Newspaper Nine Queensland
(Image: Unsplash/Bank Phrom)

When the Covid-19 crisis ends, it’s likely that hundreds of communities across Australia will wake up without a newspaper. 

That’s the expectation of Australian media researchers who say a true picture is emerging of the virus’s impact on regional media. 

Crikey can reveal at least 152 community and regional newspapers across Australia have stopped printing in the last month, with many unlikely to restart.

This includes titles like the Lower Hunter Valley’s Maitland Mercury, which is 177 years old. The shutdowns amount to around a third of the total number of unique publications in Australia. 

The number is based on estimates by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) and Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI), which is mapping closures as they happen across the country. 

Having survived the loss of classifieds, the introduction of the internet and countless corporate overtakings, it’s a pandemic that has ultimately spelled rural papers’ demise.

The announcements were easy to miss in last month’s sea of bad news. The first was family-run publisher Elliot Newspaper Group, which announced on March 23 it was standing down all staff at its four newspapers in Victoria’s north west, including at Mildura’s only daily newspaper, the Sunraysia Daily.

Then, on April 1, News Corp declared it would suspend sixty community and regional news titles, mostly around Melbourne and Sydney. That was quickly followed by Antony Catalano’s Australian Community Media (ACM) empire, which announced on April 14 it was freezing printing of the non-daily titles in its vast, formerly Fairfax-owned, regional media network until June. 

The three announcements have gone some way in killing off legacy papers in Australia, with News and ACM controlling the bulk of regional and community news titles in the country.

The Elliot group has said it is committed to reviving its printed publications when the coronavirus crisis gripping Australia subsides. And Catalano told Crikey he had not technically closed any papers.

“The stand down is just a suspension. When ads come back, papers come back. I don’t want to close a single title if i can avoid it,” he said.

But, he added, it was pointless to revive a paper that was not commercially viable. “I’d love to bring back the steam train too but there’s no real demand.”

“If the readers are not there the readers are not there.”

ACM, which owns 160 newspapers around the country, said some titles would offer limited coverage online, and that the company’s 14 daily papers — including the Canberra Times — would continue to be published.

But while the closures are slated as temporary, it’s likely to be the final nail in the coffin for an industry that has endured decades of shrinking ad revenue. 

“There’s deep concern that the cutbacks are irreversible,” said Allan Fels, former ACCC head and chairman of PIJI. “Newspapers which might otherwise be alive aren’t going to come back,” he said. 

The closures leave swathes of the country with fewer reporters on the ground at a time when a health crisis rips through the country, leaving unemployment in its wake. Data collected by PIJI reveals some areas have been more impacted by closures than others, with clusters of shutdowns in NSW’s Hunter region, Victoria’s Gippsland region and Ceduna in South Australia. 

Regional papers have been more heavily exposed to the virus than their metropolitan counterparts due to their heavy reliance on advertising from small local businesses, which have been gutted by the pandemic. 

But the industry was already on its knees when COVID-19 arrived. The ACCC’s digital platform inquiry last year found that 21 local government areas in Australia have no local newspaper. And a Centre for Media Transition report revealed there were increasing pockets of the country, particularly in regional areas, that were no longer serviced by any local media outlets.

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance says a $50 million regional media bailout announced by the government is welcome but so far not forthcoming. 

“Not a single cent has flowed to the regions where it is desperately needed,” MEAA director Neill Jones said.

“Local newspapers and local communities need to see that money being spent to support local newspapers immediately.”

Note: Eric Beecher, the chairman of Crikey publisher Private Media, the publisher of Crikey, is on the board of PIJI.