Michael Miller during a press conference
News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has abandoned local and regional news audiences in Australia, with the announcement it will stop printing more than 100 community and regional print titles across the country.

It brings the number of contractions — newsroom closures, mergers and print reductions and suspensions — in Australia’s public interest news landscape to more than 200 since January last year, according to the Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI), which is mapping newsroom closures.

Under the News Corp restructure, at least 175 jobs will be axed as the bulk of News Corp’s regional and community titles move to purely digital publishing. The company says it has been forced to move away from what it says are “unsustainable” businesses.

Crikey has been uncovering the depth of the crisis gripping regional media.

Earlier this month it revealed more than 150 community and regional newspapers across Australia have stopped printing since the start of the pandemic, as advertising from local businesses all but dries up. 

Journalism academic and freelance journalist Meg Simons said today’s announcement shows just how catastrophic the situation has become.

“We’ve been drawing attention to emerging news deserts in Australia, but this has pushed the whole thing over a cliff,” she said.

“Even with publications moving online, the question is, where are the journalists? Are they still employed? Are they employed in local communities? Covering local councils? Interviewing local people?”

News Corp said 23 of its regional papers would be closed down entirely — 15 in Queensland, three in NSW, one in Tasmania and four specialist papers. Dozens more will be made online-only, with others merged into regional or city-based mastheads. 

Including regional and suburban titles, 36 mastheads will close altogether and 76 will be online-only.

News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller said its remaining regional reporters would continue to “serve, and live in, their local communities”, with the majority of effected titles in regional Queensland. 

The restructure comes after talks to sell the papers to Antony Catalano failed. 

Catalano, whose Australian Community Media (ACM) suspended printing of around 88 mastheads in April, would not comment on the News Corp discussions. He told Crikey that it was still not clear whether his own ACM papers would return. 

“If customers don’t come back then the answer is the papers won’t come back,” he said. “That’s just economics.”

According to data from PIJI, 213 newsrooms around Australia have either been suspended, merged or permanently closed since the start of the year.

“Today’s update is further evidence that the industry is in need of urgent immediate and long-term support to survive the COVID-19 pandemic,” PIJI chairman Allan Fels said.

Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) chief executive Paul Murphy said in a statement the cuts represented a huge loss for communities in regional and suburban Australia.

“The closure of so many mastheads represents an immense blow to local communities and, coming off the back of hundreds of previous regional closures during this period, it underlines the seriousness of the crisis facing regional and local journalism,” he said. 

“We are still waiting for clarity from the company on how many editorial staff will be affected by these changes across the News Corp network.”

Some employees may be redeployed to News Corp Australia’s newswire service, which launches next month. The service was established after it was announced the Australian Associated Press (AAP) newswire service was closing after 85 years.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told Crikey it was a difficult day for journalists, staff and affected communities.

“News Corp has expressed its commitment to maintain the bulk of its regional and community titles online, and the government is very interested to see that News Corp delivers on that promise to continue to serve local communities with news and information,” he said.

“Today’s development further demonstrates the importance of the ACCC’s work to implement a mandatory code addressing commercial arrangements between digital platforms, like Google and Facebook, and Australian news media businesses.”

What will happen to local and regional journalism? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected] Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.