28 February 2023

Are these really dark days for regional media? It depends who you ask

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Adam Gill and Genevieve Jacobs

Region Commercial Director Adam Gill and Group Editor Genevieve Jacobs: Region took out the Building Communities Award. Photo: Telstra.

Several interesting things happened last week in the Region world.

On Tuesday night, we were delighted and deeply honoured to win a major ACT Telstra Business Award for Building Community.

It was a very proud moment for the hardworking team who have built this wholly locally owned business into a significant Canberra media player over the past six years, now reaching almost 700,000 unique readers across our sites each month.

Region publishes five news sites and is responsible for a multitude of social media pages. We employ 40 people, opened our second major site in the Riverina last year, and a further expansion site is pending in the next six months. This business is growing fast because of our investment in good journalism and smart technology.

Also last week, the ABC’s Media Watch reported a campaign being run on regional newspapers owned by the Australian Community Media group. The campaign references “dark days” for rural and regional media, using young journalists from regional mastheads to directly appeal for help from the NSW Government ahead of the state election on 25 March.

One of the foundational revenue pillars for newspapers is government advertising, a dependable source of income for many decades. Local councils, for example, have been required by legislation to advertise development applications and other notices in newspapers.

In 2020, the NSW State Government allowed councils to cease publishing notices in newspapers only. Many have substantially increased their own output via direct drop newsletters and websites, and it’s not uncommon for councils to have more staff on their communications teams than the local print media (and often, it’s the same people who used to work on the paper).

Independent digital media is springing up in many communities where the local paper has declined or died, but old habits die hard.

Governments are very used to placing their advertising in print – Country Press NSW estimates that only half of one per cent of all regional government advertising goes to digital media, regardless of how much local market share those platforms have.

But newspapers are not happy about any threat to their revenue streams. In NSW, they’re campaigning hard to have the 2020 decision reversed, construing any loss of government advertising as an existential threat to their business and the community. They’re requesting a guaranteed full page of government advertising for each paper each week.

READ ALSO Region rewarded for Building Community at 2023 Telstra Best of Business awards

The Digital Publishers Alliance (DPA) held its annual conference in Melbourne recently, bringing together more than 50 independent and locally owned publishers from around Australia (including Region). There’s also an energetic Local and Independent News Association (LINA) advocating for the smaller players.

Members want to alert advertisers to the rapid, sustained growth of digital media and the millions of Australians who access content of all kinds through digital media every day.

These are not fly-by-night operations. They are overwhelmingly independently owned by people who care deeply about informing their audiences, creating lively conversations and helping local businesses.

They range in size from one and two-person platforms run by passionate local news hounds to growing regional operations like ours, or national players including Mamma Mia, Crikey and Schwartz Media, publishers of The Saturday Paper and The Monthly magazine.

The Australian media industry has undergone massive upheaval in the past 20 years. It’s littered with experienced journalists who have lost their jobs as the old business model fell apart, reducing many regional outlets, in particular, to a shadow of their former selves.

But out of those ashes, a digital phoenix is rising. There will always be room for newspapers, radio and television. But increasingly, consumers are choosing to read their news on a device held in their hands (as you probably are right this minute).

A healthy diverse media industry has many players in many formats owned by many people. Is it too much to ask for a level playing field for government revenue too?

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