(Image: AAP/Paul Miller)

Remember that fund to help small and regional publishers, which was definitely not for the big media players?

Well, now that the virus has hit and everything’s going belly up, it looks like big companies like News Corp and Nine might be able to get their hands on some of it.

On April 1, News Corp announced it would suspend printing of 60 community newspapers across Australia. Soon, Australian Community Media followed suit.

Last week, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher announced the $50 million public interest news gathering (PING) program would support “public interest journalism delivered by commercial television, newspaper, and radio businesses in regional Australia”.

The program is funded with $13.4 million in new money as well as “repurposed unallocated funds from the government’s regional and small publishers jobs and innovation package”.

But here’s the thing — the new program makes no mention of the original fund’s key criteria: the $30 million turnover cap that locked big foreign-owned companies like News Corp out of getting their hands on it. Further, the requirement that the recipient produce public interest journalism “as the primary purpose” has been subtly downgraded to remove the “primary purpose” test.

Country Press Australia (CPA) president Bruce Ellen is worried that the expansion of the fund could potentially hand money intended for small regional publishers to News Corp, as well as big commercial TV and radio networks to the detriment of those for whom the money was initially intended.

“The original fund came about because [then-senator] Nick Xenophon was very concerned about the affect the government’s changes to media ownership rules would have on small and regional media,” he told Crikey.

“So the fund was concocted to secure his vote, and push through those changes through. That’s why it was important that companies like News Corp couldn’t access the fund — because it was brought in to ensure the passage of laws that were a massive benefit to them and other media conglomerates.

“If this was new money, that would be one thing — but this fund already had a specific aim, and if big companies were allowed to access it, it would effectively be double dipping.”

The CPA has been lobbying regional MPs regarding the changes, and Crikey understands that Deputy Prime Minister (and former newspaper man) Michael McCormack was a strong supporter of the original package.

Fletcher’s announcement of the fund notes that the program “implements the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) recommendation in the digital platforms inquiry to enhance the [regional small publishers jobs and innovation package] to better support high quality news, particularly in regional and remote Australia”.

I mean, if we want to look at exactly what the ACCC suggested, it was slightly more money (see page 33):

The regional and small publishers jobs and innovation package should be replaced with a targeted grants program that supports the production of original local and regional journalism, including that related to local government and local courts.

The program should be platform-neutral and administered at arm’s length from government, with eligibility criteria designed by an independent expert committee. Due to its broader scope than the regional and small publishers jobs and innovation package, which provided AU$20 million per year, the program should provide a greater amount of funding — totalling in the order of AU$50 million per year.

Crikey and its parent company Private Media were among those who previously picked up funding from the program.

Many regional publications were unsuccessful, and complained about inaccurate and inconsistent grounds for refusal.

Update: A spokesperson for the Minister’s office told Crikey the program “enhanced” the Regional and Small Publishers Jobs and Innovation package to “better support high quality news, particularly in regional and remote Australia” across “commercial television, newspaper and radio businesses in regional Australia”.

“Separately, the Government has brought forward $5 million in funding to support high quality public interest journalism during COVID-19 from the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund.”

They added that the grant guidelines for both programs will be released shortly.