Lachlan Berlin, Youth Member for Warrego
Journalist and former regional reporter for News Corp.
I would like to take this opportunity to write about the current state of news media across
Queensland’s communities, namely, the publications which cover suburban and regional areas.
Previously, I had worked in the industry as a mainstream media journalist for just shy of two years, reporting for a number of community mastheads. I don’t hold myself out to be an ‘expert’ or even ‘experienced’ in the media industry, but I have seen what it’s like to work in community newsrooms and the strife they have faced in previous years.
There are many issues currently plaguing Queensland’s struggling media industry. Most stem from the lack of funding and resources. News organisations need money to be able to publish their journalism and staff need decent pay to earn a living. Without these funds, Queenslanders would be left in the dark about vital information they need to know and critical events would be shadowed from public knowledge.
Everyone I worked with in the regional newsrooms genuinely cared about their work and serving
their local communities. Some of these newsrooms employed long-time locals who grew up and
studied in their region. Other staff, like myself, were eager to find our place within the community
and learn about the places we would serve.
But a shock announcement was made in about May 2020 that most News Corp-owned newspapers in Queensland would cease printing hard-copy papers and would sack most of their newsrooms. Only a couple of journalists in each community were left to report content for online. This happened only shortly after Nine (Fairfax) suspended their publications indefinitely.
Local papers were the ‘glue’ holding many towns and cities together. They were beacons of
knowledge which were almost unrivalled by other journalistic mediums like TV, radio and online
publications. But why did they close?
Most news sources make money either through advertising or paywall subscriptions (the ABC and SBS are funded by the Federal Government). The Internet and Covid brewed the perfect storm which caused a humongous loss in advertising revenue for local papers, hence, they couldn’t fund themselves anymore. After they ceased printing, their mastheads relied much more heavily on paywall subscriptions. Although infuriating to non-subscribers, I humbly believe they are a necessary evil to keep journalism alive when advertising revenue is low.
One problem that’s always faced journalism is the uncomfortable intersection between commercial interests; and the duty to report impartially, fairly and fearlessly. With advertising, newspapers would withhold certain stories or take certain biases so they don’t risk unhappy advertisers withdrawing their vital ad revenue. This meant that some local businesses had true leverage over the information their communities would know! Whereas, paywall revenue poses its own problem. It relies on people clicking on articles and being so intrigued as to justify pulling out their credit cards. Essentially, this has led to more clickbait-y headlines and sensationalist editorial decisions, at the expense of stories that are not as appealing on face value, even if they would have been vitally important information for people to know.
Furthermore, all Queensland towns and cities are different communities with different expectations and interests. Some are very receptive to a wide variety of content, whereas others can be highly cynical of journalists. The cuts have led to increased editorial direction from Sydney and Brisbane, which is often not in the interests of Queensland’s individual communities. It can be a strain on a journalist’s relationship building in the community if they’re ordered (from a central editor) to produce sensationalist and shallow content that has a tendency to tear a community down, such as ‘teachers behaving badly’, ‘violent tradies’, ‘worst childcare centres’ and ‘drug dealing parents’. These stories were usually mash-ups of previous court and crime stories that readers have already seen; or statistics presented sensationally. This could be a hurdle for local journalists wanting to be trusted by community members to write mature stories about teachers, tradies, childcare and parents; when they need to. Journalists will always write controversial things that will come under scrutiny, but it can be difficult to build trust in their community if their time is chewed up writing about centrally-directed stories that do not advance the local public interest.
Many concerns have been raised about the lack of diversity in media ownership, given that most
print and online media outlets are owned by News Corp and Nine. A Senate Inquiry has
recommended a judicial inquiry into the concentration of media ownership in Australia. But I don’t think this goes far enough. All aspects of the news media industry need to be examined, including funding models, societal impacts on communities, staffing and editorial standards, among many other things.
Naturally, some small start-up newspapers were established to fill the void after the mainstream
media cutbacks. They had varying success. However, some of them succeeded phenomenally.
One of the saddest stories of all was the closure of a community newspaper in Mackay, which was set up to fill a gap left by the 2020 closures. The directors of Mackay Local News announced on 2 September 2021 that their paper had to stop publication, alleging that their advertisers were
poached by ‘competitors’ offering free ads.
I first found out about this in late 2021; but when I was researching for this blog, it took me about an hour to find any source to back up this claim. The newspaper’s free website and social media accounts had disappeared. It was by sheer luck that I found Mr Fletcher’s article on the Australian Newsagency Blog. He was one of the only people I found who has spoken up about this incident. No mainstream media companies wrote anything about it.
So, what can be done to improve community journalism in the future? I offer three suggestions:
- The Federal Government should establish a wide-sweeping Royal Commission to thoroughly
examine ALL aspects of the ENTIRE news media industry
- There needs to be more accountability in Queensland communities and true competition to
mainstream media. The new publications should place a much greater emphasis on hard-
news and investigative journalism (instead of only ‘fluffy, feel-good’ stories).
- Local audiences should be keen to financially support both mainstream and non-mainstream media, but people should speak up and ensure all media is kept to a high standard.
Featured Photo Sourced via ABC Wide Bay