self-doubt,” says Ms Eastgate, “You become very vulnerable and take on any job. Cleaning jobs, poorly paid jobs and jobs where they treat you like dirt. It’s been a real rollercoaster ride for everyone.”

Ms Eastgate now works as a professional nanny and does freelance photography when she can get the work. She is one of many who made a career in local news and was made redundant in recent years.

“It was over a two-year period in three groups. We always knew it would come to end once digital came into effect and all the news moved online, but we thought it would not be for another 10 years,” says Ms Eastgate.

“The first group had no idea and it was done unsympathetically. They were called in one day and laid off then and there. We were waiting, wondering who was next.”

The Internet and digital technologies have enabled people to instantly get the latest updates on global politics and celebrity scandals but it may have come at the cost of suburban, regional and rural news. Journalists, photographers and editorial staff at newspapers which cater to small communities have faced major redundancies and many of the newspapers themselves have closed or had substantial restructuring.

In July 2016, News Corp closed seven small Victorian newspapers, most of them covering Melbourne’s outer suburbs.

Channel Nine chief executive Hugh Marks hinted that they will consider closing or selling Fairfax regional newspapers when Nine assumes ownership of Fairfax later this year. This threatens the fate of Fairfax’s 160 regional publications and community-based websites, including the Newcastle Herald, The Border Mail in Albury-Wodonga, The Courier in Ballarat and the Illawarra Mercury in Wollongong.

In 2015, some of Australia’s larger regional dailies, such as the Border Mail, the Bendigo Advertiser and the Warrnambool Standard, experienced losses of up to half of their editorial staff.

As with the metropolitan and national newspapers, the revenue for suburban, regional and rural newspapers is largely dependent on advertising, particularly the real-estate and classified sections. As businesses are increasingly finding more appeal in advertising online these smaller mastheads are losing a large chunk of their traditional revenue streams.

“Community newspapers rely on advertising from local companies and that pays for the paper to keep going. Less are advertising in newspapers because if people want to source a particular company they go online and Google it” says Ms Eastgate.

“The Leader had a big supplement of real-estate listings advertised weekly and that dropped off. Because again, people clicked on and viewed the houses for sale.”

Suburban, regional and rural newspapers have traditionally been the place for young aspiring journalists to get their start. Lucy Slade is a cadet journalist for the Advocate in Tasmania and believes that regional news still provides a viable career path for would-be journalists.

“I basically couldn’t find any work as a journalist in any city centres” says Ms Slade.

“Many use the Advocate and mastheads like this to get their start and go on to bigger and better things and without this training and experience, journalists wouldn’t have jobs. Doing this groundwork is 100% the best start to a career in journalism.”

The Fairfax owned Advocate Newspaper has a market of 106,000 people and regularly reaches over 60,000 people over the age of 14 years on the North West and West Coast of Tasmania.

Ms Slade believes that the regional newspaper industry has plateaued and there will no longer be any restructuring.

“I think the industry probably has had a lot of changes. In the last year especially, they really developed a news business model, and that’s essentially what it’s all about and if we’re not making money we can’t survive. They cut a lot of their regional papers and really developed a model that works and is sustainable. The papers are smaller but I don’t think they’ll get smaller than they are now.”

Because of the restructuring of the Advocate and because of digital technologies, Ms Slade has to wear many hats in her role as a journalist.

“My role is just a journalist but being a journalist is probably pretty different to what just a journalist was. I probably take half my photos, and you have to be savvy with social media. Also, you probably use to have rounds. There used to be many journalists that would cover education or cover politics but now every day is different and there’s different stuff I’ll have to do.”

“Back in the day they probably had around 50 photographers full time and there were smaller stories that needed covering and journalists just weren’t expected to take photos. Now it’s two birds one stone, and the journalist takes the photo and writes the story.

“We also have to write print versions and web versions. The web versions might include things like hyperlinks to previous stories or we might do different headlines to print. Sometimes you have to do two versions of the same story.”

Toni Domaschenz, owner of the West Wimmera Advocate newspaper, is critical of how regional newspapers are being operated in recent times.

“Where the big change has been is the regional, not rural publications,” says Ms Domaschenz, “I’m a micro paper and we’ve always done everything and now much bigger papers are now using our model.

“I’d argue they’re doing a shit job because they have no training and they didn’t come in the industry knowing that’s how they’d be doing journalism. Now Fairfax asks me if I can send them a photo for something 3 weeks after a story breaks.

“They do online first so they rush stories and that’s the source of their typos. Now I have to differentiate myself as not them. I had someone come up to me down the street to tell me I had a typo which was really exciting as I do 16 pages and all that content comes from me. Yet Fairfax now can’t get the front pages right. I see the benefits of being online by getting the story early, but I see massive risks because for me with the weekly paper I have plenty of time to collect and develop my stories.”

The West Wimmera Advocate is based in the small north west Victorian town of Edenhope which is a community that is home to fewer than 1000 people. Domaschenz is the owner and sole employer of the Advocate.

“The guy who had the paper before me was a carpet cleaner. He came on the job because he thought he could do a better job than the guy before him. I thought surely, I could do a better job than that. A lot of people have been commenting that we’ve been a newspaper that keeps getting better.”

Lawrie Zion is a professor of journalism at Latrobe University and leads the five-year Australian Research Council funded project, New Beats, which investigates the aftermath of the recent mass redundancies of journalists.

Professor Zion does not see an end to the disruptions brought to all newspapers.

“I think that the changes that are occurring in newsrooms will continue to unravel. If you look at the careers of people through annual surveys like we’ve been doing a lot of them go from having spent 25 years in one job to changing jobs several times in a few years”

“It’s not just saying if you’re a newspaper company we’ll put everything online and graft an advertising model online. Some are successful in putting their content online but the potential revenue from ads is reduced by 4 or 5 from what they’re used to. Google and Facebook have sucked up a huge proportion globally of the classified advertisement revenue.”

In 2016, New Beats conducted a one-off survey on journalists whose positions were made redundant in regional Australia.

“The general view we had was the larger metropolitan newsrooms had been gutted but regional news was more resilient. But that really changed in 2015 and all of a sudden some of the newsrooms that had not been badly affected, where there had been this belief that they’d survive because the community valued them, was shattered. Especially as the larger companies such as Fairfax and News decided to streamline. The cuts have been huge.”

The study found that those whose positions in local journalism were made redundant were very concerned about the resources of local newsrooms and the quality of journalism these newsrooms produce.

“In recent years there’s been this concept of news desertification. I suppose the research now is pointing to an alarming trend of topics such as sport and national politics being covered quite well by the existing media and specialist publications, but we don’t seem to see much innovation or digital replacement of what was there before in rural and regional areas.”

A comprehensive study by the North Carolina School of Media and Journalism found that 1800 metro and community newspapers had gone out of business across the USA since 2004. Professor Zion believes Australia is following the same trend as the US and will experience a ‘news desert’ in some areas.

“it is already being measured in the States – things like court reporting and news about what’s happening in local councils, all those things are disappearing.”

This trend extends to the UK, with more than 200 community papers having closed since 2005.

Ms Slade believes that community news is still important.

“No one else is telling the stories we do. If these stories didn’t exist people would not hear about a beloved community member that died. We do a lot of crime reporting and police rely on us to do breaking news on car crashes. They would not hear the stories that unite communities; and If you’re not getting that information that separates communities.”

Ms Eastgate believes that social media will fill the void left by the closure of local news publications.

“I think community news is still important but people will access it through Facebook and Instagram and people will have to get their head around it. It’s harder for the older generations.”

Professor  Zion disagrees.

“Citizen Journalists don’t really have the expertise of professional journalists going to council meetings and doing police rounds and they’re not necessarily able to write investigative stories like if they had the backing of a newsroom.”

“I think this is an urgent area of policy retention because the future doesn’t look that great for a lot of communities when it comes to hearing about – let’s face it- the stories they don’t want to be told about their communities. A level of scrutiny requires a level of investment in journalism.”

Professor Zion believes the ABC is key to keeping local news available.

“My own view is that it’s tremendously important that the ABC does the job it’s meant to do in regional Australia. Now whether you say the government should give the ABC more money or the ABC should prioritise its existing resources, the ABC is key to addressing this. Publicly funded media is the best and most stable option to ensure it can be sustained. I just can’t see how there can be a sustainable business model for news that covers people’s local area.”

Ms Eastgate and many in her position still struggle with the loss of their jobs.

“People still struggle” says Ms Eastgate.

“One photographer lost his life a few weeks ago. He was only 45 and we all attended his funeral. He lived and breathed newspaper work. We’re not saying that was the main factor in ending his life but we believe it was a contributing factor.

When this person passed away I knew straight away what contributed and I dreaded hearing this was going to happen. It didn’t come unexpected that this happened to someone.”


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