What do we lose as our papers vanish?

As the "local rag" goes, so does the local scrutiny

Opinion
An Australian Local Government Association survey last year said more than a third of LGAs reported that journalists no longer attended local government meetings.

An Australian Local Government Association survey last year said more than a third of LGAs reported that journalists no longer attended local government meetings.

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The local "rag" is woven deeper into our lives than we care to acknowledge, so just what do we lose when it disppears?

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America's founders thought the freedom of the press so important that they enshrined it in the republic's constitution.

In Australia, we also make much ado about press freedom as an essential underpinning of democracy - but what happens when there is no press?

That's what we're seeing in rural and regional Australia, as the lights of small newspapers blink out one by one.

The death of regional media was occurring slowly but steadily until the coronavirus hit; then the lights went out fast, as first News Ltd and then Australian Community Media (also the publisher of The Land) reported that they were either temporarily standing down, or closing a number of their the print titles, which included dozens of rural and community newspapers.

These suspensions are supposedly temporary, but their return depends on advertising revenue and readership numbers - crucial elements for those businesses to survive.

Both have been in long-term decline as the world moves online. (Even famed US investor Warren Buffet has sold out of the regional newspaper business he bought in 2012, accepting an unaccustomed loss in doing so.)

For those small papers that had kept their lights on these past few tough years, their skeleton staff were busy just filling pages with press releases, having lacked the time and resources to report on good community initiatives, or investigating misconduct or campaign for wrongs to be righted.

So what do we lose as these newspapers disappear?

Even though we have never been very complimentary about our local "rag", it is woven deeper into our lives than we care to acknowledge.

We pick it up for a casual scan, and in flipping through the pages get a sense of what's happening in the region: the wins, the losses, births, deaths and scandals.

Without a newspaper, there is no shared record, and no scrutiny of community affairs.

A 2019 Australian Local Government Association survey said more than a third of LGAs reported that journalists no longer attended local government meetings.

"The indications are that a large part of local government business goes entirely unscrutinised and unreported," the report said.

If there is a secret sauce to sustaining a community newspaper, it's probably "providing information that people can't find any other place", but even that won't be enough to keep papers going in communities that themselves are shrinking out of existence.

We must hope that throughout our own regional communities, newspapers will find a way to survive. Not just hope, but lend a hand where possible.

  • Robbie Sefton has a dual investment in rural Australia as a farmer, producing wool, meat and grains, and as managing director of national marketing communications company Seftons.
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