Newspaper Nine Queensland
(Image: Unsplash/Bank Phrom)

News Corp’s decision to “suspend” (expect “cease”) publication of 60 suburban titles has sent a shivering premonition of mortality through Australia’s media. It’s prompting calls for bailouts from usual critics of rent-seeking, amid finger pointing at the usual villains in Facebook and Google.

But throwing money into the gurgling drain of print media is not the answer. Bailouts? Sure. But for local journalism that serves the community, not dying business models. These closures were coming. The advertising collapse has made it sooner, rather than later.

The COVID-19 pandemic is turbo-charging two pre-existing trends: it’s encouraging a flight to quality journalism (that’s the good news!) and it’s collapsing advertising in media (that’s the bad!). 

Insiders claim audiences across all channels are up by between 20 to 30% — more online, particularly for news. Trusted quality is the winner, as the latest Nielsen data of online news traffic shows the ABC leaping to a 40% margin over commercial rivals.

Advertising? Down by about the same amount, with some media — like print — worse off than others. Commercial media are struggling to monetise the increased traffic online as advertisers are reluctant to appear alongside coronavirus stories despite their higher readership. 

Local journalism can’t resist the advertising fall. But it can survive by cashing in on the first trend — by reimagining communities, understanding their needs and delivering where they are: online.

Large chains like News Corp have been gutting the “local” out of local print media for a quarter of a century, cutting and consolidating their way to sustain profits as advertising has dwindled.

Editing and production has been centralised, often in the centre of major cities, far from the communities the papers are supposed to be serving. Design and layout has been standardised. Content is heavily syndicated from masthead to masthead. Meanwhile, the surviving strong work being produced by local journalists struggles to get a look in. 

Over the past few years, News Corp has been winding back printing and distribution, with door-to-door delivery replaced by bulk drops into cafes and corner stores in areas of low-value to advertisers. Printing frequency was cut. For example, in January 2018, the Manly Daily, serving the notoriously insular peninsula, went bi-weekly.

The suburban papers were a delivery system for advertising, principally real estate and local services. The internet delivers both more effectively than print. If you want to blame tech platforms, blame Gumtree and realestate.com.au.  

It’s not just suburbans. It’s regionals as well. Already two regional dailies and about a dozen non-dailies have been suspended or closed, though one, the Sunraysia Daily, will use the federal government’s JobKeeper package to print a Saturday edition.

Print tragics (that is, most journalists) will mourn the changes. Particularly sad was the close of Broken Hill’s Barrier Daily Truth, which, union-owned, was the last surviving relic of Australia’s 20th century tradition of Labour Dailies.

Most of the remaining regional newspapers are owned either by News Corp (in Queensland and northern NSW) or by Australian Community Media (ACM) which bought out the former Fairfax/Rural Press chain after the Nine merger. ACM Executive Chair Antony Catalano told The Sydney Morning Herald this week that the company is meeting twice a day to monitor the situation. 

In New Zealand, the government has taken the decision out of the hands of the media companies, declaring that non-daily print papers and magazines are not an essential service unless they are targeted at otherwise hard-to-reach regional or ethnic communities. 

An early casualty has been New Zealand’s leading voice on culture, politics and current events, The Listener.

Launched by the country’s public broadcaster in 1939, it featured the country’s leading writers and sustained a circulation of about 45,000. It closed yesterday with the decision of the major magazine publisher in the country (and in Australia), the German-owned Bauer, to shut its New Zealand titles. 

Nine, meanwhile, has cut back print in its metro mastheads here in Australia, with lift-out supplements for travel, entertainment and real estate suspended, along with non-weekly magazine inserts 

It couldn’t be clearer: print’s Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall. Local newspapers can’t be put back together again. But strong, independent, local journalism that meets the needs of its communities can be rescued from the broken shards.

Peter Fray

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