SILENCE, SYNDICATION AND SUBSCRIPTIONS: WHAT THE DIGITAL MEDIA EVOLUTION MEANS FOR REGIONAL AND COMMUNITY NEWS

Belinda Seeney

Director of Content @ Aruga

The transformation of newspapers from printed products to online offerings did not happen overnight.

Like a slow-motion car crash, passengers and bystanders alike could heed the warning signs, predict the inevitable and brace for impact.

But even though we knew what was coming, the jolt was still dramatic and shocking and a catalyst for disappointment, anger and despair on a mass scale.

It’s not so much the stopping of presses fuelling this communal grief but the silencing of local voices and the loss of unique identities.

News Corp announced in May it would stop printing more than 100 of its newspapers and close 14 titles completely.

Since then, Bauer Media has indefinitely paused the publication of at least eight magazine titles and ABC has announced a raft of changes to its news and entertainment services across radio, television and digital mediums.

While it’s too soon to see the repercussions of ABC’s recently announced restructure and job cuts, the impact of News Corp’s digital pivot and Bauer Media’s austerity measures are becoming increasingly visible.

Or, more aptly, invisible: vacant newsrooms, driveways devoid of the morning’s home-delivered newspapers and newsstands removed from shops and newsagencies.

News Corp’s cuts were accompanied by the usual platitudes about “remaining committed to Australia’s regions and communities” but given News Corp is a commercial entity that relies on turning a profit, it’s a safe bet financial considerations will temper this commitment.

Within this framework, it’s impossible to quantify the real value a newspaper delivers to its community.

More than simply a printed product, newspapers have a long history and a deep connection to the readers they serve.

I experienced this firsthand, working on a dozen or so regional and community titles over more than a decade, starting with a cadetship at Bundaberg’s News-Mail, a stint at The Queensland Times – the state’s oldest-surviving provincial paper – and tours of duty at most of Quest’s suburban titles.

Their mastheads adorned bumper stickers on the backs of cars, trailers and tractors; their logos were printed on the show bags and balloons given away at fetes and fairs; their names were engraved on everything from the local football club’s best and fairest trophy to the primary school’s read-a-thon certificates.

Newspaper mastheads are their calling cards; they are brands that are instantly recognisable and deeply ingrained in the area they represent.

They’re not always liked, or even respected, among readers but they are acknowledged as voices of authority and authenticity within the community.

Sadly, the transition from print to online marks an inevitable first step towards the centralisation of news and the dilution of these vibrant and individual brands.

Mastheads with strong personalities and unique identities will become just another tab in a national network of homogenised websites.

News that is vital and relevant to a particular community will be condensed to a single “change page” in the regional print edition of the metropolitan newspaper.

The ranks of journalists who stop by the police station every morning to check the overnight duty logs, take notes at every after-hours council meeting and meticulously keep score at each county cricket match will stretch thinner and thinner.

Since News Corp’s May announcement, hundreds of journalist have departed the company, many of whom lived and worked in the regions and communities it is “committed” to cover.

Dozens of Bauer Media journalists were laid off or stood down while its magazines remain in limbo.

ABC has foreshadowed up to 250 job cuts across the business, slashed travel budgets to cover news happening outside major cities by 25 per cent, trimmed news bulletins, and tightened local production capabilities.

With these dwindling resources, it will become harder to devote the time, talent and space to tell the stories of small businesses, community organisations and passionate individuals.

Sharing resources is the easiest way to save money so it stands to reason padding regional websites with syndicated content from across the state and even the nation will become common practice.

Of the 14 News Corp titles disappearing completely, most are community and suburban publications.

Again, there are assurances the company will continue to serve these communities within its existing news network but it faces an uphill battle to win favour and retain readers.

Media outlets have spent almost two decades dabbling with a variety of digital delivery methods, trying to find that perfect match of page clicks and profits.

Titanium-grade paywalls, subscriptions and sign-ups, flexible “freemium” models, sponsored posts and ad-driven content have all been trialled and tested.

But while some of these models have gained traction in metropolitan and even regional markets, more than 100 years of free community newspapers have trained readers not to pay for local news.

Changing this behaviour and convincing a small number of readers to pay for what is effectively niche content will be difficult.

It may ultimately prove unprofitable and become yet another casualty of this digital news evolution.

Belinda Seeney is Aruga’s Director of Content and a Walkley Award-winning print and digital journalist with more than 20 years’ experience in community, regional and metropolitan newspapers, magazines and websites.