This is an extract from the federal parliamentary committee report "The Future of Regional Newspapers in a Digital World" by committee chair Dr Anne Webster.
Australia's regional newspapers are about regional stories and are a shared community experience. Regional newspapers put into the public area the stories of people who have excelled in sport, school or their business enterprise, as well as coverage of valuable community-based issues such as council decisions, court matters, public health issues and local weather events.
Regional newspapers have been challenged for more than a decade by loss of revenue, loss of talent and rising costs that have forced many to permanently close their doors. As newspapers close, readers are pushed towards social media for their news, which increases Australians' exposure to misinformation and creates a disconnect in communities.
Revenue for regional newspapers has been declining as more companies move their employment, real estate and motor vehicle advertising online, much of which was a primary revenue source. Government advertising and public notices have also been largely withdrawn from regional newspapers in favour of online outlets or larger, metropolitan newspapers, further exacerbating the decline in revenue.
Larger publishers, such as Australian Community Media and NewsCorp Australia have withdrawn from print publication in regional areas, forcing smaller publishers to go further afield to print their newspapers and driving up costs in a time when viability for many is already under threat.
Further, the emergence of COVID-19 saw many individuals turn to their local newspaper for credible and up-to-date information, however, decline in business during this time saw local and national businesses alike withdraw advertising from local newspapers at a time when it was needed most.
Unfortunately, as a result, regional newspapers have experienced a significant loss of jobs and important community issues are going unreported. 'News deserts' have also been emerging-meaning that some communities are not covered by a newspaper at all. However, those in regional Australia - and their newspapers - continually demonstrate their resilience and ability to innovate. As part of the inquiry, the committee heard of several new and emerging models to adapt revenue structures and address printing costs, to continue to provide news services to their communities.
The committee has recommended that the Australian Government ensure that a minimum of 20 per cent of government print advertising is placed in regional newspapers.- Dr Webster
The Australian Government has recognised the importance of regional news services by providing funding grant packages in 2017 and 2020, however, the committee heard it was challenging for smaller newspapers to receive any support, and almost 87 per cent of the funding under the Public Interest News Gathering (PING) program went to larger news providers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The committee welcomes the $10 million federal government funding for cadetship and journalism programs announced in February 2022, however, there are more concerning challenges in regional areas associated with increasing operational costs, financial sustainability, and attracting and retaining journalists which need to be addressed.
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The news industry in Australia is constrained by an outdated legislative model that is no longer fit-for-purpose. The Broadcasting Services Act 1992 is preventing news organisations from adapting to technology and embracing new multifaceted operating models. The ability to understand the full impact of this is hampered by the lack of complete data to examine these concerning trends and address the emergence of news deserts in regional and remote Australia. A comprehensive review of the viability of regional newspapers needs to be conducted, including the development of a national register of regional news providers.
While these measures would provide a good evidence-base for long term analysis of the issues affecting regional newspapers, there is an opportunity to immediately improve support and revenue to regional newspapers. The committee heard from a number of witnesses that reduction in government advertising is an ongoing direct challenge to the long-term viability of regional newspapers, and therefore, the committee has recommended that the Australian Government ensure that a minimum of 20 per cent of government print advertising is placed in regional newspapers.
As more Australians turn to the internet for their news, measures have been implemented to ensure that smaller news providers can negotiate fairly with digital platforms that host the news produced by regional newspapers and derive tangible and intangible benefits from this ability. The News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code was welcomed by many as a tool to provide a level negotiating platform. However, at the time of the inquiry, no digital platform had been designated and the committee heard the benefits flowing from the code were not consistent. The statutory review of the provisions is welcome and will ideally address the concerns raised by submitters during the inquiry.
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The committee recognises the valuable contribution of large publishers like Australian Community Media in providing submissions and appearing at public hearings to support the committee's inquiry, as well as the contributions of digital platforms like Google Australia and Meta. However, it is regrettable that News Corp Australia was not able to contribute to the inquiry by providing a submission or appearing at public hearings, especially noting the significance of News Corp's role in Australia's media landscape.
This inquiry has given small, independent newspapers the opportunity to be seen and heard, and the committee expresses its appreciation to the many individuals and organisations who have contributed to this inquiry by providing submissions, appearing at public hearings, participating in its online survey and contributing to the committee's understanding of this important issue.
The 12 recommendations made by this report are an important starting point to address the ongoing viability of regional newspapers. The review of the News Media and Digital Platform Bargaining Code, and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications review recommended by the committee, will provide a more in-depth understanding of the complex issues underpinning Australia's news environment and the outcomes will be considered with interest by the committee.
List of Recommendations
Recommendation 1: The committee recommends that the Australian Government undertake a comprehensive review of the viability of regional newspapers in Australia, reporting its findings to the Committee within two years.
Recommendation 2: The committee recommends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 be amended to enable the Australian Communications and Media Authority to consider the factors outlined in the News in Australia: diversity and localism research paper in determining whether an unacceptable media diversity situation exists.
Recommendation 3: The committee recommends that the Australian Government consider the funding and development of a project to gather and analyse core longitudinal data on regional newspapers in Australia over a minimum 10 year period.
Recommendation 4: The committee recommends that the Australian Government consider legislative amendments which would allow the sharing of industry data on regional newspaper providers between relevant Government agencies.
Recommendation 5: The committee recommends that the Government create and maintain a national, publicly available register of regional news providers (both print and digital), using the US News Desert project by the University of North Carolina as a model.
Recommendation 6: The committee recommends that the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications work with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service to facilitate partnerships with small regional publishers and broadcasters, modelled on the BBC Local News Partnerships program.
Recommendation 7: The committee recommends the Australian Government review government advertising expenditure across all departments and agencies with a view to ensuring a minimum of 20 per cent of government print advertising is placed in regional newspapers.This should be part of long term advertising contracts that provide certainty of income for regional publications.The Committee expects this measure to be cost neutral and able to be implemented within 12 months.An independent process should be established to select the newspaper outlets eligible to participate in the print advertising program.
Recommendation 8: The committee recommends that the Australian Government develop a targeted grants program aimed at small, independent newspapers based in regional and remote Australian communities.
Recommendation 9: The committee recommends that the Australian Government provides funding for research, programs and initiatives to assist local publishers, including regional newspapers to:
- identify and implement alternative, sustainable business models, achieved through a diverse range of revenue streams that might include advertising, audience generated income, services and e-commerce;
- increase capabilities required to perform the governance, administrative and editorial functions of the news organisation; and
- implement effective technology to reach their target audience and monetise outputs.
Recommendation 10: The committee recommends that, as part of the review recommended at Recommendation 1, the Australian Government also considers the viability of a tax rebate for regional businesses that support their local newspaper through a minimum advertising spend, and for regional newspapers that produce public interest journalism and employ local journalists.
Recommendation 11: The committee recommends that the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, and Communications and the Australian Communications and Media Authority work with relevant digital platforms and news providers to ensure appropriate transparency in voluntary commercial deals.
Recommendation 12: The committee recommends that the Consumer and Competition Act 2010 be amended to require that news media organisations must have revenue of $75,000 for the most recent year and for at least 3 of the 5 most recent years to register for the News Media and Digital Platforms Bargaining Code.
- Dr Anne Webster is Nationals MP for Mallee in Victoria and chair of the Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts. The regional newspapers inquiry's full report can be read here.