This is the second instalment of a story about Di Morrissey, the best-selling author who started her own community newspaper. Read the first part here.
When Di Morrissey started The Manning Community News in 2015, her main goal was improving the quality of local news for her neighbours on NSW’s mid-north coast. Her own campaign about TransGrid’s plan for power lines running through her hometown in the Manning Valley didn’t rate a mention in any of the local papers (previously owned by Fairfax, now owned by Nine), and she thought she could fill a gap left by the depleted papers.
Morrissey says her paper is “truly independent”. She gets minimal advertising from local businesses, who mostly already had arrangements with the then-Fairfax newspapers (the paper goes out free, almost entirely funded by Morrissey herself as a “community service”). Those newspapers, a group razed under Fairfax Media’s management in recent years, are mostly populated with press release rewrites and inconsequential community news.
There are other local papers which are more frequent (The Manning Community News is released monthly), but none of them cover the whole council area.
“When we got amalgamated at the end of 2016, we became this massive area, 10,000 sq km and over 99,000 people,” Morrissey said. “It’s huge, so everybody has their own little pockets and you don’t necessarily know what’s going on in other parts. Things were happening that never saw the light of day.”
Morrissey’s community-focused news is delivered with an aggressive approach to the local council. In recent editions she has covered a council move to purchase a former Masters store site for new offices, a change in council general manager, and legal problems plaguing one of the councillors — all while calling for greater transparency of council decisions.
She claims this has led to the paper being banned on Mid-Coast Council sites, though a council spokeswoman said this is not correct and the paper is also available in council-owned libraries.
Morrissey published a piece about the “ban” in her March/April edition. “That little piece has caused more outrage than a lot of other things,” she said. “A few local writers have called me a left-wing radical conspiracy theorist, but I’ve printed things that are critical of me and the paper too, with my own feelings about it.
“People felt helpless and that they had no voice, but now everyone goes ‘tell Di, she’ll do something’. [The paper] has been hugely embraced and I’m sure I have many critics, but I don’t think they’d want the paper to go.”
In a statement, the council told Crikey that Morrissey’s paper was treated the same as any other local press.
“The editor of the Manning Community News is on our media distribution list along with all other local news outlets, and we are more than willing to provide information to the Manning Community News at any point in time as we do to any other local newspaper or community newsletter,” the statement said. “The difference in the relationship is that the Manning Community News rarely contact us for comment or information for the purpose of their reporting.”
Morrissey told Crikey her requests for interviews with the general manager had been turned down, and that responses “were generally convoluted council-speak rubbish”. She stands by reports she’s heard of her paper being banned.
Either way, there is no love lost between the paper covering the council’s entire jurisdiction and the council itself.
“Every little area has its little magazine or paper, but now there’s no real competition,” Morrissey said. “I ask hard questions … maybe the MCN isn’t always as polite as it could be, but we stand up, and call out the truth as well as, hopefully, provide a little stimulating thought.”
What’s the future of local and community news in Australia? Send your thoughts to [email protected].