President’s column – 17 April 2020

ALGA President David O'Loughlin gestures at a lectern

An unexpected victim of the Covid-19 pandemic, local media, has been crippled in both metro and country locations, with many mastheads suspending printing and standing down staff in the wake of collapsing advertising revenues as businesses cut non-essential expenditure or simply stop trading.

The electronic media – free-to-air television and radio – is also under severe revenue pressures and cutting back on its news coverage as a result.

The number of newspapers that have fallen victim to coronavirus is staggering.

News Corp said it would suspend the printing of 60 titles in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia from April 9, and this week Australian Community Media announced it will close an unspecified number of its 125 regional non-daily titles nationwide.

These publishers say readers can expect the same level of professional news coverage in their online news sites – and that printing of the now suspended titles will resume once advertising revenues recover.

However, every community that has lost a masthead or local television coverage in recent years knows this to be a furphy.

Local stories barely get covered, local sport is relegated to the shadows, good news stories see little light and the only local news that makes it into the major online media coverage are the bad ones.

The old advertising model and the news services it funded is dead – with possible long-term consequences for community trust, civic participation, and social cohesion.

To many people in city and urban areas, the steady erosion of local story coverage in recent years has been disappointing, with their newsfeeds overwhelming moving to a dominance of state and national level political, economic, sport, health and disaster driven news cycles, leaving local news as a poor cousin relegated to the back channels of the online news sites.

But at least they still employ journalists in the bigger cities – a level of coverage and views that is often lacking in regional areas post local media closures.

The ABC continues to perform magnificently, but cannot, realistically, fill the gaps left by news organisations like ACM, now seemingly in retreat.

There was some relief for regional media businesses this week when the Morrison Government announced a package of short-term support measures, including a tax waiver for broadcasters and a $50 million fund to be used for local news reporting.

It is right that the Commonwealth should provide funding to sustain what is really an essential service. For whatever might be said about suburban and country newspapers – and everyone’s a critic – they’re vital to the continued efficient functioning of local communities.

And they enable local governments to inform ratepayers of council strategies, budgets, projects, planning changes, public health messages, investments and employment attraction initiatives.

Even more importantly, by providing timely and accurate information on local business, sports and arts activities, health services, disaster response, and so on, journalists in the traditional media help create an identity and a sense of belonging for their communities.

Their most important function, however, is to hold powerful individuals, interests and organisations such as councils to account – and to shine a light on matters that some might prefer were kept hidden from public view.

I spoke about this in 2019 after a study in ALGA’s 2019-20 State of the Regions: Population, productivity and purchasing power report revealed the media in regional Australia was struggling to report on local government, meaning communities were less informed.

The study’s authors found local news coverage had declined over the previous five years, in some case significantly, and that more than a third of LGAs reported that no journalists attended local government meetings.

“Although the figures suggest that some journalists follow up without attending the meeting, the indications are that a large part of local government business goes entirely unscrutinised and unreported,” the authors said.

I noted in 2019 that “There are no easy answers to remedying the decline in journalists, but we need to discuss it and share ideas about possible solutions”

I hope that the significant financial strain publishers now find themselves under due to the community’s necessary response to Covid-19 does spark a national conversation.

Clearly media proprietors have a duty to explore alternative ways for to gather, package and disseminate news

The Australian government, too, has a role in helping where possible.

Getting Facebook and Google to share some of the advertising revenue they make off the back of news content generated by the traditional media might be a good start – similar to how royalties paid on music being publicly broadcast goes back to the writers and performers.

And we as individuals have an obligation to recognise and value the role the traditional media plays in our democracy – and not to forget that it can’t pay for itself.

Mayor David O’Loughlin
ALGA President