Today was my final day at WIN News. Just nine days ago I, along with about 40 other people, was told that our regional newsrooms were closing down.
I’m a journalist and the chief of staff at WIN News Central West based in Orange, and even though I sat in on the meeting with senior executive and staff, I haven’t really been given a clear-cut explanation for why our newsroom — along with Wagga, Albury and Wide Bay in Queensland — are closing down. However, WIN News did tell staff that it was to do with the “commercial viability of funding news in those areas”.
When I broke the news on Twitter I was flooded with apologetic tweets and kind words from colleagues and strangers. A lot of tweets were from people who were worried about the future of regional news. The day after we got the news about our redundancies, the newsroom was flooded with phone calls and emails from viewers expressing their frustration that their “favourite” local news service was leaving. It was a difficult conversation to have because not only are the hard-working staff in all these newsrooms losing their jobs, the viewers were losing something too.
Although some people might scoff at regional journalists (a politician from Sydney’s affluent suburbs once told my colleague she was “dressed well for a rural journalist”), they’re a vital link, providing important information to people who desperately need it. For example, Walgett, a small town in north-western NSW, has faced a series of hardships. The town’s bore water treatment facility broke late last year, which meant residents didn’t have adequate drinking water from their taps. They’re in the middle of a drought where neither of the town’s two rivers are flowing. To top it all off, just weeks ago, the town’s only grocery store burnt to the ground. Walgett residents had no idea where they would get their basic household items.
Journalists were quick to act, spreading the word about the disaster online and through TV updates throughout the day. Within hours of my first post, Walgett was inundated with offers of donations from people in places like Orange, Wagga and Wollongong. Without regional journalists getting the story out there those donations wouldn’t be coming in.
It’s the resilience and camaraderie of rural communities that metropolitan media often miss in their storytelling.
In August last year, reporting on the drought really ramped up, with major metro news stations and mastheads finding the saddest stories they could, exploiting the desperate situation of farmers. Smaller stories, like that of Greg and Carmel Readford, who own a sheep property near Coonamble, get overlooked by these big networks. The Readford family is doing it tough — like every farmer in central west NSW. Despite their best efforts to prepare for the drought, nobody expected it would go on this long. The Readfords are extremely humble people and told me about their struggles, including selling their stock to keep up with feeding.
But what Carmel told me will stick with me forever: “Other people are worse off”. She said this to me as her and Greg waited for a truck full of hay from Rural Aid to arrive. It’s that selflessness and spirit that often gets overlooked in metropolitan markets, and with fewer regional news outlets to tell this story, who else will?
Is there anything that could have been done to stop these cuts from happening. Experts will tell you it was inevitable, and maybe they are right. WIN told its staff that it wasn’t commercially viable to continue news operations in regional areas because people weren’t tuning in, and is there really anything we could have done to make more people watch their local news?
For those people who tell us they’re “devastated” that their regional news service is closing down, I say this: support the news organisations that are still in town. Buy your local paper, and switch on the local news. If the numbers say people aren’t tuning in, then the news companies will pull out.
And that’s a sad thought for not only regional media, but for the people who consume it.