Working as a cadet journalist for a local newspaper, Kristy Hess understood the importance of the news stories she was gathering for her community. Her stories socially connected people from around the district, for farmers who were struggling, it gave them a sense of who they were, to isolated elderly people, a feeling they belonged.
However, Hess felt there were some who failed to see the local press in the same way she did. It was almost as if it was treated as a stepping stone to something bigger and better. It was never celebrated as a beneficial and rewarding career in its own right.
Hess really wanted to change that because she found working as a journalist in a regional setting incredibly rewarding. She felt empowered by her work because she was able to stitch together the social fabric of the community she served with news and information.
In the regions some areas had limited internet access. The printed edition of the local paper was the only way some people could access credible information. When it comes to crisis, people need credible information to know what to do and where to go. If the essential service of local news were to stop, regional people would be left in the dark.
Impacts of COVID-19
The coronavirus or COVID-19, as its officially known, has devastated Australia’s economy. Most local businesses have closed their doors due to new laws restricting social gatherings. This has caused even further financial hardship to regional newspapers who were already struggling to exist in a digital world.
Although local newspapers are popular with audiences, they rely heavily on advertising revenue from local businesses. In early April, News Corp announced it was closing 60 of its regional titles alone. Digital media dominates Google and Facebook had already broken the journalism revenue model by snatching majority of the advertising money local papers need to survive.
Needs for urgent funding
At the end of 2017, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) launched the digital platforms inquiry into the effects the digital world was having on media and advertising services.
Amid the emerging health crisis, the journalism union, Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) wrote an open letter. They urged the government to immediately release funding from the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Package (RSPJIP) to support local media through COVID-19.
“There’s never been a more important time for local news services,” says Hess, now an Associate Professor of Communication based at Deakin University. Still incredibly passionate about regional journalism, Professor Hess has dedicated over 10 years to researching the local media sector and finding ways to sustain it.
In 2017, she published the book Local journalism in a digital world with fellow digital communications professor Lisa Waller. The book highlights the importance of local media in local communities.
It’s incredibly concerning to see this essential service disappearing from some regions during the current pandemic. Hess isn’t surprised local newspapers are now on life support given the financial struggle they have long endured thanks to platforms like Facebook and Google.
“It’s not a surprise we’ve had dozens of newspapers announce that they’re closing their doors. But at the same time, it is, because there’s never a more important time for local news services given the current pandemic.”
In late March, MEAA wrote to Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, requesting the remaining $40 million in funds for RSPJIP be repurposed to help local newspapers through COVID-19. The package has been running over two financial years 2018/19 and 2019/20. According to the government website, the package is designed to “help small metropolitan and regional publishers adapt to the challenges facing the contemporary media environment.”
MEAA Director of Media, Neill Jones says: “with an industry in crisis that money needs to be re-purposed and out the door to help regional media make it through this period.” Hess and research fellows investigating the future of Australia’s regional media also called for the government to release the funds as a “band aid measure.”
Jones was concerned many publications that had ceased operations to save money during the pandemic may not reopen on the other side of COVID-19. “Our concern is that by the time the government gets that money out the door, there will be very little regional media left.”
Reforming broken revenue models
Last year, Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI) submitted recommendations to the ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry. PIJI conducts economic analysis of issues impacting public interest journalism.
Chairman, Professor Allan Fels says some of the potential economic remedies PIJI had been researching include tax rebates. “Tax rebates have the potential to lower the cost of employing journalists and encourage work that generates public benefits,” he says.
“A free flow of fact-based information that’s in the public interest is hugely important to society across the country, but particularly in regional areas. This is pertinent during the current pandemic, but was also evident during the recent horror bushfire season.”
Hess supports this idea saying her research has also suggested tax concessions as a potential remedy. Of the ongoing newspaper closures, Fels says: “the journalism revenue model is broken. Newsrooms need financial support in order to stay open.”
Lifeline for local news
On April 6, there was a small breakthrough, a media release on Fletcher’s website read: “The Morrison Government has today brought forward the release of five-million from its Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund to support public interest journalism during COVID-19.”
One of the statements from Fletcher says: “I have adjusted the Fund so that money is available as quickly as possible to help publishers keep journalists in jobs and local communities informed.” Hess says the release of the funds was not a long-term solution.
The PIJI agreed, releasing a statement saying more needed to be done. By April 14, there was a bigger breakthrough: “The Morrison Government today announced a package of measures to help sustain Australian media businesses,” the media release on Paul Fletcher’s website read.
Some of the new measures would include 12 months’ worth of tax relief for commercial television and radio broadcasters. A $50 million Public Interest News Gathering (PING) program to help regional journalism during COVID-19 was also announced.
The program was funded through the repurposing of unallocated funds from the RSPJIP with an additional $13.4 million in new funding. MEAA said in a statement that although it was belated, they welcomed the support offered through the PING program.
While the government says it was responding to the ACCC’s recommendation to enhance the RSPJIP, MEAA quickly pointed out the recommendation was for annual funding, saying: “A long-term plan is needed to ensure the sector’s future.”
The union also requested Australian Community Media reconsider their plans announced a day earlier to close an unknown number of its 125 regional newspapers. This would save journalists from the JobSeeker queues the company had sent them to.
Meanwhile, Hess and Fels continue to research policy solutions to make local newspapers more sustainable in the future.