The future of local news
Local newspapers have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing measures have had an impact on the local economy, leading to closures and suspensions of more than 200 local news outlets, according to the Public Interest Journalism Initiative. This comes at a time when the health guidance that Australians need the most is highly localised.
Local news is a critical source of information for all Australians but those who live in the bush rely more on it because national media outlets focus on major cities. Digital News Report: Australia 2020 found that more than twice as many (24%) regional readers access local newspapers than those in the city (11%). Lead author of the report, Associate Professor Dr Sora Park discusses the future of local news.
What is happening and what can we do about it?
The University of Canberra's study shows that not only did 20% of regional Australians lose a local news service in the past five years, one-quarter also said they did not have a local TV news service or a newspaper in their area. One-third said there was no local commercial radio servicing their community and, surprisingly, more than half have no local ABC radio. So where do these people get local news? Many of them turn to local social media sites – almost a quarter – and about half of regional consumers are on Facebook or WhatsApp groups to get local information they need.
Local news is critical for democracy
While social media may be an effective way of sharing local information, those who rely on social media for news may be missing out on the traditionally important functions of local news. One of the key roles of local media is to serve as a watchdog where government and authorities can be held to account. The other is to connect community members and create a sense of belonging.
Those who still do have local news say that community connection is a key element of local news consumption. The top reasons for consuming local news are to know what is going on in their local area (87%) and to understand how things may affect them (86%). People trust their local news, much more than they trust national news.
Typically, in areas where there are media closures, there are fewer reports on local government activities, courts, health and education issues that are relevant to the community.
The decline in news provision weakens the democratic system as local communities are devoid of critical information.
Citizens have fewer opportunities to engage with the community and participate in public discourse. Eventually, people will feel less of a personal connection to the topics that are important to them as they are not exposed as much.
What can be done?
In the government’s 2020 Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund, 41 news publishers were selected from more than 300 applications, almost three times the previous round. Another $50m was awarded to 107 regional publishers and broadcasters through the Public Interest News Gathering (PING) Program scheme that was established during COVID-19 pandemic to support news services operating in rural and regional areas.
While these emergency funds can help, in the long run, news companies will have to come up with a sustainable business model. One area that much of the focus is on is to increase the number of paid consumers. Growing subscription is an uphill struggle as it is hard to change the minds of people who are used to getting news for free. The culture of paying is slowly gaining traction but not fast enough to recoup the loss in advertising dollars.
Our study found that regional news consumers are keen to support news services that are grounded in their local community. Almost one-third are interested in willing to financially support a new online grassroots news service that hires a local journalist in their area. Yet the amount people are willing to pay is very low, with less than half saying they will pay up to five dollars a month. The rest are not willing to pay at all.
Emerging local news
Meanwhile, many local news outlets have been experimenting with new online and offline news services. Many of them have started in areas where existing print editions had been suspended during the COVID-19 outbreak; The Northern Star, Yass Valley Times, the Southern Highlands Express, the News in Naracoorte, South Burnett Today, the West Queensland Echo, Wet Tropic Times, the Ararat Advocate,the Hunter River Times andthe Braidwood Changing Times,to name a few.
This is a clear statement that local communities want their stories told and perhaps a glimmer of hope for the future of local journalism.
To explore the role free press plays in democracy visit Truth, Power and a Free Press , a permanent exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy.