My introduction to the world of country newspapers came in the form of an indignant, well-dressed woman in a smart green suit who threatened me with dire consequences if I dared to print a story about her driving mishap. Although I was unaware of her little main street bingle, she was fuming in anticipation of some unwanted publicity in the Harden Express.

The Express is a weekly, and I was its recently appointed reporter, subeditor and editor all-in-one, putting to bed eight to 12 pages every Thursday before setting about to clean the office toilet and vacuum the floor.

After nearly two decades working for The Australian and The Daily Telegraph, this was my toughest assignment yet. And all on part-time money in the interests of a readership catchment of barely 3500 people and a circulation of less than 1000.

But as hard up as the Express was for news that week, I reassured the agitated woman standing before me in Harden, 60 kilometres north-west of Yass, that I did not think a dented bumper bar warranted a story.

Alas, this is the lot of the country newspaper editor: car accidents, council meetings, births, deaths, shows, fairs, fundraisers, footy clubs, men’s sheds, women’s groups, garbage collection, parking problems and what type of tree to plant on nature strips. It can all add up to a whole lot of sausage sizzles.

And negotiating the fickle interests of the locals can be a high-wire act. In return for an intensely loyal and engaged readership, the country editor must step warily: it is all too easy to offend but really hard to win redemption. Country readers have long memories; once upset, it can take years to win them back. Add to the mix a small pool of advertisers and it makes for a challenging enterprise.

So, in this context, the digital revolution is just the latest in a long history of challenges for country media, which has forever battled economies of scale, wide distribution costs and transient populations. And like the metropolitan press, country proprietors’ responses to digital — both opportunity and threat — have so far differed markedly.

The Harden Express, part of the Rural Press empire swallowed up by Fairfax Media in 2007 (a year after my editorship), has been absorbed into a broader digital strategy that involves 230 regional newspapers and 105 websites. Its online presence is in line with Fairfax’s “iceberg” template — a bit of local news at the top, underpinned mostly by syndicated state and national news.

A typical Fairfax Regional Media website now has a selection of local stories, which will also appear in the newspaper, fighting for space alongside “latest news” tabs that offer national and state news sourced from metropolitan newsrooms. The digital diet is similar to that offered by APN News and Media, whose 70-plus regional titles reach into Queensland from northern NSW, blending local information with news from elsewhere.

But other titles sit poles apart in their strategies. Some independents, such as the Narrabri Courier in northern NSW, are embracing the digital world with great enthusiasm. Others, including the family-owned Temora Independent (once a stablemate of the nearby Harden Express), are steadfastly resisting the digital onslaught.

“If I could find a way of making money from it, or at the very least not costing money, I would do it,” suggested the paper’s owner Arthur Bradley, a long-time newspaper owner who believes readers will stay loyal “as long as the content is there”.

“In country towns, thinking tends to be a bit hidebound, hardwired and conservative … you have to keep looking at new things.”

Other proprietors, patently aware of the damage inflicted on metropolitan titles that rushed to give away content for free, have dipped a toe in the digital space, erecting paywalls to partly protect online content.

“I am a hyperlocal sort of bloke,” said Bob Yeates, a fourth generation newspaper man who is charging for the Bairnsdale Advertiser‘s digital offering and is the president of the industry body the Country Press Australia. “You just can’t get that news in any other place than the local paper, so I think the best model is a [hard copy] paper with a sensible digital presence.”

Which dovetails with the approach of the Narrabri Courier, which has leapt into the digital abyss in its centenary year. The newspaper and its website have been redesigned and the Courier is producing a digital edition for subscribers, charging $55 for six months. Its content is unashamedly local, with extensive sports reporting.

It is owned by Ian and Wanda Dunnet, who also own the Wee Waa News, which enjoyed a circulation spike recently when the French techno group Daft Punk chose Wee Waa for the launch of their new album. In a strange colliding of cultures, the world music media descended on the tiny NSW town for the launch, which coincided with the Narrabri Show and the crowning of Miss Wee Waa 2013.

The Dunnets’ company is the very model of dynamic newspaper management, embracing training opportunities for their staff of 18 and last year employing a former 2UE radio producer, Ben Rossleigh, as editor to introduce a little outside perspective to their news coverage.

“In country towns, thinking tends to be a bit hidebound, hardwired and conservative,” Ian Dunnet said. “You can think you’re a modern free-flowing thinker, but you have to keep looking at new things.”

The Dunnets contracted newspaper editorial services company Pagemasters to redesign the paper for a fresher look and employed a full-time local “tech-head” to consider the digital options. While the hard copy remains the Courier‘s staple, digital readers can download the print edition and follow news updates on Facebook and Twitter.

And yet, the Courier has melded old traditions with the new. It still prints on the premises and, on its two production days each week, the whole staff descends on the press to collate the various sections. Paper boys and girls then take it out to sell out of their barrows. Once a year, the Dunnetts hold a “wayzgoose”, a traditional printers’ celebration where all contributors, advertisers, staff and news tipsters are invited to a party of thanks, held around the press.

“The paper is part of the fabric of the community and the digital version will add another layer,” enthused Ian Dunnett. Older customers can still be seen waiting at their front gates on publication day for the newspaper to be delivered, “so it remains to be seen what will happen with digital. I think it’s a generational thing.”

The Narrabri Courier‘s embrace of digital remains an exception rather than the rule among the estimated 100 or so independent newspaper groups nationwide. But while country media has been slow to adopt digital technology, their wariness has allowed proprietors to assess the mistakes and the successes of the metropolitan media’s digital transition.

*This is an extract from an article which originally appeared on The Citizena new publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. Gabrielle Chan (@gabriellechan) is a Canberra-based political correspondent and blogger who has worked for newspapers and websites for 30 years.

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