The timely bipartisan support announced on the weekend to help regional newspapers meet the soaring cost of newsprint will be welcomed by journalists and the readers they serve.
Australian Community Media, the publisher of this newspaper, and the Country Press Association issued a urgent shout-out for a financial lifeline to the federal government last week after learning the cost of newsprint would rise by around 80 per cent from July 1.
This increase, which was far in excess of what had been expected, threatened hundreds of mastheads.
It came shortly after a parliamentary inquiry into the future of the regional press was told the sector was already facing an existential crisis following drought, bushfires, floods, the impact of COVID-19, declining revenues and rising costs.
The massive increase in the price of the material synonymous with the industry could not have come at a worse time.
Fortunately for newspaper readers politicians from both sides of the aisle were listening, with the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce among those who came to the industry's defence: "You mightn't like them (local papers) all the time but they're vitally important for getting the stories out".
Mr Joyce, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, Labor's communications spokesperson Michelle Rowland, and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese all acknowledged the role regional papers play in supporting a vibrant democracy and helping to develop healthy communities by fostering information sharing and debate.
Mr Fletcher has committed $10 million to a second round of Public Interest News Gathering payments to help publishers meet the escalating costs of newsprint. The ALP has said that if it wins government on May 21 it will match this support.
Mr Fletcher has also committed $2 million to fast-track research on how best to replace the coal fired boiler at Norske Skog's Boyer Mill in Tasmania. The mill is Australia's last remaining newsprint production facility.
Executives from ACM and the CPA have welcomed both the assistance and the speed with which the decision to provide it had been made.
"This announcement is welcome recognition of the serious threat regional print media is facing because of these massive newsprint cost rises," ACM executive chairman Antony Catalano said.
"We're grateful for the fast response to our calls for support, and for the acknowledgment of the critical role newspapers play in regional communities across the nation".
That said, as ACM managing director Tony Kendall has pointed out, this is only a temporary respite from the longer term challenges facing the sector.
"This is an important first step towards also having the recommendations of the parliamentary inquiry into regional newspapers adopted later this year," Mr Kendall said.
The industry is seeking tax concessions for newsprint purchases, tax rebates for local businesses that advertise with their community masthead and a minimum spend by the federal government on advertising in regional print media.
While not the answer to all the sector's challenges, these reforms would do much to place the regional print media on a more sustainable financial footing.
Regional newspapers, in many parts of the country the only locally based media servicing significant populations, are not seeking annual government handouts to stay afloat.
What they do need are sensible structural reforms to remain viable, competitive, and able to serve communities across the whole of regional Australia.
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