Last December, Headspace Albury-Wodonga began offering mental health services to young people in the region for the first time. But as part of Fairfax’s NewsNow rollout in regional Victoria, the newspaper that pushed so hard for the centre’s creation is itself under threat.

Albury-Wodonga has in recent years been plagued by one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the country, and since 2011, local paper The Border Mail had been campaigning for the need for the centre. The publication won two Walkley awards for its campaign, during which the paper published the stories of youth suicide from dozens of families. The publication also rallied politicians, public figures and mental health advocates behind proposals to provide the community with resources and adequately funded services to tackle the issue.

The campaign had an impact far beyond its immediate community. It came at a time when the Australian Press Council, in conjunction with mental health bodies, was reconsidering how journalists should report on youth suicides. Due to fears of sparking suicide clusters, journalists had previously been encouraged to report sparingly on suicides, instead repeating phrases like “non-suspicious circumstances” to describe instances where someone had taken his or her own life. But mental health bodies have recently been advocating a slightly different approach: for reporters to cover the impact and devastation caused by mental illness without going so far as to name exact methods used in suicide. Putting faces to stories of mental illness, the thinking goes, helps reduce the stigma that can stop people seeking help.

The Border Mail was one of the first Australian publications to tell such stories in detail. One of them was that of former Albury mayor Stuart Baker, who lost his daughter to mental illness — he and his wife, Annette, spoke to both The Border Mail and the ABC. Their daughter, Mary, had been an artist who used butterflies as her motif, and butterflies became the visual shorthand for the Border Mail campaign for a Headspace centre.

Baker told Crikey the campaign was “extremely effective”. “It got the topic discussed, which probably hadn’t been discussed in our community before. Through that, we got the Headspace centre, which we didn’t have, and possibly wouldn’t have had without the campaign.”

It’s an example of the impact regional publications can have. And it’s far from the only issue championed by the Border Mail. The publication has been at the forefront of reporting on the methamphetamine epidemic in the area, says Wodonga mayor Rodney Wangman. “The Border Mail is how we escalate issues to the corridors of power, in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra,” he said.

But The Border Mail is one of the Victorian papers targeted by Fairfax last week for heavy cuts, as part of the rollout of its NewsNow regional strategy. The cuts to its newsroom have left the local community fearful of whether the paper will be able to play the same role in the future.

The Border Mail is expected to cut 23 positions. Six of its eight photographers will leave, along with all the publication’s artists. Also on the chopping block are subeditors — part of the NewsNow philosophy is to have reporters photograph and subedit their own work. Also expect to go are three of the publication’s editors. The newsroom will be cut in half.

When the paper won the Walkley awards for its mental health campaign, there were fears in the newsroom that Fairfax management would look at the coverage and believe the publication was clearly well-resourced. But the Ending the Suicide Silence campaign stretched the newsroom’s resources. The journalists involved would often work late into the night at community events and fundraisers to give the campaign momentum. Artists and photographers worked through their days off. As one reporter told us, “you couldn’t have done it with the staff we had then. The only way we did it is because people did it in their time off.”

“It was hugely personal for us,” the reporter continued. “Everyone cared, and put so much work into it.”

Baker says that’s the benefit of having local journalists deeply embedded within their communities. “Regional papers are linked to their communities in ways you don’t get in other places. It’s not a numbers game, but it is about personal connection,” he said. “I worry about where it’s heading.”

“I hope [Fairfax] have got it right. But I’m not so sure. I run a family business, and I know that if that sort of staff cut were to happen, there’s no way we could operate as we currently do.”

Wangman shares his concern. “These stories started with a number of examples of horrific instances of sad, family circumstances. The journalists involved have to deal with the family at a time of absolute trauma. If they’re known to the family as a recognised local journalist, they can have that conversation. But they also need to return may times after the initial trauma, to analyse what it means for the community, and to have an advocacy role.”

“The Headspace centre was a direct response to the need to help people before a tragedy happens. But having advocated for it, local journalists haven’t stopped there. They’ve continued to promote what’s available. It’s free and ongoing media support, and encourages people to use the services. That last stage carries on. It’s about returning, over and over again. The last thing we need are journalists who are reporting from outside our area, or who are too busy and doing too many stories to follow up like that.”

Because of this, Wangman is sceptical of plans to form regional hubs to boost the papers, as Fairfax has planned in Ballarat. “We need local journalists, who understand issues and area able to keep returning to them. In my experience, the best journalists here have been residents for a long time. I’m just not convinced journalists who live in other locations but report news from here have the same knowledge and sentiment.”

The importance of trust in telling such stories was mentioned by Heath Harrison, editor of the Border Mail until 2012, in a piece about the campaign he wrote for Walkleys Magazine.

“Treating their stories with respect was paramount. We did all we could to ensure they were comfortable with how their stories were told and presented. When the Bakers didn’t like our plan for the front page, we changed it… and we got a better front page,” he wrote.

“Earning that trust didn’t happen by accident. It was down to our commitment to bring about change and to the sensitivity and professionalism of the reporters involved. Brad Worrall, Ashley Argoon, Di Thomas, Jack Baker and Jodie O’Sullivan told the stories beautifully, a point not lost on the Walkley judges who made special mention of the quality of their writing.”

It will be more difficult to give stories such careful treatment without the help of subeditors and photographers. The community has only had four days to digest the changes announced in the middle of last week, Wangman says, but already there’s concern about the proposal. “People are surprised that in a regional city that’s rapidly growing in size, this proposal would be considered.”

In letters in regional papers, Fairfax has called on members of regional communities to email through their concerns about the changes. Wangman hopes they do.

A Fairfax Media spokesperson said the changes were important to the sustainability of Fairfax’s rural and regional mastheads. “We’re fully committed to supporting the Victorian communities we serve – being a strong voice for their local interests. Our proposal to adopt new ways of working and new technologies will help us sustain the important work we do in rural and regional communities well into the future. We need no convincing that our journalism has a vital role in our communities.”

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