An inquiry into the health of regional newspapers in Australia has been told more support is needed to encourage public interest journalism and that for regional news to thrive "people need to be willing to pay for it".
The chair of the regional newspapers inquiry says news media content agreements with digital platforms like Google and Facebook need to be examined for whether the benefits are reaching regional newsrooms.
"That's fine and dandy, but what about the small guy?" asked Dr Anne Webster. "Are they getting their fair share with that agreement?"
The Mallee MP and chair of the inquiry has set up a survey to hear from communities about the issues impacting regional newspapers. She was concerned about the loss of newspapers and regional news television, and rise of global social media, resulting in "regional communities becoming more and more invisible".
"The bottom line is that regional newspapers are about regional stories. My concern is as people move to social media platforms to garner the news, that's not always reliable."
When a local newspaper puts into the public area the faces of their community, people who have done well at something - whether it be sport, or school or business enterprise - the whole community shares in that experience, she said.
The inquiry, referred by Communications Minister Paul Fletcher last month, is also investigating the impact of the News Media Bargaining Code for regional and remote newspapers. Passed into law last year, the code allows eligible news businesses to bargain with digital platforms over payment for the inclusion of news on platforms and services.
Neither Google or Facebook has yet been designated as a platform, but many agreements have been reached separate from the code, such as News Corp with Google and Australian Community Media with Facebook.
Associate Professor Caroline Fisher from the News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra is co-author of the annual Digital News Report Australia, which tracks trends in news media, including the enduring importance of local news in building a sense of community. Her team is making a submission to the inquiry identifying how those digital platform deals were not transparent and it was far from clear what impact they would have on the health of local newspapers.
"The ultimate test of whether or not the code has affected businesses is whether or not these organisations that received deals, whether any of them close or further reduce their staff, or even expand," Dr Fisher said.
Being able to access national television or newspapers online "doesn't fill a gap of information that was lost when the local newspaper or local television news bulletin closes down," she added.
"The problem, though, is about how much people are prepared to pay for that. It is a business at the end of the day."
The research centre's 2021 report found only 13 per cent of Australians overall were paying for online news, which is below the global average (17 per cent). Regional Australians were less likely to say they would pay in the future (10 per cent) compared to city dwellers (14 per cent).
One of the reasons why traditional newspaper buyers were not moving to online news, the research found, was a lack of confidence and familiarity among older people with making online transactions.
"That is such a shame, because it's not that they don't want to read the newspaper online - they're actually uncomfortable about online commerce," Dr Fisher said.
- The inquiry survey is open until February 11 at aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House/Communications/Regionalnewspapers