Journalist Carol Altmann (Image: Supplied)

This is part two of a series on regional media. Read part one here.

Why the hell would anyone start a regional newspaper in the middle of a pandemic?

For Michael Waite, there wasn’t a more important time for his home town of Naracoorte in South Australia to have its own paper. Australian Community Media (ACM) had just closed down regional papers across the country.

“They just walked off the field and stopped playing,” Waite said.

“We were like, really, of all of the times that you think you don’t have a social responsibility to communicate with the community, it’s now?”

Waite, who’s spent much of his adult life in the United States, where he’s worked for Bill Gates and even had a crack at politics, found himself stuck home in Naracoorte when a summer visit was delayed by the spread of COVID-19.

There haven’t been many success stories in regional media. The Naracoorte Herald was one of over 150 publications that went out of print as the pandemic ground the Australian economy to a halt.

One silver lining, Waite says, is that it made things easier to start up a new publication.

“It created an opportunity to have at least two to three months with nobody on the other side of the field. It meant we could offer something to the community without the noise of competition.”

Waite’s Naracoorte Community News published its first edition this month, thanks to “a real patchwork of goodwill,” calling in favours from former journalists and volunteers. Turning that goodwill into something permanent is a challenge. The paper will need to consistently attract local advertisers, and convince enough people in the town of 8000 to pay $2 a week for an edition.

But Waite is optimistic, and says there’s genuine excitement in the community about the new paper. There’s also a real sense of need. With an older population used to getting their news in print, having a paper in Naracoorte matters.

Will the government step in?

In principle, everyone agrees that regional media is important.

Deputy prime minister Michael McCormack is himself a former editor of the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser. Long before COVID-19, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) was urging the government to invest $50 million a year into regional media grants.

“It’s such an important public good that something needs to be done about it,” ACCC chair Rod Sims told Inq.

So why is it being left up to entrepreneurs like Waite to cover the tab? 

Governments have appeared generous on paper, but in practice it hasn’t been nearly enough.

The federal government in 2017 announced a $60.5 million scheme for regional and small publishers. And when the pandemic hit, it introduced a $50 million package for regional media under the Public Interest News Gathering program.

To put this in perspective, zoos got nearly twice as much cash. And despite the promise of funding, news outlets are still waiting to find out what the eligibility criteria are. 

Country Press Australia president Bruce Ellen says the package should not be open to large commercial television and radio networks and media conglomerates such as News Corp.

“Why should [big companies] share in the funding when they’ve already benefited from things like changes to media ownership rules and waivers of licence fees?” he said.

Journalist and academic Margaret Simons said the latest package was welcome but possibly too little too late. 

“I would like to see longer-term thinking in policy terms about the importance of the media as part of our democratic infrastructure,” she said.

Filling a gap 

Waite is not the only one stepping in to fill the void left in regional towns as News Corp and ACM’s printers fall silent.

South Australian journalist Peri Strathearn has also seen an opportunity, launching his very own Murray Bridge News website this month. 

Strathearn was one of eight full-time staff stood down at the ACM-owned Murray Valley Standard last month. His newsletter is now reaching 680 people and attracting 139 paid subscribers. “I want to succeed to show that it’s doable, and I think it is,” he said.

Veteran journalist Carol Altmann is also trying to fill the gap left by cuts to her local newspaper, the Warrnambool Standard. Altmann’s website, The Terrier, aims to investigate local government issues. 

“Local councils aren’t the tin pot things they used to be,” she said. “There’s millions of dollars being spent on projects, development … if no one is watching that, all sorts of things can go on.”

Communities are also using Facebook as an alternative to local media. In Braidwood, Alex Rea runs the Braidwood Bugle Facebook page which has 9000 followers and a free weekly newsletter. “There are lots of players willing to fill the gaps in regional news,” she said.

A sustainable business model?

Former BuzzFeed Australia editor Simon Crerar has been working on building a sustainable business model for regional news since before the coronavirus.

He said the virus has rapidly intensified the pressures already facing local newspapers. “They are very much print businesses. So without the ability to print, their entire business model is in major trouble,” he said. 

Crerar said the essential work of a regional newspaper in keeping a community connected and informed was often taken for granted.“When it disappears, it’s really visible,” he said.

But when it comes to finding a sustainable business model, he said “all bets are off” due to COVID-19. 

“We don’t know how quick recovery is going to be,” he said. “My worry really is for those communities. What happens to a community without a newspaper?”