Voice in from wilderness
By CHRIS EARL
A FEW days before Christmas, the Federal Government announced a Parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s regional newspapers.
The terms of reference for this inquiry, its committee being chaired by Mallee MP Anne Webster, include the extent to which there has been entry into these or other markets by new operators, particularly small businesses, and The degree to which there has been economic recovery in regional and remote markets from the impacts of COVID, and whether this has led to advertising revenue improving.
As one of those new entrants to the newspaper landscape, the Loddon Herald has made a submission along with 51 other entities ranging from fellow small rural newspaper publishers to the large outfits and overseas-based operators.
We have told the inquiry that the Loddon Herald has filled the void left when the previous newspaper ceased publication and returned a platform – a voice – to local communities. The business model is quite lean: there is not an army of journalists in a newsroom or salespeople and telemarketers pitching advertisements to the family-owned and one-person small businesses.
Any success for the Loddon Herald is driven by the passion and commitment of rural communities to have their platform, projecting and heralding voices of rural Australia that have often been in the wilderness of mainstream consideration not just since COVID but in some cases for multiple decades albeit in times of disaster and tragedy that attracts the interest of larger media outfits based in regional capitals and capital cities or the occasional “tick a box” treatment.
The value and importance of the local newspaper across the generations is a selling point to all potential advertisers (and that includes government, its agencies and authorities). Newspapers have again proven their importance to government throughout the pandemic as a vital and imperative vehicle to communicating information.
Government, we submitted, has an ongoing responsibility in availing themselves of the forum that is newspapers to communicate and connect with people in rural communities. Newspapers – if I may borrow a phrase once uttered by a journalist in times long ago – are not charities or benevolent institutions. Advertising is key to the survival, sustainability and resurgence of local country newspapers.
Many large media outlets use the descriptor “local” in badging what they do yet, unfortunately, the geographic definition of its application can be many hundreds of kilometres from one end of the boundary to the other. The return of true local newspapers, in the communities and on the ground over the past two years is to be celebrated.
The demise of scores of rural newspapers over the past two years has been traumatic for the industry and communities and perhaps COVID provided the reason or cause of final cessation of publication that had been in the making for some years in part the result of remote-control ownership and direction.
The local model is back and will flourish with recognition (including advertising dollars) from across the spectrum – rural communities have lost their voice once, a second absence of the country voice in local towns would economically and socially disadvantage many areas of Australia.
While it is welcomed that the Government has initiated this inquiry, sadly, it is unlikely to achieve much. With a federal election due to be called within weeks, the committee and this inquiry will lapse.
Hopefully, this inquiry will be re-established early in the term of the next Parliament. To not do that, would demonstrate only lip service to rural communities.