Local newspapers have been a significant factor in the life of country towns for more than a century.
But now – after a seismic change from independent to monopolistic ownership – many “locals” have disappeared and many more will not survive much longer.
But the winds of change are blowing back again, as hard-copy newspapers start to re-appear in country towns.
In the last decade the media landscape across Australia has been turned on its head by the wholesale acquisition of local and regional mastheads.
It is a critical state of affairs. The print industry has been decimated by the combined effects of monopoly ownership, corporate greed, destructive cost-cutting and loss of identity and autonomy in local communities.
In the bush, hundreds of small newspapers which functioned independently, in many cases for more than 100 years, have been sacrificed on the altar of what is seen as progress.
Newspapers, even those in regional cities, have been banished to on-line versions of themselves.
Surely the newspaper barons must have become aware in recent months that online doesn’t work.
The people who matter in all of this are readers, not computer-screen jockeys. The large majority of people out there are not computer-savvy, they are not digital warriors – and they never will be. All in the name of profit, the big players in the field have turned their backs on their lifeblood. And now, they are paying the price.
Repeat. Online doesn’t work. The power of the written word in a low-cost item, a newspaper in the flesh, has been prematurely and carelessly discarded.
What has happened in country media particularly comes as no surprise to me. All the cracks have been building up for years, the last few decades even.
I came to Gunnedah more than 40 years ago, when the Namoi Valley Independent was owned by the Longmuir family. Prior to this, I worked for the Dunnet family at The Courier in Narrabri.
The late John Longmuir was a newspaperman through and through and a great man for his community.
He said to me once that a local newspaper had to be a town’s best advocate and its greatest defender. I’ve never forgotten that.
I’ve tried to make it my mantra, too, though I doubt with the same effect.
Over the years, local newspapers have been the backbone of communities.
Some people might think that statement is over-dramatic or fanciful. It’s not.
There has never been anyone who fought for his local community like John Longmuir.
And that’s the way the majority of small papers operated.
So why has the decline in local newspapers occurred?
Well, in my view, the root cause of the problem is the consolidation of newspaper ownership in the hands of a few very large operators.
At one time, virtually every country town had its paper.
Then, gradually, hundreds of mastheads were swallowed up by, initially, Rural Press.
Then, in time, Rural Press was taken over by Fairfax, at the same time as Australian Provincial Newspapers and News Limited intensified their acquisition of rural papers in other parts of Eastern Australia.
That left very few independent, privately-owned papers in the bush.
Almost overnight, local communities, to a large extent, had lost their voice.
Proprietors and editors and senior staff, who knew their local communities backwards, forward and sideways, were no longer there, swallowed up by corporate greed.
All that local knowledge, history and experience disappeared … the people who knew how a local town ticked had gone.
Long-term staff either resigned, retired or were swept out by the new broom. The emotional commitment of a local editor, like John Longmuir, to a town and to a job took a real battering.
Regionalisation became the new mantra.
The very first move of the new regime was to introduce rolling cost-cutting, to set up regional models, to close down printing presses in favour of regional printing hubs, to reduce staff by sacking or “sharing” with regional office, to scale back local production, pagination and page make-up, and basically remove local editorial independence.
In other words, the hub of the organisation wasn’t in local communities, it was in a regional office.
Local newspapers suddenly didn’t even have a local editor, some didn’t even have a shopfront.
In my view that model has been a complete disaster.
As just one example, the printing press at the Namoi Valley Independent in Gunnedah, installed in 1971, had the best reproduction of any newspaper across the state, even the whole country.
It won a slew of state and national awards.
This was largely because the press operator, Terry Maroney, looked after the press like a baby. Maintenance was meticulous.
But very soon after the sale of the paper, the press was dismantled and shipped off to the Philippines. So, a vital piece of infrastructure was lost. That was just the start.
I’m not criticising journalists on local papers.
I know they are trying but they are frustrated. I’m critical of the upheaval caused by management. And I’m also critical of the level of training in the industry.
In the making of a journalist, there’s no substitute for the experience of the old-time operator, who knows news-gathering and what the people want like the back of his hand.
None of that experience is available today. Young journalists have been thrown in at the deep end.
It will be a long way back for country newspapers – the infrastructure is no longer there, social and reading habits have changed dramatically and digital communication, which is beyond the comprehension of a large slice of the readership, now rules the roost.
This large section of the readership now has to go on line to access local news.
For many, that is something right out of their ambit. They want their news in their hands and they want it “local.”
I also think that some of the role of the local paper has been taken over, to an extent, by the growth of Facebook.
The jury’s still out there.
In some circumstances, Facebook might be seen as a useful communication tool, despite the atrocious spelling, woeful grammar and foul language, but Facebook is vacuous, mostly comprising quick grabs, and lacks the depth and substance of print.
People don’t want anything that requires analysis or a thought process these days, they are not capable of that and don’t want to be.
I really fear for the future of print. It is beyond belief that major centres like Maitland, Armidale, Grafton and Lismore, and many others, have seen hard-copy newspapers reduced in frequency or shut down.
Places like Maitland, where the local newspaper was established in 1843, one of the very early newspapers in Australia, and Mildura, on the Murray, where staff turned up at work to learn that the paper was being closed down that day. Incredible.
So how does the bush fight back? Well, if the industry is to survive in the bush, there has to be a wholesale restructure, a return to the traditional “local” roles of country newspapers. The key word is local.
Through corporate greed, country newspapers have become irrelevant.
The best way to resist the challenge is to “do it better,” not roll over to digital. If the fight hasn’t been lost, it’s certainly on the ropes.
The outlook is not beyond recovery. The answer lies in community-driven newspapers, backed by local business, stepping into the breach.
It means hard work, not just nine to five, and it is a financial risk, because newspaper production is expensive. Business and readership backing is essential.
That’s the challenge.
A printed newspaper can be read at leisure – it doesn’t just flash across a screen and disappear into deep space.
It can sit in a paper rack for days, for later referral, to answer questions, like what’s on at the cinema, who has died, who has had a baby or what’s on television.
It can be sent on to family members in other parts of the country, it can be cut up and pasted in scrapbooks.
The corporate raiders who thought that everyone would simply gravitate to online have made a grave miscalculation about the influence of online in country areas, which clearly shows how little they know about the way their communities operate.
If the big players in the industry don’t know what their readership wants, they could hardly complain about someone else stepping into the breach to provide it.
Thankfully, though, country press is fighting back.
Small, independent, community newspapers have sprung up in scattered locations across NSW, Victoria and Queensland.
They face a tough fight for survival, but, without exception, country towns have given them great encouragement.
For survival to occur, however, that community backing must continue beyond next week, next month, next year.
Ron McLean, Gunnedah
Editor’s note: The Courier is an independent locally-owned newspaper, located at 60 Maitland Street, and has been published since 1913.To order photos from this page click here