Michael McCormack
Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals Leader Michael McCormack (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

With News Corp’s cuts of hundreds of editorial and content positions, the closure of the print editions of scores of regional and community papers, as well as the outright closure of around 20 regional mastheads, today is the worst day for regional and community journalism in Australian history.

Each of those lost jobs and shuttered mastheads has a real economic cost for regional communities, especially those hammered by bushfires and border closures. The civic impact is harder to define, but just as real: local stories never told, local scandals never revealed, local leaders not subject to scrutiny, local corruption never uncovered, local lives never celebrated.

The government has already provided $50 million for additional funding for regional media, which Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack announced in early May (applications for the Public Interest News Gathering program close tomorrow).

As it turns out, the funding obtained by McCormack — which is accessible to regional broadcasters as well as newspapers — has been insufficient to save News Corp-owned papers. And it is relatively limited compared to the funding provided for other regional initiatives.

For example, the government has provided a $300 million bailout to regional aviation companies to enable crucial air links between smaller centres to continue operating, as well as waiving $700 million in fees and charges for the regional sector. That formed part of a $1 billion package of assistance, via fee waivers, expansions to existing grants and new grant programs for regional businesses and services.

Like regional aviation, local media connect communities with each other and provide crucial economic support, as well as forming an important part of local civic life and public affairs. It has been under pressure for decades, first with the networking of local radio licensees and then cutbacks to news services by regional television broadcasters. Today represents a dramatic acceleration of long-term trends to fewer journalists and fewer media outlets for smaller communities.

If this isn’t a cause that needs agitation from Nationals MPs, it’s hard to know what would be. The Nationals have proven adept at rorting regional grants programs in their own political interests. It’s time to apply some of that skill at manipulating taxpayer funding to ensure regional media continues to exist.