The “obsession” with digital reach of government and advertisers is questioned in a new Deakin University report into regional and local newspapers.
The report, Media Innovation and the Civic Future of Australia’s Country Press, is the result of a three-year Australian Research Council project led by Deakin in partnership with Country Press Australia and RMIT University.
And according to CPA president Andrew Manuel, it should be seen “as a beginning and not an end”.
He says the report highlights the essential role local papers play in serving their communities and delivering civic journalism.
Among other points, it calls for a review of the focus on digital reach in regional areas and the accompanying rationale, with questions about the effectiveness of digital over local media when it comes to engagement with regional and rural Australians.
It questions an “obsession” with digital reach among major advertisers and government and explains how local papers are not designed to individually engage with millions of people, but that their strength lies in their rich levels of engagement with the distinct local communities of which they are an essential part.
Manuel, who is publisher of the Plains Producer and head of Australia’s largest independent newspaper association, welcomed the release of the landmark report into the future of country papers.
“This is arguably the most comprehensive study of our industry ever undertaken and the report stands as a beacon for government, for policy makers and for the community to take the appropriate and necessary actions to ensure newspapers can continue to play such a vital role.
“The study was done across the most tumultuous time the media industry has experienced, and local papers remain such an integral cog in regional and rural Australia, despite the hardships we’ve all endured.
“It defines regional and rural papers as essential services to the community, and better support from government, and a better understanding from government around this is an important next step.”
The report echoes a parliamentary inquiry recommendation for 20 per cent of all federal government advertising expenditure to be allocated to regional and rural news organisations, and highlights the need for a better understanding of the role regional and rural newspapers play as well as the need to provide more support.
The study included a survey into attitudes towards local papers and the respondents’ likes and dislikes, as well as interviews and interpretive focus groups with news editors, proprietors and key staff within the Country Press Australia network of more than 200 mastheads across Australia.
Manuel says people living in country areas remained “passionate and engaged” with their local mastheads, and the report highlights the need to better support local news, and equally, the pivotal role and responsibility of country papers to communities scattered across the continent.
“Our members continue to provide the local and civic news that readers crave more than ever, often as the only local media outlet serving a particular region. Coming out of the pandemic, many publishers have reported a strong revival in their readership, underpinned by a focus on hyper-local and unique news that has been a common denominator of country papers since their inception.
“We urgently need government to recognise the importance of our members in the local community and for government to adapt the way they seek to engage our readerships, just as we have adapted our businesses during particularly the past few years.
“Acting on the recommendation for 20 per cent of the federal government’s advertising expenditure to be allocated to regional and rural news organisations, but in a way that reflects the Deakin University led research findings, would be a welcome first step.”
The report suggests government policies and advertising spend remains the most influential factor in providing baseline surety to the long-term sustainability of small, independently owned news outlets across Australia, but questions whether taxpayer funds to support media might have been misdirected.
It claims the shift away from traditional media and towards social media and larger metropolitan news outlets with greater digital reach has led to a decline in engagement with regional and rural audiences, as well as a financial strain upon publishers in these areas.
He says the report describes a “digital shiny things bias” towards digital innovation at the expense of supporting initiatives that may be most beneficial to rural and regional audiences.
A greater appreciation for place-based public interest journalism and the need for collaboration among publishers were other key findings. The report also calls for more research on the value and impact of artificial intelligence in regional and rural news, and for a national campaign to recruit more journalists and address perceptions about careers outside of metropolitan areas.
“Newsrooms in regional and rural areas can offer some of the most varied, fulfilling and interesting work to journalists, and it should never just be about country papers being seen as merely a stepping stone to a job elsewhere in the city,” he said.
“The attractions and affordability of a regional lifestyle are well known to those of us who live in regional and rural Australia, and we should never accept our way of life, or our careers as being in any way inferior or less deserving.”
Country Press Australia members would continue to innovate and adapt their businesses, and to seek ways to work together for a better media industry, but the need for more effective government support and understanding would be crucial to the long-term sustainability of country papers.
He thanked Deakin University, RMIT and the Australian Research Council for the work that had gone into developing the report.
Photo: Hamilton Spectator