Ten years ago, not long after the Rural Press group of newspapers was bought out by Fairfax Media, novellist Di Morrissey left her home in Byron Bay for the quieter Manning Valley on NSW’s mid-north coast, near where she was born.
At first, she thought the local papers serving her region were doing a great job, but — as with many of those regional papers owned by Fairfax — they increasingly became less community watchdogs and more a vehicle for press releases as they dealt with sustained cuts.
Her feeling about the region’s newspapers was cemented when Morrissey started a community action group to stop power lines going through the valley — something the ABC’s Australian Story featured — there was no interest from local press.
So, she did what many journalists and writers dream of — she started her own newspaper.
Before she hit the big time with her fiction, Morrissey was a working journalist. She started out with Australian Consolidated Press, working for The Daily Telegraph and the Australian Women’s Weekly. “People don’t know I was a trained journalist,” she told Crikey. “I’ve been a journalist for 30 years.”
Her paper The Manning Community News initially covered her immediate local area of Wingham and Taree, when it launched in 2015, but when it was amalgamated with other councils in the area in 2016, the scope of the paper increased too.
“I started it to inform our local area, Wingham and Taree, but then we got amalgamated so I expanded,” she said. “The council is down there in Forster, so I had to widen our reach.”
There are little papers dotted across the council area, none with the print run that Morrissey has amassed — she printed 15,000 of her latest edition, up from 1000 the first run, four years ago.
Unlike other small regional newspapers, she doesn’t do footy results or write-ups of people who’ve turned 100 (“Unless it’s someone interesting”), and it’s not just locals that read her paper, which has a website, but is focused on the print product.
“This is a big older area, and retirement area, so people like to sit down and read a proper paper,” Morrissey said. “We go through hundreds of them in the cafes … Older people here don’t go online, but the paper is in the hospitals and doctors’ waiting rooms, it’s everywhere so people can take it home and read it. I go through hundreds of supermarkets and stores.”
Morrissey produces the whole thing herself. She gets minimal advertising (“Fairfax has most of the print advertising stitched up”), and only pays one of her contributors, a refugee now living in Chicago. It’s distributed every month by a merry band of volunteers who pick up stacks of the papers, printed in Sydney, to distribute to libraries, medical clinics and fish and chip shops around the region.
Morrissey is not doing the paper as a money-spinner. The Manning Community News is distributed free, and Morrissey said she doesn’t make any money out of it. “I saw that as a way to give back to my community. I’m still working full time so I can’t volunteer, but I can do this,” she said. “I write the whole damn thing, I have some people who contribute columns, then I put it all together with a freelancer. As print has increased so have my costs. A few private individuals sometimes donate, one covered a TV campaign we did.”
The paper has a lot of the usual marks of a local paper — reports on community meetings, profiles of locals and letters to the editor. But she proudly says it is not a parochial paper. Alongside columns from a local plant nursery and local antiques dealer are pieces by and featuring Morrissey’s extensive contacts. Amongst her readers are 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones, and former Greens leader Bob Brown, who appears in a photograph with Morrissey on this month’s front page.
“Maybe it’s been self indulgent. But the things that interest me interest other people too,” she said. “Once you’ve been a journalist you feel and start knowing about things before it becomes common knowledge.”
And she’s competitive about what she publishes, rattling the local council with her critical stories. “I’m still very competitive and try to get scoops,” she said. “I’ve been able to worm my way into various groups and because I’ve been brave enough to speak about things, people are now learning they can trust me but also they’ve been working with me.”
The paper isn’t universally loved in the area — the council sure isn’t always very keen on her work — but she embraces the criticism.
“It’s truly independent,” she said. “I do feel sometimes I have to beat the drum a little bit, but there’s enough stories and leads that come and people write in that they’re actually deeply interested in world events … Some of these old slow poke farmers have big hearts and big minds.”