Office of the Murray Bridge News (Image: Supplied)

Maurice Parish was mayor of Murray Bridge, then a dot on the South Australian map, when he oversaw production of the first Murray Valley Standard on November 23, 1934.

He’d bought himself a Wharfedale press so he could break the Mt Barker Courier‘s stranglehold on the local market, giving locals their own voice. And it worked for many years. 

As recently as 2012, soon after I started, we printed 64 pages one Thursday, four more than The Advertiser in Adelaide on the same day.

There were more than 20 of us in the office then: journos, an editor, admin, sales, production staff, a typesetter for the sports results on Mondays and photographers on Saturday and Sunday.

The writing on the wall

I first saw the writing on the wall in November 2015.

A year had passed since Fairfax’s great gamble for regional mastheads: a shift in focus from print to the web. We were directed to publish all stories online as soon as they were written. It was called “Project Transcend”, a step towards the future or a $70 million cost saving, depending who you asked.

We were meant to transcend the physical in favour of the intangible, I suppose. The hit we’d take in print circulation would be more than made up by a surge in traffic on our websites, which would encourage more businesses to advertise, which would set us on a path to sustainability. 

So the theory went. But the numbers didn’t lie. As I looked at the stats that November it was apparent there had been no bounce. We had taken a step towards the future, yes, but the future no longer looked so appealing. 

Many of my colleagues left during Transcend, and after that every cohort of journos seemed smaller than the last: Brennan, Jo, Chanelle, Dylan and me became Elle, Claire, Dylan and me; then Emmalie, Casey and me; then Nick, Emma and me; then Emma and me; then just me.  

From February 2019 I covered an area of 12,000 square kilometres, 35,000 people in half a dozen major towns in four council districts, with two print deadlines a week.

I stopped sending my work to the state awards that year. Instead my writing began to resemble the night fill job I’d had as an 18-year-old — the emphasis on filling holes as quickly as possible. I had to hope there would be no bushfires or major announcements on a Monday or Wednesday, deadline days. 

Fairness doesn’t pay the bills

It cannot have been fair for readers to pay a higher and higher cover price for a wad of paper that shrank to eight pages on Tuesdays — before printing on Tuesdays stopped altogether. But fairness doesn’t pay the bills, and our old advertisers were targeting the same audience more effectively on Facebook and Google.

So I’d sit amid my knick-knacks — a jar of copper ore from a mine opening, a No. 15 wooden spoon from a nursing home raffle, a centennial medallion from Tailem Bend railway station, the disembodied head of a ceramic rooster we’d give out for the best headline every week — and wonder how I would ever be able to write enough to fill the next edition.

In regional Australia, you make it work.

Once I was out doing a street survey in Port Pirie, the lead-smelting town where I got my start. You know the drill: you ask passers-by their opinion on a topic, their name and where they come from. “I’m not sure if you’d say I’m a local,” a woman told me. “I mean, I’ve lived in Pirie for about 40 years … but I’m from Gladstone, I suppose you’d say.” Such is the life of an outsider in a country town.

It takes about 18 months to really settle in, to begin to understand who is who, what is where, why the hotel is still called Leahy’s and the newsagent is still called Hallandal’s even though the signs bearing those names came down years ago. 

It takes five years to earn trust, to reach the point where people will stop their cars to tell you about a tree that fell on a house around the corner, or tag you in a Facebook post to ask: “Is this true?”

I spent almost 10 years with the company now called Australian Community Media. I can’t claim to have launched any royal commissions, although other country journos have. My wins have been little things like opening a dialogue about farm water prices, or making the new waterslide free, or having a new town entry sign built in a more sensible spot.

I’ve rarely had the time to dedicate to campaigns that might really have counted, like standing up for workers’ rights after a meatworks fire. But when Murray Bridge’s council meets, I’d sit at the same table as the elected representatives.

Mistakes are long remembered

The stakes are high enough for a town of 17,000, and mistakes are long remembered. Early in my tenure at the Standard, a woman at a function declined to have her photo taken for the social pages: “I never read the newspaper, and I tell all my friends and family to do the same. They spelled my name wrong 10 years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it.”

The Standard has kept on publishing, though its pages are too often filled with submitted photos, press releases, shared content — code for “stuff from places you probably don’t care to read about” — and just enough decent yarns to fill in the gaps. The profile articles fell away, as did I Remember When, and coverage of smaller community groups or minor sports. Eventually local councils and whole districts went virtually uncovered.

There was never a lack of ideas — there are a million stories out here, enough to keep three of me busy every week. But the business model had begun to show every one of its 85 years.

As a child, my parents treasured clippings from the times I’d featured in the Barossa Herald, meeting Father Christmas or participating in Book Week. And I was grateful that then-editor Greg Mayfield asked me to front up for a day’s work experience at Port Pirie’s The Recorder in 2010, unshaven and unprepared, the morning after he’d met me. That chance encounter led to a career for which I remain thankful every day.

Before Project Transcend I might have imagined myself the editor of a country paper by now, setting the local agenda, scrutinising council decisions, holding court at some Rotary Club dinner. But such creatures are now extinct in ACM. They were replaced with cluster editors, responsible for odd groups of far-flung mastheads; then with a single state editor, responsible for 16 titles.

‘Murray Bridge News’ is born

Once I’d hoped to carve out a career at the Standard, maybe stick around for its centenary. In the end I just hoped not to be the one to turn out the lights. COVID spared me that much, bringing on a 10-week shutdown which gave me the kick up the bum I needed to start my own news website.

Peri Strathearn (Image: supplied)

I have a new spot in the council chamber now, since we’re all socially distant; a new office in a spare bedroom with “Murray Bridge News” printed on a curling sheet of A4 on the door; and all those knick-knacks have been repositioned.

I’m publishing the same old stories about roundabouts being installed, my numbers are going up every week and, so far, readers have shown they’re willing to pay.

Without an arbitrary number of pages to fill each week, or two print deadlines, I’m able to spend more time polishing stories about the artist behind the new mural, or the doctors staffing the new COVID testing clinic, or the latest property developments. I like to hope that the result is a higher standard of reporting — with apologies for the pun.

Still, I’m not a local newspaper. I’m not in print, visible at the shops or accessible to people who don’t own a computer — not yet anyway. I haven’t found a way to report those country staples of births, deaths and marriages or sport as well as the Standard once did.

By necessary choice I can’t cover stories in Mannum or Karoonda or Meningie like the paper used to, either. I’m just one man, and don’t have 85 years of history or a national company backing me up.

The Murray Valley Standard is now published once a week, on a Thursday. You’ll still find footy photos, council coverage and a few human interest stories valiantly compiled by the three or four souls who remain in that big old office.

The press out the back has fallen silent, and the paper is printed in Adelaide now. I hope I’ll be able to attend its 100th birthday party on November 23, 2034, where we can raise a glass to Mr Parish. But we shall see.

Peri Strathearn is managing editor of Murray Bridge News, a digital start-up which publishes stories from South Australia’s Murraylands online and in a weekly email newsletter. He was a journalist with Australian Community Media, formerly Fairfax Media, between 2012 and 2020.

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