"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 Citizen, a 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.
A country practice: how bush newspapers might outsmart metros
The digital transition has hit country newspapers particularly hard. But some publications are thriving when metro counterparts aren't, reports journalist Gabrielle Chan at The Citizen.