I have been travelling in the land of Rural Press and Fairfax Media, although you wouldn’t always know it. To be specific, I have been in central western New South Wales and stopping at every town’s newsagent to buy the local rag.

Sometimes you can see the nature of organisations more clearly from the periphery than from the heart — although, of course, rural NSW is the heart of the old, pre-Fairfax Rural Press.

But at a time when the future of the Fairfax Media group again hangs in the balance, it has been an interesting time to get away from the city mastheads, read the smaller papers and reflect on how the company has dealt with things since the Fairfax/Rural merger in May 2007.

The main conclusion is that there has been little interest, or ability, to unify the various businesses. They are nothing if not various. What energies have been expended have been focused on unifying the advertising, not the quality of the journalism.

Anyone who follows the newspaper business will not be surprised to hear that it is difficult to find a local newspaper out here that is not ultimately owned by Fairfax Media and Rural Press.

But the mastheads have come to the group in many different ways. Albury Wodonga Border Mail, for example, was bought by Fairfax before the Rural Press merger. The vibrant Riverina Media Group was bought by Rural Press just days before the Fairfax merger. That purchase, which brought papers such Griffith’s The Area News and Leeton’s The Irrigator into the stable, caused the competition regulator some angst.

The focus of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s concern was not the journalistic content, but advertising. The Rural, a weekly newspaper inserted into the Riverina Media Group’s various papers, was the main competition to Rural Press’s flagship The Land. In the end the ACCC decided not to oppose the purchase, for reasons spelt out (though hardly in detail or length) here. They amounted to a belief that the risk of new entrants, plus the chance that smaller players might step up to the mark, would discourage Fairfax Media/Rural Press from using its market position to push up advertising rates. That strikes me as an optimistic view, but if the ACCC is right, then I reckon Rural Press could indeed be vulnerable.

The reason is the journalism. What has Fairfax Media done with its unique combination of real regional presence combined with depth of journalistic talent?

The answer is, not very much.

None of the papers, I think it is safe to say, knock your socks off as ground-breaking examples of local journalism. Indeed, the main impression is how badly rural readers are served by their newspapers.

This is the land in which the manager of the Southern Australia Meat and Livestock Australia can get a 16-paragraph running quote on the front page (The Lachlander, in a splash with the racy headline “Merino Education Day”.

Or where a front-page story announcing the re-election (unopposed) of the local mayor for the sixth consecutive year includes not a critical comment or perspective, no suggestion that it might be part of the job of the local paper to critically review the record. (The Observer, Coly Point) and another front-page lead paragraph can read “For 60 years the Murrami CWA has been part of the community.” (well, hold the front page). (The Irrigator, Leeton).

We all know that local newspapers run differently — that the acerbic and corrosive journalistic style of the big city might not always be welcome or appropriate. And it is all too easy for people such as me to breeze in and critique editors who are under resourced and who doubtless know their communities better than me. The farmers I talked to on this trip regarded their local newspapers as organs of record in a way that has largely ceased to be the case in the city. They clipped reports of the local show or pictures of family members, valuing them for their own sake.

Yet, I firmly believe that news — real news, in the sense of reporting that tells you things you didn’t know of consequence to your community — is a fundamental human desire, even need. Too many of these papers are news lite. As individual operators, one could understand their failings. As outlets of Australia’s second largest newspaper publisher, they are sad.

Surely at a time of drought, reduced water allocations to irrigators, political neglect and so on and so forth, there is more to say and room for a sharper edge to rural news reporting? And where is the leveraging of the journalistic strength of Fairfax? The investigative pieces on water allocations, that could run in the cities and across the group? Or the gutsy state political reporting of issues of rural relevance? Or the evidence that Fairfax reporters are primed with tough questions from the regions to throw at state and federal politicians? So much potential, unexploited.

There is news out here, and some of the better mastheads carry it. The Land has real news in it. So, too, some of the former Riverina Media Group publications, which retain a livelier feel than many other Rural Press titles. And the Central Western Daily’s Janice Harris turns in a sharp court report.

But one gets the clear impression that it is hit and miss, dependent on whether or not the newspapers have a gutsy editor or a vigorous junior journalist destined for bigger things. For much of country Australia, courts go unreported. Council meetings are reported only via an anodine post mortem from the mayor. Press releases are run verbatim and advertisers get advertorial run as forward page leads. State MPs may be asked tough questions by their electors, but not, it seems by their local journalists.

There is absolutely no sign of group vision in these newspapers. The main impression one gets is that, for better or worse, Fairfax Media has put hardly any effort at all into bringing their acquisitions together, or in imposing any uniform standards of news reporting.

Even sub-editorial standards — the one thing that you would think would benefit from becoming part of a big media group — are patchy to non-existent. Some front-page lead paragraphs have the same word repeated three times or more.

Yet the web presence is linked. The sites are all branded with Fairfax Digital Media’s logo. Advertising brands such as Domain appear across the mastheads. On the revenue earning side, some efforts have been made — but not in the editorial content.

The charitable way of looking at this would be to say that the failure to impose editorial standards is a good thing. After all, we all like media diversity. And with some of these publications, you have to look very closely indeed to determine that they are all owned by the same company.

Rural Press, before the Fairfax Media merger, used to pride itself on acquiring newspaper businesses then leaving the existing management in place, to run things in the way they always had done.

The less charitable way of looking at the various offerings would be to say that Fairfax Media has no idea how to unify its business, and no journalistic vision that it wishes to impart.

As for the hope of local competition springing up, well there are some smaller players. But of the 11 papers on my desk, all purchased in country towns over the past three days, only one —  the Condobolin Argus — is a locally owned independent publication, run by formidable local women and with all profits returned to the business.

Given that the internet lowers barriers to entry to the news business, I can’t help but feel that all it would take would be an enterprising bunch of locals with strong news sense and a “without fear or favour” attitude to their local community issues to give much of Fairfax Media and Rural Press a run for its money.

And I think the community would welcome it. Whatever Rural Press claims about its links with rural Australia, I heard nothing but criticism of its papers from the communities I have been talking to. People recognise slack journalism when they see it.

And in the meantime, it is in the rural areas that one can see, perhaps most clearly, exactly what a lack of editorial expertise in management and the board can lead to. Lost opportunity and mediocrity, which is tolerated — indeed, not even registered by management — because the advertising dollars keep coming in regardless.

Ultimately, though, it will make this company vulnerable, particularly if the same lack of vision is visited on its city-based content businesses.

Peter Fray

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