Almost day by day, new regional start-ups that print the news on actual paper are popping up to fill the news deserts being left in Australia’s towns and regions by the collapse of the once-dominant chains.
But the biggest of Australia’s chains — News Corp — is not surrendering easily. By promising 50 digital-only local news sites, it threatens to block the new voices. In May, News Corp shifted about 100 former regional and local print mastheads to web-only, with an estimated loss of 500 jobs.
This week, in Casino in northern NSW, the crowd-funded not-for-profit Richmond River Independent will be printing its third issue of local news, to fill the gap left when News Corp closed the local Express and rolled its content into the now wholly on-line Northern Star in neighbouring Lismore.
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Like other regional media start-ups, that’s become a critical point of difference: “The Richmond River Independent is owned by the community,” it says. “That way it can never be taken over or closed down on a whim.”
In Queensland last week, the Melbourne-based Star group launched the fourth of its Today titles, with Burnett Today joining Central Queensland, Gympie and Noosa. Further north, the Leader brand is branching out from Longreach with Leader mastheads in Biloela and Emerald.
In NSW and Victoria, local journalists — some of whom lost their jobs when their paper was closed in May — are starting new products, such as the Yass Valley Times (published by the newly-formed Merino Media) which replaced the closed Yass Tribune, or the nearby Southern Highland Express which replaces the Southern Highland News. Both former papers were closed in May by Nine-offshoot Australian Community Media (ACM).
News Corp is rolling out a digital footprint across regional Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria together with the ACT and the Northern Territory. It will be hoping that this low-cost footprint (with just one journalist planned for each site) will ensure it hangs on to national advertisers and government contracts.
Its first 15 sites announced last week are not news deserts. They have existing competitors whether ACM’s daily papers hanging on in Albury-Wodonga, Ballarat, Bendigo, Dubbo and Tamworth or the surviving independent regional daily papers in Shepparton and Mildura.
As Crikey reported on Thursday, the closure and down-sizing of print plants across the eastern states by News Corp and ACM means there will be just that much less opportunity for independents to print their papers
It’s classic News Corp: never walk away from a media space until you’ve wrung out every last drop of revenue, leaving behind scorched earth for any possible new entrant.
It’s why it launched the Sunday Sun in the UK after the hacking scandal forced the News of the World to close and why it continued with afternoon editions of their morning tabloids for about four years after closing the Sydney Mirror and the Melbourne Herald in 1990.
The new papers are largely emerging in smaller centres that have long been under-served by weekly or bi-weekly papers owned by a local or national chain and often produced and printed (if not written) from the offices of a larger regional centre.
Some of the independently-owned papers are also renewing with deeper community engagement. For example, the union-owned Barrier Daily Truth in Broken Hill, set to close in April, has re-emerged with fewer print days off an upsurge of community support.
The new papers have a range of ownership models, from the not-for-profit Richmond River Independent, community association incorporated in Casino, to for-profit but journalist-owned companies and companies owned by local business interests. The Star Group Today titles are the earliest sign of a re-emerging chain structure.
The News strategy will force the new regional players and the surviving independent voices to rely heavily on local support and local advertising to survive. Not-for-profit structures will be better placed to crowd-fund and to sustain independence from other local interests.
Locally-owned media businesses may be better placed to provide capital and to access advertising although there is a long history of privately-owned local media becoming a tool for local business interests.
Meanwhile ACM, with its nationally-owned network of daily and weekly mastheads, risks being caught in the middle between the extensive News Corp footprint and the start-up irregulars springing up locally.