Australia's leading regional media companies have enlisted veteran television journalist Ray Martin to spearhead a new push for reforms to media ownership laws they say are hopelessly outdated in the Netflix era and jeopardising the future of local news services for 9 million Australians.
Broadcast rivals Prime Media Group, WIN Network and Southern Cross Austereo have joined with ACM, the publisher of this newspaper, under the banner "Save Our Voices".
The campaign calls on the federal government and regional MPs to move urgently to overhaul 30-year-old broadcasting regulations that prevent traditional media outlets in regional Australia from competing fairly with the metropolitan media and global digital giants like Disney+ and YouTube using the NBN to reach regional audiences.
The television, radio and print advertising blitz begins on Monday with the first of a series of prime-time TV messages featuring five-time Gold Logie winner Martin.
A household name thanks to such programs as 60 Minutes, A Current Affair and The Midday Show, Martin has spent recent months visiting regional Australia to interview newspaper editors, television reporters, community and industry leaders about the importance of local news coverage and the need for regulatory change.
"I lament the towns and regions that have lost newspapers, television and radio stations," Martin said. "As a storyteller, newspapers and television honestly give a town soul."
The Save Our Voices partners want media control rules in the 1992 Broadcasting Services Act updated to recognise the proliferation of digital media and allow existing players to form alliances or merge so they can compete.
They say their viability is made uncertain by the "voices test", which requires at least four independent "voices" in a regional market but is applied only to traditional TV, radio and newspapers, and the one-to-a-market rule, which prevents the same company having more than one commercial TV licence in an area.
Martin's campaign messages will urge regional Australians to contact their federal MP to ask what they were doing to support the long-term sustainability of the local newspapers and TV news bulletins serving their community.
"The media regulations were made in the dark ages ... social media has changed all that," Martin said. "The landscape has changed. It's no longer a level playing field."
The regional TV networks originally campaigned under the Save Our Voices banner, with the late Nationals leader and former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer as their spokesman, ahead of media reforms approved by Parliament in 2017 under then PM Malcolm Turnbull.
Those changes cleared the way for Nine Entertainment Co to absorb the former Fairfax Media and take control of its newspapers and radio stations.
Regional media companies say the changes helped metropolitan media but left regional revenues to wither, resulting in the loss of local services such as WIN's nightly news bulletins in Orange, Wagga Wagga, Albury, Dubbo and Queensland's Wide Bay, which were axed in mid-2019.
ACM executive chairman Antony Catalano said parts of the legislation not overhauled in 2017 failed to recognise the impact of new digital entertainment and news services on the media businesses that had been investing in local journalism and jobs in regional Australia for years.
"Regional media outlets that have been part of their communities for decades - and in the case of a number of ACM's newspapers more than 150 years - need the freedom to structure our businesses efficiently so we can achieve the scale necessary to compete with the unregulated digital services of metropolitan media and global internet giants," Mr Catalano said. "The government needs to act now before it is too late."
Partnering with Alex Waislitz's ASX-listed Thorney Investment Group, Mr Catalano bought ACM - the former Fairfax Media regional publishing division - from Nine for $115million following Nine's 2018 merger with Fairfax.
Mr Catalano and Thorney have since accumulated a major shareholding in Prime. WIN Network owner Bruce Gordon and Kerry Stokes-controlled Seven West Media also hold major stakes in Prime. Last December Mr Gordon and Mr Catalano blocked Seven's attempt to swallow its regional free-to-air affiliate.
- James Joyce is ACM executive editor and Julian O'Brien is editor of ACM's Illawarra Mercury.