Trying to save the word on the local street

Out on the Western Highway, two hours out of Melbourne, there is a teenage boy who has become the town of Ararat’s only news provider. Jack Ward, 16, presents a news podcast that has become the only local information source after the paper’s 163-year-old local paper, The Ararat Advertiser, because of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Photo of Jack Ward recording his podcast from home.
(Supplied: Jack Ward)

The paper’s closure is one of dozens that have occurred across the country during COVID, their doors shut as the last vestiges of an already impoverished advertising market were swept aside because of the health emergency. 

This wave of closures hit the already-parlous worlds of media and journalism and threatened to overwhelm the industry at its most vulnerable time. Already, the national news wire agency, AAP, which supplies so many stories to rural and regional newspapers, was preparing to close in June. That problem, with the loss of 180 journalists, is, according to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, “…the most catastrophic event for the media in structural terms that we’ve seen through this whole dark period of redundancies and closures.’’ 

After many of the rural, regional and suburban newspapers announced their closure, the Federal government, state governments and philanthropy have embarked on a range of ways to help the outlets survive at a time when demand for accurate information has never been greater. 

In the space of two weeks, the Federal government extended its funding package for rural and regional journalism, with the establishment of a $50 million Public Interest News Gathering program, fast-tracked applications for the $5 million Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund, and promised a world-first commitment to a mandatory code to make the big digital platforms pay for the content they use from Australian news sources. The Victorian government also committed to buying one page of advertising in more than 100 rural and regional news outlets for the next six months. 

Philanthropy has also focussed on key areas of journalism to provide much-needed support. The Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas announced grants to support freelancers and contributors during the pandemic, the most recent this week for regional and community media, First Nations media and arts journalism. It builds on its support for community radio, partnering with the Paul Ramsay Foundation, to produce a community radio series on the impact of the recent bushfires. 

Additional capacity building is being driven by the Walkley Foundation and the Balnaves Foundation and the Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI) is providing the critical and on-going research that provides the evidence base for the broader strategic approach. 

PIJI’s new CEO Anna Draffin supports the government’s recent commitments while emphasising how journalism’s predicament has been exacerbated by recent unpredictable events. 

“The recent bushfire experience had amplified the need for public interest journalism and now what we’re finding with the coronavirus effect it has simply accelerated the decline that we were already seeing across the industry,’’ Anna says. 

Photo of PIJI CEO Anna Draffin.
(Supplied: Anna Draffin)

“It has just brought into sharp relief that while the demand for public interest journalism is going through the roof, the actual business model behind it is broken and has brought about daily closures or suspensions and job losses accompanying those.’’ 

The closures are extensive, from the Barrier Daily Truth in Broken Hill, to some of News Corp’s weekly free suburban titles, which will become digital-only publications. One of PIJI’s recent initiatives to provide the evidence base for future advocacy is a national map of the denuded newsrooms. Its next iteration is expected to paint a grim picture of journalism job losses across the country. 

The scale of the task to help preserve public interest journalism is immense and costly. No one authority, government or agency is equipped to fix it. “Government alone can’t solve this,’’ Anna explains.

“We are talking about complex issues that have seen the decline of an industry for more than a decade. The agility and responsiveness of philanthropy to take on that risk capital appetite, to often open up the conversations through convening mechanisms, matched funding initiatives and just having that exploratory line of inquiry looking into systemic change and how you can drive that, is really important.’’ 

Journalism’s future is an international dilemma: the past decade has seen global print advertising revenues fall off a cliff, and content migrated to online platforms that weren’t generating or paying for editorial content. The hope that money from digital subscription would replace the lost advertising revenue has proved to be only partly realised.

Despite all of that, if recent events show anything, it is that public-interest journalism has never been more important. 

 “The basic principle of public interest journalism is that’s it’s a foundation to our democracy,’’ Anna says. “One of the great uptakes from the COVID-19 crisis - despite its humanitarian devastation and economic impact - is that it has completely underlined the recognition that local news is an essential service and needs to exist.’’ 

The situation demands contemplating a range of responses, including some that journalists have historically avoided.  

“A lot of traditional news organisations have kept that Chinese wall of not accepting government funding as a tenant to maintaining their independence,’’ Anna says. “Now I think it’s fair to say the contemporary business life has evolved to the point where…[the] manufacturing industry for as long as its existed has taken government subsidies as have other industries and I think it’s now for media to work out a robust framework where it can accept some degree of public funding, some degree of philanthropic funding and other means, while being able to maintain its editorial integrity.’’ 

“A totally disruptive pandemic really forces every industry participant to think in different ways and to be much more open-minded,’’ Anna says. 

This is exactly what’s happened at Broken Hill, one of Australia’s iconic outback towns. It took a former local who is now a mining executive to initiate a rescue plan for the 112-year-old Barrier Daily Truth just days after it was forced to close. The paper has been resuscitated with a mixture of local advertising, staff concessions to work fewer days while taking up the JobKeeper subsidy and a one-day-a-week publishing regime. The plan will be reviewed in 12 weeks, but the hope is that there will be enough long-term advertising commitment to ensure the paper continues beyond that deadline. 

Local initiatives like this are one solution but may not work elsewhere or prove to be unsustainable. Other more flexible and lasting solutions are required.  PIJI is talking to several philanthropic funders with the intention of convening a roundtable across philanthropy, government-industry within the next three months.  

“Our role is to keep filing the data gaps in the shorter term,’’ Anna says, “and then convening across sectors into this year so that we start thinking about that big systemic recovery but also the opportunity to build a new model and a new industry.’’ 

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